Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"In the Breaking of the Bread": Holy and Secular Communion in "Big Two-Hearted River"

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"In the Breaking of the Bread": Holy and Secular Communion in "Big Two-Hearted River"

Article excerpt

This essay pays particular attention to the alimentary choices Nick makes in "Big Two-Hearted River." Arguing that the story centers on Nick's search for spiritual healing following his return from the war, the article illustrates how certain foods and the manner of eating them hold redemptive power.

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Food is a "hot topic" in today's media. Turn on the television and choose from hundreds of food or cooking shows on TV stations including two major food networks. Take a glance at the magazine rack at the supermarket checkout line and you will find a plethora of food periodicals offering everything from the "no fuss, no prep, no cook, 30-minute meal" to the gastronomic trend du jour for the armchair gourmand. But to say that interest in food is a contemporary trend is a gross misstatement. From basic physical nourishment to sacramental spiritual metaphors, food has always been a central aspect of human history. Although many would argue that love is the universal language, perhaps it would be

more accurate to say that food is the common tie that binds.

In literature, food's literal and symbolic presence provides readers with a universal touchstone for a common understanding of the text and characters. In Ernest Hemingway's works, food functions as a means to understand characters and situations. Linda Underhill and Jeanne Nakjavani suggest that "[t] he way people eat, and what they eat ... becomes a code which signifies the prevailing mood" in Hemingway's writings (87). However, what is not eaten can also reveal significant aspects of the text--not only mood, as Underhill and Nakjavani suggest, but also the emotional and psychological states of characters.

In his 1825 treatise The Physiology of Taste, French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes, "Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are." Unfortunately, this adage has been haphazardly reduced to the more broadly used "You are what you eat." But Savarin's aphorism and its cliched distillation hold a certain amount of truth. What a person chooses to ingest does provide insight into his or her character. In literature, Savarin's maxim highlights food and drink as an area often disregarded or simplified, especially in Hemingway's works, where readers either reject the subject as insignificant or inaccurately overemphasize the alcohol consumption and eating as indications of irresponsibility and greed. However, Hemingway does indeed tell us who his characters are by telling us what they do and do not eat and drink. While this point can be explored in any number of works by Hemingway, one work where "the culinary aspects.., have received surprisingly little notice" is "Big Two Hearted River" (Senaha 50).

In "Ready-Made Boys: A Collision of Food and Gender in Ernest Hemingway's 'Big Two-Hearted River,'" Eijun Senaha posits that "Nick's appetite is central to the story, evoking themes of attachment to life and the possibility of rebirth" (50). Nick's hunger is not only physical but also emotional or psychological, perhaps even spiritual. There is, of course, real physical hunger and a need for food throughout the text. But what cannot be ignored is what Hemingway leaves out--the war. Nick is in need of more than just sustenance; he is in need of healing from the destruction of World War I. For the sake of this argument, hunger is both the physical need for food and the desire for psychological, emotional, and spiritual healing. Nick's ritualistic and precise actions throughout the story reflect his need for reconstruction and order in his life. This desire is not easily satiated, but Nick is on the road to recovery, as suggested at the story's end when he carries his freshly-caught fish back to camp.

The story's beginning is somewhat bleak, introducing Nick as he enters the wasteland of Seney. While still in the charred remains of the town, he stops to look into the river from the bridge by the railroad tracks. …

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