Ostensibly a travel piece for ‘Gourmet’ magazine, ‘Consider the Lobster’ begins as a critical and sardonic description about the commercialization of festival tourism. It eventually develops into a moral reflection on the ethics of animal suffering. The slow development of his argument is one of Wallace’s key strategies. It is bookended by misanthropic sentiment, from hyperbolic complaints about traffic (Wallace, 1) to sardonic remarks in his closing paragraph about the inability of “public discussion” to solve the moral dilemmas he raises. (7).Through a variety of techniques, Wallace presents an argument that is cogent, lacking in dogma and reaches only tentative conclusions.
Much of the first part of Wallace’s essay is largely descriptive and he is wryly amused by what he sees at the Maine Lobster Festival. This description is loaded and emotive, and it becomes clear that Wallace does not like many aspects of the Maine Lobster Festival, but his first two paragraphs are full of descriptive detail, while making clear that he disapproves of what he calls the “deliberate collision, joyful and lucrative and loud” of Maine’s two largest industries – tourism and lobster catching. He follows this with further detailed description, from a biological point of view, of what a lobster is. From describing the “lobster bobble head dolls” of the festival, he moves into scientific language which gives his writing more authority. More explanation follows – of how lobster was once considered only food fit only for the poor and that its gourmet status is relatively new. Wallace returns to describe some of what he considers the Maine Lobster Festival’s “downers” (2) and finally admits that the festival is “not for everyone” – meaning that he does not like it. There follows some more explanatory paragraphs about how to cook a lobster with precise instructions on cooking times and an informed explanation of the difference between hard-shell lobsters and soft-shell lobsters. (3)
It is only at this point – almost half-way through the essay, that Wallace’s real concern becomes clear when he points out that the whole point of cooking lobsters, part of the appeal of their freshness, is that they are cooked alive. This is a deliberate strategy on Wallace’s part: his description of the MLF carries authority because he has been there and seen it; his biological knowledge of the lobster and his understanding of culinary history have been established by all the description and explanations he has given the reader; he even establishes he knows precisely how to cook it; and, then, towards the bottom of the third page he asks the crucial question that the rest of the essay is going to discuss: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” (3). Had the essay begun in this fashion we might have been less inclined to read on: what seemed to be a piece of travel reportage is about to change into a moral and scientific discussion of whether lobsters feel pain and, if they do, whether it is ethically justified to make them suffer this pain. The descriptions and explanations have not only confirmed Wallace’s authority to write about such things, they are also inherently interesting, so Wallace has structured his essay so that its real beginning is half-way through. The rest of the essay is an attempt to answer the four rhetorical questions that mark the turning pint of the essay.
But Wallace’s discussion of the ethics of boiling living lobsters continues with more description and explanation. This is another deliberate strategy on the writer’s part: he uses the opinions of others, but remains honestly perplexed and confused about the issue at the end of the essay, and his honesty about his own hypocrisy over eating meat is admitted: this honesty, it could be argued, encourages the reader to share Wallace’s moral qualms about boiling living lobsters. He describes the activities and views of PETA (but later distances himself by denying that he is writing a “PETA-like screed” (7))), but he also reports the views of the local Maine residents who share the assumption declared by the MLF’s organizers that lobsters cannot feel pain. (4).
This is the crux of Wallace’s argument and, in a strange way, although it involves much more, it hinges on his ability to capture descriptive detail. Wallace goes into some detail about the neurological knowledge that we have of other species and quite whether we can attribute feelings of suffering and pain to crustaceans, but the most telling passage is this, in which Wallace ignores metaphysics and neurological theory to describe what happens when you cook a lobster at home:
If you’re tilting it from the container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like person trying to keep from going over the edge of the roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. 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 like you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water. (5).
This long quotation is justified, because for all Wallace’s erudite explanation of different scientific theories about whether animals feel pain, it is this detailed description of what happens in the kitchen that appeals to our emotions. The science may convince us logically; the description engages our emotions.
Wallace explains other methods of killing a lobster and speculates that only mammals feel pain in the way that humans do, but, tellingly, he admits, “after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the side of the pot.” (6) In his penultimate paragraph Wallace adopts the role, not of a dogmatic PETA-like propagandist, but a curious, concerned and thoughtful human being who is worried about the clear suffering that lobsters undergo in being boiled alive. His conclusion is not dogmatic, but very tentative: he wonders how it is that so many people can attend the MLF or cook their own lobsters at home and not even consider the suffering that the creature endures. By finishing on a series of rhetorical questions, Wallace is not claiming to know the answers, but merely encouraging intelligent readers to reflect a little more closely on their attitudes to boiling a living creature alive.
His essay blends accurate travel reportage, scientific knowledge and some culinary knowledge with well-chosen descriptive detail to make a convincing case for us to consider the ethics involved in the way we treat lobsters. Part of its appeal lies in it observational detail and in the author’s curious, honest stance and the authority he gains through the detailed scientific knowledge he displays, However, at crucial points in the essay he appeals directly to our emotions.
Wallace, David Foster. ‘Consider the Lobster.’ Gourmet. August 2004. Web.