Meals of Oppression
by Genna Holtz
Set in 1797 England, Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (1995), based on the book of the same name, beautifully captures one of the most famous and complex love story of all time (Wright, 2005). The central tension of the romance lies in the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who come from vastly different social positions in life. Their misinformed perceptions of each other drive the narrative’s cautionary tale of character judgement rooted in pedigree. One of the poignant ways Wright conveys ever-present social tensions in the story is through food. The manners, etiquette, and politics surrounding meals reveal subtle sources of distinction between the haves and have-nots. Though the love story between the protagonists takes precedence, the food depicted in the film illuminates the political expectations that govern the lives of the gentry. Moreover, the way Wright cinematographically captures the oppressive social structures that dominate Pride and Prejudice’s world highlights the strong relationship between food and power.
Foregoing tradition, Wright uses food as a divisive tool rather than a unifying instrument. He incorporates food into scenes involving characters from distinct social classes to build tension. As the director describes, “Society at that time was changing. The French Revolution [had] just happened, and the aristocracy [were] terrified that the lower classes [were] going to rise up in arms against them. So rather than segregate themselves, they assimilated” (Abeel, 2005). Instances in which the elite and the middle class attempt to homogenize in the film often involve meals. In the film, the dinner at Rosings Park most clearly illustrates this uncomfortable assimilation of classes.
The dinner scene at Rosings Park, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s palatial estate, epitomizes food’s role as a conduit for communicating class distinctions. Lady Catherine barrages Lizzie Bennet with intimate questions regarding her upbringing, educational opportunities, and accomplishments. Lady Catherine, and everyone else of equal status seated at the decadent table, sips her soup throughout her inquiry, while Lizzie cannot even get a bite in because she must explain herself, and justify her place at the table. The editing in the scene cross-cuts between mid-range shots of the other dinner guests eating and contrasting closeups of Lizzie’s spoon hovering above her bowl. Lizzie grows visibly increasingly frustrated and offended by the Lady’s impertinent probes. This is communicated through the closeups of her face side-lit by candle light. Wright comments that there are many closeups because “Jane Austen observes people very carefully and closely: so that was the cinematic equivalent of her prose” (Abeel, 2005). Lizzie’s victory comes after she wittily shuts down Lady Catherine’s question about her age, effectively regaining her power. This is symbolically indicated by her triumphantly taking her first taste of the meal in a closeup shot with short depth-of-field. The bond between food and power depicted in this scene is integral to understanding the film’s broader comments about the rigidity of socioeconomics at the time.
Dinners throughout the film emphasize class differences. The scene in which Mr. Collins first comes to visit the Bennet family specifically highlights the politics of ownership during this time in England. At dinner, Mr. Collins, the heir of Mr. Bennet’s estate rudely asks, “What excellent boiled potatoes…to which of my fair cousins should I compliment the cooking?” A vexed Mrs. Bennet responds, “We are perfectly able to keep a cook…” and he insensitively replies, “I’m very happy that the estate can afford such a living” (Wright, 2005). The room is under-lit, but the potatoes are very well lit and bright yellow, in stark contrast the dark neutral colors in the rest of the room. The prominent placement of the potatoes as a focal point in most of the frames draws all attention to the tension the dish represents. The choice of potatoes in this scene is clever because the potato’s stature amongst food mirrors the Bennet family’s stature in society. While potatoes were not an outright poor people’s food in the early 19th century, they were hardly a fancy dish that would be served in a place such as Rosings Park. Likewise, the humble Bennets have some standing in their community, but they seem destitute and impoverished in comparison to wealthy families such as Bingley’s and Darcy’s. The point of view shots allow viewers to feel as if they too are seated at dinner, sharing in the Bennet family’s embarrassment and enduring the insufferable Mr. Collins’s presumptuous and condescending questions. The tight framing and flash pans of the scene create an oppressive, restrictive atmosphere that echoes the suffocation the females at the table feel. At the core of this exchange, Wright conveys the multifaceted nature of food and that the preparation of a meal speaks volumes about status. The awkward sharing of the meal foreshadows the excruciating transference of property from Bennet to Collins that will occur in the future. After Mr. Bennet’s passing, all property, wealth, and resources will fall into Mr. Collin’s possession, not the children’s, simply because of their gender. Wright’s masterful utilization of food as a vehicle to convey class in this scene demonstrates this society’s blatantly unjust social institutions.
Food is a principle mode of class distinction in Pride and Prejudice, used both to establish power dynamics as well as define the limited opportunities for British women in the late 18th century. Joe Wright beautifully mimics the feelings of Elizabeth Bennet through his cinematography so that the audience can easily empathize with her struggles. Pride and Prejudice elicits the nuances and pervasiveness of social pressures that women faced, demanding audiences to question the social structures they tolerate in modernity.
Abeel, Erica. “Tackling A Classic: Joe Wright on “Pride and Prejudice”.” IndieWire, 10 Nov. 2005, http://www.indiewire.com/2005/11/tackling-a-classic-joe-wright-on-pride-and-prejudice-77678/.
Pride and Prejudice. Directed by Joe Wright. Focus Features, 2005.