According to a well-known anecdote, Sigmund Freud was once teased for his love of cigars by someone who pointed out that cigars are phallic symbols. Supposedly, Freud responded by saying that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”––a statement that can also be said about meals and the role they serve in works of literature.
Even Sigmund Freud, the master of sexual subtext, dismisses the notion that absolutely everything has a symbolic meaning.
Foster regularly tells his students that anytime characters eat together, this is communion. This can be confusing, as many people associate communion with the specific Christian ritual that takes place during a church service. However, this is only one example of communion; the broader definition of the term is anytime people come together to share food and, in doing so, create a temporary community with one another.
As Foster will show throughout the book, it is helpful for students of literature to have a basic understanding of Christianity (no matter their personal religious beliefs). This is because, for better or worse, many Western literary and cultural conventions have a connection to—or origin within—Christian tradition.
The eating scene in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is an example of communion, even though it is far from a religious event. This scene describes eating in highly sensual, vulgar terms, highlighting the way in which eating together can be a sexual act, a process of “devouring the other’s body.” Likewise, the film version of Tom Jones (1963) couldn’t depict sex explicitly because this was still taboo in the 1960s, so it relied on the eating scene as a way of depicting sexuality. This in turn reveals the connections between sharing a meal and sex: both are ritualistic ways of becoming closer to other people through a shared bodily experience.
Here, Foster emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the historical and cultural context in which a text was produced. In these examples, societal convention forbade the explicit depiction of sexuality, meaning the reader should be alert to moments when sexuality might be indirectly represented. It is thus important that we don’t only read a text through the perspective of our own era, which has different standards around the representation of sexuality.
Foster introduces another example, Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” (1981). The main character of the story is a man filled with prejudice and bitterness. When the man’s wife’s blind friend comes to stay, the man is forced to confront his bigoted, unjust view of disabled people. The two key turning points in his change of opinion are when he watches the blind man eat, and when the two of them smoke marijuana together. Although it might not be obvious, Foster argues that both these events are acts of communion.
Once again, Foster demonstrates how deep reading can illuminate important themes within a work of literature. A surface-level analysis would simply identify that the bigoted man changed his mind; deep reading, on the other hand, shows that the man’s change of opinion results from moments of shared consumption, and highlights the thematic link between these moments.
Just as a harmonious meal signals interpersonal connection and community, so does a difficult meal spell disaster. Sometimes, a single meal can contain many complex and even contradictory layers of meaning. In James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” (1914), the main character, Gabriel Conroy, attends a lavish dinner party during which a series of tense and difficult moments make him realize that he is not superior to other people. Joyce provides a detailed, sensual description of the dishes, and in doing so creates the impression that the reader themselves is attending the dinner party. This in turn implicates the reader in the story’s message: that people are made equal by the fact that they will all eventually die.
Foster’s interpretation in this passage may at first seem strange. How is Joyce’s description of the lavish meal connected with the idea that everyone is made equal by death? However, Foster here highlights the connection between food and death; after all, humans have to eat because they are mortal, and thus elaborate meals are, in some sense, reminders of our shared mortality. This logic emphasizes the idea that food is never simply food, but often has a more profound symbolic meaning.