Stomaching the Truth

During last class’ discussion, certain patterns and themes that emerge in Brown’s Arthur Mervyn were examined. Among the various motifs and images that recur, a particularly interesting one is that of the stomach. This vital organ is highlighted a number of times (8, within the entire text), often in conjunction with the yellow fever epidemic and/or the rumours that spread in tandem with the disease.

A notable example of Brown’s use of “stomach” is in relationship with the effects of rumour. When Mervyn first describes the rumours of the spreading pestilence, he says:

As often as the tale was embellished with new incidents, or inforced by new testimony, the hearer grew pale, his breath was stifled by inquietudes, his blood was chilled and his stomach was bereaved of its usual energies (Brown, 101).

It is important to note the phrase that Brown associates with “stomach” in this passage. What does it mean for the stomach to lose its “usual energies” or its “vigour” (111)? What is the significance of the stomach regaining this energy, a phenomenon that occurs to our narrator later in the novel (124)? Why use the stomach, of all organs?

According to the theory and practice of Chinese acupuncture, different parts of the human body have different functions, in addition to their biological roles. The stomach serves as the processor of “food” – both physical, mental, and emotional. Perhaps this article¬†will shed some insight into this recurring image of the stomach, and provide reasons of why Brown chose to emphasize this organ.

Our stomachs provide us nourishment, but they also reflect our state of being.¬†They not only indicate if we’re hungry, but they could reflect a truth beyond their physical contents. Pay attention to each time “stomach” appears in the text – and pay attention to your own!


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  1. I may have mentioned this in class already but I remember finding some discussions by Brown’s medical friends about brains and stomachs — and one of the things they mentioned about the stomach’s energies is that bad news causes you to lose your appetite. The writer was using that commonplace observation to argue that fear might actually predispose you to infection, because your body was already depleted of normal energies that might otherwise ward off disease.

    I imagine, though, that the black vomit caused more than a few people to think about how stomachs do and don’t work. Ugh.

  2. Prof. Bryan,

    That is an interesting point. It reminds me of the relationship between stress and the human immune system. When stress levels (e.g. physical or emotional) surpass a certain threshold and/or endure for prolonged periods of time, the body responds by releasing certain chemicals which ultimately produce cortisol, a hormone that represses the immune system. This definitely supports the idea that rumour perpetuates infection, since the bad news itself weakens one’s immunity (and one’s stomach).

    This relationship is quite noteworthy. It implies the question that has come up repeatedly in class: what is the relationship between rumour and disease? Moreover, what are the implications of “rumour” in today’s society?

  3. Just to add to the stomach-talk, an interesting quote I found from Oriental (Traditional) medicine: “A person with a poor digestive system usually cannot think clearly….As always, this relationship also works the other way around: if a person thinks or worries too much, this can easily lead to digestive symptoms such as poor appetite, diarrhea, or constipation.”

    I can relate to this from direct experience as well, which I thought was pretty interesting.

  4. This has been a fascinating spin on the topic. I’m wondering, given JooHee’s link in the previous comment, whether the stomach and spleen were tied in humoral theories of medicine, which inform some of the language Brown’s characters use. Spleen was tied to one of the major humors — though I can’t recall if Brown’s characters manifest any splenetic symptoms on being hit with the stomach bug (so to speak).

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