With a Side of Social Status

By Elizabeth “Libby” Warren

Food transcends physical sustenance. It feeds a social construct that places men above women, white above Black, and rich above poor. Ultimately, it announces social status and wealth. Does a plate hold rainbows of veggies alongside clean-cut lamb? Or bits of days old rice? Just as how a few indulge while the rest starve, the elite splurge on prosperity while the lowly sort through their scraps. This social hierarchy appears in Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian novel Jane Eyre , which starves Jane of her independence through malnutrition . In contrast, Jean Rhys’ postcolonial perspective in Wide Sargasso Sea rewards Antoinette’s submission with temporary abundance. Though Brontë’s and Rhys’s heroines dine in different manners, they both ultimately ingest the same truth: food unveils social status.

Both authors use a shift in class to crush Jane’s and Antoinette’s innocence and expose them to social structure. Young Jane “devour[s]” her first meal at Lowood “without thinking of its taste” until she suddenly registers a “nauseous mess of burnt porridge.” (Brontë 55). At Gateshead, she only ever knew wealth, private cooks, and quality meals. She may have lacked a family connection, but her experience at the dinner table had only ever been privileged. She carries this upper-class mindset to Lowood where she “devours” the first meal without questioning its palpability. A rich girl turned poor, Jane finally learns that quality food is a perquisite reserved to the rich, which she no longer enjoys. Inversely, Antoinette encounters a sudden gain in wealth that exposes this same truth. Her mother’s recent marriage forces her to adopt an English diet of “beef and mutton, pies, and puddings.” (Rhys, 32). Annette’s former maidenhood categorized her family as low-class because they lacked a financial male caretaker. Just as how an upper-class childhood develops Jane’s privilege, Antoinette’s lower-class background guarantees a similar innocence. Her younger self enjoyed “Christopine’s cooking” because that was the only cuisine she had ever known. However, Mr. Mason barrels into her life as a landowner and member of the gentry ready to cleanse her West Indian experience with “superior” British class. Though her meals are lavish and social status elevated, Antoinette’s newfound luxury comes at a cost. She will never taste “Christopine’s cooking” again because her new social class binds her to new customs. Whether rotten or lavish, food ruins the taste of Jane’s and Antoinette’s innocence, fastening each heroine to her perspective rung of the social ladder.

As both Brontë and Rhys withhold luxury from the lower classes, the lavish meals reveal that classism perpetuates itself by manipulating the poor. When Miss Temple treats her pupils to “bread and cheese instead of burnt porridge,” Mr. Brocklehurst insists that such comfort “starve[s] [the girls’] immortal souls!” (Brontë 75). The Victorian elite enjoyed luxuries like cheese, and the middle-class ate bread. According to Mr. Brocklehurst, both these meals will not suit the girls. If they cannot eat luxury food nor that of the middle-class, what can they eat? Burnt porridge emerges as the final option. These impressionable young girls, like other vulnerable members of their class, grow up viewing lowliness as their sole way of survival. They never question this system out of fear that rebellion may incite harm, showing that classism survives by preying upon the human instinct for survival. Likewise, impoverished communities in the West Indies face this same predicament. Servant girl Amélie spoon-feeds Mr. Rochester “cold chicken, bread, fruit, and a bottle of wine” (Rhys 126). This meal is huge and already prepared. Hard at work and probably hungry, Amélie dares not ask for a bite. Such a question would violate social customs as Rochester is a rich white man and she a poor servant girl. This one-sided opulence reflects the hopeless situation of the lower classes. Many poor people perform difficult sometimes back-breaking labor but only receive minimum wage. Despite her hardwork, Amélie only prepares the opulence for others and never herself.

Whereas poverty breaks down Jane’s body, Antoinette’s mind pays the price of her wealth, proving that each class endures distinctive suffering. Jane hits rock bottom after she begs a little girl for a “mess of cold porridge [about to be thrown] into a pig trough” (Brontë 379). Leaving Rochester stripped Jane of her job and potential suitor. Her humiliating, pitiful request reveals the extent of her desperation as she begs for animal slop. Victorian class structure once again forces the poor to fend for themselves in whatever manner they must. This toxic system also harms wealthy Antoinette. When Rochester locks her in Thornfield like an animal, she dulls her pain by downing “the drink without color” (Rhys 161). This alcohol affects her within a few sips, which reveals her access to high-quality alcohol and other luxury goods. However, she also harbors a certain pain to pay for such access. Eager suitors are a common perquisite of wealthy women, and Antoinette’s wealth attracted Rochester in the first place. Though protruding bones may not announce it, Antoinette suffers alongside Jane due to her class.

In their novels, Brontë and Rhys highlight a stark reality. Just as how everyone depends on food for survival, all classes suffer at the hands of social structure. Wealth sets Antoinette on a path towards destruction. Poverty thwarts any chance of Jane’s for financial independence. Whether it propels us forward or holds us back, social status exerts a dangerous amount of influence over our fate. It decides our place in society, robbing us of the chance to create who we are and who we hope to become.