What does cannibalism symbolize?

Answered by Robert Flynn

Cannibalism, as a symbol, carries deep and complex meanings within literature. It serves as a response to the politics of external conquest, internal colonization, and territorial consolidation. The act of cannibalism is often used metaphorically to represent the exploitation and consumption of one culture or group by another. It reflects the dynamics of power, domination, and control.

One of the primary symbols associated with cannibalism is the idea of devouring or consuming the Other. In literature, this can be seen as a representation of the dominant culture assimilating or eradicating the marginalized culture. The act of eating someone is a metaphorical way of exerting control over them, reducing them to a mere object of consumption. This symbolism can be seen in works such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the cannibalistic African tribes are portrayed as savage and uncivilized, reinforcing the notion of European superiority.

Cannibalism also symbolizes the dehumanization of the Other. By reducing a person to mere food, their humanity is stripped away, and they become a commodity to be exploited. This dehumanization allows the dominant culture to justify their actions and maintain their power. In literature, this symbolism can be seen in works such as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he suggests that the impoverished Irish should sell their children as food to the wealthy English, highlighting the dehumanizing effects of colonization.

Furthermore, cannibalism can represent the idea of cultural appropriation and the commodification of indigenous cultures. In many cases, colonizers would appropriate the cultural practices and traditions of the natives, often distorting or misrepresenting them for their own gain. This act of cultural cannibalism is a form of erasure, as it reduces the original culture to a mere caricature or spectacle. This symbolism can be seen in works such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the character of Sethe, a former slave, is haunted by the memory of her baby being killed and consumed by her fellow slaves, representing the commodification and erasure of black lives during slavery.

Cannibalism serves as a powerful symbol within literature, representing the politics of conquest and colonization. It symbolizes the consumption and domination of one culture by another, the dehumanization of the Other, and the appropriation and commodification of indigenous cultures. Through its use, authors can explore and critique the power dynamics and injustices present in society.