Sunday, May 17, 2009

Vegans and vegetarians in literature: A brief introduction and case 1

As I work toward my dissertation, I often keep track of ideas for criticism that might prove to be fertile subjects.  One particular angle I've become interested in is the representation of vegetarians, vegans, and animal rights activists in literature.  Vegans and vegetarians are not widely depicted in literature, or in popular culture, but the representations are telling, as they often characterize vegans as malnourished, pitiable, mislead, or crazed.  The reason for this is obvious, it is easy to dismiss an idea once the individual is discredited -- compare this to the popular depiction of the feminist as "man-hating."  
Of course, not all of these representations are negative (I'll list a couple of positive and neutral representations below), but each of them bears investigation so that we know what we are up against.  For the majority of the population, and especially for those who do not know any vegans personally, the cartoonish depiction of vegans becomes a reality, making our lives more difficult.  
As a child, I remember an episode of the Cosby Show in which one of the daughters brought home a new boyfriend who was a vegetarian.  Of course, the boy arrived for dinner and told the family at the table that he was a vegetarian.  This situation is clearly meant to depict the vegetarian as someone who is rude and demanding (he didn't inform his host ahead of time and expected to be catered to) and ultimately the sort of person you wouldn't want your child to bring home.  This sort of representation, whether it was meant to denigrate vegetarians or not, confirms the idea that vegetarians are pushy people who expect everyone to conform to their own whims.  This is the attitude of entitlement and bigotry.  
Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close features a child protagonist, Oskar Schell, who describes himself as a vegan but makes exceptions for astronaut ice cream.  Overall, this depiction is neutral-to-positive although Oskar's veganism sometimes comes off as a childish caprice.  Because Oskar is a sympathetic character whose father died in the World Trade Center, the reader may overlook his veganism as just another personality quirk of an unfortunate young boy.  
Vegetarianism is represented in a much more ambiguous fashion in John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy.  In this novel, the main character was raised as a goat for the first 9 years of this life before he began to live as a human.  One of the hold-overs from his early upbringing is a vegetarian diet.  Throughout the book, George (the goat-boy) expresses disgust at the sight of others eating meat.  On the one hand, George's attitude is given moral weight, but the character is portrayed in such an absurd way overall, that the message is diluted.  Maybe vegetarianism is okay for a goat-boy, but it might still remain out of the realm of possibility for a 'real' human.  
The first case I want to discuss in greater depth is The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  There are two scenes in particular that I will describe and analyze, which deal with the issue at hand.  The novel itself is about a midwestern family (elderly parents, 3 grown children who have all moved to eastern cities) and their attempts to find harmony with themselves and each other.  The eldest, Gary, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and his own children.  In this scene, Gary's wife uses their sons as leverage against him; specifically, she encourages her sons to dump their dinner (a mixed grill Gary has prepared) down the disposall by example and then orders pizza for them later:  "Altogether maybe thirty dollars' worth of meat went into the sewer, but Gary, trying to keep his Factor 3 levels off the floor, succeeded pretty well in forgetting about the animals that had died for this purpose" (164).  In this narrative, and sadly for too many people, this sort of disregard is standard.  Gary's first concern is for money, next his personal well-being, and finally the animals.  However, he only cares about the animals to the extent that it affects him personally and not for their own sake.  The animals in question serve only as a vehicle for Gary's wife's passive-aggression -- a tool for her petty power play.  This passage confirms for the reader that selfish thoughts and emotions are acceptable, that the role of animals as food is standard and that their deaths are only 'tragic' when the meat goes to waste.  
Gary's younger sister, Denise, works as a chef in popular Philadelphia restaurants.  At one of the novel's turning points, she considers running away with the wife of the restaurant's owner, but pictures her life with another woman.  She imagines herself cooking vegetarian food, wearing dumpy clothing, and letting herself go with her mate.  The meaning here is more clear: vegetarianism is marginal and something that a respectable chef wouldn't touch.  Denise equates vegetarianism with settling for less. (419) 
There is one other toss-off line concerning vegans in this book as well, to the extent that veganism is a marker of extremism and radicalism.  A minor character becomes involved in underground anarchism in Philadelphia and his company places "minor vegan prophets" alongside "bomb-makers and Xeroxer, and zinesters and punks" (341).  This depiction is fairly standard, and one that most vegans must confront at some point in their lives.  The tactic is to throw the philosophy and ethical dimension of veganism out the window by creating an association with violence, fringe ideology, and implicitly, terrorism.  We are encouraged to view the vegan as the bomb-maker.  
The danger of these incidents is that they escape the notice of most readers on a conscious level.  While a reader would likely make note of a racist or sexist comment, s/he would likely not notice the speciesist commentary, but that commentary does subtly confirm their existing thoughts.  The real danger lies in reaffirming the normality of meat consumption and, conversely, the transgression of vegetarianism and veganism.  

The book is great and should not be judged for these few scenes.  In part, this analysis is meant to show that such ideology does occur in the books we read and in the popular culture that surrounds us.  We shouldn't use this as an excuse to barricade ourselves off from these outlets, but as a chance to inform ourselves.  Once we peel back the implicit arguments and identify the tools used to castigate vegans and belittle sentience issues, we stand a better chance of right the misinformation and projecting the true image of veganism.  

1 comment:

Josh said...

Just saw that you put a link to Against Oblivion. Thanks for that!

Take care,

Josh