Morbid Cravings: Medicalizing Appetite in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Morbid Cravings takes its name from Eduard Levinstein’s 1878 monograph, Die Morphiumsucht, translated as Morbid Craving for Morphia. By situating literary texts in relation to contemporaneous medical writings, Morbid Cravings exposes how gendered expressions of affect and emotion become entangled with the pathologizing of appetite, from “consuming” novels and opium-eating to anorexia nervosa and drug addiction.

Albert Besnard. Morphinomanes. 1887. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Responding to the era of imperial expansion and, therefore, the foods and substances British subjects might consume, Jane Austen’s comic regulation of bad appetites (Emma, Persuasion), Thomas De Quincey’s compulsive confessions (Confessions of an English Opium Eater,Suspiria De Profundis), Emily Brontë’s gothic hunger (Wuthering Heights), Sidney Whiting’s it-narrative about a stomach at the center of affective and cognitive life (Memoirs of a Stomach), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysterious injections (The Sign of Four) use generic forms to explain the shift from the well-mannered regulations of taste to inexplicable cravings that defined addiction as a medical concept at the century’s end. My readings of “morbid cravings” supplement critical discussions of appetite and “good taste” as aesthetic categories: if taste helped to manage the excesses of Britain’s imperial appetites, Morbid Cravings reveals that the development of gendered, diagnostic criteria displaced imperial desires for resources, lands, and fictions of racial supremacy onto various expressions of hunger.

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, 1890

In this way, Morbid Cravings traces shifts from regency regulation, Romantic excess, and Gothic starvation to imperial gormandizing and the creation of prosthetic forms of appetite like injection that reshape the very definition of the term. While each chapter explores different “morbid cravings,” the genealogy of bad appetite in the nineteenth century reveals the ways in which its abstraction from the physical body in the eighteenth-century breaks down in the nineteenth century as the “eating disorder” becomes the new aesthetic mode through which Britain’s imperial appetites are personified and imagined. Simultaneously, the shift from taste to disorder in the cultural imaginary led medical professionals to view deformations of appetite as symptoms of physical illness rather than collective or psychological responses to the excesses of imperial culture. In this respect, Morbid Cravings investigates the intersections among literary, medical, and imperial cultures to reveal how diagnostic language relies on literary texts and the gendered associations physicians made among appetite, femininity, sexuality, and illness. 

Richard Tennant Cooper. Watercolour. 1912. Source: Wellcome Collection.

The first chapter, “Regulation: Jane Austen’s Tastelessness,” examines how Austen’s fiction offers an ironic take on the ideology of taste. In satirizing tastelessness, Austen juxtaposes bad appetites and excessive emotion with the social codes of politeness. These “unbecoming conjunctions” in Persuasion and Emma dramatize the regulatory principles of good taste, which correspond to the nineteenth-century medical idea that linked disturbances of digestion and appetite to anxiety, hallucinations, melancholy, and even death. By situating “tastelessness” in relation to the elaboration of this disorder called “gastric sympathy” by the anatomist John Abernethy, the chapter explores the overlap of Austen’s satiric fiction with the sententious medical wisdom that understood disturbances of appetite as disturbances of emotional health.  

The second chapter, “Excess: De Quincey’s Confessional Stomach,” explores the relationship between De Quincey’s “opium-eating” and his compulsive need to confess. De Quincey’s term “opium-eating” entangles the effects of opium eating with the physical symptoms that cause him to take the drug in the first place. The displacement of cause and effect at work in De Quincey’s text reflects the late eighteenth-century Brunonian system of medicine, developed by John Brown and elaborated by Thomas Beddoes, in which a substance might be both the cause of ill health and its remedy. In this way, De Quincey’s multiple, confessional writings become a generic expression of the displaced relationship between cause and effect he experiences within his own body, linking an inability to locate the origins of his appetite for opium either physically or narratively to his compulsive confessional mode.

“Starvation: Suicidal Hunger in Wuthering Heights” explores the relationships among alcoholism, tuberculosis, and starvation to show how Brontë draws on the miasma theory of disease, the nineteenth-century medical belief that noxious air transmitted illness, to link seemingly distinct forms of “appetite.” The tensions between gothic excess and the incredulous restraint of realist narrators, like Nelly Dean, situate alcoholism, tuberculosis, and starvation as either different expressions of the same miasmatic, supernatural force or as individual struggles with physical and mental breakdown. Miasma, then, figures a traumatic subtext that underlines and links each form of “hunger.” By reading these expressions of hunger alongside the cultural idealization of the tubercular body, the discourse of “inebriety,” and the emergence of anorexia nervosa, the chapter examines the ways that Brontë’s characters not only presage the medicalization of these diseases but also suggest the social contours of these diagnoses.

The fourth chapter, “Cognition: Disgust in Sidney Whiting’s Memoirs of a Stomach,” returns to gastric sympathy to consider how a Victorian era it-narrative recasts Austen’s satire of tastelessness to imagine the stomach as the center of cognitive, affective, and national life. The satiric stomach becomes a comic expression of imperial appetite as Mr. Stomach, the narrator, registers his resistance to the overindulgence of the British gentleman in which he lives through repeated expressions of disgust. The tension between the feelings of a narrating stomach and the actions of the gentlemen comments ironically on the appetites of the nation, a tension which, Mr. Stomach argues, can be reconciled only by the presence of women at mealtimes. In this respect, Mr. Stomach embodies a national ambivalence toward the disorders both physical and subjective caused by imperial appetites which can only be set to rights by a cult of gastric domesticity.  

The final chapter, “Prostheses: An Appetite for Injection in The Sign of Four,” explores scenes of injection in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel alongside the cultural history of the hypodermic needle that was invented to cure opium-eating by bypassing the digestive organs where the appetite for opium was thought to reside. The chapter investigates Sherlock Holmes’s infamous cocaine injections by tracing the invention of the needle to imperial culture and the subsequent elaboration of the prosthetic hunger it induced as an expression of anxieties about imperial appetites for drugs such as morphine and cocaine. Holmes’s injections reveal the ways in which the invention of the needle not only forced physicians to reimagine the origins of appetite as possibly distinct from the body’s physical needs but also colored doctors’ understanding of their patients’ morbid cravings. In this respect, the hypodermic needle becomes an emblem of imperial appetites that are neither understood nor relinquished.