One of my good friends recently mentioned to me that her new neighborhood is full of fruit trees.
Being a poet, she described how the fruit ripening made her think of things coming into their own and what fullness and fruition might mean in her own life. Recently though, she said, the fruit on the trees has begun to rot, and one tree in the alley behind her house is covered in wasps. “I feel like I might be that tree,” she said, “letting important moments get overripe.”
There’s a similar analogy in The Bell Jar that’s haunted me for about four years, ever since a professor told me I reminded her of Esther Greenwood in the famous fig tree passage:
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. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. 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 left that professor’s office thinking: I am the kind of person who has the potential to do anything but the proclivity to do nothing. I am the kind of person who is paralyzed by choice, instead of empowered by it.
My reaction was natural. If you assume each choice you make excludes every other possibility, it’s easy to feel claustrophobic; each step you take narrows your world, funneling you towards some destiny, maybe, or closing in on all sides until you are completely and permanently pinned down.
I thought about the fig tree often in college, taking it to heart, wondering how many of my figs had already fallen to the ground, wondering which opportunities I would never get back.
And the image of the fig tree still has a strong psychological grip on me.
But lately, I’ve questioned the logic of the fig tree and my own acceptance of Esther Greenwood’s fate. For example, why does Esther say “choosing one meant losing all the rest?” Is she so slow at eating figs that she only has time to eat one before all the others go bad? Can’t she just rinse off the figs that fell on the ground? C’mon, Esther.
Besides, most of the figs I’ve eaten so far have simply fallen into my lap, without any choice of my own. It doesn’t feel like I’ve narrowed my options by accepting the figs that have been given to me.
So I don’t play by the fig tree’s rules anymore.
For one, I plan to climb up the fig tree and check out those faraway figs that Esther couldn’t quite make out.
For another, I don’t see why I need to abide by the one-fig rule. Naturally, different kinds of fruit will not ripen all at once, but over time come to fullness, and some figs that fall might still be picked up and tasted. I might start eating a fig, realize I don’t like how it tastes, and throw it out or give it to someone else.
And finally, those wasps that my friend took as a sign of the fig tree’s decay? It turns out they’re essential to the pollination process that allows next season’s figs to grow.