Eighteenth Century / Food and Culture

Accessing Subjects, Accessing Subjectivity

The twofold vision of food  as materially conspicuous display of status and symbolic residue of experience are nicely articulated in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. As Mr. Hardcastle prepares his table for the arrival of Marlow and his companion, Hastings, the importance of food as status marker is apparent:

Hardcastle: You, Diggory, whom I have taken from the barn, are to make a show at the side-table, and you, Roger, whom I have advanced from the plough, are to place yourself behind my chair. But you’re not to stand so, with your hands in your pockets…

Diggory: Ay, mind how I hold them. I learned to hold my hands this always, when I was upon drill for the militia. And so being on a drill —

Hardcastle: You must not be so talkative, Diggory. You must be all attention to the guests. You must hear us talk, and not think of talking. You must see us drink, and not think of drinking. You must see us eat, and not think of eating.[1]

Diggory’s response to the demand he “not think of eating” reveals the way that food experience collapses the boundaries between the material and the mental. Here, Hardcastle is explicitly attempting to control another individual’s basic, primal desire to eat.  Diggory’s response illuminates the ways bodily needs for food assert their power: “By the laws, your worship, that’s perfectly unpossible. Whenever Diggory sees yeating [sic] going forward, ecod he’s always wishing for a mouthful himself.”[2]  Clearly, the uneducated field hand is out of his element beside the side table, but the task required of him as dining attendant is not inconceivable, and certainly contributes to the comic effect of viewing Hardcastle’s pretense to wealth.  What becomes implausible, then, is for the field hand to witness feasting and not consider his own desire for his own “mouthful.”  The thought of food invokes a physical desire – thinking of eating, begets the craving of a full mouth and a full belly.

Diggory’s deference to his “worship” in conjunction with his position as servant perhaps explains some of this longing for food – perhaps his financial circumstance renders him hungry and less privileged. Yet this exchange demonstrates the way in which dining spaces provide access to both the body and the mind.  As Hardcastle trains his servants in their new roles, he not only transplants them from the barn to the dining room, but he modifies their bodies and responses.  Diggory is “to make a show at the side-table,” invoking the theatrical nature of his new role.  Further, in critiquing Roger’s hand positioning, Hardcastle recalls a drillmaster, making Diggory reflect on his time in the militia.  The dining space is regimented – a militarized space keenly aware of social distinctions.  Hardcastle’s demands of his servants begin with their bodies – moving Diggory from the barn to the table, controlling Roger’s hand positioning – but they progress to regulate Diggory’s language, his senses and, ultimately, his mind.

[1] Goldsmith, 2.1.9-22.

[2] Ibid, 2.1.23-25


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