In the fifth chapter of Jane Eyre, after being cast out of Gateshead, Jane finds herself at a boarding school called Lowood. Under the rule of the Reverend Brocklehurst, who seems to feel that asceticism is the only path to virtue, the students of Lowood are forced to live and study under harsh conditions that rival the miserable existence Jane led at her former home. In addition to severe discipline and long walks in the freezing weather, Jane must also deal with inedible food and the resulting starvation:
Ravenous, and now very faint, I devoured a spoonful or two of my portion without thinking of its taste; but the first edge of hunger blunted, I perceived I had got in hand a nauseous mess; burnt porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it. The spoons were moved slowly: I saw each girl taste her food and try to swallow it; but in most cases the effort was soon relinquished. Breakfast was over, and none had breakfasted. Thanks being returned for what we had not got, and a second hymn chanted, the refectory was evacuated for the schoolroom. I was one of the last to go out, and in passing the tables, I saw one teacher take a basin of the porridge and taste it; she looked at the others; all their countenances expressed displeasure, and one of them, the stout one, whispered "Abominable stuff! How shameful!' [ch.5, p.38]
While the burnt food is a powerful image in and of itself, the implications of this passage run deeper than they might appear on the surface. Brontë's portrayal of food is a metaphor for the more abstract hungers that Jane experiences throughout the novel. At Lowood, for example, Jane has a thirst for knowledge that simply cannot be satiated. She excels in her studies, but constantly yearns to know more. Later on, in both her sex life and her spiritual life, she experiences longings and passions that seem to plague her as well as excite her. At certain points, for instance, she starves for Rochester's touch, and yet she bears a hungry heart until the moment is right.
Using food and appetite as a metaphor is a technique that is also characteristic of Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. When they are not traveling about, The Pickwickians are constantly sitting down to wonderful meals. There is always plenty of food and wine to go around, and the mealtime atmosphere is never without a sense of good cheer. Perhaps the ultimate example of this can be observed at Wardle's party in the Christmas chapter:
When they all tired of blind-man's buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.
"This,' said Mr Pickwick, looking round him, "this is, indeed, comfort.'
"Our invariable custom,' replied Mr Wardle. (ch.28, p.378)
The abundance of food and the happy atmosphere portrayed in this passage is illustrative of the general lack of passion and longing found in the novel's main characters. As a self-proclaimed philanthropist, Mr. Pickwick desires very little except to help others. He enjoys life and is not wanting in anything. This is not to say that Mr. Pickwick never runs into difficulties. Indeed, he gets himself into a number of pickles and even goes to jail. Ultimately, however, his troubles are generally comical in nature.
Thus, food's role as a metaphor is common to both Jane Eyre and The Pickwick Papers. Yet while Brontë employs the metaphor in order to portray longing and desire, Dickens uses it in order to demonstrate joy and contentment. In this sense, Brontë's writing exhibits a great deal more realism. When we read The Pickwick Papers, it is easy for us to forget that there is any suffering in the world. Even the often heart-wrenching stories interspersed throughout the novel seem somewhat distant and unrelated to the real world, as if we were reading them in a newspaper. Jane Eyre, on the other hand, allows the reader to see that the mid-Victorian period was not a carefree time for most people. At Lowood, for example, more than half the girls catch typhus fever as a result of semi-starvation. Jane watches as death and disease permeate the environment. Gaskell echoes these sentiments eight years later in North and South when she describes the deplorable conditions of the mill-workers. We take Margaret's sympathy for the workers with a grain of salt, but we know things are bad when even the hardened John Thornton is horrified by the fact that all Nicholas Higgins has to eat is a grizzled little piece of meat. To be sure, the high realism of Brontë and Gaskell is a sobering check upon the fantastic world in which the Pickwickians exist.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.
Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1999.
Last Modified 21 March 2003