Food in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Food in Nineteenth-Century Literature


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.

Representative Works

Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility (novel) 1810
Pride and Prejudice (novel) 1813
Mansfield Park (novel) 1814
Emma (novel) 1815
Northanger Abbey (novel) 1817

Honoré de Balzac
Le Lys dans le vallée (novel) 1835

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre (novel) 1847
Shirley (novel) 1849
Villette (novel) 1853

George Gordon (Lord) Byron
Don Juan, Cantos I-XVI 6 vols. (poetry) 1819-1824

Etienne Cabet
Voyage en Icarie (novel) 1842

Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
Great Expectations (novel) 1861


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Criticism: Overviews

James W. Brown (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Brown, James W. “Alimentary Discourse in Nineteenth-Century Social Theory: Pierre Leroux, Etienne Cabet and Charles Fourier.” Dalhousie French Studies 11 (fall-winter 1986): 72-95.

[In the following essay, Brown examines the way food is treated as a marker of equality and “collective activity” in the writings of nineteenth-century utopian social theorists and also by some novelists—George Sand, Victor Hugo, and Eugène Sue—who were influenced by them.]

The years 1825-1848 witnessed the rise of Socialist thought in France and, concomitantly, many writers and novelists explored social themes in their works. Several influences contributed to the...

(The entire section is 9108 words.)

William F. Long (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Long, William F. “Dickens and the Adulteration of Food.” The Dickensian, 84, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 160-70.

[In the following essay, Long discusses Dickens's participation in the national debate on the common nineteenth-century practice of adulterating food and drink.]

Much tension in Dickens's early work derives from the juxtaposition of scenes in which food and drink are consumed—sometimes seemingly continuously—with others of near or actual starvation. In later work, descriptions of meals increasingly serve to illustrate character traits and advance plots. A third aspect of Dickens's writing about food is his frequent reference to its poor quality....

(The entire section is 4739 words.)

Maggie Lane (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Lane, Maggie. “Mealtimes, Menus, Manners.” In Jane Austen and Food, pp. 25-54. London: The Hambledon Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Lane traces the changing customs governing dining practices in Austen's time and explains how various foodways served as indications of social class.]

The society of which Jane Austen wrote being both more leisured and more formal than our own, the timing and nature of the meals which punctuated daily life, and the conventions and etiquette attaching to them, naturally differed in various ways from those we are familiar with.

At Chawton the breakfast hour was nine o'clock, but this seems to have been...

(The entire section is 13813 words.)

Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Glants, Musya and Joyce Toomre. Introduction to Food in Russian History and Culture, pp. xi-xxvii. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Glants and Toomre provide an overview of the use of food customs as a metaphor for Russian national culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]

The chronicle of everyday life brings the past closer to us with a social sharpness and vividness. In order to understand Leo Tolstoy or Chekhov more clearly, for instance, we need to know the daily life of their epoch. Even the poetry of Pushkin achieves its full luster only for those who know the everyday life of his...

(The entire section is 7488 words.)

Criticism: Food And Social Class

Lilian R. Furst (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Furst, Lilian R. “The Role of Food in Madame Bovary.” Orbis Litterarum, 34, no. 1 (1979): 53-65.

[In the following essay, Furst examines the multiple functions of the detailed descriptions of food in Flaubert's Madame Bovary, including the use of food as a marker of social class.]

Madame Bovary is a well-made book—so we have always been told, and so we find it to be, pulling it to pieces and putting it together again. It never is unrepaying to do so once more.”1 In the fifty or so years that have elapsed since Percy Lubbock's assertion, many critics have pulled Madame Bovary to pieces, and some have also put it...

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Mary Titus (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Titus, Mary. “The Dining Room Door Swings Both Ways: Food, Race, and Domestic Space in the Nineteenth-Century South.” In Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, edited by Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson, pp. 243-56. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

[In the following essay, Titus studies representations of foodways and dining rituals on the antebellum plantation.]

Oaklands was famous for many things: its fine light-bread, its cinnamon cakes, its beat biscuit, its fricasseed chicken, its butter and cream, its wine-sauces, its plum-puddings, its fine horses, its beautiful meadows, its sloping green hills,...

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Criticism: Food And Gender

David Luisi (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Luisi, David. “Some Aspects of Emily Dickinson's Food and Liquor Poems.” English Studies 52, no. 1 (February 1971): 32-40.

[In the following essay, Luisi examines approximately fifty of Dickinson's poems in which food imagery is used as a metaphor for the poet's thoughts on Puritanism and Epicureanism, as well as on want and satisfaction.]

Among the poems of Emily Dickinson are an impressive number which deal directly or indirectly with food and liquor. Of the more than two hundred poems which employ this kind of imagery, approximately three quarters of them do so in a subordinate fashion. The remaining fifty or more poems, however, provide a sufficient...

(The entire section is 3606 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “The Genesis of Hunger According to Shirley.” In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 372-98. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Gilbert and Gubar evaluate Charlotte Brontë's use of food metaphors in Shirley to describe a more pervasive hunger afflicting women writers and characters in the patriarchal culture of nineteenth-century England.]

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
The little nourishment I get.

—Elinor Wylie


(The entire section is 10623 words.)

Maggie Lane (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Lane, Maggie. “Greed and Gender.” In Jane Austen and Food, pp. 77-100. London: The Hambledon Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Lane discusses the nineteenth-century notion that an appetite for food was associated with both greed and sexual desire and thus considered indelicate in females.]

Jane Austen was not quite twelve years old when the Reverend John Trusler's book The Honours of the Table for the Use of Young People was published. In this work Trusler declares, with perfect seriousness, that to eat very much ‘is now deemed indelicate in a lady, for her character should be rather divine than sensual’.1 One can imagine Mrs...

(The entire section is 10915 words.)

Francis L. Fennell and Monica A. Fennell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Fennell, Francis L., and Monica A. Fennell. “‘Ladies—Loaf Givers’: Food, Women, and Society in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot.” In Keeping the Victorian House: A Collection of Essays, edited by Vanessa D. Dickerson, pp. 235-58. New York: Garland, 1995.

[In the following essay, the critics explore the prescribed roles for women in Victorian society involving food preparation and food serving, and the ways in which Brontë and Eliot incorporated those roles into their fiction.]

[Cooking] means the knowledge of Medea, and of Circe, and of Calypso, and of Helen, and of Rebekah, and of the Queen of Sheba. It means the...

(The entire section is 8251 words.)

Criticism: Food And Love

Barbara Hardy (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Hardy, Barbara. “Food and Ceremony in Great Expectations.” In Essays in Criticism 13, no. 4 (October 1963): 351-63.

[In the following essay, Hardy examines the use of food ceremonies celebrating sociability, hospitality, and love in Great Expectations.]

We all know that 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. The conversion of Scrooge is marked by his present of a goose to Bob Cratchit and his reunion at his...

(The entire section is 4676 words.)

Alexander P. Obolensky (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Obolensky, Alexander P. “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.” In Food-Notes on Gogol, pp. 11-31. Winnipeg: Trident Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Obolensky discusses Gogol's descriptions of food and its association with love and affection in his collection of short stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.]

Gogol's life and works are so much of a piece that it is almost impossible to separate them. This is particularly true in the case of his first successful literary venture, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, a collection of stories based on the folklore of his native Ukraine. According to the title page the stories were “edited by Beekeeper...

(The entire section is 7976 words.)

Criticism: Food And Sex

Helen B. Ellis (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ellis, Helen B. “Food, Sex, Death, and the Feminine Principle in Keats's Poetry.” English Studies in Canada, 6, no. 1 (spring 1980): 56-74.

[In the following essay, Ellis discusses the pervasive association between feasting and sexual fulfillment in Keats's poetry.]

In his perceptive discussion of Keats's letters, Lionel Trilling notes the pervasiveness of ingestive imagery used by Keats, and also the ambivalence many readers feel toward such imagery:

It is surely possible to understand what led Yeats to speak of Keats as a boy with his face pressed to the window of a sweetshop. The mild and not unsympathetic derogation...

(The entire section is 9105 words.)

Simon Edwards (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Edwards, Simon. “Anorexia Nervosa versus the Fleshpots of London: Rose and Nancy in Oliver Twist.” In Dickens Studies Annual 19 (1990): 49-64.

[In the following essay, Edwards examines the interaction of food and sexuality in the formation of identity in Oliver Twist.]

While everyone recognises the importance of food in Dickens' novels, there are, to my knowledge, only two essays which have attempted to assess its role critically. Barbara Hardy has discussed the moral significance of feasting and hospitality in Great Expectations. Ian Watt, noting the same lack of critical interest in the subject, offers a suggestive psychoanalytic account of...

(The entire section is 6562 words.)

Criticism: Eating Disorders

Carol Shiner Wilson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Wilson, Carol Shiner. “Stuffing the Verdant Goose: Culinary Esthetics in Don Juan.Mosaic, 24, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1991): 33-52.

[In the following essay, Wilson discusses the use of culinary discourse in Byron's poem, suggesting that it not only reflects the poet's personal obsession with food and alcohol, but also satirizes what he considered the poor taste in poetry exhibited by many of his contemporaries.]

Food and drink, literal and metaphorical, abound in Byron's satiric masterpiece, Don Juan. Roasts, ragoûts, fishes, fowl, oysters, olla podrida, champagne, tea, and distilled spirits are repeatedly used as signs by an author...

(The entire section is 7459 words.)

Lilian R. Furst (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Furst, Lilian R. “The Power of the Powerless: A Trio of Nineteenth-Century French Disorderly Eaters.” In Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment, edited by Lilian R. Furst and Peter W. Graham, pp. 153-66. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Furst examines female characters in works by Zola, Balzac, and Flaubert, finding that despite their different situations and backgrounds, all three deal with their frustrations and inner rage by developing eating disorders.]

Eating and its corollary, noneating, are, as every infant quickly discovers, potent means to control one's life, to negotiate disagreeable...

(The entire section is 6096 words.)

Elsa Nettels (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Nettels, Elsa. “New England Indigestion and Its Victims.” In Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment, edited by Lilian R. Furst and Peter W. Graham, pp. 167-84. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Nettels discusses the consumption or rejection of food and its relationship to self-assertion and manipulative behavior in New England novels.]

Prominent in American realistic fiction is the victim of what William Dean Howells called “New England indigestion,”1 a morbid physical and psychological condition manifested in eating disorders such as dyspepsia, willed starvation, and secret...

(The entire section is 7355 words.)

Criticism: Vegetarians, Carnivores, And Cannibals

Carol J. Adams (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Adams, Carol J. “Frankenstein's Vegetarian Monster.” In The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, pp. 108-119. New York: Continuum, 1993.

[In the following essay, Adams examines Mary Shelley's participation in the Romantic vegetarian movement and the irony that her fictional monster, assembled from parts obtained from the graveyard and the slaughterhouse, was himself a vegetarian.]

Is it so heinous an offence against society, to respect in other animals that principal of life which they have received, no less than man himself, at the hand of Nature? O, mother of every living thing! O, thou eternal fountain of...

(The entire section is 5740 words.)

Ronald D. LeBlanc (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: LeBlanc, Ronald D. “An Appetite for Power: Predators, Carnivores, and Cannibals in Dostoevsky's Fiction.” In Food in Russian History and Culture, edited by Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre, pp. 124-45. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, LeBlanc explores Dostoevsky's use of food and eating in his fiction, and suggests that the author uses such imagery as a metaphor for humans' efforts to dominate, or “devour” each other.]

We are what we all abhor, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not only of men, but of ourselves.

—Thomas Browne, Religio Medici...

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Further Reading


Kiell, Norman. “Food in Literature: A Selective Bibliography.” Mosaic 24, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1991): 211-63.

Extensive listing, partially annotated, of recent scholarship on food references in literary works.


Campbell, Sue Ellen. “Feasting in the Wilderness: The Language of Food in American Wilderness Narratives.” American Literary History 6, no. 1 (spring 1994): 1-23.

Examines the cultural significance of the detailed descriptions of food in American wilderness narratives from the journals of Lewis and Clark to the writings of twentieth-century...

(The entire section is 451 words.)