Mimesis and Metaphor: Food Imagery in International Twentieth-Century Women's Writing

By Blodgett, Harriet | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Mimesis and Metaphor: Food Imagery in International Twentieth-Century Women's Writing


Blodgett, Harriet, Papers on Language & Literature


Canadian author Margaret Atwood introduces The Canlit Foodbook of extracts from national writings on food with her discovery that the "authors could be divided into two groups: those that mention food, indeed revel in it, and those that never give it a second thought" (1). Women writers of the twentieth century internationally give food even more than second thoughts, and it is a proclivity benefiting from the second wave of feminist criticism since the 1960s addressing gender distinctions in culture and literature. Critics have focused on references to food or meals in the century's poetry and fiction of Atwood herself, Anita Brookner, Angela Carter, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Colette, Isak Dinesen, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Duras, Nora Ephron, Laura Esquivel, Duong Thu Huong, Margaret Laurence, Doris Lessing, Katherine Mansfield, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Marge Piercy, Katherine Anne Porter, Barbara Pym, Christina Stead, Edith Wharton, Fay Weldon, Elinor Wylie, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Yourcenar and others, including playwrights Caryl Churchill and Joan Schenkar. (1) Usually the criticism has addressed individual works, sometimes a writer's entire oeuvre, or a small group of novels by one or more authors. But thus far no one has presented a comprehensive view of women writers recognizing how they use food imagery. Hence this paper that, deeming text in its creativity as significant as context, extends to more of the world to show how twentieth-century women's novels, short stories, and poems use food, especially through the concretizing sensory depictions of images both literal and figurative. The evidence is overwhelming; only some of it can be adduced here.

Of course men also use food imagery; in the Canlit Foodbook, men even provide most of the extracts; likewise in another 1987 collection of international literary writings on food, Food for Thought (ed. Digby and Digby), as if women did not use it so profusely. Nonetheless, here the sampling of original texts and the criticism drawn on both inspect only women's achievements, limited to what is available in English. Worth mention, though, is that when men write critically about food references in literature, they often make only token acknowledgment of women authors and typically look back to famous sources such as Homer or Plato's Symposium or precedents in more recent male writers. (2) Women, conversely, typically agree with Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own that "We think back through our mothers if we are women" (76) and write about women without mention of great (or even lesser) men, finding tradition or parallels instead in other women. There is also the circumstance Sarah Sceats observes: Freud's claim that sexual desire grows out of satisfying hunger for food, which for writers like Angela Carter means food and eating "are thoroughly enmeshed with sex and power" (25). Yet, observably, men are more inclined to link food with sexuality than women, who attach it rather to female roles and status in their writing.

Women use food imagery for diverse purposes: to speak of personal and social behaviors and psychological problems, art, sex, sexual politics, poverty, nationalism, murder mysteries and more, especially domesticity. When North American Susan Straight wants to capture the vicissitudes of life for a poor black woman from the Low Country of South Carolina, she titles her novel eloquently I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Why do women use so much food imagery? More narrowly, why, for example, does Caribbean poet Lorna Goodison in "I Am Becoming My Mother" capture her sense of her heritage with the refrain "fingers smelling always of onions" (ll.3, 15)? Psychologist Kim Chernin, in The Hungry Self: Women Eating, and Identity on eating disorders, proposes food as "the principal way the problems of female being come to expression in women's lives" (xi); women have been taught female values via their mothers' presentation of food, and an obsession with food as in anorexia or bulimia bespeaks a problem of female identity through inability to separate from the mother or regression to her. …

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