The Meal, A Poem By Susan E. Berger Essay, Research Paper
EN-102 noon class
The Ties that Bind
Fear, anxiety, and shame, these are just a few of the emotions instilled upon the innocent children and mother in Suzanne E. Berger?s poem titled ?The Meal.? These emotions have been brought forth from an abusive and domineering father with an insatiable need for perfection. My personal interpretations of the underlying messages found throughout the poem have led me to draw the above conclusions.
There are only two lines in the poem that directly refer to the mother. Despite this lack of reference, the lines create a very powerful image to me, that she is a victim of abuse. The two lines, ?they are waiting for the mother to straighten her lipstick?(11:749), and ?her mouth uneven as a torn hibiscus?(23:750), suggest to me that she had just been slapped across the face resulting in her lipstick being smudged or maybe a bloody lip. I then picture her daintily wiping away any evidence of the blow to her face and forcing a smile as if to say, this isn?t happening, everything is perfect.
The theme of abuse seems to be even more prevalent towards the children. They are unnaturally neat and scrubbed as if they know that presenting themselves as anything less will set their father off into a violent rage. One gets the idea that if the girls hadn?t ?braided and rebraided their hair, and tied ribbons without a single mistake?(6and 7: 749), or if the young boy hadn?t replaced his coin collection with absolute perfection, the consequences would be grim. Their fear of angering their father is also noticed in their actions during dinner, ?their forks move across their plates without scraping, they wait for the milk and gravy?(14 and 15 :750). In normal households dinner is a noisy, festive event with the tinkling of glassware, animated conversations, and a general mood of happiness. This is not the case at this family?s dinner table, indicating that something is very wrong.
The father, who was probably abused himself as a child, now knows no other way to run his household except to keep his family walking on eggshells to ensure his happiness. Psychologically unstable, he demands nothing less than absolute perfection from his wife and children, most likely in a desperate attempt to counteract the chaos occurring in his head. Although he is only mentioned in such seemingly innocent lines as ?the father carving the Sunday roast?(22:750), to me his presence is overbearing in the poem. He is the main character, the reason his children are ?emotionally starved?(750) and his wife battered. Without him this poem couldn?t even exist.
The home of this family is one that has ?an absence of sensation or feeling, a kind of paralysis?(750) brought forth through the wrath of an abusive father. One can only imagine the horrors that have taken place and the dark secrets that have been kept in shame and fear. The poem only allows a mere glimpse into the family?s life, but an imaginative mind can see much more than a quiet Sunday dinner, it finds all the dirty little secrets so carefully kept hidden, and it sees a mother and her children victimized by an abusive father. Or is the poem nothing more that what it appears after first read, the poets portrayal of a quiet family dinner? A closer look will convince one otherwise, and have the reader thanking their lucky stars it isn?t their family.
Berger, Susan E. ?The Meal.? Literature. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephan R. Mandell. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997. 749-750.