The gluttonous lords of the land capture those who are unable to defend themselves, boil the captives alive, and then feast on their flesh. Could this be the plot of some new summer blockbuster? It could be, in fact, but for now we will focus on how this depiction of events compares to David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” which starts as a review of the Maine Lobster Festival, but soon morphs into an indictment of not only the conventions of lobster preparation, but also the entire idea of having an animal killed for one’s own consumption. Wallace shows great skill in establishing ethos. In the essay, he succeeds in snaring a receptive audience by laying out a well-baited trap for an audience who was looking for something else altogether, but he ultimately fails to keep hold of much of his catch.
The piece in question was written for and published in Gourmet magazine. Presumably, the readers of that publication have already made up their minds about what they like to eat. A philosophical treatise on animal rights is probably not high on their reading list. In order to suck these readers in, Wallace hides his disdain for the subject matter inside cynical and ironic language. In his opening sentence, Wallace refers to the Maine Lobster Festival as “enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed” (252). This is an effective turn of phrase in that each reader assigns his or her own values to those adjectives. While an optimist sees in his mind’s eye a large, aromatic party filled with revelers from all over the continent, a pessimist pictures a crowded, stinky mess which has sold out for the money. Wallace draws them both in with his careful use of language.
The words “optimist” and “pessimist” need further exploration. In the above example, they represent the two aspects of Wallace’s audience. Unfortunately, the words themselves are not a perfect fit for the duality of the readership. For our purposes, we will say that most of the Gourmet readers are probably in the “optimist” crowd, but they are also the omnivores typical of the Standard American Diet: they will eat anything so long as it is expertly prepared and tasty. The “pessimists” are the segment of Wallace’s readership who are actually most receptive to his arguments. The reasons behind any particular reader’s membership in this group are numerous: the reader may be a vegetarian, or opposed to the typical method of lobster preparation, or may just be opposed to commercial fishing and/or commercialized food festivals. The specific reasons are not important; what is important is that Wallace does not have to fight to keep this audience: he just has to keep from alienating them. It is the optimists for whom he must fight.
Wallace must tread a careful path in the opening four pages of his article. In this stage, if his language is too negative, he will lose the optimist majority, but if he caters to that portion of his audience too heavily, he will lose those whom he is most likely to reach. In the second paragraph, he continues to use neutral language and allow the readers to bring their own opinions into the article. He combines negative and positive language in a single sentence when he describes the Maine Lobster Festival as “less an intersection of [Maine’s two main] industries than a deliberate collision, joyful and lucrative and loud” (252). Our optimistic readers gloss over the collision and focus on the joy, profits, and revelry. The pessimists find plenty of words to latch onto: “collision” implies a negative event, what is “loud” is often annoying, and even the mention of how profitable the event is will again fill our pessimists with feelings of capitalist exploitation.
Farther along, Wallace has spent some time comparing lobsters to various insects and spiders an referred to them as “giant sea insects” (254). He then follows this up by saying that “they are…good eating. Or so we think now” (254). He follows this up with a discussion of how the lobster was originally a cheap food for the poor and that there were even laws to protect prisoners from being fed lobster too often. Again, importantly, he refrains from passing judgment on either the old perspective or the new. It is left up to the reader to decide if the people of old were silly for failing to properly value lobster meat or if the modern lobster eaters are silly for not realizing that they are eating such a common food.
It is shortly after this point that the essay begins to change in tone. Having hopefully won the trust of the optimists, or at least not scared them away yet, Wallace slowly moves into a more negative approach. He does this cautiously. First he makes an assumption about the typical Gourmet reader: that he or she does not want to sit with the common folk and simply eat food. On the fourth, fifth and sixth pages of his essay, he launches a two-pronged attack on the Maine Lobster Festival. In the main text, he vividly describes the sights and smells of the overcrowded Main Eating Tent, where “it’s hot, and…the smells…are strong and only partly food-related” (255). Also: “The suppers come in Styrofoam trays…and the utensils are plastic” (255). Then he describes the Festival as “a midlevel county fair” (256). In his massive footnote spread across two pages, he attacks the practice of being, as he calls it, “a mass tourist” (257). Herein he gives the reader an honest view of his opinion on the subject of his piece, and it is not a favorable one. He is striving to win over the “optimist” Gourmet audience by showing them that there are better ways to enjoy lobster than the Maine Lobster Fest, and he does it very successfully by making accurate assumptions about their tastes.
Shortly after his victory at bringing the reluctant part of audience to his side, however, he tries to build upon that by launching into a philosophical discussion which undermines the trust he has won. His question: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” (259). Here his precise use of the word “sentient” feels out of place. He has given up his careful word usage in favor of an easily misinterpreted one which is often associated with intelligent life. Within a paragraph, he is bringing up PETA, whom he later describes as “fanatics” in the footnote on page 263. Unfortunately for his credibility, he does not distance himself from the rhetoric of the animal rights movement early enough. The typical American eater has a lifetime of meat consumption in his or her past and needs to be eased into any discussion that implies there might be a moral price for all those dead animals. It’s arguable that even a 19-page article does not have the time and space to establish enough ethos to win over a large amount of the audience.
It is important to note that Wallace acknowledges this fact in his piece, saying “it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about…the morality of their eating habits” (262) Wallace knows that he is fishing in unfriendly waters. He knows his harvest will not be nearly as impressive as the lobstermen he lambasts. Some would say this concession to reality shows that he has lowered (or realistic) expectations, and therefore he should be excused if his essay only sways a few members of his audience. I disagree: by offering his readership the “out” of peer pressure, he gives them an easy, popular excuse to be unconcerned with the lobster. This moment of weakness allows the readers to break free of the language net he has expertly woven. They hasten back to their old schools of thought, safe amongst the multitude of omnivores.
By the time we reach the end of the piece, Wallace is doing a decent impression of a PETA “fanatic.” He begins to use the language of guilt to desperately try to sway some last few readers to his side. Vivid descriptions of lobsters thrashing around in their boiling pots and knives being thrust into crustacean heads are peppered through a text that finally wraps up by challenging Gourmet magazine’s slogan, “The Magazine of Good Living.” He brings it up almost in passing. The deep, interesting questions available to him are left unasked, such as whether “good” living consists of those things which make one feel special and privileged or whether it means taking the time to appreciate the consequences of one’s own individual choices instead of just going along with the crowd. Is ordering an animal killed for your enjoyment a self-centered act of gluttonous excess or just a decent way to get dinner? Wallace backs away by saying that “these questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here” (270). His own willingness to stop before broaching this point gives his readers the freedom to do so as well.
In the end, Wallace’s inability to set up enough ethos to bring the reluctant portion of his audience along on his exploration of animal-rights issues causes this to be an ineffective piece. The only readers who are interested in its points are those who already agree with them. The vast majority of readers will either tune him out once he starts using more negative and eventually desperate language, or they will get through the piece and then go have some dead animal prepared for their supper without a second thought. He skillfully guides the audience into his net through his early use of neutral language, but when he tries to draw in his catch he ends up opening a giant hole in his netting, allowing many to follow their peers back into the murky sea from whence they came.
David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” in Gourmet Magazine. June 2008.