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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Food appears consistently throughout the novel, most often to denote the absence or presence of love, comfort, and stability. Ellen feels deep shame at having refused to take a meal with Starletta and her parents merely because they are black. This absence of meal sharing indicates an absence of intimacy based on skin color differences, which, Ellen later learns, are unimportant and an ignorant reason for refusing a meal. Interestingly, the remedy for this foolishness, after Ellen realizes her folly, is an offer to lick the lip of Starletta’s cup if that is what it takes to prove that she loves her. Eating, even in its simplest forms, runs alongside the Ellen’s development from a precocious innocent to an understanding young woman.
When Ellen is living with her father, she must buy her own food and, as she can afford very little, must subsist only on frozen dinners, which she eats alone. Ellen must also take her meals alone or in silence while she is at her grandmother’s house and later at Nadine and Dora’s house, as well. While living with Julia and, eventually, her new mama, Ellen is grateful for the abundance of food—and love—that she receives. At both homes, the only happy ones Ellen ever knows, food becomes a social event. At Julia’s, they work in the organic garden together, and, at her new mama’s, all of the children gather in the kitchen to cook enormous, delicious feasts.
Beginning with her mother’s suicide, Ellen is surrounded by death and the thought of it throughout the novel. Soon after her mother’s untimely death, Ellen’s father dies of an alcohol-induced aneurysm. While he was alive, Ellen often had thoughts of murdering him and had fantasized about how and when she would kill him. Her grandmother, however, accuses Ellen of killing her mother and tells her that she is just like her father, which, for Ellen, serves as the ultimate insult. On the day that her grandmother picks her up to take her to her house for the first time, Ellen notes that her car is exactly like the undertaker’s car, except it is a different color. This observation foreshadows Ellen’s nightmarish stay with her grandmother, as it feels very much like a death sentence. Eventually, Ellen’s grandmother falls very ill and dies. Ellen feels terribly guilty for her mother’s death, as she feels she is somehow at fault, and Ellen does not want to take on yet more blame for the death of her grandmother. Ellen is clearly afraid of death and cannot bear to look at her mother’s dead body during the funeral service and burial. The abundance of death-related thoughts and events in Ellen Foster serves to accentuate Ellen’s grief and misery in her nightmarish situation and also underlines her feelings of solitude, as she is continually neglected by those who are meant to love her.
Ellen is continually praying to her “Lord” for support and advice and makes many references to God and the afterlife throughout the course of the novel. When God created her father, Ellen thinks, he must have made an enormous mistake. Ellen cannot understand how God could put a man like her father onto the earth. After her grandmother’s death, Ellen surrounds her grandmother’s body with fake flowers so that she might “trick” God into welcoming her into heaven. She has a distinct vision of the afterlife and is disturbed when she thinks that her grandmother and father will be in the same heaven as her mother and sweet, newborn babies.