[This blog goes better with a cup of tea.]

There are at least two devices, involving tea, that might be of interest to the reader/writer: tea as symbol and tea as setting.

I admit tea and reading and writing are subjects as wide as Texas, or Western Australia, or the ocean, and maybe I got carried away with the research on this one – but it’s good when that happens.  Yes?  Also … warning: As it turns out there are two parts to this tea-related topic.  Two parts at least. Initially I chose tea as a subject to research and write about because tea appears everywhere, and like a braided river the subject is broad and has a tendancy to alter the course of it’s tributaries. I have limited myself to one rule: Every post must mention tea and after that the sky is the limit.

Symbol and tea

The power of any given symbol resides in its secret knowingness, in its universal meaning.  Examples of symbol are everywhere: the cross, the broomstick, the Nike tick, the dove, a red rose.  The trick in handling this kind of symbol is when and how to use it because there are unwritten rules associated with most symbols.  Know your symbol. Don’t leave a dead dove on the doorstep – unless writing a psychological thriller.

To the reader/writer symbol means: “a word or phrase that signifies an object or event which in turn signifies something, or has a range of reference, beyond itself.” (A Glossary of Literary Terms, A H Abrams)

The use of symbol in any type of communication adds layers of meaning.  However, when using this literary device it pays to remember: meanings are not set in concrete.  Meanings can change: the swastika for example or (maybe) the symbol of the Eiffel Tower.  Unfortunately a symbol might not mean exactly the same thing one to another; hence caution is recommended because the intended meaning of a symbol can fall flat, or worst case, come across as dangerous, resulting in the writer being re-assigned to Siberia – metaphorically speaking.  But now, if by ‘Siberia’ I also refer to something more than that-place-where-writers-who-annoyed-people-were-once-sent, if I also somehow referred to, say, either politic’s or current events, then I would be using symbol.  I am not.

By the use of symbol (as well as metaphor and allegory) it is possible for a writer to refer to ‘off limit’ subjects, opinions deemed offensive, or forbidden.  And this is where tea comes in.  Tea, after it became a symbol of the British Way of Life, practically begged writers to mess with it.

The British Empire discovered tea in Assam, India, in the early 1820’s; by the turn of the century Tea had all but gained British citizenry.  The decorated tea cup with matching saucer now symbolised all things British, superior and civilised. Throughout the empire, due in large part to tea’s popularity among women, tea quickly became an emblem of civility, domesticity, feminine power and moral influence.  Some would say of snobbishness and pretence.  The tea party exhibited the wealthy woman’s social standing by reducing societies ideal requisites to a set of manners around the tea table. The hostess’s knowledge of etiquette being just as much on display as her teapot.

I found an example of symbolism and tea in ‘At the Bay’,  by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)  In ‘At the Bay’, Stanley, the man of the house, has finally left the women to themselves yet not before he has made the family run about after him, fetching the important things he cannot find.  The moment Stanley departs the female characters relax.

Katherine writes:  “Even Alice the servant girl, washing up the dishes in the kitchen, caught the infection and used the precious tank-water in a perfectly reckless fashion.  “Oh these men!”said she, and she plunged the teapot into the bowl and held it under the water even after it had stopped bubbling, as if it too was a man and drowning was too good for them.”

‘Frustration with all men unites all women’ Katherine may as well have written. Instead she had Alice drown the teapot – as if it too was a man.  So there is one layer. But why a teapot? Why not have the servant drown a frying pan? The teapot is a woman’s implement.  The teapot is Her estate.  Has K.M, something grander in mind?

In K.M’s hands the teapot is civilised life itself; polite society with it’s oppressive rules. Rules exhibited over tea and small cakes.  Patriarchy had designed the afternoon tea party by proxy.   Was it an act of subversive sacrilege to do away with the teapot? Note: K.M sequestered the servant to do it for her.  Anyhow, Katherine may have believed that, despite appearances, even the tea party was a patriarchal construct.  Drowning the teapot was a dig at women and more especially at the matriarchy that colluded with patriarchy under the guise of ‘feminism power’, the tea party. Perhaps, you think, I read too much into it?   After reading the biographies I doubt it.

As a writer you can have fun with symbol, adding layers of meaning, so long as the audience knows what it is you are up to.

Part 2 … Setting and dialogue.

Katherine Mansfield; At the Bay; The Garden Party, Kathryn Mansfield’s Short Stories; Century Hutchinson New Zealand Ltd.

Judith L Fisher, Trintiy University, San Antonio, Tx.  londonfooddfilmfestival.co.uk




2 replies on “Tea, Symbol and Setting

    1. Oh yes. New Zealanders are the same – or were – Can’t have a visitor without offering them a cuppa! So many rules around that too. Just say ‘yes’ to be on the safe side.


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