How Sylvia Plath's 'The Fig Tree' Changed My Entire Perspective On Life

It taught me the importance of choosing something.

Sylvia Plath 3quarks via Canva | Sylvia Plath via Lilly library

I was 17 when I first read "The Fig Tree" by Sylvia Plath. I was just about to graduate school and begin my life. My mind was overflowing with ideas, countries, and careers I wanted to pursue. But the overwhelm of choosing hadn’t yet kicked in.

I was spinning around in possibilities, like a giddy child on Christmas day examining unopened presents.

And then I read this poem. And I stopped spinning. I sat down and read it again. And again.


I had never heard of Sylvia Plath before. How could she have written such a relatable story?

The muscles on my shoulders tensed as I realized that I would indeed have to choose something. One day.

"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." ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

What "The Fig Tree" by Sylvia Plath taught me:

At my graduation interview, I had to create a slideshow of my “plans” for the next six months. I made a dozen or so slides with images of my dreams. Working on a lavender field in France. Sailing in the Mediterranean. Teaching English in Mongolia. Reindeer herding in Sweden.

My teacher and principal looked at me blankly, unenthused, as my presentation did not involve further education plans, a degree, or a job. I felt more ceremony in reading this poem than graduating high school. It taught me more than any textbook.


It taught me the importance of choosing something.

It is an absolute privilege to have choices in life. But having too many options can make us feel overwhelmed.

My mother always wanted to be an artist when she grew up. But in the 1970s, it felt like the only option for her was to become a nurse or a teacher, so she became a teacher. Nowadays, most of us have more options than we can fathom. But this poem reminds me of the importance of choosing something. Anything. 

We must avoid falling into the trap of indecision. The idea of drifting through life without choosing any fig at all sounds reckless. And there is a good balance between being too careful and overly careless.


On her deathbed, my ex-mother-in-law held my hand and whispered two shaky words to me. The last thing she ever said to me in the little English she knew was, "Be careful." I interpreted this as “be full of care.” I want to walk through life knowing it is important to make choices with care, not carelessness.

Any of the figs would have been the right choice.

When I first read this poem, I felt intrigued by Sylvia’s figs on her tree. I, too, am interested in editing, writing, traveling, and having children one day. One of my takeaways is that any of the figs would have been the right choice.

It’s the idea that everything is meant to be. And choosing something is better than watching all the figs overripen and drop to the ground.


This poem is wistful because it portrays there isn’t much time to choose a fig. But thankfully, for most of us, we do have time.

But there is a balance to this. For the past nine years, I have been picking particular figs, biting into them, and seeing how they taste. I then either place them into my pocket for good keeping or toss them back to the Earth. I am at a point now where I agree with the saying that life is short. I do need to choose a fig and follow through with it.

I want to believe the teachings in the poem wholeheartedly. If I think everything is meant to be, then whichever choice and fig I choose will be the right one.

How to find your figs:

After submerging myself into the depths of this poem, I drew a fig tree. I then colored the figs purple and wrote a dream beside each one.

  • A journalist for National Geographic
  • A professional singer in a folk band
  • An actor
  • A parks ranger
  • An artist
  • A mother
  • An archaeologist
  • A writer

I then tried to trace back my earliest memory of whichever fig I enjoyed the most. What did I love the most as a child? Which fig grew first? Mine were writing and art. So that's a clue, isn’t it?

One day I will choose one. Or two. Or maybe I can combine the figs together and make a lovely syrup. I don’t know.

But I read "The Fig Tree" whenever I need a poetic pep-talk. And I allow this poem to continue to haunt me. I hope it never leaves my side.

Thank you, Sylvia Plath.

Elin Dieme is an award-winning writer, actor, and artist. She has articles featured on Medium, GoHaidaGwaii, and YourTango.