How Eating Becomes a Metaphor in the Novels of Charlotte Bronte. (Food)

By Roberts, Michele | New Statesman (1996), May 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

How Eating Becomes a Metaphor in the Novels of Charlotte Bronte. (Food)


Roberts, Michele, New Statesman (1996)


One would not normally accuse Charlotte Bronte of being a gourmet. Yet food plays a significant part in her writing. She uses it to comment powerfully on women's longings, women's hungers. She learnt from Shakespeare's plays how to use imagery to construct the subtext of her stories; so food metaphors twine through her novels to emphasise the importance of loving nurture, or its absence, in childhood, and to suggest the complexities and subtleties of social, political and personal relationships.

Not much subtlety is needed to decode the significance of the wretched fare served up to the starving orphans in Jane Eyre. Breakfast at the orphanage, Lowood School, consists of porridge, often burnt, the rancid-smelling dinner is usually "indifferent potatoes and strange shreds of rusty meat", tea is half a slice of brown bread and a cup of coffee, and supper a fragment of oatcake washed down with water. The bigger girls bully the little ones into giving up their share. The cruelly Calvinist superintendent of Lowood, the patriarchal Reverend Brocklehurst, considers that bad food provides an opportunity for his skinny charges to mortify their sinful flesh. When the kindly headmistress, observing that no one could eat the burnt porridge, orders a lunch of bread and cheese to be served in its place, Brocklehurst reproaches her for putting the appeasement of the pupils' hunger above the salvation of their immortal souls. Once Jane is working as a governess at Thornfield Hall, she is, not surprisingly, fascinated by the rich fare on offer: custards, cheesecakes, French pastry, roast chicken, tarts and trussed game. Dangerous, exotic food, which points to other appetites and possible immorality: the master of Thornfield wants to treat her, Jane considers, not only like a petted mistress but like a sexual slave. The shadow side of hunger, destructive greed, is evinced by the madwoman in the attic, a vampiric monster, who, in a moment of wild gothic abandon, bites her own brother in the neck and sucks his blood. Fleeing Rochester's dominating, possessive love and his fantasies of feeding her on manna, Jane almost dies of starvation on the moors. …

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