restricted access James Joyce and the Politics of Food
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James Joyce and the Politics of Food

In Stephen and Bloom at Life's Feast (1984), Lyndsey Tucker notes that Joyce pays close attention to food and digestion, especially in Bloom's gustatory progress through Ulysses.1 A close reading of Joyce's work also reveals characters who restrict their food intake in particular social and political situations, and in doing so, draw complicated connections between food, politics, and gender in Ireland. For instance, within both "The Dead" and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, women refuse food during important holiday dinner scenes; additionally, Stephen Dedalus displays his complex relationship with eating throughout the day in Ulysses, eventually refusing solid food completely. For Dedalus, uncertainties about identity—not just gender, but also Irishness and wholeness—become triggers to his food behaviors. Food refusal in Joyce's work, which culminate in Stephen Dedalus's eventual rejection of solid food in Ulysses, builds upon an Irish historical and cultural tradition of food refusal as a form of political speech and suggests a way to rebuild fractured identity.

The political implications of food in Ireland intensify because starvation, both willing and unwilling, is a recurring theme in Irish history. The longstanding tactic of denial and self-starvation to protest mistreatment or imprisonment adds a local significance to any analysis of ingestion in Irish literature. In The Hunger Artists, Maud Ellmann describes how "Medieval Ireland, like medieval India, had a legal procedure of 'fasting to distrain,' known as troscud, whereby a creditor could fast against a debtor, or a victim of injustice could fast against the person who had injured him."2 Such self-imposed starvation emerged famously in the 1920 death of Terrence McSwiney. In the 1980s, hunger strikes were used again by prisoners in Northern Ireland. [End Page 94]

In addition, Irish history interpellates non-chosen starvation in another period. In the wake if the Great Famine of the late 1840s, Irish attitudes about food, land, and bodies were seriously altered. In 1846 the potato blight spread through Ireland to leave potatoes rotting in the fields; central to the nationalist interpretation of the Famine is the assertion that, to compound the difficulty, Anglo-Irish landlords and English businessmen exported food and grains to England, feeding their own nation while letting the Irish starve.3 As a result, "Almost a million people died from starvation and associated disease [typhoid]: and, in the same decade [1840s], one and a half million emigrated."4 An Gorta Mór left a lasting scar on the Irish people and altered their approach to the land and themselves. Declan Kiberd notes that after the 1840s, "'Ireland' had almost ceased to exist in the old Gaelic way: what was left—the remaining voices confirmed this—was a terrifyingly open space, in places and in persons."5 That terrifying void populated by a devastated people whose way of life had been under attack produced ambiguous feelings about identity, and intense opposition to colonial policies. This understanding of famine as a political symbol for English oppression politicized Irish eating behaviors and intensified food as a way to mark identity.

When, in his 1907 lecture "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages," Joyce speaks about English imperialism and its ill effects on Ireland, he mentions two specific historical circumstances. He complains that "Ireland is poor because English laws ruined the industries of the country . . . because, in the years in which the potato crop failed, the negligence of the English government left the flower of the people to die of hunger."6 Here, Joyce identifies the famine as a political as well as a botanical occurrence. Starvation, then, becomes a metaphor for English colonial behavior and the encounter with Famine subtly shapes all discourse on food that follow. As June Dwyer claims, the "dissonance at the Morkan sisters' party and the disunity at the Dedaluses' Christmas dinner open up another way for the Irish to receive the famine and to counter the country's inept moves toward a new national identity."7 Dwyer notices the connections between famine, mealtimes, and identity in the earlier fiction. Bonnie Roos further suggests that "trying to read Ulysses without reference to...