Laurie Nesbitt is proud Class of 2018 Terp from Howard County, Maryland. She is an Elementary Education major and holds membership to the CIVICUS Living and Learning program and UMD’s Equestrian Team. She would like to thank her English 101C instructor Kirk Greenwood for encouraging her to submit her essay to Interpolations and Scott Eklund and Norrell Edwards for their assistance in the editing process.
"Consider the Lobster": A Summary
David Foster Wallace's 2004 article "Consider the Lobster," originally published in Gourmet magazine, investigates a topic not generally covered by such publications—the sensations of one of the animals who becomes our food. Wallace, an American essayist, novelist, and English professor, dubs himself as readers' "assigned correspondent" of the 56th Annual Maine Lobster Festival (236). Boasting 25,000 pounds of fresh-caught lobster, cooking competitions, carnival rides, live music, and a beauty pageant, the MLF draws 100,000 visitors from across the country (236). However, Wallace emphasizes that no amount of lobster paraphernalia and clever marketing strategies can divert him from the serious question, "Is it right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" (243). In his article, Wallace seeks not to answer this query, but rather to provide thought-provoking information and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. For example, he calls attention to promotional material provided by the MLF which describes the lobster's nervous system as simple, decentralized, and lacking the structures which resist pain—an explanation which Wallace then rejects as "incorrect in about nine different ways" (245). Additionally, he points out that in truth lobsters do have nociceptors, which he describes as, "pain receptors sensitive to potentially damaging extremes of temperature," such as boiling water (250). To provide further illustration of the lobsters' consciousness, Wallace invokes the obvious "struggling, thrashing, and lid-clattering" which accompanies the lobsters' descent into the boiling kettle and adds that, according to most ethicists, this combination of neurological structures and behavior can be used to determine a creature's pain capacity (249, 248). Having worked through the complexities of the issue, Wallace returns to his original question: is it possible to truly defend the act of consuming flesh without acknowledging the act's inherent selfishness? Wallace leaves readers of Gourmet, which uses the catch phrase "The Magazine of Good Living," to ponder their own "ethical convictions" and reflect on the dichotomy between the MLF's celebratory façade and its "Roman-circus" tendencies (254, 253). In this manner, Wallace has set up his readers to reflect not just on the lobster but on the larger moral questions behind their carnivorous lifestyle.
The Consider the Lobster reviews are coming fast and furious. One of them is up on kottle.org. (via Dave) Here’s the money quote:
A common complaint of Wallace’s writing is that it’s not very straightforward, even though clarity seems to be his purpose. I don’t mind the challenge the writing provides; I read Wallace for a similar reason Paul is reading surrealist poetry, to make my brain work a little bit for its reward. In The End of Print, David Carson outlined his design philosophy in relation to its ultimate goal, communication. Carson used design to make people work to decipher the message with the idea that by doing that work, they would be more likely to remember the message. I’d like to think that Wallace approaches his writing similarly.
That’s exactly right. If you read any of Wallace’s essays, you’ll find a hell of a lot of details, and not necessarily many conclusions. Occasionally he’ll lay it all out there in a very "the following 50 words constitutes my thesis" sort of way, but Wallace doesn’t write essays that proceed in anything vaguely resembling a linear fashion.
People deride Wallace for being a bag of stylistic tricks that adds up to very little. I disagree. I think one of Wallace’s main goals is communicating what can’t be written down, and perhaps the main way he does this is by giving you lots and lots of details. If you’re being a good active reader and thinking while you read, you’ll start organizing these details into a coherent thread and wham! Wallace has just communicated somthing to you. But if you’re not working for it, then yes, Wallace can seem like style over substance.
Of course, if you prefer just to be entertained, I think Wallace’s essays can provide plenty of humorous pleasure without any reader input.
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