A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Hunger at the Heart of Fiction

To fully understand food security, feel it in literature, including the Bible itself.

“Please, sir, I want some more,” is Oliver Twist’s memorable line from Charles Dickens’ classic bearing the orphaned boy’s name. It perfectly summarizes a state of hunger, of not having enough sustenance to maintain hope, that forms a strong current through centuries of literature. 

That current carries the narratives of many of the great novels of the past three hundred years, from Daniel Defoe’s exploration of the ways in which his Robinson Crusoe learns to sustain himself once shipwrecked, to William Golding’s similar, but oh-so-different exploration in Lord of the Flies. It fills pages of the great French epic tragedies of real life by Balzac and Hugo, even Flaubert, and serves as a backdrop for the actions of Thomas Hardy’s fated heroes and heroines, as well as Stephen Crane’s subtle morality tales. Hunger, and the need for ways to find what is now called Food Security, reaches an apotheosis in Knut Hamsen’s monumental Hunger, as well as George Orwell’s lesser-known, but seminal Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as Colson Whitehead’s more recent explorations of black experience in Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys.

Yes, the World Food Summit of 1996 kicked current broadened concerns regarding hunger to a higher level when they defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life,” and the United Nations later sharpened that definition by adding the five elements tied to such security. And yes, there have been numerous nonfiction books that have charted the horrors of the many ways in which a lack of food stunts entire cities, nations, and cultures. 

But how best to truly empathize with such straits, actual bouts of temporary hunger notwithstanding (and those, for most of us, still retain the knowledge that one will eventually be sated), than through the masterful evocations of fiction?

In the final rounds, it’s key to a deep knowledge of the many issues behind food security, as with all major concepts, to find ways to experience what’s under consideration. To feel the ways in which hunger, or the fears that accompany it, can stretch to burn all elements of one’s being.

Remember Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” starving to death outside a window, drawn by the dream of a different life?

Even more effective, hone yourself to that most-lasting of books, the Bible, which reportedly holds within it more than 2,000 references to poverty, and to ministering to the poor and the hungry. It’s the same with all the great traditions: the feeding of those who are hungry is central to all.

Which begs the question: Why then are so many still without food security in the 21st century?

Turn your ideas into loaves; pass on the meaning of true hunger through literature. It’s the next best way to get a full mind’s attention other than actual deprivation.