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  • Food Metaphors in Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • Mariaconcetta Costantini (bio)

Victorian discourses on food reveal that specific class behaviors, religious beliefs, gender relationships, and political convictions can only be encoded by the alimentary practices of the age. Nineteenth-century Britain's unprecedented economic growth was accompanied by an increased availability and sophistication of food. More and more citizens purchased imported luxuries and adopted fashionable eating styles, which were meant to reveal, if not flaunt, their rising standards of living. The general improvement of life conditions and diet did not, however, reduce social disparities. Unlike the upper and middle classes, which used food to display their wealth and taste, agricultural laborers and factory workers continued to live in a state of semistarvation until late in the century. 1

A main source of class tensions, the contrast between plenty and want was represented in crude details by such novelists as Charles Dickens, who conveyed cynical views of a society dominated by destructive egoistic appetites. By effectively combining images of deprivation and aggressive consumption, these novelists exposed the debauchery of the wealthy, who had espoused the dehumanized values of a capitalistic system that encouraged the people in power to metaphorically devour the others. 2 In addition to troping class problems, food was physically contaminated by a rapacious market culture. The debate on food and drink adulteration that raged in the middle decades of the century confirmed the negativity of profit-oriented policies, which led producers and traders to add alum, cocculus indicus, and other dangerous substances to their goods (Burnett, pp. 101–120, 240–260).3

Images of food consumption were also connected with the ideology of gender, which promoted models of female abstinence. In a society that viewed eating as "a barometer of sexuality," the ideal of femininity was the nonappetitive woman who, by controlling her desire for food, "symbolized rejection of all carnal appetites."4 The psychophysical consequences of such self-restraint gave rise to the emergence of anorexia nervosa, a disorder that became a pressing medical issue during the century. It revealed apparent contradictions in bourgeois culture, encouraging as it did female self-denial along with the view of [End Page 259] wealth and the concomitant abundance of food as symbols of providential grace.

Similarly ambiguous was the coexistence of the bourgeois display of luxuries with an ascetic attitude deeply ingrained in class ethos. This contradiction was inextricably linked with the middle-class shaping of British national identity. Although British Protestantism conceived plenitude in providential terms, it was opposed to Catholicism, a foreign faith perceived as too indulgent in carnal pleasures. As a result, the Victorian bourgeoisie developed a complex "Protestant ethic and economy," in which "abundance and abstinence [were] simultaneously glorified."5

Ambiguity also characterized the mechanisms through which Britain defined its cultural identity in opposition to the colonies. The Victorians were confronted by alien cultures that threatened to contaminate the purity of their imagined community, and they constantly strove to redefine "the boundaries between Self (or Same) and Other" by repressing or denying an abject that nonetheless continued "to exert a powerful hold on the British psyche" (Cozzi, p. 6). The problem of predating (metaphorically, ingesting) the non-British without being imperiled by its assimilation produced mounting "anxieties of ingestion," which reached their climax at the fin de siècle (Cozzi, p. 16). But these fears were not only raised by the far-off cultures of the empire. The Irish themselves distressed the Victorians with their demands for independence and the brutality of their terror attacks. Furiously debated in the 1880s, the Irish Question was often associated with disturbing food images in the Victorian press, which racialized the Irish by insisting on the coarseness of their eating and drinking habits and by connoting their political demands in terms of unwholesome appetites (Cozzi, pp. 143–146).

All these discourses are ubiquitous in nineteenth-century literature. In addition to representing the dietary habits of the age, Victorian writers gave voice to many preoccupations concerning food and used the latter figuratively to tackle thorny cultural issues. Scholars have paid growing attention to the works of novelists such as Dickens who, as hinted earlier, recurrently employed alimentary tropes to engage with the pressing...


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