What Makes Sylvia Plath So Compelling?

By Claire Wilson 

March 1, 2024

“Maybe I was just too weird to begin with,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her 1963 essay, America! America!.  From an early age, Plath often felt isolated and different from her peers. She was fiercely intelligent and ambitious, and in 1955 became a Fulbright scholar. This ambition was often marred by depressive episodes, which culminated in her first suicide attempt that would later inspire The Bell Jar. Plath’s intensely personal style of confessional poetry and storytelling is simultaneously unsettling and comforting, allowing the reader to relate on a very deep level. 

“I have room in me for love, and for ever so many little lives,” wrote Plath during her time at Smith College, a sentiment which reflected both the optimistic side of her personality and her struggle to choose from the many desires she had for her future, a feeling described in The Bell Jar. “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked… 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.” Plath expertly crafts a metaphor for the most gut-wrenching dilemma facing every young woman, that with any choice comes a loss of other opportunities, and that in waiting, paralyzed, these opportunities pass. This brilliant metaphor has haunted countless young women since The Bell Jar’s publication in 1963. But despite its ability to produce feelings of anxiety and desperation, it has also served as a wake up call. “What do I want?” we ask ourselves, “and how am I going to get it?’

The Bell Jar came into my life when I was at a crossroads, and in the back of my mind, my own fig tree sprouted, heavy with the figs of business school, becoming an editor, author, mother, poet, journalist, or disappearing altogether into a foreign country. All of them were enticing and felt distinctly out of reach and unreal. A year later, under Plath’s powerful influence, I now am more sure of myself than I have ever been. I have chosen a fig and I am reaching for it. 

The fig tree metaphor is one of Plath’s most well known because of the impact that it has on those who read it, particularly ambitious young women. What is so powerful about the metaphor is that it is simultaneously specific and universal; a distinctive experience that is applicable to many life circumstances. This is a common thread through much of Plath’s work; its ability to mold itself to the readers’ consciousness, though nothing about it is vague. Her piercingly honest and tragic work has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort to me, and has permanently changed the trajectory of my life, as it has for so many.   

Works Cited

Plath, Sylvia. “America! America!” Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 1952.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Faber and Faber, 1966. 

Plath, Sylvia 1932-1963. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. Anchor Books, 2000.