The Symbolic Use Of Hunger In Literature

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the symbolic use of hunger in literature

Throughout history, both men and women have struggled trying to achieve unattainable goals in the face of close-minded societies. Authors have often used this theme to develop stories of characters that face obstacles and are sometimes unable to overcome the stigma that is attached to them. This inability to rise above prejudice is many times illustrated with the metaphor of hunger. Not only do people suffer from physical hunger, but they also suffer from spiritual hunger: a need to be full of life. When this spiritual hunger is not satisfied, it can destroy a life, just as physical hunger can kill as well.

Characters such as Edna Pontellier of Kate Chopin s The Awakening, Hugh Wolfe of Rebecca Harding Davis Life in the Iron Mills, Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte s novel, and the woman being force fed in Djuna Barnes How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed all suffer from an insatiable hunger, which, in most cases, ultimately is not fulfilled. Poets such as Anna Wickham also describe the plight of humanity using hunger as a means to illustrate the feeling of deprivation. Although all of these characters come from different walks of life, they share a common struggle. Edna belongs to upper class Creole society, Hugh Wolfe is a poverty-stricken immigrant laborer, and Jane Eyre, an orphan. These characters lived during the middle to the end of the nineteenth century, in completely distinct worlds, yet all had their creativity stifled by society. Similarly, Djuna Barnes poem of the British woman who goes on a hunger strike in an attempt to get the vote and Anna Wickham s poem The Affinity describing the angst of a deprived wife, both depict women who lived during the early twentieth century and, although different, were both suppressed in some way.

Edna Pontellier was a woman who was forced to comply with the rules of Creole society, but, in being reluctant to do so, found herself in a world where she felt trapped. She saw how women were supposed to behave but did not have that behavior instilled in herself. She felt confined by her husband s expectations, and did not want to live out the typical role of wife and mother.

When Robert came into her life, she began to feel that she was being awakened. She was beginning to experience life in a new light and the hunger for change began to emerge. When she went to Madame Antoine s house with Robert one Sunday afternoon after a dizzy spell, she fell asleep there and awoke later feeling very hungry. Although Chopin was mainly describing the physical hunger Edna felt after waking up from a long rest, this hunger can also be seen metaphorically. She was alone with Robert, content, and unconcerned about her husband and other duties. For this one moment, she was living as she could only dream, as though she was on a deserted island with the man she loved. This aroused her appetite, which was quenched, for the time being. The food she ate was satisfying, as was the company.

Later on in the novel, when Robert tells of his plans to move to Mexico, Edna quickly loses her appetite during dinner. The same person, who had inspired hunger in her, was disappointing her with the news of his departure. She was no longer able to eat, because nothing could satisfy the void she would feel as a result of Robert s absence.

Robert was not the only person in Edna s life whom she often longed for. When she was left home alone in New Orleans, without her children, she became hungry for them (1067). When she finally went to visit them in Iberville, she looked into their faces with hungry eyes that could not be satisfied with looking (1085). Their presence was not enough to appease her, nor would it ever be. She loved them dearly, yet could not be the ideal mother she knew they deserved. Although she missed them when they were away, she was filled with satisfaction when she realized she was alone for the first time. She described the feeling as being delicious (1068). Suddenly, everything she did was new and interesting, the food she ate was delicious, and she felt at home.

She felt so at home living by herself, that she decided to buy an apartment. This drastic step was Edna s way of realizing her individuality. She would no longer feed upon opinion (1084) as she had once done. She would no longer rely on society to make her feel acceptable or to feed her hunger for life. She had found this on her own, but ultimately, she found she would never be able to escape the grasp of society s constrictions without being spiritually starved.

Upon Robert s return to New Orleans, Edna saw him, by chance, in Mademoiselle Reisz s apartment. Later on, when contemplating their conversation, she longed to hear him declare his love for her. How few and meager they (his words) had been for her hungry heart (1091)! Even after Alcee Arobin told her he adored her and could not live without her, Edna still longed for Robert s words, for his were the only ones that satisfied her.

When Edna returned to Grand Isle, she went with the intent to kill herself. Before doing so, however, she told Victor that she was very hungry. Once again, Chopin used this to portray Edna s unquenchable hunger for a life…

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