One of Literature’s Sexiest Eating Scenes

Joyce Redman in "Tom Jones"

Summer Food Series

At one point in his comic masterpiece Tom Jones, Henry Fielding refers to Odysseus as having “the best stomach of all the heroes in that eating poem of the Odyssey.” The Odyssey is not normally described as an “eating poem,” but take a look at it and you’ll see why Fielding refers to it that way. From the suitors devouring Odysseus’s livestock to the cyclops eating the mariners trapped in his cave to Odysseus’s men feasting upon the cattle of the sun, there are non-stop references to food consumption in Homer’s work. Revealing his own concerns, Homer regularly points out that bards in the work must be respected and fed.

One can see why all this eating would capture the attention of a comic writer like Fielding.  Epics, like tragedies, are supposed to be elevated and high whereas anything to do with the body, above all food and sex, traditionally are associated with the low and the comic. One doesn’t see people eating in, say, Shakespeare’s high tragedies. At one point Odysseus even comments on how hunger reduces the most high-minded man to an animal state.  Addressing the king of the Phaecians after he has been shipwrecked on his island, he asks for time to finish his dinner before he tells his story:

And I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget–
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
“Eat, drink!” It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, “Fill me up!”

Homer gains Fielding’s admiration by his ability to move seamlessly between epic grandeur and “the shameless dog of the belly.” Perhaps it is Homer’s dexterity that gives Fielding the idea for his own contribution to “Great Eating Scenes in Literature.”

Tom has saved Mrs. Waters from a villain and has settled down to an evening meal with her.  She has fallen in love with him and tries to let him know—only, for a while anyway, the higher realms of love are frustrated by the lower realms of eating.  To further emphasize the contrast between high and low, Fielding employs a mock epic style. The effect is delicious and very funny.

Incidentally, Tony Richardson came up with one of cinema’s own great eating episodes when he transferred the scene to film in the 1963 Tom Jones. Then Woody Allen did a hilarious spoof of the Richardson scene in Bananas.

Fielding’s passage begins by invoking another epic (Paradise Lost, whose few eating scenes are meant to signal the fall from high to low) when he claims that he is attempting a description “hitherto unassayed either in prose or verse.” (Milton writes that his muse soars high as it “pursues things unattempted yet in prose or rime.”) Fielding knows full well, of course, that his subject is not of the same order as “assert[ing] Eternal Providence and justify[ing] the ways of God to men.”

In any event, keep in mind that sex and food actually intersect very well when next you dine with a loved one. And enjoy the following mélange:

Now Mrs. Waters and our hero had no sooner sat down together than the former began to play this artillery upon the latter. But here, as we are about to attempt a description hitherto unassayed either in prose or verse, we think proper to invoke the assistance of certain aerial beings, who will, we doubt not, come kindly to our aid on this occasion.

“Say then, ye Graces! you that inhabit the heavenly mansions of Seraphina’s countenance; for you are truly divine, are always in her presence, and well know all the arts of charming; say, what were the weapons now used to captivate the heart of Mr. Jones.”

“First, from two lovely blue eyes, whose bright orbs flashed lightning at their discharge, flew forth two pointed ogles; but, happily for our hero, hit only a vast piece of beef which he was then conveying into his plate, and harmless spent their force. The fair warrior perceived their miscarriage, and immediately from her fair bosom drew forth a deadly sigh. A sigh which none could have heard unmoved, and which was sufficient at once to have swept off a dozen beaus; so soft, so sweet, so tender, that the insinuating air must have found its subtle way to the heart of our hero, had it not luckily been driven from his ears by the coarse bubbling of some bottled ale, which at that time he was pouring forth. Many other weapons did she assay; but the god of eating (if there be any such deity, for I do not confidently assert it) preserved his votary; or perhaps it may not be dignus vindice nodus [a knot worthy of a god to untie], and the present security of Jones may be accounted for by natural means; for as love frequently preserves from the attacks of hunger, so may hunger possibly, in some cases, defend us against love.

“The fair one, enraged at her frequent disappointments, determined on a short cessation of arms. Which interval she employed in making ready every engine of amorous warfare for the renewing of the attack when dinner should be over.

“No sooner then was the cloth removed than she again began her operations. First, having planted her right eye sidewise against Mr. Jones, she shot from its corner a most penetrating glance; which, though great part of its force was spent before it reached our hero, did not vent itself absolutely without effect. This the fair one perceiving, hastily withdrew her eyes, and leveled them downwards, as if she was concerned for what she had done; though by this means she designed only to draw him from his guard, and indeed to open his eyes, through which she intended to surprise his heart. And now, gently lifting up those two bright orbs which had already begun to make an impression on poor Jones, she discharged a volley of small charms at once from her whole countenance in a smile. Not a smile of mirth, nor of joy; but a smile of affection, which most ladies have always ready at their command, and which serves them to show at once their good-humor, their pretty dimples, and their white teeth.

“This smile our hero received full in his eyes, and was immediately staggered with its force. He then began to see the designs of the enemy, and indeed to feel their success. A parley now was set on foot between the parties; during which the artful fair so slily and imperceptibly carried on her attack, that she had almost subdued the heart of our heroe before she again repaired to acts of hostility. To confess the truth, I am afraid Mr Jones maintained a kind of Dutch defence, and treacherously delivered up the garrison, without duly weighing his allegiance to the fair Sophia. In short, no sooner had the amorous parley ended and the lady had unmasked the royal battery, by carelessly letting her handkerchief drop from her neck, than the heart of Mr Jones was entirely taken, and the fair conqueror enjoyed the usual fruits of her victory.”

Here the Graces think proper to end their description, and here we think proper to end the chapter.

 

Albert Finney in "Tom Jones"

Go here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter summarizing the week’s posts. Your e-mail address will be kept confidential.

This entry was posted in Fielding (Henry) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • http://shelflove.wordpress.com Jenny

    By chance, I just finished reading the Odyssey. I love this comparison! Don’t you think eating is usually a downfall in that work, though? The Lotus-Eaters, the bewitched food of Circe, the Cattle of the Sun, even the way he won’t let any of the dead eat the blood until Tiresias gets there? And then, of course, the suitors are all killed at their feasting. Eating seems to be mostly dangerous work in the Odyssey.

  • Robin Bates

    You’ve added some great examples that I missed, Jenny. You’re right, eating makes us vulnerable. I think Odysseus shoots the first suitor through the throat when he is drinking a cup of wine. And, to 18th century sensibilities, eating must have seemed a bit dangerous for an author to focus on. The baroque 17th century preferred Virgil to Homer because he seemed more civilized. But the British 18th century rediscovered man’s animal side–perhaps to balance out the Enlightenment, which was emphasizing reason–and elevated Homer to foremost of all authors. By the same token, the frequently earthy Shakespeare was elevated (by Dryden and then others) over the more refined Racine and Corneille. It’s hard to imagine now how much of a charge people got out of Homer. It sounds like you’ve just had this experience.

    I love your wonderfully named website by the way: Shelf Love: live mines and duds: the reading life. I like the idea of literature as (potentially) live ammunition. I appreciate your love of Jane Austen as well–yes, as you say, she can be read as escapist lit. One just has to expand one’s ideas of escapism.

    jbrown14464@yahoo.com

  • http://shelflove.wordpress.com Jenny

    Thanks, Robin — that’s a quotation from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood: “‘When you open a book,’ the sentimental library posters said, ‘anything can happen.’ This was so. A book of fiction was a bomb. It was a land mine you wanted to go off. You wanted it to blow your whole day. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of books were duds. They had been rusting out of everyone’s way for so long that they no longer worked. There was no way to distinguish the duds from the live mines except to throw yourself at them headlong, one by one.”

    This has been my summer for reading Greek and Roman classics I’ve never read before (i.e. all of them.) So far I’ve read the Metamorphoses, the Iliad, and the Odyssey, and when you talk about getting a charge, I might counter that I got a depth-charge!


  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete