February 12, 2009

Sweetness in sorrow


It has come to my attention that the more pitiful the characters of a novel, and the grayer the circumstances they are placed in, the more satisfying I find it to read about the rare instances in which these characters are able to scarf down some sort of food. Kind of like how when you're really, really hungry, everything tastes better.

John Steinbeck, for instance, was great at this. Nothing like a hard day of peach picking to make you appreciate a hot dinner. Roald Dahl, also a master of crafting pitiful characters who sometimes gained access to wonderful treats of the culinary kind. But I never saw a scrappy character turn down food until Charles Dickens' Bleak House.

"Now, look here!" he said. "In this paper," which was nicely folded, "is a piece of the best plum-cake that can be got for money--sugar on the outside an inch thick, like fat on mutton chops. Here's a little pie (a gem this is, both for size and quality), made in France. And what do you suppose it's made of? Livers of fat geese. There's a pie! Now let's see you eat 'em."

"Thank you, sir," I replied, "thank you very much indeed, but I hope you won't be offended; they are too rich for me."
Yes, let's see you eat 'em, Esther! I wanted it so much. Her refusal left me feeling unsettled, because I didn't know where I could go out and get these things myself -- especially that plum cake with the inch-thick layer of sugar coating "like fat on mutton chops." Oh, Dickens, you devil. I wouldn't dream of turning that down in a million years. I guess that's why I'd never be the one telling the story...and I suppose my mouth would be too full with pate pies and plum cakes to tell it, anyhow.