The Relevance of Food to Representations of Gender in The Awakening and Goblin Market

By Misty M. Hill
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/2 |

Carole Counihan argues that ‘men’s and women’s ability to produce, provide and consume food is a key measure of their power,’ (1998:2) whilst Jack Goody has argued, ‘gender hierarchies are maintained, in part, though differential control over and access to food’ (quoted in Counihan, 1998:2). This essay considers the relevance of food in both a physical sense and its symbolic significance in Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening and Christina Rosetti's long poem Goblin Market.

I first explore how traditional gender roles are built upon the idea of the man as the provider, and arguing Rossetti and Chopin act to reject this by presenting female characters who can provide for themselves. I also consider food consumption in relation to gender identity and discovery, before closing with a consideration of the symbolic importance of fruit, and the links to female identification with Eve in the works.

If we look first of all at The Awakening, the novel’s opening chapters immediately present us with a father, Mr Pontellier, who is neither reliable in, nor necessary to, the provision of food for the family. In chapter one as Mr Pontellier leaves his family, his wife asks ‘coming back to dinner?’ to which he ‘shrugged his shoulders.’ (1994:5)

The inconclusive gesture first of all shows that he is neither decisive nor forceful as you might expect a man to be. Secondly, it shows his irrelevance to the families eating, he does not need to be present for the family to eat, and it appears Mrs Pontellier is unconcerned by the prospect of the absent husband at meal time, as she ‘laughed, nodding good-by to him.’ (1994:5) But it is also suggested that he is an unreliable provider. On parting from his children he ‘promised to bring them back bonbons and peanuts,’ (1994:5) whilst tellingly on his return he ‘had forgotten the bonbons and peanuts for the boys.’ (1994:7)

Clearly, he is established as being perhaps not an incapable provider, but certainly an unreliable one, there is no guarantee that he can provide that which he claims he will. As such, this seems to undermine his position in the gender hierarchy, as he fails to fulfil his expected role as a male.

Further evidence Mr Pontellier is unnecessary to food provision comes when he sends his wife a box of ‘friandises,’ (1994:8) as whilst this is an example of his providing for his wife, the contents are not essential, they are ‘luscious and toothsome’ (1994:8), they are luxuries. As such, Mrs Pontellier gives the contents of the box away to other ladies. These ladies however ‘all declared that Mr Pontellier was the best husband in the world’ because of this, whilst Edna herself ‘was forced to admit that she knew of none better.’ (1994:9)

This example shows a number of very interesting ideas; first of all the reaction of the other women highlights the traditional perception of the husband as the provider, they declare he is the best husband in the world because he has provided some luxurious foods, nothing else shapes their opinion of Mr Pontellier. Thus the primacy of food provision to notions of the good husband is stressed. However, by giving the food away, Edna acts to reject the food.

As Counihan argues, ‘just as giving food creates connection, refusing it severs connections. Both giving and refusing can be a means of attaining power.’ (1998:6) Thus by rejecting the food provided for her, Edna frees herself from connections to her husband; by proving she does not need to be provided for by her husband, she asserts her power and independence. For me, this incident early in the novel lays the foundations for her later self assertion, and her distancing herself from her husband.

In Goblin Market, we find a similar engagement with the nature of gender roles in relation to the ability to provide food. If we look at Laura first, for the goblins fruit she ‘longed but had no money.’ (2006:1468) As such, she is completely in the power of the goblins, and they can force her to do as they please. The fact that when they ask her to ‘buy from us with a golden curl’, she ‘drops a tear more rare than pearl,’ (2006:1468) not only carries sexual undertones, but on a more superficial level clearly conveys her unwillingness, her unhappiness at this. This is not something that she wants to do, however, in order for her to eat, she must give up her innocence and put herself in the power of the male.

Goblin Market Cover

Thus, not only does Rossetti present the balance of power absolutely in the hands of the males, with the woman as the dependent, but also portrays this fact in a negative light, through the negative, yet submissive, reaction of Laura. There is then a further emphasis in this dependent position, as Laura subsequently ‘dwindled […] and would not eat,’ as she ‘kept watch in vain’ (2006:1472) for the goblin men. The absence of the male therefore is linked in the text to a wasting away and to not eating. ‘Would not’ however implicitly suggests that it is through choice that she is not eating, suggesting that the gender roles which emphasise the supremacy as man as provider are in fact merely perpetuated by women like Laura.

This is later built upon by the actions of Lizzie, who rejects this view that the man is the only source of food provision, and that a dependence upon him must necessarily exist. Unlike Laura, Lizzie has money, shown by the fact that she ‘put a silver penny in her purse’ (2006:1473) before confronting the goblins. She is then able to ‘[toss] them her penny’ (2006:1474) in exchange for the fruit, she is in a position to lawfully provide for herself.

The goblins however reject her money, and try to make her eat their fruit herself, and beat her when she refuses them, she ‘would not open lip from lip / Lest they should cram a mouthful in.’ (2006:1475) This, I believe, shows her rejection of the notion that men are necessary to food provision, their role in the gender hierarchy is subsequently undermined entirely, as they are left completely powerless over Lizzie.

Not only does Lizzie reject the goblins fruit and the male as provider, but she also shows that women are in fact the ultimate providers. I mean that not only is Lizzie capable of providing because she has money, but she is by nature a provider. This is shown by her becoming food herself, as she returns to Laura declaring ‘Never mind my bruises […] Eat me, drink me, love me.’ (2006:1476) Counihan argues that ‘women are food to the foetus and infant,’ (1999:63) and I believe that in this respect, Rossetti shows Lizzie as extending her relationship with her sister to a maternal one.

She has become food to Laura, much as she would to her child. The effect of this is not only to challenge the gender hierarchy, which places man as the provider at the top, but also to offer a moral, guiding message to women to a large degree. Casey argues that ‘Victorian female writers […] perceived their maternal role as endowing them with the power to teach – and hence morally guide – the race.’ (1991:64)

To this end, I would suggest that we therefore see Rossetti presenting the maternal nature of women as a powerful, moral, redeeming force. Through this, Rossetti challenges the gender hierarchy, by showing women are capable of providing, and that their provision works on a very moral level. We might perhaps also suggest she offers this role of provider in contrast to the male, who takes advantage of the role of provider for his own gain, rather than a moral cause.

The Awakening by contrast, does not show the woman providing for the good of others, nor for any moral purpose, but quite the contrary in fact. Chopin places a great deal of emphasis on Edna’s ability to provide for herself, but that is all she is concerned with, providing for herself, and shaping her identity through this. Edna’s final actions before moving into her own house, as she conceives the idea of this meal, she declares ‘I shall give a grand dinner before I leave the old house!’ (1994:77)

The old house, of course, embodies the old patriarchal values; it is her husbands house, she objects in fact that ‘the house, the money that provides for it, are not mine.’ (1994:76) By resolving specifically to hold a grand dinner as her final action in the house, I believe she symbolically asserts the fact that she is capable of providing for herself, of living without the provision of men. The dinner is, in my opinion, not about treating and providing food and entertainment for others, but rather it is to display to others that she is capable of providing. As soon as she has proven this, she moves out to her own house, to live independently and free of her husband.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was a bold piece of fiction in its time, and protagonist Edna Pontellier was a controversial character. She upset many nineteenth century expectations for women and their supposed roles. One of her most shocking actions was her denial of her role as a mother and wife. Kate Chopin displays... MORE»
In "Goblin Market" (1862), Christina Rossetti (1830‑1894) presents a story of two sisters who must endure carnal lust in order to embrace a higher and purer realm of sexuality: marriage. This poem is a story of renunciation, but not one of denying the body and its desires in order to embrace the spiritual nature of the soul... MORE»
The Victorian Age was a time of rapid economic, social, and cultural change throughout England. Beginning in the late 1700s and early 1800s, industry began to take shape in Britain, launching England into an era characterized... MORE»
On the surface, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, and The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair do not have anything in common. The Awakening features Edna, a bored housewife who flouts the rules of society. The Jungle features Jurgis, a poor Lithuanian immigrant who struggles to survive... MORE»
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