Eat me, drink me, love me: The dangers of eating in Gothic texts

Posted by Dr. Jennifer Brown on December 15, 2012 in Guest Blog, Jennifer Brown tagged with , , , ,

Death by Fruit

In exploring the idea of the Gothic body, Steven Bruhm points out that we are presented with an excessive display of a reminder of the body’s fragility. He refers to starvation as an example of this. The Gothic has long been regarded by theorists as the location for the repressed or for that which has been purged from normality. For these reasons, it is the perfect location for weird or excessive appetites. Uncontrollable appetite is repulsive and taboo. It reminds us of our animalistic selves and incites a level of horror and fascination that is relished in Gothic texts and by readers of the Gothic. I am going to look at a random selection of texts where food consumption and appetite are punishable or dangerous or veer into the taboo or terrifying. Food and its preparation have often been deemed part of the private, feminine sphere of culture. While other genres do explore the symbolism of food in familial or cultural gatherings, Gothic texts accord a power to all things oral that suggests something much deeper and darker is going on in our dealings with what we put in our mouths.

Snow White and the poisoned apple

The use of poison in food, usually by women, is one area in which there is an obvious imbuing of food and its preparation with dark and dangerous power. Many fairy tales deal with this theme while exploring complex notions of motherhood, marital status, fears of ageing and death, filial jealousy or desire, and the quiet power of the seemingly powerless woman in the kitchen. Of course, alongside this power of poison is the threat of being swallowed whole. Angela Carter deals brilliantly with these themes in The Bloody Chamber. Fruit appears frequently as temptress, poisoner, moral stainer. For Adam Leith Gollner, fruit is “made for storytelling. Dripping with hidden significance, they provide an ideal rhetorical device. They seem so sweet and pure, yet beneath their tempting exteriors fruit can be as deceitful – and complex – as the knowledge of good and evil. Red hearts or black eyes, capsules of sunlight or crystal drops of blood, fruit are a mystery tool in the crafting of creative acts”.

In Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying” the “blood-red juices” offer the poet an unasked for sisterhood and love. The oppressive crowding nature of the bushes as the poet looks for a gap toward the sea suggests a cloying, claustrophobia. In Nabokov’s Lolita the young tease eats a juicy red apple and sends Humbert into the throws of erotic delight clearly aligning the “Eden-red apple” with forbidden carnality. Indeed, in a huge number of the film stills or book cover designs for the notorious novel, Lolita is depicted in an orally erotic pose: applying lip gloss, eating an apple, sucking a lollipop, pouting, or merely a disembodied red mouth.

In Cristina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, fruit is near deadly. There has been an abundance of feminist, theological and psychonalytic readings of Rossetti’s poem. However, here I am concerened with the orality of the poem. Kathryn Burlinson too comments on the poem’s “emphasis on carnality, orality and appetite”. It certainly seems that Rossetti, like Bakhtin and Kristeva, saw the mouth as a threshold between the human and the outer world. Eating is fraught with tension and is a dangerous indulgence in the poem. Heather McAlpine explains how Rossetti’s poem “embodies an extraordinary interchange of the grotesque and the sacred by emphasizing the importance of closing the body to the temptations of the flesh, while simultaneously celebrating the interpenetration of the self and physical manifestations of the divine, especially in the Eucharist”. McAlpine terms this sacred orality “Christian grotesque”.

Goblin Market

In the previous entry I looked at the theory of the mouth as the point of interpenetration between human and the world. For Bakhtin, this is a positive exchange and the mouth erases the limits between the two entities to man’s advantage. However, for Kristeva, the mouth represents a threat as it is the gateway to potentially contaminating substances, pollution, and the possibility of the disintegration of the Self. We can see both angles in “Goblin Market”. At first, eating and oral indulgence are dangerous, sluttish activities. They are entirely sensual and physical, putting the mouth and its pleasure above spiritual, moral or social codes. The punishment for indulging the appetite is severe: physical deterioration, rapid ageing, and possibly death. Rossetti describes her moral, heroine Lizzie as silent and closed mouthed, resistant to the lures of the luscious fruit, the taunts of the goblin men, and strongly refusing to permit what seems to amount to oral rape: “Lizzie utter’d not a word; Would not open lip from lip Lest they should cram a mouthful in:”. Paradoxically, however, at the end of the poem, it is through the mouth that redemption and life is reclaimed. Laura feasts on the fruit and juice smeared on her sister’s body as she is instructed to “eat me, drink me, love me”. McAlpine reads this scene as alluding to the Eucharistic rite:  “”Goblin Market”‘s two pivotal scenes of eating—one sinful and nearly fatal, the other saving—illustrate, orality is the site of both fall and redemption, and Christian salvation may take a form every bit as grotesque as the sin itself”. Perhaps the simpler readings of food and women in Gothic texts as all about starvation and the denial of the physical self should be more complex. Perhaps the eating, refusal, poisoning, and withholding of food is symbolic of an undercurrent of power and/or danger.

Of course, the most iconic appetitive mouth in Gothic texts must be the vampire’s. I am not going to delve into the swathes of vampire culture here but it would be remiss of me to not at least give the blood suckers a mention in the midst of all this biting and sucking. Primarily, I want to point out the dangerous addictive properties of human blood, and the significance of swallowing in vampire fiction. In Anne Rice’s array of vampire fiction and in Stoker’s masterpiece, one must swallow blood to become a vampire, not just be bitten. The act of swallowing awakens the insatiable hunger for blood and lots of it.

She wants some more!

In Interview With A Vampire pretty little Claudia whispers through her fangs, “I want some more”, signifying her insatiable thirst. As with Rossetti’s young fruit lover, it is in the act of consumption that one is corrupted. Of course, we cannot help but hear echoes of Eve and that apple and the punishments of all punishments here. However, again it is not as straight forward as consume and be damned. As redemption is offered through the mouth in Rossetti’s poem, in vampire fiction kinship, communication and love are intrinsically linked with orality. In Rice’s fiction, the vampires hunger knowledge, lineage and companionship as much as they desire the sustenance of blood. All of these desires are sated through biting. The vampire mouth is both primitive in its aggressive biting, and highly evolved in its persuasive, articulate voice. Control over representation, narration, and the ability to lure with words accords the vampires incredible power and longevity. Christopher Craft has famously written on the paradox of the vampire mouth as both masculine and feminine, both penetrator and orifice: “soft flesh barred by hard bone”. It is both alluring and deadly. Like Hannibal Lecter, more of whom in the next entry, vampires are villains who elicit captivation and admiration. Their verbal trickery and undeniable panache amuse and attract us. It is their insatiable appetite that is taboo. There are two aspects which are important here. Firstly, the concept of overconsumption and insatiability is one which concerns many Gothic and horror texts as it reflects aspects of contemporary, capitalist society. This is especially true of serial killer culture. Secondly, that which is being consumed, blood or human flesh, is a minefield of taboos and symbolism inciting repulsion and gleeful fascination in equal measures, at least for me!

One such example of serial killer texts that explore the punishment of over appetitive city dwellers is David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). In the film, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins and is cause for murder at the hands of John Doe (played by Kevin Spacey). Fat Guy is found dead, face down in a bowl of spaghetti with wire gouged into his bound wrists and ankles. He is obese, a mass of white, blue veined flesh in a grey, dark room. His mouth is smeared with tomato sauce and blood and gaping open. On the autopsy table his size is grotesque and pitiful as we are told he ate till he burst after at least twelve hours of forced feeding resulting in a swollen throat, distended stomach and ruptured organs. At the crime scene Detective Somerset finds the word ‘gluttony’ written in thick grease behind the fridge. The other crimes in the film also have elements of Gothic orality: in the Lust crime a man is forced to rape a prostitute with a knife while the killer forces a gun into his mouth and throat; Sloth sees a man tied to his bed and starved. He chews off his own tongue and is found as a skeletal creature with protruding teeth in a cavernous mouth.

Fat Guy, Se7en

Certainly we have here examples of Bruhm’s Gothic body. Earlier Gothic texts suggest redemption through starvation, especially for women (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa being the most famous example). Is there a suggestion in this late twentieth century work that echoes the punishment of appetite? Do contemporary Gothic and horror texts continue to profess that virtue is still to be found in the denial of the flesh? Are we all potential overconsumers kept in check by the threat of violent social repercussions?

Antonia Bird’s 1999 film Ravenous also offers warnings against indulging in appetite, especially if it is for human flesh. The film directed by Bird and written by Ted Griffin, is a darkly humorous and ironic take on the topic of survival cannibalism. Opening with the America-Mexico war in 1846, a soldier, Ives/Colqhuoun (Robert Carlyle) is stationed in Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevada and tells an account of survival cannibalism only to reveal that he himself is the cannibal and has become addicted to the taste and curative properties of human flesh. Human flesh is reported to endow the eater with superior strength and to ease ailments. From the outset the images of the body are associated with meat (flashbacks between eating steak and the bloody war casualties), and the use of the human body to further one’s own advantage. The images of Ives eating human flesh are almost vampire-like, with vivid blood running down his chin, he hisses, growls and snarls while sniffing out victims. One survivor, Boyd (Guy Pearce) refuses to indulge in cannibalism despite its professed benefits. When asked why he refuses, he answers ‘because it’s wrong’. His morality is mocked by Ives as the last bastion of the weak and he is teased with the smell of blood. The closing scene sees Boyd and Ives pinned together in a bear trap. Like a hunter’s quarry, the human body is again reduced to meat. Ives promises to eat Boyd if he dies first and expects him to do the same. Ives dies, and Boyd chooses death. The Wendigo myth is central to the film. It claims human meat is the ultimate food, imbuing phenomenal strength and super-human healing capabilities. However, the escalating appetite of the Wendigo is an example of generalised hunger in society, in particular the consuming desires of the West. The Wendigo myth not only professed against the taboo of cannibalism, it also warned of the dangers of overconsumption, greed and avarice. The Wendigo was never satiated, always looking for more human meat to fill it’s voracious appetite. Perhaps, rather than advocating the denial of the flesh, Gothic texts are more suggestive of a warning against aggressive, unthinking consumption of resources that are not renewable and are consumed at the cost of someone weaker. Surely, this is a reflection of fear of and guilt about our own consumption of the world’s resources.

He is ravenous

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