Significance of Food and Meals in the Novel Great Expectations
Throughout the novel Great Expectations, numerous meals which have symbolic resonance repeatedly take place. This essay will argue that the meal in the novel is a recurring motif with three primary functions. Firstly, they are indeed ceremonies of love or dark manifestations of the absence of love. Next, the motif of the meal also symbolizes power, which is achieved through social relations. Finally, the meal is a rite of passage which marks new beginnings, or milestones in the life of Dickens’ characters.
Meals and food are indeed ‘ceremonies of love.’ When it functions as a ceremony of love, the meal motif comes to represent the extension of grace to those who do not deserve it. This is evident in the meal Pip brings for the escaped convict Magwitch. Despite Magwitch never asking for it, Pip presents him with a ‘beautiful round compact pork pie’ stolen from Mrs. Joe’s pantry, which becomes the centrepieve of the meal. This pie is far more than what Magwitch had demanded for his basic sustenance, and thus is a symbol of grace or the extension of undeserved love. The ‘round’ image of the pie also suggests wholeness and therefore ascribes a restorative quality to the meal as a whole. More than that, the pie is baked for Mrs. Joe’s Christmas meal, which symbolically includes Magwitch in the Christmas meal of Pip’s family. The biblical allusion of Christmas, marking the birth of Jesus Christ, further suggests the extension of undeserved grace to the convict Magwitch. Therefore, the meal which saves Magwitch’s life and symbolically accords him more than he deserves cements the role of a meal as a ceremony of love.
However, the meal motif also comes to represent the converse of love, or loveless-ness. This is most evident in the decaying remnants of Miss Havisham’s wedding feast, which represent the denial or reversal of the ideal of perfect love. The ‘long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation’ repels rather than draws all living creatures, as even spiders which run ‘home to it’ instantly ‘run out of it.’ Such anthropomorphism demonstrates that even animals which are most comfortable with decay, such as spiders, cannot bear the presence of the long table. This in turn morphs the table into a symbol of love denied, by reversing the traditional symbolism of a meal as an event that draws life and company. Thus, the meal motif represents both the presence and absence of love in Great Expectations.
The meal is also used to highlight the power disparities apparent in Victorian society. As the meal is a social event, the interactions of characters during mealtime easily show which characters are able to exercise power over the others. This is evident during the meal Pip shares with Mr. Wopsle and the Gargery family. Here, Wopsle conjectures about the moral worth of Pip had he been born a ‘four-footed squeaker,’ or pig. This is juxtapositioned against the ‘pork’ the guests are eating. The result is an instance of zoomorphism which metaphorically transforms Pip into the pig that is being eaten, reducing him to total powerlessness in the face of the all-powerful adults. In this way, the meal resonates symbolically with the social humiliation children suffer at the hands of more powerful adults. The theme of power is even clearer in the dinner at Jaggers’ house. In this meal, the social interaction at the dinner is completely under the control of Jaggers, who can manipulate the social world a lot more skillfully than his guests. For instance, Jaggers ‘wound’ Drummle ‘up to a pitch little short of ferocity’ about the muscularity of his arm through ‘some invisible agency,’ causing the whole table to begin ‘baring and spanning our arms in a ridiculous manner.’ The ‘invisible agency’ here is clearly a use of exaggeration to refer to Jaggers’ manipulation of language to get others to do his bidding, and Dickens uses the mild comic effect of the flexing competition among his guests to exhibit the power of social expectations to control behaviour. This exercise of Jaggers’ social power cements the link between meals and power in Great Expectations. Therefore, meals come to highlight the power of social expectations and conversation in Victorian England to shape behaviour.
Finally, the meal motif in Great Expectations serves as a rite of passage, marking points where the life of main characters is transformed. This effect is achieved through the use of narrative structure. As such, the first meal Pip has with Magwitch is a ceremony of selflessness whose power is revealed later in the novel, when Magwitch is revealed as Pip’s benefactor. As such, the meal marks a turning point in Pip’s life, because his ‘Great Expectations’ would have remained unfulfilled without it. Similarly, the final meal in the novel is a symbol of Pip’s return to his origins, from his great expectations. This meal clearly shows the social distance he has traveled, and his reconciliation with his roots. While he refuses to eat ‘watercresses’ or ‘the simple fruits of the Earth,’ an image suggesting his humble origins, he accepts ‘the bread-and-butter.’ As an image of the food that is sufficient for day-to-day sustenance, the bread and butter indicates Pip’s acceptance of simplicity and a new work ethic, in contrast to the inflated expectations of his past. Therefore, this final meal marks his return to modest expectations, thus cementing the role of meals as rites of passage.
These manifestations of the meal motif has strong biblical overtones, as it is reminiscent of the Last Supper. Similarly to the meals in Great Expectations, the Last Supper is a ceremony of love as well as of power, and marks the final communion between Jesus and his disciples before the Crucifiction. The Christian audience of Dickens’ works would have been intimately familiar with biblical lore, lending the meal motif even greater power. In conclusion, it is therefore fair to say that meals in Great Expectations are ceremonies of love, but also function as markers of the absence of love, social power and as writes of passage which demarcate crucial sections of the narrative.
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