BEYOND THE FIG TREE
They are plump and purple, the ripe magma hidden in a teardrop. The fertile flesh is rich and sticky. A cradle of cinnamon sugar, vanilla ice cream, and pistachios is prepared to receive. Grown on trees, they blossom in the unforgiving sunlight; never sulking. For some, consuming this leaves their lips tingling.
In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Esther talks about seeing her life span out like a fig tree, describing each desire as: “…a fat, purple fig…”, One by one, she sees them shrivel up and drop off; perhaps foreshadowing the events later in the novel. Plath notably uses food frequently in her journals. A keen cook, she sometimes uses the mention of food as its own literary device. It livens the senses and brings you closer to the author.
Symbolically speaking, figs represent fertility and salvation. This is interesting when you consider that William Shakespeare often uses figs as a subversion in some of his plays—Anthony and Cleopatra in particular. It is also used as an insult, such as in Othello. The polarising nature of the fruit makes for interesting observations.
D.H. Lawrence famously wrote about the fruit in a poem:
“The proper way to eat a fig, in society, /
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump, /
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.”
It is well-known that Lawrence is comparing figs to women, and this is evident in the extract above. “Rosy” and “moist” conjure sensual images of female sexuality. This goes back to the symbolism of the fruit, bearing an image of fertility. The fig itself is very yonic; splitting apart during consumption.
There is a stark difference in how Plath and Lawrence use the fig. Plath sees her life as a fig that dries up before she can eat it, whereas Lawrence consumes them as he pleases, albeit with a certain whiff of debauchery. Perhaps this speaks to gender issues, as Simone de Beauvoir famously critiqued of Lawrence’s “phallic pride” in The Second Sex.
In Nilay Özer’s poem, biting into figs, this fertile fruit is likened to the young:
“…these figs are green just fledglings /
there’s still time before they ripen /
plenty of time before they wean…”
The tree is seen as the mother, and the fruit is seen as the baby; suckling on itself as Özer goes on to illustrate. If we take the metaphors of each author into account, we find ourselves circling the stages of life. Lawrence represents sex, Özer represents birth, and Plath represents death. A particularly ripe fig will often look like it is in three parts, which further cements the stages of life.
Figs are fascinating fruits. They are extremely versatile, and they make for a delicious treat. If you want to make a divine dessert for yourself, here is how.
- Four ripe figs
- 1 Tbsp Butter
- 1 Tbsp Honey
- 1 Tbsp Black Treacle
- Unsalted, peeled pistachios (crushed)
- Preheat oven to 190°C (375°F).
- Cut a cross into the figs.
- Place them on a baking tray.
- Place the butter, honey, treacle, and pistachios in the slit.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes.
Courtenay Schembri Gray is a 1/4 Maltese writer from the North of England. She takes delight in the morbid, the weird, and the eerie. From Hobart Pulp to Visual Verse, she continues to be published widely. courtenayscorner.com. Twitter: @courtenaywrites.