‘Please, sir, I want some more’. The scene in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist when the unfortunate, starving orphan steps forward to ask for a second helping of workhouse gruel must be one of the most famous depictions of hunger in literature. Dickens describes Oliver as being ‘desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery’ as he makes his fateful and foolhardy request. Later in the same tale, Dickens reflects on the fate of those ‘hunger-worn outcasts’ who starve on the streets of London, sometimes having no choice but to lay down and die in the freezing and unpitying streets. Although the setting is the Brothers Grimm’s haunted forest rather than Dickens’s heartless metropolis, Hansel and Gretel similarly explores the emotional ramifications of extreme hunger.

Hunger occupies the same kind of psychological territory as that inhabited by other emotions – like terror, desire or disgust – since it coordinates the work of our minds and bodies in a recognisable feeling-state and in a way that directs us to a particular goal. Theorists draw distinctions between at least two different kinds of hunger. The bodily appetite sensed as pangs in the stomach – hunger proper, you might say – is contrasted with what is variously termed ‘hedonic hunger’ or ‘emotional hunger’, when food is used with the aim of either producing pleasure or reducing emotional pain.

It is the wider emotional, social and even religious significance of hunger that is explored in Humperdinck’s operatic rendition of the story of two poor children from a hungry home, who are sent out into a world of supernatural temptations and dangers, and where appetites and emotions are terrifyingly transferred between foodstuffs and people. The story starts with the mundane experience of feeling hungry – or perhaps in the case of the children’s mother ‘hangry’, her emotional fury brought on by physical hunger.

Sent into the forest, the children are lured towards danger by the delicious prospect of the gingerbread house. Here their longing for food, and the false promise of the witch’s confectionery creations, suggest the emotional dangers that attend consumption and consumerism. A phrase coined by the cultural critic Lauren Berlant – ‘cruel optimism’ – may describe the children’s longing for the gingerbread house. Berlant’s phrase is the name for any optimistic hope that a desired object will be a source of inner nourishment, when it cruelly brings us instead only misery, or worse.

In the worlds of Oliver Twist and Hansel and Gretel, and as we continue to debate the politics of food banks and free school meals today, the spectacle of children going hungry leads us from emotional into social and moral reactions. It is interesting that there are two different versions of one of Jesus’s most famous sayings on this subject. In one he says, ‘Blessed are you who hunger, for you shall be satisfied’, but in the other it is, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’. Whether accepted with religious resignation, or taken as a spur to social reform, human hunger continues to inspire powerful emotional and imaginative responses, as we wonder what kinds of nourishment can truly satisfy.