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.1

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.2

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.”3 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...4

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!5,

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 …”6.

The male attitude to food is analogous to their perception of life, and more specifically, their perception of women. In a restaurant, gluttonous Oblonsky orders many different kinds of dishes and likewise also shows his greed regarding other women with whom he has affairs. Thus the literal description of him, “tearing the quivering oysters from their pearly shells with a silver fork and swallowing them one after another”7, can also be interpreted metaphorically with oysters being a powerful feminine symbol. Contrariwise, Levin’s conscientious and monogamous aim in a marital relationship is shown in his attitude towards adultery; “‘It’s as if … as incomprehensible as if, after a good dinner here, I were to go into a baker’s shop and steal a roll.’”8 And again Oblonsky’s unfaithful nature shows itself in his reply: “‘Why not? Rolls sometimes smell so good that you can’t resist them!’” Also Charles’ treatment of food can be a reflection of his sexual appetite. In the same way that he simply eats to replenish himself, “He ate up the rest of the stew, cut the rind from his cheese, munched an apple, finished off the wine, then went up to bed, lay down on his back and began to snore.”9, he’s unable to treat his wife Emma delicately in their romantic relations — leaving her romantically unsatisfied.

Vronsky has the same characteristic of not treating his partner with sufficient delicacy, and this seems to he a major contributory factor to Anna’s fatality. Vronsky’s stubborn and insensible determination to preserve his virility and to not give in to his mistress Anna is symbolised by him eating a large lump of beefsteak, stereotypically ‘food for real men’. It is interesting that Vronsky’s eating of beefsteak is the precursor, on two occasions, for the creation of a “mangled body”10. The first time he is mentioned eating “his beefsteak”11 it precedes Vronsky breaking his mare Frou Frou’s back and thereby causing her death, by riding her too recklessly. The second time he eats “his beefsteak”12 it is following an argument with Anna, which leads to her suicide.

Experiencing the same destiny as Anna, Emma’s growing general dissatisfaction finds root in a failing marriage with the ignorant and provincial simpleton Charles. This is ominously displayed at their wedding; “Big dishes of yellow custard, shuddering whenever the table was jogged displayed, on their smooth surface, the initials of the newly-weds in arabesques of sugared almonds.”13 This notion of their “shuddering” unstable relationship and the almost nauseating overdone sweetness of the thick and indelicate desert with its “sugared almonds” precedes an exposition of her character development through the symbolism of different foods. After figuratively and literally having tasted from delicacies at the Marquis’ ball, “Emma, as she entered the room, felt herself immersed in warmth, a mixture of the scent of flowers and fine linen, the smell of roast meat and the odour of truffles.”14, and is consequently dissatisfied with her petty bourgeois life. Her resultant whimsical behaviour concerning choice in foods and drinks shows her impulsive and insatiable character; “She would order different food for herself and leave it untouched; one day drink only fresh milk and, next day, cups of tea by the dozen.”15 Nevertheless she temporarily finds her sexual satisfaction in passionately committing adultery with Rodolphe and Leon respectively, and this, in the latter case, is symbolised by the eating of cream. During Emma and Leon’s initial tryst, “They ate fried smolt, cherries and cream.”16 Like purely physical sex, eating cream simply yields an immediate pleasure and satisfaction in its consumption. In Anna Karenina, the same idea of the symbolism of cream is used to show the blunt insensibility with which Karenin treats his wife Anna. Without any mention of romantic love, Karenin’s physical sexual desire for his wife at her return from her travels is hinted as follows; “Having finished his second glass of tea with cream and his roll,”17 “‘Time for bed now,’ he said with a special smile, crossing into the bedroom.’”18 This example adds to Karenin’s profile as an unfeeling man.



The way that food can be used as a literary effect is evident in both novels Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Flaubert and Tolstoy seem to share their view on the literary use of food symbolism. The reason that something as ordinary as food is used for this purpose is that people always eat food to satisfy themselves. Consequently, the kind of food that one chooses to eat shows the kind of desire or need that is to be satisfied. And because different people find their satisfaction in different actions and lifestyle, the kind of food the characters eat is a good source of information about their characters and/or their social environment. Instead of describing directly what kind of character one has or stating how the plot is going to develop, the authors have used a more subtle approach through symbolism of food to convey the ideas. It is exactly this sort of delicate literary technique that makes a novel a work of art.
Word Count: 1487
The examiners comments and scores are on the next page. Before paging down or looking further score this paper yourself, writing a rationale for your score in each of the areas.

Examiner’s Comments for the student essay, “Consumption of food in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary
This well-written essay has a very specific and narrow focus on food from which the candidate does not veer. The essay does not just list a number of quotations about food, but relates the quotations to character and action. The interpretation of the significance of food is almost always perceptive; for example, Oblonsky’s eating oysters as a symbol of his sensuality and love of women is contrasted with Levin’s love of simple food in the company of peasants. Ideas are not always fully developed, but this would be difficult to do when writing about two long complex novels in an essay of 1500 words.
Score: 5, 5, 5, 5

1 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 20

2 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 696

3 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Kareina, p. 48

4 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 274

5 Gustave Flaubert, Modame Bovary, p. 43

6 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p. 48

7 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 48

8 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 54

9 Gustave Flaubert, Madam Bovary, p. 32

10 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 814

11 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 192

12 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 779

13 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p. 22

14 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p. 37

15 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p. 52

16 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p. 208

17 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 126

18 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 127


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