In Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, explain the importance of the "fig tree" as it relates to Esther's life and what it symbolizes.
When Esther, the main character of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, finds herself ill in New York, she reads an issue of Ladies’ Day, the magazine for which she is presently working. The particular issue she reads happens to contain a story about a fig tree. In the story, a Jewish man and a Catholic nun regularly pick figs together from a tree growing on the property line between his house and the convent. However, one day their hands happen to touch when they are looking at an egg hatching in a bird’s nest in the tree. After that,
a mean-faced Catholic kitchen maid came to pick [the figs] instead and counted up the figs after they were both through to be sure he hadn’t picked any more than she had, and the man was furious.
Esther finds the story lovely, especially its descriptions of the changes of the seasons, and she regrets coming to the end of the tale. She fantasizes about climbing into the story and falling asleep beneath the fig tree. She finds the story relevant to her own relationship with Buddy Willard, a young man with whom she has been involved. In particular, she finds the separation between the couple in the story relevant to her own estrangement from Buddy.
When Esther later thinks of the fig tree, she finds it symbolic of a host of new opportunities that seem to exist for her:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.
Esther associates each imagined fig with a different potential opportunity. Indeed, she imagines so many different opportunities that she finally feels paralyzed about which to choose:
I wanted each and every one of them but choosing one meant losing all the rest . . . .
Once again, then, the figure tree is ironically associated with Esther’s disappointment and frustration.
The fig tree is mentioned briefly one more time in the novel, but the second reference (just discussed) is by far the most detailed and the most obviously significant symbolically. The imagery there of figs rotting and decaying is typical of the dark, depressing tone of the novel as a whole.
Esther Greenwood is the main character in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. After attending Ladies’ Day for the magazine where Esther is interning, she and the other girls get violent food poisoning from the meal served there; the girls are each sent an anthology of short stories as a consolation gift.
In the anthology, Esther is drawn to a short story of a fig tree, equidistant from a convent and a Jewish man’s home. A nun and the Jewish man share the figs happily for a time, but eventually a “mean-faced nun” takes her place and counts the figs to ensure the man doesn’t take more than his fair share. This is often thought to be an analogy to Esther’s doomed relationship with Buddy Willard, something Esther initially longs for. But she withers away when she finds out Buddy is not a virgin after he presented himself as “clean-cut.” She writes:
“Buddy Willard went to Yale, but now I thought of it, what was wrong with him was that he was stupid. Oh, he'd managed to get good marks all right, and to have an affair with some awful waitress on the Cape by the name of Gladys…”
Another important area of symbolism for the fig tree story is its parallelism to Esther Greenwood’s blossoming life and the variety of choices she has for her future. Although Esther has ample opportunities—her summer editor, Jay Cee, even lectures her on this—she cannot seem to choose a path. She sees "life branching out before [her] like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.” But she cannot select a fig, and thus they wither and fall away. Esther’s depression paralyzes her, she lets opportunities slip away, and she ends up spending the rest of her summer back home in Boston, where her mental health plummets. The metaphor of the fig tree was also extremely pertinent to Plath’s own life. Upon beginning studies at Smith College, Plath wrote to her mother: “the world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon.” Like her protagonist, Plath often struggled to balance the relationships with the men in her life with being a prolific writer and poet.