2. Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion
Foster argues that in literature when people share meals together, it represents an act of communion. Since taking in food is a personal act, people tend only to eat with people they are comfortable with. It represents a marker of community, in life as in literature. While the word communion has holy connotations, in literature, a meal can represent any kind of communion, holy or decidedly not. In Tom Jones, for example, there is an epic dining scene in which the act of eating takes on sexual overtones and represents the two characters devouring each other’s bodies. In Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” the act of sharing a meal with a blind man helps the narrator overcome his dislike of people with disabilities. Since eating is something we all have in common, the narrator realizes he has things in common with the blind man, which allows them to connect.
Sometimes, meals go wrong, which emphasizes an inversion of the trope or a violation of expectations. For example, in Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the mother tries repeatedly and unsuccessfully to gather her family for dinner. It is not until she dies that they achieve dinner and symbolically imbibe her. Her life and death become a part of their experience. In James Joyce’s “The Dead,” great care is given in the description of the feast at the central dinner party. Joyce uses martial and battle language to describe the spread, which underscores the various tensions and conflict running through the attendants of the party. The story also explores the way death, like sharing a meal, holds all people in common, and sharing a meal is a way to celebrate life.
3. Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires
Vampires have a long history throughout literature. Vampires are often seductive older men who prey on innocent younger women, stealing their innocence and discarding them after. While vampires can just be scary monsters, often they represent darkness within society, especially those relating to sex, body shame, lust, and seduction. In modern stories, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight saga, vampire tales have often been turned on their head, introducing self-control where formerly vampire narratives were all about lack of restraint. Similarly, ghosts represent ideas beyond just being scary specters. In Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father both haunts his son and illustrates that there’s something drastically wrong in Hamlet’s house. The ghost in A Christmas Carol illustrates the issues with Scrooge’s ethics and values. Ghosts had an especially powerful role in Victorian literature, as so many subjects were taboo that ghosts were often representations of the scary things that could not be said outright.
Sometimes, ghosts and vampires do not appear in literature as visible monsters but instead are entirely human. In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, there is either a nasty ghost preying on children or the insane governess is fantasizing about the ghosts hurting the children. In the latter case, the governess herself, who harms the children to protect them, is the monster. In James’s “Daisy Miller,” there is no physical vampire, but Daisy is consumed by an older society that preys on her youth and innocence and as a result, she dies at the end. Because these vampire and ghost narratives often take the form of someone growing in strength while weakening someone else, these tales explore exploitation in its many forms.
Foster consciously uses the word communion to describe the complex symbolism involved in literary portrayals of sharing a meal. The word communion encapsulates a variety of meanings, all of which Foster explores in chapter two. Communion can signify something holy, an experience that transcends everyday life, a meaning which is explored in the analysis of the shared meal in the transcendent moment at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Communion can also signify a sharing of intimacies, sexual or otherwise, a meaning which is explored in the analysis of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and the implied sexual nature of the meal two characters lasciviously share together. Communion is also the name of the Catholic sacrament, by which congregants consume the body of Jesus in the form of bread and wine. Foster alludes to this meaning when he compares the act of sharing illicit substances in Raymond Carver’s “The Cathedral” to participating in a communal ritual. By consciously using the word communion to explore eating in literature, Foster articulates in a single word the various ways characters may connect over food in literature.
This section explores the motif of coded language. Throughout much of his discussion of literature, especially Victorian literature and earlier, Foster points out that sex and other taboo subjects could not be discussed directly. As a result, authors often needed to rely on coded language to explore forbidden themes. In his discussion of vampires and ghosts, Foster illustrates how that coded language works in practice. For example, vampires, who are often highly sexualized, older men praying on the innocent, can be seen as expressions of Victorian anxiety about sexual power and the vulnerability of women. Many monsters, such as Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein’s monster, illustrate the hidden darkness within humans, a darkness that was taboo to discuss, and so manifests in the coded imagery of ghoulish creatures and inhuman monsters. By exploring the effects of such sublimation, Foster spotlights how coded language allowed the inexpressible to find expression.
By exploring the history of vampire and monster imagery from the Victorian era to the present, Foster emphasizes how archetypal these stories are for readers in understanding hidden desires and impulses. Foster delves into the meaning that Victorian-era writers made of vampires and monsters, illustrating how forbidden subjects and a generally repressed society was a fertile breeding ground for horrific creatures who could act out the shadow side of human characters. Foster traces this tendency into the modern era, where the discussion of vampires has changed in tone and theme, paralleling societal changes. For example, in exploring the way Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight live in the modern imagination, Foster points out that the vampire narrative changed from that of the frightening beast to a teenage girl’s heartthrob. This narrative change reflects societal changes: as the modern world has become more permissive and accepting of sexual and taboo subjects, the shadow characters have become more restrained, tamed, and even adored.