I first read The Bell Jar my sophomore year of high school. I can vividly remember curling up on my dad’s leather recliner one day after school, tired from AP classes and track practice and shitty friends and the overall maelstrom of teenage angst. My dad was at work and my mom was at my brother’s soccer practice and I was happy to be alone and reading.
But suddenly something changed. I was overwhelmed with a sense of familiarity–I was Esther Greenwood. It was the first time I realized the feelings of despair and anxiety I had been dealing with my entire life were not normal, run of the mill adolescent problems. They were real, and somebody else had experienced them, and articulated them into a way that I understood so perfectly, as if they was hovering beneath the surface, just waiting for me to let them out.
And so I was alone on a rainy spring afternoon and I was finally understanding that I was depressed and for some reason that comforted me.
It’s like the hypochondriac who suffers silently from phantom illness and reacts with joy when a doctor finally diagnoses him with something tangible.
I felt free, in a way.
But the book resonates with me now, nine years later, and it’s mostly because of this quote:
“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 was reminded of this after watching Master of None’s season finale, where Aziz Ansari’s Dev struggles to find his path in life—does he want to stay with his obnoxious manic pixie dream girlfriend, pursue his acting career, or move to Italy to attend pasta school?
Dev’s father (incidentally my favorite character on the show; a quirky, technologically-inept Indian immigrant and loving parent) references the Bell Jar’s famous quote in hopes of reassuring his son that it’s completely normal to not have everything figured out.
I am 24, and my dream has always been to support myself as a writer. I realize this is an unlikely goal, but I have invested time, money, and emotional energy into this unlikely goal since I was a child. But as I get older, I think it might be best to have another plan. Should I get into the fashion industry? Should I pursue music? Should I have stuck with my psychology major and dedicated my life to helping people crazier than myself? The window is slowly closing for all of these opportunities, and I fear ten years from now, when I’m 34, I will be working in retail watching the figs fall and wither away.
Jack of all trades, master of none.