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A Lobster Is Being Eaten

Everything was all set now and in order. Bating, of course, the lobster, which had to remain an incalculable factor.

—Samuel Beckett, “Dante and the Lobster”[1]

For Wallace Stevens, the lobster is a symbol of the high life. In Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction Stevens presents its consumption as a luxurious pleasure:

We drank Meursault, ate lobster Bombay with mango
Chutney. Then the Canon Aspirin declaimed
Of his sister [2]

The Canon Aspirin is, as Stevens wrote to Hi Simons, a figure for “[t]he sophisticated man,” “a man with a taste for Meursault, and lobster Bombay,” and his connoisseurship in gustatory matters possesses obvious affinities to the aesthetic satisfactions offered by Stevens’s own lush, Francophonic language.[3] One may or may not accede to Harold Bloom’s proposition that the mango is “visionary food for Stevens, perhaps his equivalent of Coleridge’s ‘honey-dew,’” but the lobster, served up in an Anglo-Indian recipe, accompanied by good French wine, surely signifies a cultivated, if orientalist, taste for recherché pleasures, what we might call the Canon’s culinary capital.[4] Of the lobster we can say what Stevens says of the poem: It Must Give Pleasure.

For T. S. Eliot, the lobster is a symbol of low life. As he writes in the sibilant pentameter slant-rhyme of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”[5] In contrast to Stevens’s symbol of hedonistic consumption, Eliot’s lobster (if in fact it is a lobster) is a figure for Prufrock’s melancholic vulnerability.[6] While the trochee of “Scuttling” captures an awkward hitch in the animal’s movement, it is Eliot’s synecdoche that bestows on the hapless creature a suggestion of injury or castration, an uncanny evocation of severed appendages moving mechanically in silence and darkness. This impression of woundedness complements the poem’s earlier synecdoche in which female body parts become emasculating objects of desire. In particular, the eyes that pin the speaker “on the wall” and “fix [him] in a formulated phrase” use language surgically, not to give pleasure à la Stevens but to etherize, restrain, and neuter (“fix”) the “wriggling” speaker. Indeed the prevailing affect of “Prufrock” closely resembles that “melancholy” which Eric Santner, following Walter Benjamin, has identified as a symptom of “immersion in creaturely life”—a phrase that for Santner signifies the human creature’s “exposure to a traumatic dimension of political power and social bonds.”[7] When conceived as food by Stevens, an oceanic bottom-dweller becomes a high form of pleasure; when conceived as life-form by Eliot, a luxury food item becomes a figure of pathos, even sentimentality.

Stevens and Eliot establish the pleasures of consumption and the pain of melancholia as dichotomous possibilities for the lobster, possibilities that can help modernist studies to understanding the relationship of eating practices to larger cultural, environmental, or biopolitical questions.[8] In this brief essay, I will elaborate on these meanings—the lobster as symbol of both high life and low life—in two other texts, Samuel Beckett’s 1934 short story “Dante and the Lobster” and David Foster Wallace’s 2004 Gourmet feature article, “Consider the Lobster,” but before doing so, I should note that the title of my own essay alludes to a different exploration of the conjunction of pleasure and pain, Freud’s 1919 paper “A Child Is Being Beaten,” where the conjunction attends not the eating of an animal but the spanking of a child. Particularly notable here is what Eve Sedgwick calls the “shifty passive voice” of Freud’s title. Freud’s passive voice, like the beating fantasies he writes about, is “shifty” because it presents the victim, as Sedgwick says, in tableau, curtailing narrative elaboration and thus creating “a free switchpoint for the identities of subject, object, onlooker, desirer, looker-away.”[9] As Freud himself wrote of his patients’ fantasies, “Who was the child that was being beaten? The one who was himself producing the phantasy or another?” Because of the ambiguity between a first- and a third-person perspective, “it was impossible at first even to decide whether the pleasure attaching to the beating-phantasy was to be described as sadistic or masochistic.”[10] A similar shiftiness, I hope to show, attends the identifications involved in the killing and eating of lobster: both Wallace’s and Beckett’s texts function as “free switchpoints” between sadism and masochism, between identification and disavowal, between the creaturely melancholy of Prufrock and the epicureanism of the Canon Aspirin.

My invocation of Freud serves a broader purpose too. Although hardly marginalized in contemporary literary studies, psychoanalysis is too often slighted today in favor of facile positivisms, even as it remains our most powerful framework for understanding psychological and cultural repressions, ambivalences, and contradictions—including the ambivalent and contradictory significations of the lobster. When we come to a discussion of animal life, moreover, it is Freud, who puts forward the modernist period’s own most influential interpretation and application of Darwin, the thinker who revolutionized our understanding of human-animal relations. As Margot Norris has shown, Darwin initiated a “biocentric” tradition based in “a subversive interrogation of the anthropocentric premises of Western philosophy and art.”[11] This biocentric tradition recognizes rationality, morality, aesthetic appreciation, and other prized human faculties as products of an embodied animal being that we can never fully transcend.[12] For this reason I return at the end of this essay to Santner’s concept of the creaturely. The vexed meanings of the lobster produce, I suggest, an agitation that signals an unresolvable antagonism not only in our relation to our food but in our relation to our own embodied selves.

“An Insect on a Dead Thing”

Wallace’s 2004 essay, whether classified by period or style, is of course more readily described as a postmodernist text than a modernist one, yet it demands attention here because its representation of the lobster continues and indeed helps to articulate key issues that subtly pervade Beckett’s more properly “modernist” work. The essay breaks down into two parts. The first half critiques the excesses of the annual Maine Lobster Festival (MLF), and by extension, American-style capitalism in the early twenty-first century. From its opening description of the festival as “enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed,” it defiantly breaks from the tonal norms of travel or food journalism, a genre whose commercial motive is normally suppressed: instead of effusive praise for must-see sights and can’t-miss events, Wallace gives a wry, self-involved, amused-but-disgusted account, interrupted by brainy self-referential footnotes and Melvillean detours into the biology, etymology, and history of the great red beast.[13] Wallace recoils from the vulgarity of the MLF, which sells a “Disneyland-grade” experience for the masses (hard benches, Styrofoam plates, cold coffee, fat people) with the aim of widening the lobster market (“Consider the Lobster,” 239). A footnote extends Wallace’s indictment to the entire enterprise of contemporary tourism:

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology [sic], the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. . . . It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you . . . [are] existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing. (240n6)

This Kafkaesque verdict—also the verdict of Prufrock, pinned and wriggling on the wall—resonates especially loudly given Wallace’s earlier statement that lobsters themselves are “are basically giant sea insects”: the masses of people and the masses of lobster become equally unappetizing, so much mere life (237). The high life has become the low.

In the second half of his essay, however, Wallace confronts face-to-face the ethical question of boiling a lobster alive and by extension the question of killing and eating animals at all. Just as Wallace implies that the commercial nature of food writing is normally ignored in Gourmet, so he points out that the cruelty of killing is normally repressed in cookbooks, although it hides in plain sight: “A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle” (242). Wallace sifts through the neurological evidence and tentatively concludes from the lobster’s “pain-behavior” that it probably does suffer (249). Addressing the reader directly, he casts the entire festival in an obscene light as it becomes a scene out of Dante’s Inferno:

The truth is that if you, the festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF begins to take on the aspect of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest. . . . Is it possible that future generations will regard our present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments and Mengele’s experiments? (253)

With this bold accusation Wallace fuses his indictment of large-scale consumer spectacle to his indictment of boiling lobsters alive.

Yet resolving the ethical questions—now seen as political and economic questions—appears secondary to Wallace’s display of affect, specifically his neurotic equivocation about his own conclusions. Time and again, he stresses his fear of coming across as “irksomely PC or sentimental” (243). After likening the lobster industry to the Third Reich, he reverses course and describes his own analogy as “hysterical, extreme” (253). He harangues the bourgeois reader of Gourmet, only to backpedal: “I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so” (253). He doesn’t want “come off as shrill or preachy,” insisting that he is merely “confused” or “curious.” Indeed, Wallace’s affect is remarkably consistent, whether he is feeling guilty about killing and eating a lobster or feeling guilty about making his reader feel guilty. The contrarian, wise-guy rehearsal of the ethical argument, in short, provides the occasion for a public performance of his own anxious liberal guilt, a writhing or wriggling dialectic between irony and sincerity that is, in a word, tortured.

“It’s Alive!”

Nobuyuki Shimamura, Fantasy Lobster, 2013, 100 x 220 cm, Hoki Museum Collection, Chiba, Japan. Image courtesy Flickr.
Fig. 1. Nobuyuki Shimamura, Fantasy Lobster, 2013, 100 x 220 cm, Hoki Museum Collection, Chiba, Japan. Image courtesy Flickr.

A similar tension (or torsion) structures Beckett’s story “Dante and the Lobster,” whose title offers a mock-epic conjunction of high and low through which the ethical and theological questions prompted by Dante are extended but also ironized in their application to the crustacean. Indeed, well before the hapless sea creature garners any attention, Beckett sets in parallel questions about the pleasures of eating and questions about the ethics of killing. The hero, Belacqua, is an eccentric epicure, a Bizarro-World Canon Aspirin, whose frustrated study of Dante and obsessive-compulsive preparation of a gorgonzola sandwich establish a web of associations that link him to a convicted murder named McCabe and to the mythical first murderer, Cain—and then both of these condemned killers to the bread that Belacqua slices for his lunch and subsequently returns to its “prison” (Beckett, “Dante and the Lobster,” 11).[14] The bread becomes a prisoner awaiting execution; toasting it, an occasion for naked sadism:

He laid his cheek against the soft of the bread, it was spongy and warm, alive. But he would very quickly take that plush feel off it, by God he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face. (Beckett, “Dante and the Lobster,” 11)

Afterwards, we learn that Belacqua’s lunch had been “spiced by the intelligence . . . that the Malahide murderer’s petition for mercy, signed by half the land, having been rejected, the man must swing at dawn in Mountjoy and nothing could save him” (17). McCabe’s imminent death adds a special cruel savor to Belacqua’s pleasure of consumption.

The rejection of the murderer’s petition opens the question of balancing mercy and justice, a conundrum central to Belacqua’s interpretation of Dante. Belacqua (whose own name derives from an indolent character in the Purgatorio) asks his Italian teacher about the translation of a “superb pun” in Canto XX of the Inferno, a line in which Virgil scolds Dante for extending unwarranted pity to those whom God has justly damned: qui vive la pietà quando è ben morta (here pity lives only where it is good and dead) (19). This is a famous crux in the poem. La pietà means both piety and pity, and although Belacqua wants to choose a single translation, his instructor resists the demand for a choice. As Belacqua later realizes, “Why not piety and pity both, even down below? Why not mercy and Godliness together? A little mercy in the stress of sacrifice, a little mercy to rejoice against judgment” (21). The lesson in Dante allows him to find compassion for McCabe, who is now recognized as a fellow foodie, capable of both abject suffering and gustatory pleasure: “And poor McCabe, he would get it in the neck at dawn. What was he doing now, how was he feeling? He would relish one more meal, one more night” (21).

In the final pages Beckett brings this conflict between piety and pity to bear on the fate of the lobster Belacqua has bought for his aunt’s dinner. After entering his aunt’s basement kitchen, descending in Dantesque fashion “into the bowels of the earth,” Belacqua is horrified to discover that the lobster is still living: “His hand flew to his mouth. ‘Christ!’ he said ‘it’s alive’” (21). “Alive” directly echoes his characterization of his fat-faced bread, and the lobster itself is a ludicrous but unmistakable “Christ” figure, “exposed cruciform on the oilcloth” in a comic pieta (21). Traumatized by his aunt’s cold-hearted intention to “boil the beast,” Belacqua composes in his mind a heroic narrative of the lobster’s valiant but ultimately futile triumphs over death:

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath. (22)

The last sentence of the monologue shifts from the third to the first person, identifying the stoic invertebrate with the speaker of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” who, we might recall, is “half in love with easeful Death.” We too wish the lobster an easeful death. We want to believe Belacqua’s aunt when she insists that the animals “feel nothing” and Belacqua when he consoles himself with the thought that “it’s a quick death, God help us all” (22). Yet Beckett’s narrator concludes the story by annihilating this platitudinous consolation in three words: “It is not” (“Dante and the Lobster,” 22). Lobsters may not recite Keats as they go to their deaths, but they do suffer for our pleasure. The insistence, whether by Belacqua’s aunt or the Maine lobster industry, that a lobster might (as it were) “cease upon the midnight with no pain” seeks to repress this grim truth.

Creaturely Agitation

Both Beckett’s story and Wallace’s essay pose what Wallace calls “abstract questions about the connections . . . between aesthetics and morality,” and specifically about “what the adjective in a phrase like ‘The Magazine of Good Living’ is really supposed to mean” (“Consider the Lobster,” 254). They situate these questions in a framework of contemporary biopolitics, where legal, societal, and economic structures shape the ways that life becomes subject to multifarious forms of discipline. As Wallace illustrates, these abstract questions surface in response to the conditions of modern commercial food-production. But beyond a specific interest in such systems of production and commerce, Wallace’s concern with animal well-being—his willingness to make explicit the fact that eating entails killing (indeed that living entails killing)—represents an extension of Enlightenment values to an ever-widening swathe of creatures. In fact, without Enlightenment values (reason, secularism, liberalism, self-determination, emancipation of the oppressed), it is hard to imagine that either Beckett’s Belacqua or Wallace’s antsy food tourist would be so tortured by the killing of a lobster in the first place.

To put this another way, the project of extending the Enlightenment’s universal human rights and sympathy beyond the human sphere owes a great debt to Darwin. As Leela Gandhi informs us in her study of fin-de-siècle vegetarianism, it was Darwin who recognized our biological continuity with nonhuman animals, allowing us to conceive of them as “our fellow brethren in pain, diseases, death, suffering, and famine.”[15] The ethical claims of the lobster—of the animal-as-food—are the index of a Darwinian shift in the human relation to the animal in which metonymy supersedes metaphor, and the animal prey becomes connected with the human predator along what Roman Jakobson called an axis of contiguity.

Thus for the early modernist figures Gandhi studies, Darwin’s discoveries made it possible to reimagine “human-animal community” as “a conduit for mutinous thought” whether that mutiny took the form of solidarity with workers, women, colonial subjects, or animals (Gandhi, Affective Communities, 74). The split between the lobster as luxury food and lobster as suffering creature, in other words, points to a biopolitical split between classes of living entities that must be bridged: like H. G. Wells’s cannibal Morlocks and their prey, the vegetarian Eloi, humans and lobsters descend from a common life form. Wells, receptive to the impact of Darwin’s discovery, makes visible in his dystopian fantasy the power of sociopolitical structures to alter our embodied animal nature: the class divisions of Victorian capitalism become, through evolution, written into the ecosystem. The body itself becomes the historical archive of sedimented social antagonisms.

Because of the ineradicability of this condition of struggle, the immediate consequence of posing Wallace’s “abstract questions” about aesthetics and morality is not a resolution to a discrete ethical conundrum (should lobster be eaten?) but rather the expression of a human being’s traumatic recognition of an act of killing. This is the case for both Wallace and Beckett. In Wallace’s case his neurotic equivocation points to a guilt that he tries to foist onto reader, publisher, and food industry alike, while disavowing any aggressive motive of his own. Wallace’s text is pervaded by masochism, specifically what Freud called “moral masochism,” an “unconscious sense of guilt” that translates into “a need for punishment” (“Economic Problem,” 166). Beckett’s text, in contrast, initially appears to be characterized by sadism—directed at the bread, McCabe, the grocer, Mlle. Glain—but on closer consideration seems, like the beating fantasies Freud studies, to be “shifty,” i.e., ambiguously sadistic and masochistic. Throughout the story the narrative’s free indirect discourse, interrupted with brief, sudden intrusions of an I-narrator, destabilizes the question of whether we read Belacqua as subject or object. The sadomasochistic dyad, what Fredric Jameson has called (using a term from Beckett’s own fiction) the “pseudo-couple,” is of course a recurrent motif in Beckett and might even be seen as one manifestation of a broader recognition within modernism of how power and violence permeate familial, social and even interspecies relations.[16] As Benjamin wrote, every document of culture is also a document of barbarism; or as Freud framed it, civilization is always shadowed by its discontents.

To drive home the point, Belacqua’s belated understanding that the lobster will be boiled alive registers as a moment of uncanny apprehension or excitation stemming from the witnessing of a scene of suffering. This scene, rendered as tableau, offers an opportunity for identification of the “onlooker” with the victim: “It moved again. It made a faint nervous act of life on the oilcloth . . . It shuddered again. Belacqua felt he would be sick” (Beckett, “Dante and the Lobster,” 21). Belacqua’s agitation at the twitch of the living animal, its “faint nervous act of life,” registers not only a physiological response of literal dis-gust at the imminent killing and eating, but through that disgust a recognition of what Santner has called the “creaturely” dimension of life (21). By creatureliness, we should note, Santner does not mean the pure alterity of a nonhuman being but rather “the peculiar proximity of the human to the animal at the point of their radical difference,” where life is subjected to power (On Creaturely Life, 12). Creatureliness becomes visible, Santner argues, through a peculiar “expressivity,” a manic quality of excitement or surplus animation produced by an encounter with “enigmatic signifiers that can never be fully metabolized” (34).

As responses to the fate of a creature that seems at once utterly alien and strangely human, both Belacqua’s agitated shock (“It’s alive!”) and Wallace’s “hysterical” invocation of Mengele disclose the hidden codependence of our cultivated pleasures and our creaturely abjection. These bursts of affect occur at what Santner calls “the threshold where life takes on its specific biopolitical intensity, where it assumes the cringed posture of the creature,” where its vulnerability to power becomes visible (On Creaturely Life, 34, emphasis in original). The scene of the lobster’s transformation from Eliotic creature to Stevensian food (or is it the reverse?) is the moment where the power over life and death is made manifest. It is equally the moment in the family romance where—as Sedgwick puts it in her gloss on Freud—pain is transmuted into pleasure; it reveals, in Sedgwick’s harsh words, “the power, rage, and assault that parents present to the child with a demand for compulsory misrecognition of them as discretion and love” (“A Poem Is Being Written,” 184). It is also, finally, the moment in the Inferno where we apprehend the cruelty of God’s law as the master Virgil chastens the disciple Dante for an excess of pity: “qui vive la pietà quando è ben morta.” Here pity lives only where it is good and dead.


[1] Samuel Beckett, “Dante and the Lobster,” in More Pricks than Kicks (New York: Grove Press, 1972), 9–22, 17.

[2] Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” in The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Random House, 1972), 207–33, 228.

[3] Stevens to Simons, March 29, 1943, in The Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 443–45, 445.

[4] Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 205. According to a 1977 recipe from a Milwaukee hotel, Lobster à la Bombay is made by sauteeing lobster meat in butter with mushrooms and shallots, seasoning with curry and Worcestershire, topping with fried bananas and shredded coconut, and serving over hot white rice. See “Pork and Lobster a la Bombay,” Historic Recipe File, Milwaukee Public Library Digital Collections.

[5] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in The Waste Land and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1934), 1–10, 6.

[6] Critics surveyed by Lingua Franca differed on whether these claws belong to a lobster or a crab; Christopher Ricks and Claude Rawson chose the crab, while Richard Poirier and Louis Menand went with the lobster. Given that Eliot drafted the poem in Massachusetts, not Maryland, it seems hard to give the crab people credence. See Rick Perlstein, “Shell Game,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life 7, no. 7 (1997).

[7] Eric L. Santner, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 87, 12.

[8] For an overview of the lobster’s cultural meanings see Richard J. King, Lobster (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), which identifies luxury, carnality, whimsy, and sexuality as pervasive associations.  See also Nancy Frazier, “Salvador Dalí’s Lobsters: Feast, Phobia, and the Freudian Slip,” Gastronomica 9, no. 4 (2009): 16–20.

[9] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “A Poem Is Being Written,” in Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 177–214, 181.

[10] Sigmund Freud, “A Child Is Being Beaten,” from The Standard Edition, Vol. XVII, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1919), rpt. in On Freud’s “A Child Is Being Beaten,” ed. Ethel Spector Person (London: Karnac Books, 2013), 5.

[11] Margot Norris, Beasts of the Modern Imagination: Darwin, Nietzsche, Kafka, Ernst, and Lawrence (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 5.

[12] Darwin is sometimes invoked by a simplistic “literary Darwinism,” but his legacy for literary studies lies not in sociobiology but in biopolitics. See Keith Leslie Johnson, “Darwin’s Bulldog and Huxley’s Ape,” Twentieth Century Literature 55, no. 4 (2009): 572–96.

[13] David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2006), 235–54, 235.

[14] See Kay Stevenson Gilliland, “Belacqua in the Moon: Beckett’s Revisions of ‘Dante and the Lobster,’” in Critical Essays on Samuel Beckett, ed. Patrick A. McCarthy (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1986), 36–46.

[15] Quoted in Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 111.

[16] Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 58. See also my reading of Molloy in Modernism, Satire, and the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).