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Consider the Lobster | Summary and Analysis

Summary of Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace is an article written in 2003 with an intention to review the 56th Maine Lobster Festival but was published in 2004 in the Gourmet Magazine. The prose meanders in its approach while reviewing the festival as it ventures to expose the ethical dilemma of eating a lobster that is cooked alive, appealing to the sense and feeling of the readers. 

David Foster Wallace was an American author and essayist renowned for his exceptionally innovative and descriptive writing skills that focussed on an individual’s experience in this world. His non-fiction works are self-conscious and reflexive at their best. 

Consider the Lobster | Summary

Consider the Lobster deals with the 56th Maine Lobster Festival that the author attends and attempts to review. A description of the events including concerts, pageants, parades, races, eating tents, etc., and the hype around follows. The author then ventures into the origins of the species and its name by drawing on information he accesses through encyclopedias. Lobsters have undergone a change in status- from a food belonging to lower classes to a posh delicacy now. Though the festival markets lobster as healthy, the dishes served at the festival seem far away from the notion of melting butter and chips. The freshness of the sea creatures renders them a relishing taste which primarily causes their boiling when alive and this is the crux of the article. Wallace is preoccupied with the uncomfortable and complex notion of lobsters being boiled alive only to be consumed by humans. He opens the gate to a discussion on the potential pain-bearing capacity of these animals which might be different from humans but does exist. Their inability to communicate their pain garners them an underprivileged status in the animal hierarchy. But the author borrows rational reasoning from his research on the subject to allow space for raising the issue to kill lobsters mercifully rather than as a blunt attack. He does not advocate the non-consumption of animals due to his own selfish interests but offers a different perspective on the practice of non-vegetarianism. The position he occupies is vague and confusing but he achieves success in his mission which is to light up the consciences of humans towards this issue and other malpractices they might be engaged in. 

Consider the Lobster | Analysis

For a comprehensive view, the essay shall be analyzed under various heads: 

Consider the Lobster | Writing Style

The article opens with Wallace’s factual reporting of the Maine Lobster Festival, an annual celebration held every July and to which he was an attendee in the year of the article’s publication. Penned in the first person for the initial sections of the essay, Wallace adopts a journalistic method of describing the event in great detail to allow the readers an insight into the history of the festival and its purpose. The main attractions of the celebration are found in the meticulous description of the programs organized that reflects both the author’s research on the given topic as well as his observation while in attendance. But interestingly, the article in its final product turned out to be a more nuanced piece on the subject incorporating an ethical stance on the consumption of lobsters rather than just being limited to a review of the culinary experience and aesthetics. It can also be noticed that Wallace often dives deep into his discussion while spilling some useful information that momentarily digresses him from his argument. However, after reading the essay in its entirety, we can deduce that it is a strategic impulse on the part of the author. It is intentional in nature to gauge the readers’ attentiveness and interest in his moral inquiry. The lengthy footnotes are also a gripping addition to his work which showcases his personal investment in this project and issue. 

Consider the Lobster | Tone

Wallace’s attempt to bring forth an issue that had been under wraps or met the door of ignorance for a long is praiseworthy. He does not only highlight the issue of the wrongful act of cooking the lobsters alive for “gustatory” pleasure but also investigates the degree of its impact. Like an ethical person fulfilling his moral and social duty, he does raise an issue but 

at the same time refutes providing a solution to it. His dilemma suspends him between the need of feeling contended of rendering light to an issue which must be dawning on many consciences but at the same time wants to also feel satisfied that he can eat a lobster without any ethical hindrances. So in this regard, the tonality of the essay becomes informative, appealing, and sometimes sarcastic but all in the garb of an ambiguous stand. 

Consider the Lobster | Key Arguments

Wallace opts to not follow the conventional style of essay writing but rather treats his work as a platform for exhibiting his in-depth knowledge and understanding of the sensitivity pertaining to the worldwide lobster eating practice in the particular and animal slaughter at a macro level. His aim is to spark the fire of awareness in the readers, especially of the magazine Gourmet, about the process of cooking a lobster and the inconsiderate position we as consumers occupy while relishing it. He does not question or antagonize non-vegetarianism. His larger purpose is to ponder over the likeliness between lobsters and humans in their receptivity to pain. Who gives us the authority to kill animals mercilessly and consume them? Why a lobster is not considered equal to other animals such as house pets? He is not against the practice of cooking lobsters but encourages people to employ less hurtful techniques to kill them.   

Consider the Lobster | Supportive statements

Wallace begins to explore the actual motive behind his article in the latter half of his work by throwing a thought-provoking question to the readers- “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” This concern hovers between sentimentality and an individual’s choice. One of Wallace’s rental car guys named Dick expounds on the pain-bearing capacity of lobsters which according to him is absent as “there’s a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobsters’ brains don’t have this part.” People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been supporting the cause of prohibiting merciless lobster killing and cooking by banning such festivals which they believe is more than a matter of individual conscience. It is rather a spectacle as the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker awaits many spectators every year, rendering it a sadistic approach. 

Wallace continues by speculating on how animals feel pain and if it is righteous to inflict pain only to eat them. It is morally complex and overwhelming. “Pain is a totally subjective mental experience” and the fact that “even the most highly evolved nonhuman mammals can’t use language to communicate with us about their subjective mental experience is only the first layer of additional complication in trying to extend our reasoning about pain and morality to animals.” He is well aware of the intricacies of the subject he has chosen to study and debate which somehow entangles him as he moves further. 

The uncomfortable position he puts his readers in is scrutinizing as a direct accusation pertaining to boiling the lobsters alive by our own hands comes affront. He offers an alternate lens to view the quotidian activity of cooking a lobster for a delicious meal. He wishes to view the scenario from a lobster’s point of view and recognize its condition as our own if we would have been in its place- being boiled alive. By creating a thread of empathy, the author attacks the emotional chord of humans and compels them to prioritize the issue. 

Further, he borrows from the ethicists’ criteria of “determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider.” One is the presence of “nociceptors, prostaglandins, neuronal opioid receptors, etc.” and the other is “whether the animal demonstrates behavior associated with pain.” Lobsters, as observed, pass both. They do have “nociceptors, as well as invertebrate versions of the prostaglandins and major neurotransmitters via which our own brains register pain.” They also have “an exquisite tactile sense, one facilitated by hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs…[which enables them] to receive stimuli and impressions.” Thus, they do experience pain but the absence of a system to handle the effect of the pain is absent in their bodies which proposes a comparatively comforting notion that the lack of endorphins ensures the “lobsters’ raw subjective experience of pain as something radically different which might not be addressed as pain, like “frontal lobotomy patients.” Also, the introduction of the theory of “preference” is revolutionary in this subject as Wallace ascribes the movements in boiling kettle as a preference of lobsters and not a reaction to the pain they might be experiencing. 

He concludes the article by delineating his intention of producing a descriptive take on the subject- to ensure that these “troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival” do find a platform for their voice. He appeals to the future generations’ possible view of our contemporary practices as that of “Nero’s entertainment” or equivalent to “Aztec sacrifices.” This far-fetched comparison is unruly as most people, including Wallace, believe in the lesser importance of animals in comparison to humans for their own selfish interests. To be able to continue eating them without any burden of moral guilt, humans have not devised any personal ethical system yet. 

Consider the Lobster | Critical Evaluation

Wallace incorporates his research from various disciplines spanning history, geography, taxonomy, etymology, and social sciences to prepare his article. The historical fact such as lobster’s status as a food for the lower classes in the 1800s to its social mobility in the contemporary era as a posh delicacy is amusing. The geographical specification of the location of the festival coupled with the etymology of the word “lobster” is also fascinating. Taxonomical classification of the lobsters and its encyclopedic zoological elucidation is exhausting yet educative. He first uses scientific jargon and occupies a major chunk of the space, only to later translate his point into simpler terms. Amidst the blast of information, a conscientious Wallace drops an even bigger bomb of ethical responsibility on the readers. Along with that, he also exposes the true nature of such festivals in their overcrowded atmosphere and unacceptable arrangements. He fails to understand such a notion of vacation and fun which involves long queues on sun-soaking days to taste the “local flavor.” The blunt unmasking of the true status of a tourist as “economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing” is eye-opening. 

Nonetheless, the author is confused at his best. He cajoles the readers to reflect on the moral and sensitive aspect of cooking the lobsters alive without producing his own firm stand on it. He maintains a balance that mirrors a human being’s true dilemma and desire to be on two boats at the same time by not displeasing either side. In the end, he defends his piece tactfully by calling out to the readers of the magazine for their responsibility over the issue- “After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?” With logic (logos), emotions (pathos), and credible sources (ethos), he successfully drives his concern. 

To conclude, the article is an exposition of the killing instincts humans possess in their ambition to survive in the cut-throat world which not only targets animals as a means of dietary consumption but also has and continues to prey on even other humans who are always thirsty for each other’s blood. If the spectacle of lobsters being cooked alive in the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker could not evoke empathy in humans up until the release of this article, we can very well imagine the ignorant response to Jews being gassed alive in the chambers and concentration camps during the holocaust until it became a pressing issue! 

Consider the Lobster | Literary Devices

Analogy

“Chitinous arthropods grow by molting, rather the way the people have to buy bigger clothes as they age and gain weight.” 

Simile

“And they [lobsters] are— particularly in their natural brown-green state, brandishing their claws like weapons and with thick antennae a whip— not nice to look at.” 

The lobster “will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof.” 

“The “MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.” 

Metaphor

Lobsters are “garbagemen of the sea, eaters of dead stuff.” 

Irony

The consultant expresses his view on his tourist experience at the festival where “you have to line up for an ungodly long time to get your lobsters, and meanwhile there are all these ex-flower children coming up and down along the line-handing out pamphlets that say the lobsters die in terrible pain and you shouldn’t eat them.” 

Contrast

In the 1800s, “lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized.” But “Now, of course, lobster is posh, a delicacy, only a step or two down from a caviar.” 

Imagery 

“Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you and I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming).” 

Allusion

“Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way as we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices?” 

Nero was a popular Roman Emperor and Aztecs were an ethnic group from Central Mexico. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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