A week or so ago, Litlove over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post titled “Reading At Table,” about the importance of the meal throughout literature, and about the depth of analysis and criticism which can be applied to the interpretation of literary dining scenes. Her aim is in part to criticize the author of How To Read Like a Professor, who wrote that literary meals can be viewed as communion, as evidence that all of the characters eating together are getting along, but who didn’t extend his analysis beyond this point. Litlove writes
Eating a meal in a literary text is indeed an example of people coming together with an eye to communal harmony, but it’s a great deal more than that. It tells us about the characters’ relationship to the way that things are changing in society…to their class…to pride and pretension, to generosity and nurture. Because eating a meal is the moment when public and private collide, where hidden desires are played out in a performative manner, where upbringing rubs up dangerously close to the person the protagonist is now trying to be…power relations structure every mouthful, from hosts who press excess booze on their guests, to anorexics who refuse every forkful they are given. Yes, meals are absolutely dripping with meaning, and the difficulty is in finding one that would ‘only’ be a meal, where nothing much is happening at all.
Her writing reminded me of discussing banquet and dinner scenes in some of my upper division literature courses in college, where we certainly went far beyond the “meals as communion” thesis in our analysis. Since reading her post, I’ve been mulling over some of my favorite meal scenes in literature, and I thought I’d share a few of them with you.
Macbeth, Act III.4
The banquet scene in Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is probably the first “dining” scene that springs to mind when I think of famous examples throughout literature. There’s Macbeth, newly king, coming together with his thanes to celebrate his rise to the crown and to symbolically consolidate his power and witness their pledges of loyalty. But even while he’s welcoming his guests, the happy host is also dashing off to a corner of the stage to speak to one of the thugs he hired to murder Banquo and Fleance. He even invokes Banquo’s absence (“Here had we now our country’s honor roofed/ Were the graced person of our Banquo present”). And as if to throw these false words back in his face, the ghost of Banquo arrives on stage, and Macbeth, seeing his “gory locks,” and bloody visage, goes completely nuts, screaming at his thanes and yelling at the ghost that no one else can see.
Lady Macbeth tries to keep the peace, moving between assuaging her dinner guests (“Sit worthy friends. My lord is often thus,/ And hath been from his youth) and rallying her husband back from his vision to the matters at hand by verbally assaulting his masculinity (“Are you a man?”). I remember speaking in a middle school class about whether or not the ghost of Banquo should really appear on stage in this scene, or whether Macbeth should simply react as if he is there. Though I think the class was divided, since then I’ve never seen a production where the ghost didn’t physically appear on stage (as indeed, the stage directions indicate quite clearly he should). In the Macbeth I saw in London in May, Banquo’s body rose out of the platter of food set in the middle of the stage, his bloody hand reaching out of the roast boar, followed by his even bloodier torso.
This scene is a great example of a meal gone wrong – – everything the gathering was meant to accomplish (establishment of good feeling and loyalty between Macbeth and his thanes, a chance for his subjects to see the strength of the Macbeths’ marriage, their generosity as hosts, and even the simple mealtime goal of strengthening health through nourishment) backfires completely. Macbeth acts like an insane man; Lady Macbeth has to send all of the guests home; she herself has to wonder at her husband’s behavior, shut out completely from his experience of Banquo’s ghost. By the end of the scene, the initial charged and ambitious intimacy of their marriage has been irreparably damaged, both of their sanities brought closer to the edge, their fears and paranoia heightened, and their hopes of securing the unquestioning support of the Scottish thanes dashed completely. Done right, it’s a brilliant scene, full of tension, fervor and fear.
To the Lighthouse, part one, the dinner scene.
The first section of Woolf’s best novel leads up to the dinner scene that takes place in Part One’s final pages. At least, this is the way it feels for Mrs. Ramsay, who goes about her day with a million meal-related worries running through her head: Will Paul, Minta and Nancy get back in time? “Could they have let the Beouf en Daube over boil?” Who will talk to Charles Tansley?
And then the meal arrives, and one sees why Mrs. Ramsay was worried, “because the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her,” the success of the meal, not only in the present, but for the future, because Mrs. Ramsay is aware that she is creating a memory, that this meal together will be remembered not only after the dishes have been cleared but many years later, after a devastating war, after her own death.
At one point in the meal, someone gets up to light the candles, and the dinner begins to go more smoothly. Woolf writes
Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily…Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against the fluidity out there.
Here is an example of a meal as communion, but not only as a gathering together of family and friends, happy in one another’s company, but also as a brief moment in which we’re able to overcome the isolation of our own bodies and minds, able to form a pocket of warmth and stability against the ever-vanishing fluidity of life. What seems to have been created at the meal is a unity of thinking and feeling, many different bodies participating in the same thing, in the same place, all of their minds united in that present moment. Maybe this is what Mrs. Ramsay recognizes, what she has striven to create, and maybe this is how she knows the dinner will live on in the memories of each and every person there. It will be remembered differently, no doubt, by her son James than by Lily Briscoe or Mr. Ramsay, but it will not be forgotten. And she will not be forgotten for her part in it. I love this scene, because you can feel Mrs. Ramsay sensing her own death, but not regretting it; maybe she doesn’t know how soon she’ll leave them, but Woolf’s language suggests otherwise. When the meal is over
With her foot on the threshold [Mrs. Ramsay] waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.
Beowulf. One of the things which sticks with me from Beowulf is the image of Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow, Queen of the Danes, holding a large goblet in a banquet hall full of loud, thirsty warriors. Wealhtheow is often referred to as the “cup bearer” or “mead bearer,” a moniker which stays with me the way “Hector, breaker of horses” does. Drinks and drinking are an important part of meals in literature.
There are a lot of memorable meals in the bible: the loaves and fish, the last supper, the feast thrown for the prodigal son’s return, manna in the desert, the list goes on and on. And of course, the most famous “bite” in the bible is Eve’s, in Genesis, when she succumbs to the serpent’s temptations and eats from the tree of knowledge. Speculation says the forbidden fruit may have been a pomegranate, which of course shows up in another myth, when Demeter’s only daughter, Persephone, is forced to eat a pomegranate seed by her husband, Hades, lord of the underworld, thus ensuring that she will have to return to him for some months out of every year instead of being free to stay with her mother in the land of the living. (Lizzy, correct me on this stuff if I’ve gotten it all wrong, okay?) I’m rereading Paradise Lost at the moment, which examines in great detail the moment leading up to Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree of knowledge. Indeed he transforms the epic as a genre, to think more about this moment and what led up to it. It’s certainly an important literary meal, if a couple bites of fruit constitute a meal.
“The Dinner-Party.” I was also reminded of Amy Lowell’s haunting poem, “The Dinner-Party.” Lowell (1874-1925) is buried in Cambridge, perhaps a twenty minute walk from my apartment. Maybe I’ll take my dinner and a volume of poetry there some night soon, and have a literary meal of another sort.