Rereading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath has been on my list for a while, and I just got to it last week. I first read it in high school, and I must have blacked out much of the book because it was like reading an entirely new novel! I also saw new themes that I don’t remember paying much attention to before… I guess that is the purpose of reading something again :)
There is one scene that I have remembered so vividly from that first time, though, a scene that has popped into my head so many times as I have tried to navigate around choosing a college, a major a first job, a boyfriend. I think a lot of other women feel the same way, too, as I’ve seen and heard it referenced many times in articles and conversations. It captures a common sentiment more succinctly and powerfully than anything else I’ve read since.
It’s the fig tree scene, when Esther sees her life’s possibilities spread before her like the ripening figs on a tree, but is paralyzed by the knowledge that she can only pick a couple, and the others will fall away.
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.
It can be so overwhelming to try to figure out what the “right” path is, and which choice will lead to the cluster of possibilities that suits you best. It harkens to the “having it all” conversation a little, I think. And while it can be very scary to finally make a choice, I keep trying to remind myself that there are so many things that could make me happy – and who says happiness should be the end goal, anyway?
You do what you can, you follow what you like (or what you have to), and you make it work. You’ll find glimmers of wonder and moments of joy in anything, as long as you look for them. And even if you have regrets, you just have to remember that whatever you decided is better than making no choice at all.
Easier said than done, perhaps.
Have you read The Bell Jar? What’s your favorite book from high school? (Not to say this is my favorite…I might have to go with To Kill a Mockingbird for that!)