The Consumption of Food in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary

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The Consumption of Food in
Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary

Since food is an essential part of one’s life, it is not surprising that we find frequent references to its consumption in novels of social realism, such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Food in literature can be used to symbolise all sorts of things, but in particular it can represent the personality of a character. This is because certain aspects of a character reveal themselves in the personal choice of eating a particular kind of food, as well as in the milieu in which the meals take place. Since eating is often seen as a social event, the ambience of a meal and the manners of the diners contribute much to character revelation. More abstractly, in addition to giving insights into character, both Tolstoy and Flaubert use food to symbolise significant events or developments in the plot. Therefore, by analysing the representations of food we can gain insights into many of the ideas that the writers are trying to convey. This paper will compare the ways in which food is used for the above purposes in both novels. Early in Anna Karenina we are shown the contrast in food tastes of Oblonsky and Levin. Oblonsky is portrayed as a cavalier character through his eating habits: we see that for the bon vivant Oblonsky nothing, not even serious discord with his wife at the time, would interfere with his enjoyment of food: Having finished the paper, a second cup of coffee, and a roll and butter, he rose, shook a crumb or two from his waistcoat, and, expanding his broad chest, smiled happily, not because he felt particularly light-hearted—his happy smile was simply the result of a good digestion. Furthermore, being a Russian aristocrat from the city, Oblonsky has a particularly refined taste for food and always seems able to make eating an enjoyable and a luxurious social experience. He likes eating exotic food merely for the titillating effect that it has on him: Oblonsky was happy, too, because he was enjoying himself and everyone was pleased… Everything, including the excellent dinner and the wines (not from Russian merchants but imported direct from abroad), was very distinguished simple and enjoyable. Levin, on the other hand, is shown to be a conservative. Like a true rural aristocrat, he deliberately eschews any foreign and urban influences. Characterised as being traditional, serious and earnest, Levin prefers the rather simple and natural peasant food above all else: “Levin ate his oysters, though he would have liked white bread and cheese better.” Throughout the novel, his attitude towards food remains the same. One day he is in his fields, after having ploughed his land together with the peasants. We are told that The peasants began preparing for dinner... The bread and water was so delicious that Levin changed his mind about going home. He shared the old man’s meal and chatted to him about his family affairs... From this we can perceive the importance of the social setting of eating for Levin; the simple food tastes so good because he feels comfortable and happy amongst the peasants. It is exactly this notion that distinguishes Levin from Charles in Madame Bovary. Though Charles also has a modest preference for the kind of food that he’s accustomed to, For dinner there was onion soup, and a piece of veal cooked with sorrel. Charles, sitting opposite Emma, rubbed his hands together cheerfully and said—How nice it is to be home again! , he—in contrast to Levin—does not care for his social environment. This is evident in his anti-social and indelicate eating behaviour, that would have convinced Emma that she had married a very unromantic man: “He used to cut bits off the corks from the empty bottles; after meals, he used to suck his teeth; eating his soup he made a gurgling noise with every mouthful …” . The male attitude to food is analogous to their perception of life, and more specifically, their perception of women. In a...
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