The Symbolic Nature of Food in Literature: Reflecting Upon Personal Experience

May 14, 2022 by Essay Writer

Eating is not only fundamental for survival; it also offers a setting for social gatherings, where eating habits and rituals create a noticeable distinction between social classes. In literature, food often symbolizes more than pure nourishment. Food presents a contrast between order and chaos; etiquette and taboo behaviour; and social classes. The presentation of food in literature can also mirror the personal experiences of the author, reinforcing the “write what you know” trope. Lewis Carroll, Paul Delarue and the Grimm Brothers have endured poverty firsthand, allowing them to draw on personal experience in their works. Although it is unclear whether Joseph Jacobs ever struggled financially, he clearly depicts the struggle of the lower class in his work as well. While food symbolizes larger themes of poverty, cannibalism, deception, and overcoming adversity within the texts, it also provides the authors with an opportunity to parallel their own societies, commenting and reflecting upon the struggles they personally face. The following texts demonstrate these themes and ideas: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; The Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel”; Paul Delarue’s “The Story of Grandmother”; and Joseph Jacob’s “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

In Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel”, food symbolizes poverty and deception. Just as the Grimm Brothers experienced an impoverished childhood, so do Hansel and Gretel as the children of “a poor woodcutter” where “there was never much to eat in the house, and once, in time of famine, there wasn’t even enough bread to go around” (Grimm 142). The lack of food is a physical manifestation of the poverty this family faces, causing the woodcutter to abandon his children in the woods otherwise “all four of [them] will starve” (Grimm 142). Ironically, Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs to find his way home, even though the family barely has enough food to go around. Food, particularly bread, adopts a secondary meaning for the children; it is the reason their parents leave them for dead, but it is also their means to returning home. The absence of food is also apparent in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when she falls down the rabbit-hole and grabs a jar “labeled ‘ORANGE MARMALADE,’* but to her great disappointment it [is] empty” (Carroll 10). In a time of utter confusion and chaos as she falls down the hole, she grasps for food only to discover it is empty. This suggests that food creates a sense of comfort in times of chaos and despair. This parallels the Victorian starvation, which was a reality for Carroll, where food was scarce and death was expected. Through the Looking Glass exemplifies this when Alice observes a Bread-and-butter-fly and she asks what it lives on. The highly specific dietary needs of the fly – weak tea with cream in it – causes Alice to assume it would be difficult for the fly to find food. The Gnat confirms her concerns, stating, “‘Then it would die, of course.’” (Carroll 154). This is not only commonplace in Alice’s fantasy world, but Carroll’s reality as well, where hunger is universal and inevitable.

Food not only represents poverty and “it is not simply an object utilized by social subjects”, but food also creates a platform for madness and chaos as well in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the mad tea party (Lee 490). “To the modern reader, the tea party comes across as madcap chaos, with everyone arguing and changing places”, but it symbolizes even more than pure chaos (Ardagh). The March Hare tells Alice to enjoy some wine, but when she looks around the table, there “[is] nothing but tea” (Carroll 61). When she states that she does not see any wine, the March Hare replies, “‘There isn’t any’” (Carroll 61). Alice notices the conflict between what he suggests and what is actually possible. The March Hare is aware they do not have any wine for Alice, but still suggests she enjoy some. This, again, relates to the poverty that Carroll and his Victorian society faced. The March Hare represents the natural preoccupation with food and drink in Victorian society, where a host would typically offer a guest wine and food, but would later realize they do not have any to offer due to their impoverished situation. The March Hare later suggests that Alice “‘Take some more tea,’” while Alice has “‘had nothing yet’” (Carroll 65). This perpetuates the standard for social functions in Victorian society, where there would typically be an endless supply of tea and food for guests to enjoy. This exchange between Alice and the March Hare parallels the Victorian hunger in Carroll’s reality, where Alice represents the society suffering from hunger and malnourishment. The madness present at the tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mirrors the chaos present in Victorian society. Food also proves to be fraught with danger, deception and cannibalism in various fairy tales. In Jacob’s “Jack and the Beanstalk”, Jack’s family realizes their dire position when “one morning Milky-white gave no milk, and they [did not] know what to do” (156). Faced with the probable struggle of poverty and hunger, Jack sets out to rectify the situation with a handful of magic beans. When Jack sells the family cow, he eliminates the only source of income and nourishment the family has. Furthermore, the cow represents an investment, which provides milk and meat, while beans are cheap and limited to a single meal. Initially, Jack fulfills the ‘gullible child’ reputation for even buying the beans, but his trusting nature provides him with more than he ever expected. At the top of beanstalk, Jack encounters an ogre who likes nothing more than “boys broiled on toast” (Jacobs 158). While the ogre’s wife opens up her home to Jack, providing him with food and safety, the ogre views him as one of his many meals. In comparison to “Hansel and Gretel”, Jack also seeks food to cure his hunger, but becomes a possible meal for someone else. Even though Jack initially looks for food when he climbs the beanstalk, he discovers that stealing the ogre’s gold will provide his family with the means to survive. In contrast to “Hansel and Gretel”, the child is the source of deception; Jack repeatedly steals gold from the ogre, including his golden hen. The golden hen that lays golden eggs proves to be ironic as hens typically provide food, while this hen provides an inedible egg. The golden eggs do not directly supply Jack and his family with food; they provide them with the financial means to purchase food elsewhere. Food does not simply represent survival in “Jack and the Beanstalk”, it represents the struggle for survival and the deception and danger resulting.

Although cannibalism is not common in present day, it surfaces in literature for moralistic value. In the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel,”, when Hansel and Gretel discover the house made of bread, with a roof made of cake and “windows of sparkling sugar”, they incorrectly assume their hunger has been remedied (145). When the feeble old woman invites them inside the house and feeds them “a fine meal of milk and pancakes, sugar, apples, and nuts”, the children do not expect this seemingly harmless woman to view them as “tasty morsels” (Grimm 145-6). The juxtaposition of the parents and the witch allows the reader to compare the repeated deception of the children in the homes they enter, but to also contrast the different ways in which food affects the children. They are abandoned for lack of food in one setting, and then viewed as food in another. Even though children are typically viewed as gullible and innocent, Hansel proves to dupe the adults repeatedly, first finding his way home with pebbles, then tricking the witch with a bone. The shared deception in the Grimm Brothers’ tale provides a fault in the commonly anticipated attributes of children. This tale provides the universal moral ‘do not talk to strangers’. Viewing food as a universal experience allows for the moral and themes of the Grimm Brothers’ tales to be considered universal as well. Similarly to “Hansel and Gretel”, in Delarue’s “The Story of Grandmother” the reader is presented with a family sharing bread, as most families do in times of poverty and struggle. The unnamed little girl ventures to her grandmother’s house with the bread; when the bzou learns of her plans, it arrives at her grandmother’s first and kills her. In contrast to many of the “Red Riding Hood” versions published, Delarue has the little girl participate in a cannibalistic act. The bzou, disguised as the little girl’s grandmother, tells her to put the bread and milk in the pantry, then “‘eat the meat that’s in it and drink a bottle of wine’” (Delarue 32). It is only after the cat informs her that she is a “slut” for “[eating] the flesh and [drinking] the blood of her grandmother!” that she realizes she has been tricked into cannibalism (Delarue 32). By calling the little girl a “slut”, the cat insinuates a sexual interaction between the bzou and the girl. The little girl defies the rules of etiquette, consuming the contents of an unlabelled container and participating in a sexual interaction with a male figure. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass also participates in taboo acts, defying the Victorian rules of etiquette that Carroll repeatedly mocks. In fact, in 1855, Carroll published ‘Hints for Etiquette; Or, Dining Out Made Easy’, “a comic parody of the strict, often absurd, rules of refined Victorian dining etiquette” (Lewis Carroll Juvenilia). He points to the absurdity of the overtly strict rules in Victorian society; he mocks etiquette in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It is taboo to consume the contents of an unidentified substance, but Alice drinks the little bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’ and eats the small cake marked with ‘EAT ME’ anyways (Carroll 13, 15). The minor consequences – shrinking and growing larger than before – desensitize Alice to the dangers of consuming mysterious substances. She later finds another little bottle, which is not labeled ‘DRINK ME’, “but nevertheless she [uncorks] it and [puts] it to her lips” (Carroll 32). She is curious as to what will happen; she does not consider that it could be poisonous, just that something interesting will happen. What most would consider dangerous and taboo, Alice views as a guessing game where she will “just see what this bottle does” (Carroll 32). She begins to crave the mystery of the unmarked substances, claiming she is growing quite “‘tired of being such a tiny little thing!’” (Carroll 32). She hopes that the liquid will fulfill her desire to grow larger, but she is unaware of the implications until she actually consumes it. Alice exemplifies the common curiosity of children; she shutters at the thought of always having lessons to learn (Carroll 33). Alice must participate in these taboo behaviors in order to learn the necessary lessons.

While the texts exhibit themes paralleling the person experiences of the authors, the content and moralistic goals of the works create a contrast between authors. Even though poverty is a common theme between all of the works discussed, the fairy tales present cannibalism and deception more frequently, while Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass concentrates on insufficiency and chaos. While the fairy tales convey a lesson for children about trusting strangers and the struggles of poverty, Carroll focuses on placing a mirror in front his own Victorian society with the backwards world that Alice enters. The importance placed on food in these works reinforces the significance of food in general; individuals not only require food for survival, but society also requires food for social gatherings and defining social classes. Food is a necessity in society and, therefore, in literature.

References Ardagh, Philip. “Eating and Drinking in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” British Library Board. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. . Carroll, Lewis, and Peter Hunt. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking- Glass. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 13-154. Print. Delarue, Paul. “The Story of Grandmother.” Folk & Fairy Tales. Ed. Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 32-3. Print. Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “Hansel and Gretel.” Folk & Fairy Tales. Ed. Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 142-7. Print. Jacobs, Joseph. “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Folk & Fairy Tales. Ed. Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 156-61. Print. Lee, Michael Parrish. “Eating Things: Food, Animals, and Other Life Forms in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 68.4 (2014): 484-512. JSTOR. University of California Press. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. . “Lewis Carroll Juvenilia: ‘Hints for Etiquette; Or, Dining Out Made Easy.” British Library Board (1932). Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <>. Ratner, Dan. “Victorian Hunger and Malnutrition in Alice in Wonderland.” Victorian Hunger and Malnutrition in Alice in Wonderland. Brown University, 1 Dec. 1995. Web. 13 Nov. 2015. <>.

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