“Eight Bites” by Carmen Maria Machado follows an insecure woman who undergoes bariatric surgery. All three of her sisters have also undergone this surgery, and she is ecstatic to join them, much to the disapproval of her daughter Cal. The narrator blames Cal for her body, and their relationship is uneasy and stunted throughout the story. The narrator’s own mother was slender, and practiced a disordered habit of only eating eight bites of food in a meal. After the surgery, the narrator follows in her footsteps. After her “old body” vanishes, an entity begins to slink its way into her life and follow her up until her death, when it embraces her and takes her away.
The chronic tension of this story is the narrator’s relationship with her body, the acute tension is the surgery/arrival of the entity.
Something this story exemplifies is the use of a fantastical metaphor to reveal meaning rooted in reality. The obvious controlling metaphor of the entity drives the story, and signifies the narrator’s previous body. I personally think it also represents her daughter’s body, and every woman’s body in the world throughout time. This is explicitly implied here:
She will outlive my daughter, and my daughter’s daughter, and the earth will teem with her and her kind, their inscrutable forms and unknowable destinies.
The entity is described almost in childlike terms, signifying the narrator’s role as a mother, to her daughter Cal, and to her own body – both of which she has neglected. To me, the entity is a physical manifestation of the link between the narrator’s own body and her daughter’s, her resentment of both. When the narrator lashes out, beating the entity into submission, she is not only paralleling her surgery (beating her body into submission), but revealing her resentment towards her daughter for “ruining” her body. The sisters have their own entities, of far different natures. The multiplicity of the entities implies that they are universal to women, and serve different purposes. The entity, or the female body, exists in this story as a kind of contrite ghost, haunting the narrator with its plea for acceptance, forgiveness, care. When the narrator dies, the entity reveals itself as something like an angel, embracing the narrator. The narrator apologizes to the entity, reversing their roles. It is no longer the entity begging the narrator for forgiveness, leaving offerings and hiding beneath the floorboards, but the narrator recognizing her failure as a caretaker. The entity forgives her, because it is her body and it will never forsake her. The entity will outlive her, the narrator claims, and the earth will be overrun with the neglected bodies of women everywhere, their neglect immortalizing them. By neglecting them, we have removed them from their destinies, leaving them to wander forever. I believe this might represent the ideals we pass onto our children, our hatred for our bodies seeps its way into our children’s minds, and will manifest long after we are gone. This controlling metaphor is artfully crafted and I applaud Machado, it serves the story well and never feels contrived. Machado recognizes that the female body is a kind of haunting, and her driving metaphor exemplifies this idea and articulates it elegantly.
In addition, this story is wrought with metaphors involving food. Food plays an important role in the story regardless, as it is a constant source of conflict for the narrator, making its purpose as a metaphor even more compelling given the context. Food begins as a representation of the narrator’s failures, then of her successes. Food is also frequently used to represent the narrator’s body, the foods most frequently associated with her body are oysters and fruit. Post-surgery, the narrator describes taking a grapefruit apart with her hands, paralleling the description of her surgery.
I try and take a grapefruit apart with my hands, but it’s an impossible task. The skin clings to the fruit, and between them is an intermediary skin, thick and impossible to separate from the meat.
Eventually I take a knife and lop off domes of rinds and cut the grapefruit into a cube before ripping it open with my fingers. It feels like I am dismantling a human heart.
Oysters are direct parallels to the entity that trails the narrator, as they too are just brainless muscle, nevertheless alive, and resisting the narrator. Food is a vital issue in the world, particularly with womanhood, the control and lack of control that comes with it, and its direct connection to the body. To control food is to control your body. You are what you eat, etc. The narrator becomes eight bites after the surgery, she becomes an ascetic, she becomes like her mother, iron-willed. She is the image of control she has so sought after. She awakes before her death hungry, because only at the end of her life she is allowed to be hungry. Machado recognizes food as “infused with everything else”, with language, womanhood, the body, relationships.
Something Machado does that I admire, and would like to implement in my own writing, is her use of the controlling metaphor. The line between realism and fantasy is permeable as the story progresses, as the controlling metaphor grows. However, the story never fully loses touch with reality; in fact the fantastical element of the controlling metaphor helps the reality of the story emerge. I would like to write metaphors like these, that use magic/fantasy/ghost stories, whatever you’d like to call it, to reveal meaning.
The writing exercise is to write a character who undergoes a change (physically or psychologically) whose previous self manifests physically and follows them throughout the story, and reveals a deeper nature to the change.
- What do you think the reoccuring white fox represents?
- What does the narrator mean by telling the entity “I didn’t know”?
- Do you think the narrator hates her daughter Cal (for taking her body away from her)? Is the entity not only a representation of her own body, but of her daughter’s?
- Do you think Machado’s writing style (lyrical/poetic) served as an effective vehicle for conveying the subject matter, or hindered it?