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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.
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