If you’ve been following my blog you may have noticed my obsession with food. I grow it, cook it and love to eat good food. I’ve been thinking about the basics this week because I have noticed that I do notice when characters in fiction don’t appear to eat, wash or go to the toilet. Ever. And these very basic of human functions can portray so much in a story.
Eating is such a fundamental part of being human and necessary for survival. How and what we eat, and who we eat with, are an important part of life. Eating can be a ritual to bring people together in kinship (think Babette’s Feast or The Kids are Alright); it can expose the absence of significant others such as in Great Expectations; or used to enhance the disintegration of friendships like when the dinner burns in The Party by Sally Potter.
Who we eat with can define us as part of a social or cultural group, as it did in The Hundred Foot Journey and at Bilbo Baggins birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. What we eat and where we eat can represent class distinctions. Remember Jay Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby or in Oliver Twist when Oliver tentatively says, “Please sir, I want some more.”
We can portray things about a character’s motivations, attitudes and personality through their relationship to food. We make judgements about people based on their table manners. Who could forget the mammoth Mr Creosote vomiting all over the restaurant from over eating in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, or the role of food as a vehicle to portray character transformation in The Poisonwood Bible?
Food often symbolizes sensuality in fiction. It’s a great instrument for romance, passion and desire such as in Like Water for Chocolate; Chocolat; The Lunch Box; and the masturbation with a peach scene in Call Me By Your Name.
Then there’s food to symbolize things that seem wrong, like the madcap chaos of the tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where all the rules of etiquette are broken but they teach Alice about the world around her. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the White Witch spawns magical evil when she tempts Edmond with Turkish delight and he becomes so intoxicated by it he turns on his siblings.
We can use food to illustrate how a character compensates for emotional, physical or social problems like the painfully thin, gothic, antisocial Lisbeth Slander who compulsively smokes, drinks coffee and eats Billys Pan Pizzas in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Bathroom scenes are less common than those with food, but can also serve as a vehicle for storytelling. The bathroom is contemplative, intimate and exposing. We drop our guard when we drop out pants and we become vulnerable.
Shower scenes can be character defining, meaningful, sensual, funny or frightening. In Carrie, the main character with eyes closed and neck exposed washes herself seductively then discovers with shock (because she hasn’t been told about it) what menstruation means. Her cries for help to her friends are met with mockery and shouts of “Plug it up!” In Arthur, the main characters wealthy man-child persona is highlighted in a scene when he takes a bubble bath, cocktail in hand and wearing a top hat and asks the butler to keep him company. The butler perches on the edge of the bath and tells him like a parental figure that bathing is a lonely business. American Beauty opens with Kevin Spacey masturbating in the shower to symbolize the woeful treadmill of his suburban life. And who could forget the iconic shower-murder scene in Psycho – my that scream!
We all read in the toilet (don’t we?) but how much toilet is there in fiction? Alfred Hitchcock was the first who dared to be risqué in 1960 when he shocked audiences by showing a toilet being flushed (Psycho again). Pulp Fiction makes good use of the lavatory for scene setting, usually as a juxtaposition to frame extreme situations like murder.
Humor on the porcelain throne is most common in kids’ books (Pirate Pete’s Potty) and with blokes (like in Dumb and Dumber and Crocodile Dundee) and the use of poop to make a comment about character can be memorable. We knew something wasn’t right with Kevin when we’re told his mother still had to change his nappies when he was six and that he used his shit as a weapon against her in We Must Talk about Kevin. It’s harder to find examples of women on the loo. One of the most well-known is when Nicole Kidman pees in the opening scene of Eyes Wide Shut as a mechanism to demonstrate to the audience the ease and longevity of her relationship with the character played by Tom Cruise.
We all eat, wash (at least some times), shit and piss, so it’s curious there isn’t more of it in fiction – I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that.
What are some of your most memorable scenes in fiction involving eating or bathrooms?
Do you incorporate eating or bathrooms in your writing?
Main image: After the party
Inset images in order: Turkish tea at smoko, Istanbul; Turkish delight, Istanbul;
Outdoor dunny, Australia