How is the symbol of food used to bring about character development in the novels ‘Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka and ‘The Woman in the Dunes’ by Kobo Abe?
In both Metamorphosis and The Woman in the Dunes, food is used in various ways. It is used as a symbol to bring out the different stages of the character, to set the character within the hierarchical structure of the novel, to develop the main character’s relationship with the nourisher and to show how the protagonist reaches realizations. Through all these ways, food is used as a focus to bring about character development. This is evident in many examples found in both novels.Order now
Food is used as a symbol to show how the character develops through the novel. At the beginnings of both books, the main characters, Gregor Samsa and Nikki Jumpei change their eating habits, a change which has a dual purpose. Firstly, it underscores the fact that they go through major adjustments, and secondly, their choice in food is used to symbolize their state in life. In Metamorphosis, Gregor’s choice in food is described as “…half- decayed vegetables… a piece of cheese that Gregor would have called uneatable two days ago…” (Chapter 2). As he transforms from a human to a cockroach, he transits from enjoying his favorite ‘human’ food to eating rotting food. The diction used, decomposed, shows us that as Gregor’s choice in food changes, his new choice is symbolic of his state in life. He’s considered repulsive to his family, which then quickly rejects him. Thus, Gregor’s choice in food symbolizes his current state in life. The same use of food can be seen in The Woman in the Dunes. While in the sand dune, Nikki adapts more and more to the coastal diet; his preferences change with time until he can only eat skewers of fish and other seafood. At this point, Jumpei realizes that he is only a fish in the sea and just another human in the world. As he begins to question the meaning of his existence, it dawns on him that as a teacher, he had not really had an impact, but rather that students have passed in and out of his class, with him simply observing.
Therefore, the food that both Gregor and Nikki eat represents them. The authors use the above mentioned examples to show the reader that Gregor and Nikki led meaningless, mundane lives, equivalent to those of decayed material and of a fish, respectively.
The main character’s development through the hierarchical structure within the setting is also evident through food, in the form of meals, in both books. In Metamorphosis, Gregor’s mealtimes represent his new role within his family: he becomes of less importance and drops to the bottom of the hierarchical structure within his family. The rest of the family is fed before him, and he is fed twice a day, when they are asleep, as if it were an illicit activity. As the novel progresses, his family’s negligence towards him increases. He is subsequently completely excluded from the family. Furthermore, that which is associated with the left over from the meals: the waste materials and the garbage can are discarded into his room, and so Gregor is equated to them. This too represents the stage of Gregor’s life. It also foreshadows his deterioration and imminent death.
In contrast to Gregor, Nikki Jumpei is considered of more importance than the woman, and is fed before her, while she stands holding an umbrella for him. It is evident from his surprise while she does this that he is not used to being treated like this, and that he has risen in the hierarchical structure of The Woman in the Dunes. Evidently, in one novel, the protagonist moves down in the hierarchical structure, while in the other, the protagonist rises. Both authors use mealtimes to bring out these changes. The reader can see that in the two books, though they experience opposite hierarchical changes, it is meal times that are used to express these changes, which further develop the characters.
In addition to the different stages of life and hierarchy, in both novels the woman, who is the provider of food and nourishment, also plays an important role in character development. In Metamorphosis, Gregor’s sister notices that some milk has spilt around the edge of his feeding bowl and carries it away with a cloth. In this example, the spilt milk is a foreshadowing of the ceasing of nourishment. Furthermore, that Grete would rather not touch the bowl with her bare hands is symbolic of how the brother and sister grow apart and how Gregor soon disgusts his sister. In Nikki Jumpei’s case, it is the woman in the dunes who nourishes him with food. At moments of setbacks, to comfort him, the woman suggests cooking dinner, which suggests that this is the way they overcome problems. It is the woman who supports him, in not only providing him with food, but being his support and taking care of him. A similarity in both books is that these women are the only ones who care for and nourish Gregor and Nikki to finally see the truth. Thus, the author uses the role of the nourisher in these examples to develop the protagonists and their relationships with other characters.
Food also plays a significant role in showing the change of the main character over the course of the novel. In Metamorphosis, an apple injury by his father causes him much suffering and deterioration of his health. Then it is during his family’s mealtime that he barricades himself into his room and starves himself to death. A similar scenario takes place in The Woman in the Dunes. When he is denied food and water, he exclaims, “What in God’s name do they think they’re doing? Do they want to kill me?” (Chapter 18). It is after his captors deny him food and water that he begins to give in to them, and in desperation, he begins to lose hope. In both novels, though food sustains Gregor and Nikki throughout the plot, it can also bring about desperation. The denial of food makes Nikki finally succumb to the villager’s demands, whereas Gregor’s death is because of starvation, refusal of food, and a food-related injury: major turning points for both characters.
The final role that food plays is in helping the protagonists achieve realizations. The following excerpt from Metamorphosis shows the reader this: “The rotting apple in his back and the inflamed path around it… hardly troubled him.” (Chapter 3) Here, the apple represents Gregor. Normally, apples are nourishing, similar to Gregor’s role as the provider for his family. The diction rotting used to describe the apple shows the reader that like the apple is rotting and useless, his family sees him as rotting to his death. That this ‘hardly troubled him’ is evidence of his realization: he has come to terms with his inconsequential role in his family, and his meaningless existence. Furthermore, as the apple in his back led to his death, it is his realization that allows him to pass away. On the other hand, Nikki Jumpei regains some hope and builds a contraption to help him escape, but when he ends up collecting fresh water, his plans change. In this instance, Nikki starts off by trying to lure an animal into his trap, similar to how the villagers tried to trap him. However, his contraption results firstly in the decay of a fish, which symbolizes the end of his meaningless life, and secondly, the surprising collection of pure water, which symbolizes his unforeseen realization in the end. In Metamorphosis, as well as The Woman in the Dunes, food is used to show how the protagonists make realizations regarding their lives and make decisions based on these.
Throughout both novels, Franz Kafka and Kobo Abe effectively use the symbol of food to develop the main character in various ways: by showing different stages of the character, setting the character within the hierarchical structure of the novel, developing the protagonist’s relationship with the nourisher, and showing the deterioration and final realizations of the character. However, Gregor and Nikki’s realizations have different outcomes. Kafka uses food as a means for the protagonist to achieve his realization of his meaningless existence, which leads to his death. On the other hand, Kobo Abe uses food to lead to the character’s finding meaning in his discovery and his ‘re-birth’. Though there are some similarities and some differences in the way the theme of food has been used, the effect is the same: developing a strong character.