Food in Literature Introduction

Start Your Free Trial

Download Food in Literature Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Food in Literature

Eating is a fundamental human activity, an activity that is both necessary for survival and inextricably connected with social function. Eating habits and rituals, the choice of dining companions, and the reasons behind these behaviors are fundamental to fostering an understanding of human society. Recent psychoanalytic theory suggests that eating practices are essential to self-identity and are instrumental in defining family, class, and even ethnic identity. Although food and related imagery have long been part of literature, psychological theories have led to the examination of food and eating as a universal experience. Themes related to food are common among all types of writing, and they are often used as a literary device for both visual and verbal impact. For example, food-related images in the theater are commonly used to create a mood or convey an idea. Food is also a significant theme in literature by and about women and in children's literature.

A common setting related to food in children's literature is teatime. Usually employed to dramatize states of harmony or disharmony, teatime is used to great effect in such works as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1866), in which Alice learns to come to terms with the world around her via her experiences at the Mad Hatter's distinctly uncivilized tea party. Food and order images are also used liberally in such tales as Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1961), where food denotes coziness and plenty. In addition to reflecting social order and civilization, food is often representative of the limitations imposed upon a child's world, blending well with the idea of excess as a key element of childhood fantasy. For example, Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (1963) uses food as a vehicle to express strong childhood emotions, and, like many other children's texts, uses rituals of eating as a metaphor for the power struggle inherent to family dynamics.

Food offers a means for powerful imagery in adult literature as well. Visual images in the works of such authors as Katherine Anne Porter and Margaret Atwood are often used to increase the realism in their writing. Details about food in such collections as Porter's Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1935) create a powerful sense of richness and convey the indefinability of human experience, representing an external and physical manifestation of human complexity. Likewise, food and drink play an important role in drama, especially on stage. In his essay on Sam Shepard's work, Charles G. Whiting notes that the playwright often makes eating and drinking an important and significant activity, something that is not only used to achieve realism but also to accentuate the action on stage. Whiting notes that Shepard's staging in particular uses food to create spectacle as well as visionary mythic imagery. In the same way, food is used in poetry as a sensual and sensory object. Specifically focusing on the role of fruit in poetry, Carol E. Dietrich notes that it often represents nature, offering the poet an objective symbol of the presence of God. Among fiction writers, Ernest Hemingway was noteworthy in his ability to create a particular mood though his fictional accounts of food. Hemingway often had his expatriate characters eat native foods, allowing them emotional access to the world they were inhabiting.

Dining rituals often provide a framework that both reflects and expresses human desires and behaviors. Many authors, Edith Wharton primary among them, have used the ritual of dining to present the powerful conflicts that simmer underneath the surface of order. Additionally, food metaphors are often used to characterize people and their status in society. This is especially evident in the works of such authors as Toni...

(The entire section is 913 words.)