Food in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Food in Nineteenth-Century Literature

From the cabbage soup of the Russian peasant to the buttered toast of the English gentry, references to food in the literature of the nineteenth century are abundant. At the most basic level, the details of food preparation and consumption represent authors' attempts to incorporate realistic elements from everyday life into their fiction. But beyond that, differences in availability of food and variations in diet convey important cultural information on class difference. Descriptions of abundant feasts alongside images of starvation become powerful signifiers of the wide disparity between the rich and the poor. Food is also associated with both love and sex, and in English, French, and American novels, the denial of love and the repression of sexuality manifest themselves in a variety of eating disorders. A primarily feminine affliction, self-starvation, or what is today called anorexia nervosa, is widespread among the female characters of nineteenth-century fiction as women's repressed rage is turned inward and results in self-destruction.

Nutritional and culinary discourse were important elements of nineteenth-century literature, particularly as part of a strategy whereby authors from Charles Dickens to Honore de Balzac to Emily Dickinson abandoned esoteric concerns for the representation of real life. This stylistic evolution led to the inclusion of concrete descriptions of everyday events, including the details of food preparation, dining rituals, table manners, and even digestive disorders. These literary devices were often ignored by critics until the late twentieth century when cultural studies scholars began to focus their attention on food and foodways. Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre assert that critics now believe that studying ordinary moments in everyday life can yield insights into the cultures of the past. According to Glants and Toomre, “As part of daily life, food easily becomes a metaphor for national customs whereby the same food can trigger a different reaction depending on its national tradition.”

Several critics point out that fictional representations of food, and the customs associated with it, are often directly tied to differences in social class. Obviously, the amount and variety of food available to the poor was significantly different than the fare available to the middle class or to the rich, and of course, table manners have always been considered a class issue. The starving Magwitch in Dickens's Great Expectations hurriedly wolfing down his food is far removed from the dining rooms and drawing rooms of Jane Austen's fictional world. Other food-related customs conveyed information on social status as well. Maggie Lane, for instance, notes that the standard time for eating the main meal of the day changed over time and this change was directly related to social class. While dinner was the traditional midday meal in eighteenth century England, the appropriate hour grew later and later for the wealthy over the course of the century, as the rich “became more numerous and more ostentatious in their idleness.” Lane explains that the fashionable people wanted to set themselves apart from everyone else and since it was cheaper to prepare and consume the main meal in natural light, an earlier time would naturally be favored by the less wealthy members of the gentry, while the rich would prefer dining late—6:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., or even later—by candlelight.

In fictional representations of French life, food was also used as a marker of social status. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary employs this convention, particularly in regard to ceremonial meals. Lilian Furst describes Emma's wedding feast as “the customary country beano,” a vulgar spread that is contrasted with the elegant banquet at La Vaubyessard, where the menu and presentation signify the refinement and elegance that Emma longs for, as opposed to the life that she actually lives. But Furst points out that in such a well-constructed book, differentiating social classes is just one of the many functions the discourse of food performs. Flaubert also uses food as an environmental factor, describing the rural area around Yonville as a land of poor soil and inferior cheeses, or “the agricultural counterpart of the mediocrity that is at the heart of Madame Bovary.” This same mediocrity is demonstrated in characters through the use of food as Furst claims that “Charles is consistently characterized in relation to food”—from his table manners to his gluttony, “we see a man so bereft of imagination that he translates all the pleasures of life into the satisfaction of the palate.”

For some nineteenth-century authors, food was equated with love. According to Barbara Hardy, “food has a special place in the novels of Dickens. He loves feasts and scorns fasts. His celebration of the feast is not that of the glutton or the gourmet: eating and drinking are valued by him as proofs of sociability and gusto, but more important still, as ceremonies of love.” In Great Expectations, the connection between food and love is represented positively in the interactions of Joe and Pip or Pip and Magwitch, while the relationship is portrayed negatively in the loveless meals provided by Mrs. Joe, or in the fact that Miss Havisham never allows anyone to see her eat and drink. Nikolai Gogol also wrote extensively on the food/love connection. Alexander P. Obolensky reports that the author was preoccupied with food, both in his fiction and in his personal correspondence. Gogol's letters to his mother are filled with references to melons and pumpkins, and include instructions on food production and preparation. Food references abound in his fiction as well; according to Obolensky: “In the world created by Gogol, man seems to be led by his most primitive instinct, hunger, and by the most primitive of pleasures, the enjoyment of food.” The satisfactions provided by food surpass even those associated with sex in Gogol's writings.

For the Romantic poets, though, particularly Lord Byron and John Keats, food was associated with sex more than with love. Helen B. Ellis explores this connection in Keats's writings: “In poem after poem and in his letters as well, feasting and sexuality are closely equated, so much so that eating and drinking become persistent metaphors for the hero's relationship to his mistress.” In Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, food and sexuality are connected in a way that relates to the acquisition of identity, which is common to several of the narrative threads of the novel. By contrasting the characters Rose and Nancy, critic Simon Edwards moves beyond the common Victorian motif of repressed sexuality finding expression in food images. Edwards studies the way each of the women's actual identity is tied to her sexuality—expressed in the one and repressed in the other—and then rendered into terms of food and appetite. Thus the prostitute Nancy is described as “stout and hearty,” approaching her meals with a healthy appetite, while her foil Rose nearly dies from self-starvation, a denial of appetites both sexual and nutritional.

Numerous critics have applied twentieth-century knowledge of the dynamics of anorexia and other eating disorders to fictional representations of the nineteenth century. Lilian R. Furst has examined eating disorders as a power strategy employed by the characters in three French nineteenth-century novels: Madame de Mortsauf in Balzac's Le Lys dans la vallée; Emma in Madame Bovary; and Gervaise in Emile Zola's L'Assommoir. Although the three characters represent different social classes—the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the poor respectively—their attempts at achieving autonomy through eating/noneating is similarly self-destructive. Madame de Mortsauf's malady is shared in varying degrees by her husband and two children and is linked to the inability to communicate within the family. As Furst explains, “the failure of communication between mother and daughter, husband and wife, parents and children surfaces in digestive terms: the father has stomach pains, the children are so picky as to be malnourished, and the wife dies of inanition.” Flaubert's Emma selectively eats or refuses to eat depending on the menu; she rejects the simple country fare that her husband so thoroughly enjoys and eats only if the food offered represents the refined taste of the upper class. Zola's Gervaise, however, living in the squalor of Paris's slums, exhibits the opposite behavior—she combats her misery by overindulging in both food and drink. Furst describes her attempts to gain a bit of security in a life of deprivation: “Because she can never be sure where her next meal will come from, she habitually stuffs more than she needs as a safety measure.” Sharing Gervaise's gluttony at the other end of the economic spectrum is Byron. According to critic Carol Shiner Wilson, Byron employed the discourse of food in his satire Don Juan in a way that reflects “the intensely personal fixations of the oral-compulsive poet who, battling obesity throughout his life, acknowledged that he courted self-destruction by alternating extremes of abstemiousness and excess in food and alcohol.” Wilson examines the ways these images are rendered in Don Juan, where the concept of “taste” is extended to aesthetic matters, and the poet performs as a chef whose offerings are unappreciated by his audience. Elsa Nettels explores the phenomenon of eating disorders in America by examining the novels of Elizabeth Stoddard, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Edith Wharton, and William Dean Howells. She is specifically interested in “New England indigestion,” a phrase coined by Howells, and its connection with the region's background in Puritanism. According to Nettels, “the majority of dyspeptics in American fiction are New Englanders, often lifelong inhabitants of isolated villages where Puritanism, bred in the bone, survives in stubborn will, guilt-ridden conscience, and repressed emotion—conditions that betray themselves in emaciation and physical pain.”

Scholars associated with twentieth-century vegetarian theory have also mined the texts of the nineteenth century, tapping into Romantic vegetarianism as practiced by Mary Shelley and others. Carol J. Adams discusses Shelley's man-made creature in Frankenstein, who sets himself apart from humans in general and his creator specifically by refusing to eat meat. “My food is not that of man;” explains the Creature, “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.” According to Adams, his vegetarianism represents the Creature's attempt to embrace a higher moral code than the humans who have consistently rejected him.

Within patriarchal cultures, the preparation and serving of food is, not surprisingly, often linked to women, but the connection is often more subtle than a simple assignment to women of the role of cook and provider of sustenance to men and children. Francis L. and Monica A. Fennell have studied how this stereotypical “women's work” plays out in the novels of George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, where descriptions of food and the proper preparation of various dishes are abundant. As the Fennells point out, “more important than the food and the meals themselves is what they reveal. Both novelists use the serving of food as a device for illuminating the structure of the societies they specifically portray.” In some ways, the assignment of food preparation to women could be empowering for them—not only in terms of supervising a large portion of the household budget, but also as a way of dispensing love and fellowship along with food. However, in other ways, according to the Fennells, the control of food can be turned inward as “a self-destructive reaction to patriarchy.” Several critics, including Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and Maggie Lane, explore the notion that in the nineteenth century it was considered indelicate and unseemly for females to exhibit a healthy appetite. Gilbert and Gubar trace this restriction on female enjoyment of food to male origin myths that condemn women, beginning with Eve, for eating. Lane, examining the food metaphors in the novels of Jane Austen, claims that “to take an interest in food in a Jane Austen novel is to be almost certainly condemned as frivolous, selfish or gross,” and this is especially true for female characters.