From the first page and a half food inserts itself into The Bell Jar: “peanut-smelling mouth,” “tail end of a sweet dream,” “noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.” Taste dominates the senses.
By the third page we get to a foreshadowing of hope: “last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.” The novel ends with Esther out of the hospital, and begins with suggestions of a life and future beyond the novel, one which presumably encompasses a family.
Food is a form of life. You need it to survive, and while death is like sleep (she tries to kill herself with sleeping pills), life is about wakeful sensations.
In the novel we have:
- an Old Fashioned (filled with bits of fruit), straight vodka, wine, and beer
- avocados filled with crabmeat and mayonnaise, rare roast beef, cold chicken, black caviar — with reference to bitter black coffee, apple pie à la mode, economy joints, economy meatloaf, anchovy paste, peanut butter on bread, avocados filled with melted grape jelly and French dressing, salad eaten with one’s fingers instead of a fork, a fingerbowl drunk like soup — marzipan fruit, meringue and brandy ice cream
- a broth for recovery (“Pads of butter floated on the surface and a faint chickeny aroma fumed up to my nostrils”), and mentions of hot dogs
- scrambled eggs, with cheese and garlic salt
- hamburgers, fancy cakes, unknown foods, and wine tasting like pine-wood
- “I just drank one daiquiri after another.”
- a raw egg mixed into a teacup full of raw hamburger, alphabet soup
- Rice Krispies, peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice cream, and Hood’s milk
- peanuts for feeding pigeons, Deer Island Prison’s offering of “plenty to eat” during the winter, candy, then money for candy since she has none, hot dogs buried in the sand when no one’s looking (she’s stopped eating and sleeping)
- “I raised my voice. ‘I can’t eat.’ It occurred to me I’d been eating ravenously ever since I came.”
- hospital food in large, lidded tureens for thick white china plates: green string beans; cold, gelatinous, solidified macaroni and cheese; baked beans (“Now I know perfectly well you didn’t serve two kinds of beans together at a meal. Beans and carrots, or beans and peas, maybe, but never beans and beans.”); matchsticks to be pretended to be made out of candy; hot milk; spam and broiled tomatoes; the breakfast tray (coffee, cream, boiled egg, orange marmalade) — its function as threat and then reward; apple cider
- out of the hospital: first: bitter coffee, beer; then: escargot at a French restaurant (“I picked up the empty snail shell and drank the herb-green juice. I had no idea if this was proper, but after months of wholesome, dull asylum diet, I was greedy for butter.”), Nuits St. Georges (“‘You do like wine,’ Irwin observed.”)
The trajectory of food goes from voracious and gourmande, to plain, raw, inedible and imaginary, back to a hunger satiated with bad food, and ending with the gourmet again. It’s predicted in the hope of future which is suggested at the end of the novel.
But because I’ve been reading Louise Glück too, I can’t help but think of Persephone’s mouth stained red with the juice of pomegranate in her death, something much more sensorally potent than Demeter’s wheat.