By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Bread’ is a short story (although it might also be categorised as a prose poem) from Margaret Atwood’s slim 1983 collection of prose pieces, Murder in the Dark. The story invites the reader to imagine a series of scenarios involving bread; Atwood uses these individual tableaux to encourage us to consider a number of themes including plenty, want, famine, poverty, honour, and even the nature of imagination itself.
‘Bread’: plot summary
The story is divided into five short sections, each divided from the others by an asterisk.
In the first section, the narrator invites us to imagine a piece of bread. However, this is no great feat of the imagination because the bread actually exists, in the kitchen. It is easy for ‘you’ (here the narrator adopts the rare and more daring approach of using the second-person mode of narration, describing what we, the reader, are doing) to open the bag containing the loaf and cut a slice of bread.
You can then eat it with butter, peanut butter, and honey. Indeed, there’s plenty of bread in the house: brown, white, and rye bread. Bread is even a leisure activity: baking your own bread can relax you as you knead the dough and make the loaf.
The second section of Atwood’s story stands in stark contrast to the first. Now we are invited to imagine a famine, and a single, precious piece of bread. The (comfortable middle-class Western) reader is invited to imagine being in a different room where you are with your sister, who is dying of starvation. Outside in the streets, the dead are piling up because nobody has enough food.
Now you’re faced with a difficult decision: share the bread with your dying sister, or give it all to her, as she needs it more? Or eat it all yourself, giving her up as a lost cause?
The third section asks us to imagine a prison where we are being locked up and starved because we have valuable information which we refuse to tell the authorities. If you do tell, the narrator informs us, it will mean the deaths of dozens of your friends whom you have betrayed. The jailers offer you bread every day as a bribe for information, but you know that to accept the bribe will mean death (for your friends) rather than life. Here, Atwood is playing on the associations between bread and life.
The fourth section contrasts ‘haves’ with ‘have-nots’. We are told, in fairy-tale fashion, of two sisters, one rich and childless, the other poor with five children and no husband to support them. She had no food left so she went to her sister to ask for some, but the sister lied and told her poor sister that she had food to spare. When the rich woman’s husband cut into the bread, blood flowed out, because she had refused to help her sister in need.
The fifth and final section of Atwood’s story returns to the original loaf of bread the narrator has described. It floats in the air, off the table, and you (the reader) don’t dare touch the bread because you don’t want to find out that it’s all just an illusion the narrator’s words have tricked you into seeing before you.
Bread is an important presence in Atwood’s work. At one point in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Offred, the protagonist, alludes to the Lord’s Prayer by observing that she has enough ‘daily bread’, but the problem is keeping it down without choking on it. Atwood has also written a poem, ‘All Bread’, which also defamiliarises this staple foodstuff by associating it with earth, dead bodies, blood (the Brothers Grimm fairy tale again), famine, and ash.
In ‘Bread’, the current story, she does a similar thing. Bread traditionally represents life, because it is a basic foodstuff used to sustain life, especially in the West (rice has typically served this function in much of Africa and Asia). ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is a famous line in the Lord’s Prayer, which asks God to provide sustenance for his people.
But each different scenario Atwood presents to us troubles any straightforward understanding of bread as a symbol of life. What if you don’t have enough to survive? And what if you have too much?
In the first section, the (presumed middle-class Western) reader has an abundance, even a plethora of bread. It is spread with not just butter but peanut butter and honey, which is applied so liberally as to run off the slice of bread and onto the fingers.
By contrast, the famine-stricken siblings in the second tableau have one small slice of bread to share between them, and it is all they have to keep them alive – and even that may not be enough. Similarly, in the third section, bread – that staple of life – is used to ground down the prisoner so that they will abandon their principles and tell the authorities what they want to hear.
The fourth section effectively brings these two worlds together: haves and have-nots, those with too much and those with too many. Atwood collapses them into one family. In a grim complement to the siblings from the second section (those dying of famine), two sisters represent these two extremes of need and abundance.
When the rich sister’s bread bleeds blood, rendering it inedible for either party, Atwood’s message is clear: from a humane perspective, hoarding and wasting our food is so morally objectionable that it should turn our food to ash (or blood) in our mouths.
In some ways, of course, the final section also echoes the third, with the author (or narrator) taking on the role of the jailors who taunt the prisoner with the prospect of bread, if they will only betray their friends to save their own skin. This is author as authoritarian, seeking to control the reader but also to make us think: what do we take for granted? Has bread lost its meaning to us because we can always find the money to buy it (or even, in some cases, make it)?
The prisoner in the third section, thinking of the bread he’s offered, is reminded of the yellow bowl from his childhood, and it is the loss of that bowl – and what it represents – that is the worst part of his suffering. Once again, the mental idea or perception of something is more potent even than the physical reality.
Victor Hugo once observed, ‘The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal.’ Have we, in our world of plenty, lost the ideal?