Food and Function
At the advent of modernism in the novel, Tess Durbyfield, the protagonist of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), allows herself to be fed by Alex D’Urberville, whom she has just met. He “asked her if she liked strawberries”:
“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of
the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, pres-
ently selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety,
he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
“No—no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand
and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips
and took it in.
Tess's “slight distress” is a response to a forced sensual encounter, but it also registers the ambivalence of the strawberry, which is at once a “specimen” of fruit that she enjoys when “it comes” and a symbol of national identity. The fruit Alex tempts her with, a “British Queen,” serves blatantly as a symbol of sexual desire, of her place in a pastoral setting in which she labors as a dairy maid along with virile young men who work the land; but it also draws attention to the gulf between a D’Urberville and a Durbyfield.
By the time Hardy published Tess, food in realist fiction no longer reliably served the function of marking social and economic status through the representation of consumption. From the exotic curry dinners served on middle-class tables in Thackeray's Vanity Fair to the gruel ladled up for the poor children in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, nineteenth-century novelists used food and its consumption, like it did most objects, to strengthen the verisimilitude of the representation and thereby affirm the established order of social distinctions and rankings. Though it indexes agricultural labor and production in the manner of conventional novelistic realism, Hardy's British Queen strawberry doubles as a stand in for something else; it behaves less like an index than a symbol, a conventional one about beauty and desire that is disoriented by Tess's resistance so that it symbolizes something about her own sensibilities, her pride, her sense of rectitude.