Transgressive Treats: Food and Shame in Children’s Literature


On Easter Sunday, baker Ruby Tandoh implored her twitter followers, voraciously eyeing her food-filled feed, to “please channel Bruce Bogtrotter today as you triumph over those who use food to shame & subdue you”.

Tandoh and Roald Dahl alike recognise food’s power as a currency of control. Tandoh attached to her tweet a frame of a triumphant Bruce from the 1996 film version of Matilda, chocolate slathered like war paint on his chubby, grinning cheeks. In the story, Bruce has just heroically consumed an impossibly enormous chocolate cake served to him by headmistress Miss Trunchbull as a fitting punishment (a literal “just dessert”) for having earlier stolen a slice of it. Trunchbull attempts to humiliate Bruce in front of the school by marking him out for his gluttony. However, cheered on by his peers who have been similarly victimised under Trunchbull’s reign of terror, Bruce painstakingly demolishes the monstrous bake. The disempowered child thus regains agency through consumption, thwarting Trunchbull’s attempted exercise of control. As in this episode, food elsewhere in children’s literature is the fundamental currency of control in adult/child interactions.

Child characters, and the readers who consume their stories, are continually being led to “gastronomic utopias” (as labelled by the appropriately named Susan Honeyman in her book Consuming Agency in Fairy Tales, Childlore, and Folkliterature). However, the children are invariably brought to discover there that succumbing to temptation leads to punishment. Like Hansel and Gretel in the gingerbread house, some are put in danger of themselves being consumed, while others, like the children in Willie Wonka’s factory, are sentenced to expulsion – excretion, even – from these edible Edens. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that food has been described as the sex of children’s literature. It is pleasure but it is also power. It is a means of governing children; it is temptation, punishment, reward, and potentially, as with our Bruce, a mouth-watering tool for transgression. (It is Max in Where the Wild Things Are roaring savagely to his mother, ‘“I’LL EAT YOU UP!”’)

But rebellious food crimes are not traditionally applauded by children’s writers, and gluttony is a particular source of anxiety. Gluttonous eating can be seen to privilege personal gratification over the greater good of the community. Dahl’s work is in fact both indulgent and instructive. It offers us fantasy gastronomic utopias and cases of gluttonous over-indulgence, but also insistently ascribes firm punishments to those who commit food crimes. In fact, Bruce’s transgressive greed is licensed by Dahl only because in that instance it is more beneficial for the community – the assembly of oppressed children – that Bruce defeats the tyrant, Trunchbull, by finishing the cake. Elsewhere, however, Dahl’s dietary didacticism is not so subversive. Augustus Gloop (the “great big greedy nincompoop”) is brutally punished for his transgression of drinking from the chocolate river that runs through Wonka’s factory. Gluttonous Gloop commits a further crime as his selfish consumption also contaminates the chocolate for everyone else: Wonka complains, “You’re dirtying my chocolate!” So Gloop is perversely disciplined by being ingested into and subsequently evacuated from the bowels of Wonka’s factory. 

Through such cautionary tales of food crime and retribution, Dahl and other children’s writers offer an education to their readers in food etiquette. But this haughty moralising over food in children’s literature is a malevolent tradition. Prescriptively enforcing societal norms of food behaviour serves only, as Tandoh claims, to shame and subdue. In fact, by teaching through the example of naughty Gloops and vilified Dudley Dursleys, children’s writers tyrannically exercise their own Trunchbull-esque control over their child characters – and not without some relish.

Lewis Carroll is also a vocal member of this tradition. Carroll focuses his attention on one child in particular, Alice, and his weapon of choice is starvation. Even when Carroll offers Alice food, it has alienating effects. When Alice feeds on cake and drink labelled ‘EAT ME’ and ‘DRINK ME’, her body is altered drastically and unpredictably. She fluctuates between being miniature (her diminutive size symbolising her powerlessness under Carroll’s puppetry), and a dramatically enlarged figure in which she is made to feel self-conscious and unhappy. When, in her gigantic form, she is squashed inside a house, Carroll narrates,

‘I’m grown up now,’ she added in a sorrowful tone; ‘at least there’s not room to grow up any more in here.’

As Alice grows older, in Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll reduces her diet, offering her fewer and fewer opportunities to satiate her hunger. Punning on Latin grammar, he gives her only, “Jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day”, and so Alice receives no jam at all.

Wanting to put off Alice growing up is the key to understanding Carroll’s alimentary authoritarianism. In real life, Carroll was reportedly disgusted when his “child friends” displayed signs of hunger, and he meticulously planned the times and quantities of their consumption when they visited. Carroll’s hang-up is female appetite – and this means both food and sex. Indeed, his preference for pre-pubescent girls indicates his anxiety towards female sexuality and, in denying Alice food, Carroll thus attempts to stunt her physical and sexual development, eternally infantilising her, and protecting himself from the perceived dangers of adult woman’s libido. Carroll’s anxieties, albeit extreme, are unnervingly unexceptional – both when Carroll was writing and now. Appetite is a sign of a threateningly uncontainable woman, and so it is the patriarchal mission to suppress this desire.

Indeed, when Tandoh told us to triumph over those who use food to shame and subdue us, she wasn’t addressing children as her principle audience. Food exemplifies the disempowerment of both children and women in society. It is women who are being addressed when advertisers entice us to “indulge” in “sinfully” good food, only to punish us for our consequent weight gain with vicious fat-shaming and sodding Special K. It is women who are continually infantilised and expected to deny womanhood: to physically deny their appetite (for food and sex), and, socially, to accept their status as chaste, mute, and submissive girls. It is women who are the primary victims in a society which, like Dahl and Carroll, uses food as a sadistic instrument of control. 

However, food can also be used as a means of self-expression. In fact, readers of children’s books are given the opportunity to revolt because, ironically, in attempting to shame and subdue, children’s writers actually provide the reader with the literary fodder through which forbidden foods can be vicariously enjoyed. In the food-as-sex analogy, children’s literature is a kind of pornography. So, next time you revisit a cherished old copy of Dahl or Carroll, really savour the everlasting gobstoppers, the stolen jam tarts, and beloved Bruce’s chocolate cake. Better still, also unapologetically enjoy as much actual food as you so choose, without fear of judgement or punishment; undertake your own Bogtrottean act of transgressive heroism. 

Carroll maliciously attempts to suppress Alice’s dangerous appetite, punishing her after she initially consumes the spiked food labelled, “EAT ME”. Well, I reply, bite me. It is the 150th birthday of Alice in Wonderland this year and I, for one, will be celebrating with cake.

Follow Ella Bucknall on Twitter @BucknallElla

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2 responses to “Transgressive Treats: Food and Shame in Children’s Literature”

  1. Vicky dillon says:

    Throughly enjoyed your article Elle, thought provoking. Hope your well. Vicky xxxxx

  2. Lena says:

    Great analysis! As a Comparative Literature student, I enjoyed this tremendously.