Fig Trees, Possibilities, and Moving Forward

If I’d read this book when I was eighteen or nineteen, it would have been for me what The Catcher in the Rye is to angsty, “misunderstood” teenagers. I probably would have soaked up every word of it and made it my big depressing dramatic “Bible” or something. I would have (I thought) cynically and dramatically compared myself to Esther and gone around wailing, “this book is my liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife” even though it wasn’t. At all. I just used to think that being depressed and descending into madness and despair made you interesting. Or something. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.

THANK GOD I didn’t read The Bell Jar when I was just starting college. It saved me a lot of embarrassment.

I did still relate to Esther Greenwood, though. A LOT. For the first part of the book, I kept seeing myself show up. I was the brainy, nerdy, scholarship chick from a small town. I’ve yet to end up in a glamorous big city like New York (though I’m moving to Prague in 44 days), but I have always wanted to do everything and be everything. I was the girl who studied all the time and prided myself on grades and scholarship and research.

The part of the book that resonates the most with me is when Esther compares her life to a fig tree. There are so many different figs, possibilities, on this tree. Each fruit is a different life. Esther is sitting at the base of the tree trying to decide which to pick:

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

I’ve been there. I know all about feeling paralyzed by possibilities. The last semester of college is like sitting in the crotch of a fig tree, unable to pick any one life and, instead, doing nothing while time moves forward. It’s unsettling.

It’s easy to sit, paralyzed, wanting all possible lives. I want to be a glamorous travel writer and a badass professor and a slightly boring but brilliant historian and work in a museum and be an archivist and be Indiana Jones and lots of other things too. But I only get one life. I can’t have all of them. And picking is so hard. And while you’re sitting there imagining all sorts of lives and futures and realizing that you can’t have all of them, you start losing time. You miss the chance to go to grad school (this year, at least), you miss the application deadline for that job, you don’t take that other job because what if you change your mind and don’t want it? Suddenly doors close on lives you may have wanted and you’re still sitting there, stuck.

Well done on that image, Sylvia Plath. You hit that one dead-on.

(I should mention that, thankfully, I chose a life and I’m moving forward.)

Overall, I enjoyed The Bell Jar. It’s a relatively quick, easy read. Just beware of reading for long stretches of time because it gets pretty dark.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Ben-Hur

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