“Bread” is a very short story from Margaret Atwood‘s 1983 collection Murder in the Dark.
Summary of “Bread”
The narrator tells us to imagine a piece of bread. The loaf is on the bread board next to the breadknife. You take it out of the plastic and cut a slice. You put several spreads on and then eat it. It’s brown bread but you also have white and some rye that has gone moldy. Sometimes you make your own bread to relax.
Now imagine a famine and a piece of bread. You lie on a thin mattress in a hot room. You and your sister are starving. You press a cloth to her lips and head. She’s weaker than you are. You’ve been saving a piece of bread and there’s no way to get anything else. Outside are only scavengers and death.
Do you share the bread, give it all to your sister, or eat it all yourself?
Now you’re in prison. You have information they want about some people who will die if you reveal it. They offered you a piece of brown bread that reminds you of a bowl you used to have. You think of the bowl more than the pain and hunger.
There were two sisters—one rich and married with no children, and the other a poor widow with five children. The poor one asks the rich one for a mouthful of bread for her children. The rich one drives her away. When the rich ones husband cuts into the bread, blood comes out.
Everyone knows what this German fairy tale means.
The loaf of bread floats above the kitchen table; a blue cloth floats underneath it. You don’t touch it. You don’t want to know if it’s real or a hallucination. You can see it and smell it but you don’t want to know if you can eat it.
There’s a contrast in the story between what a piece of bread means for the middle class and those less fortunate.
The first section establishes what would generally be considered a normal view of bread. You cut a slice from a full loaf, and there’s another loaf as well. There’s also a loaf that has spoiled. A food staple like bread is abundant for many people, and so easy to obtain that it can be wasted without any concern.
The bread knife is unusually expensive, having been bought at auction. It has BREAD carved into it, identifying it as a special item. This also highlights abundance.
On the bread you put butter, peanut butter and honey, and the honey overflows. This turns a basic necessity into a luxury. The piece of bread is now more like a dessert or a rich snack. The bread isn’t good enough on its own.
You eat it in about a minute. There’s no need to savor it or stretch it out. There’s plenty more.
Sometimes you make bread to relax. Rather than needing the bread to sustain your life, making it is a form of entertainment or a hobby.
All these details establish bread as a readily available commodity that doesn’t deserve special consideration. Even if we don’t own a special bread knife or make our own bread, we’re probably in a position to if we wanted. Bread is taken for granted.
The second section is in stark contrast to the first, and presents an unrelatable view of bread for many of us. Now you’re in the midst of a famine with your sister. You’re both starving, living in filth, and weak, but she’s weaker. You’ve been saving a single piece of bread.
Now a single piece of plain bread means life; it’s the most important thing in the world. Whether you’ll share the bread, give it all to your sister, or eat it all yourself raises the ethical stakes tremendously. In the first section, the ethical issues were wasting bread and lacking appreciation. Here the ethics involve life and death, and it’s not clear what the best course of action is. In this situation, we would be extremely grateful to receive bread.
The third section is also a stark contrast to the first. You’re in prison and withholding information about your friends that keeps them alive. The jailers offered you bread in exchange for your cooperation, so you’re in a state of want.
It contrasts with the second section as well. Here the bread means death for people rather than life.
Theme: Wealth Inequality
The reader is put in the position of the haves in contrast to the have nots. Right after being told to imagine the bread we’re told we don’t have to imagine it because it’s in front of us. Bread isn’t something we have to imagine. It’s a part of life.
This is reinforced in the second section when we’re told to imagine a famine and the bread. The narrator tells us we’re in the room with the bread; that part is real so we’re not needy. We have to imagine the famine, the plight of those less fortunate.
The fourth section brings out feelings of compassion as we feel the injustice of the rich sister’s refusal to help the poor one. Here, like in the second section, bread once again means life, or as in the third, it can mean death. The blood that flows from the loaf represents the lives of the poor sister and her children that are now lost.
Section five also points out our lack of compassion for those less fortunate. We don’t want to know whether the bread is real or not, that is, we don’t want to think about the contrast between our lives and those of the very poor or those with less freedom.
Theme: The Illusion of Fiction
The blurred line between reality and fiction is highlighted a few times.
We’re told to imagine a piece of bread and then immediately told we don’t have to imagine it because it’s on the bread board. Right away, fiction and reality are brought together.
Next we’re told that we’re actually in the kitchen with the bread, but we’ll have to imagine the famine. Of course, the reader has to imagine both of them.
The story closes with a blurring of the lines as well. The narrator acknowledges the bread has been “conjured”, and it’s floating, which a real loaf of bread can’t do. At the same time, we can see and smell it and it looks as solid as our own bodies. There’s still doubt: “You don’t want to know whether the bread is real or whether it’s just a hallucination. . .”
Likewise, we know fictional works aren’t real, but they can be as real to us as anything else. Many fictional works reflect reality even if they’re not precisely real. We can care about fictional characters and be changed by fiction. Perhaps that will result from this story.
“Can you eat it? You don’t want to know, imagine that.”
This concluding quotation applies to several things we’ve considered. We don’t want to know if the bread is real.
If it’s real, we have to consider the issues of wealth inequality and whether we’re taking appropriate steps to help those in need. We have to recognize that we’re in a better situation than others by pure chance.
If it’s not real, if it’s just been conjured, it’s a story we can read as a diversion and then forget.