Eating Animals

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In his first book, the highly acclaimed novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer created a vegetarian character, also called Jonathan Safran Foer. His namesake in the novel has trouble ordering a vegetarian meal at a Ukrainian restaurant, where all the menu items seem to include meat. His Ukrainian companions do not understand his refusal to eat meat, and the scene ends comically with a potato falling on the floor.

In the novel, a sort of “table fellowship” emerges, to use a term Foer introduces in his nonfiction book, Eating Animals. (He borrows the term from Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006). Despite their dietary differences, the characters in the novel become quite close to one another, mostly because of bemused and grudging acceptance on the part of the nonvegetarians, to whom vegetarianism is a puzzling sort of quirk but something they eventually do their best to accommodate. The novel itself to a certain extent seems to present vegetarianism as a personal quirk; there is no suggestion in it that the nonvegetarians are doing anything wrong.

That all changes in Eating Animals, in which Foer argues that those who eat meat are complicit in horrendous crimes committed against animals. He presents in much detail the horrors of slaughterhouses and factory farms, and by the end of the book he sounds like a latter-day Karl Marx, inveighing not against industrial capitalism but against industrial food production, which he not only says should end but also predicts will end. He adds that those who will not participate in ending it, by which he means those who eat meat from factory farms or fish from fish farms, are guilty of choosing cruelty to animals for the sake of eating sushi, bacon, and Thanksgiving turkey. The book ends as an increasingly shrill diatribe against meat eating, though Foer seems a little uncertain whether to oppose all meat eating or just the eating of meat produced in inhumane conditions.

The book begins differently. As one might expect from a book written by a novelist, it tells stories, most notably a story about the author’s grandmother that has been much quoted by reviewers. Foer clearly admires his grandmother, whose lesson from the horrors of World War II is that you can never have too much food. He also fondly describes his grandmother’s favorite dish, chicken with carrots, even though as a vegetarian he presumably cannot eat it anymoresomething that seems to cause him some distress. Throughout the book, he presents the conflict between cultural traditions involving meattraditions he wishes to shareand his ever-developing views as a vegetarian. One of the greatest difficulties with being a vegetarian, he suggests, is the disruption of table fellowship with those who eat meat.

The context of his grandmother’s story is the vegetarianism of Foer’s book, though it is not immediately evident how the story connects to that context. During the war, his grandmother was nearly starving as she fled the Germans until, on the brink of dying, she was offered food by a Russian farmer. “He saved your life,” Foer says to her. “I didn’t take it,” she responds: The food was pork, and, as a kosher Jew, she would not eat such a thing. When Foer asks how she could turn down any food, even pork, in a situation of life and death, she says, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

The point of the story seems to be that just living is not enough. One’s life must be about more than staying alive. It is not clear whether the moral...

(This entire section contains 1815 words.)

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is supposed to apply to vegetarians or to the animals they care about. Midway through the book, Foer recounts a secret raid he made on a poultry farm with an animal activist who, when there, “rescued” one particularly suffering chick by slicing its neck. Suffering is worse than death, presumably.

This account brings up one of the issues in Foer’s book concerning vegetarianism, animal welfare, and animal rights. Is it all right to kill and eat animals as long as you treat them humanely beforehand? Or is it wrong to kill animals at all? The activist’s stance, by valuing quality of life over life itself, would seem to tend toward the first position, as would the grandmother’s story. Death for Foer’s grandmother, presumably, would have been preferable to a life in which she was forced to violate her principles. (Incidentally, traditional Jewish law would not support her position; the standard view is that it is permissible to violate the kosher laws and other Jewish laws if doing so is necessary to save a life.)

At times, however, Foer seems to take the other position, arguing that any killing of animals is wrong. That seems to have been his attitude when he first became a vegetarian, at the age of nine, according to another interesting story he tells. He and his brother were being looked after by a vegetarian babysitter. The two boys could not understand why she would not share in their chicken dinner. “Chicken is chicken,” she said, making the young Foer realize that the chicken on his plate came from a live animal. This did not deter Foer’s brother, but it made Foer stop eating and become a vegetarian.

Over the years that followed, he says, he lapsed from vegetarianism several times, but when his first child was born he thought it important to begin afresh, to take care of what his son would imbibe from his father. Thus, as he finally states explicitly at the end of the book, he has become a committed vegetarian again. Now, however, his approach is mostly a concern for humane treatment of animals rather than complete opposition to killing them. He does argue that humans, as animals, should not kill other animals, since they are able to transcend their animal nature and recognize the sanctity of animal life (animals after all kill and eat other animals).

For the most part, though, Foer is sympathetic to the few humane farms and slaughterhouses and seems to believe that, if animals are treated well, it may be all right to kill and eat them. In the short term, however, since the industry has become dominated by corporations practicing inhumane methods of raising and slaughtering animals, he urges readers to give up all meat and fish. Still, he can envisage a time after the elimination of agribusiness when it will be acceptable to eat meat again, though it is unclear whether he would personally want to do so.

Commentators writing from a vegetarian or vegan point of view have criticized Foer for this ambivalence. Vegan writers have especially criticized him for not saying much about the treatment of egg-laying hens and dairy cattle, treatment they find just as reprehensible as that of broiler chickens and beef cattle. Foer devotes most of his book to the latter, and his main argument for vegetarianism is a belief that boycotting meat and fish will lead to the end of inhumane meat and fish processing.

Foer also says that modern agribusiness is the leading cause of global warming, though he seems to be relying for this view mainly on relatively few studies and does not spend much time arguing the case. Still, he adds this argument to the mix, eventually seeming to be ready to devote anything to his cause. It does seem very much a cause, the cause not of vegetarianism per se but of attacking industrialized agriculture. By the end of the book, Foer has left his storytelling about his grandmother and his nine-year-old self far behind. He seems not the lighthearted yet profound novelist of Everything Is Illuminated but rather a man with a mission: to convert his readers, shaming them into giving up meat and fish.

It is unclear that his shaming will have the desired effect, but one further argument Foer brings to bear may, or at least it may galvanize the public to demand a cleanup of the factory farm system. This is the public health argument. It is not something Foer spends much time on, but he does report on the dangerous effects factory farming may have on human beings, because of all the antibiotics and growth hormones fed to animals, and because of the unsanitary conditions in the processing plants. This argument may impel people into action, as may the complementary argument of writers such as Pollan that industrially raised meat is a health hazard because of what cows and chickens are fed, regardless of their sanitary conditions.

Over one hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the Chicago meatpacking plants and a call for socialism and justice for workers. His middle-class readers, not to mention President Theodore Roosevelt, ignored the call for socialism but took action to correct the unsanitary conditions Sinclair had revealed. The result was not revolution but reform, notably the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Perhaps such reform will be the result of Foer’s book and others like it. (Commentators have noted that Foer’s indictment has been anticipated by many other writers, including Pollan, Peter Singer, and Eric Schlosser). His readers may not care about the well-being of animals, but they may want to protect their own health, and thus, just as happened a century ago, there may be reforms, though not revolution.

Meanwhile, readers who appreciated Foer’s debut novel will have to hope that he returns to his true métier, to a form of writing that emphasizes story over polemic and that does not fall prey to the very danger Foer warns against at the beginning of Eating Animals: of defending more extreme positions than those in which he believes. There are moments in this book in which storytelling and a subtle exploration of complexities come to the fore, as in the discussion of table fellowship. At the very beginning of the book, it is not even clear that it will be a study of vegetarianism: It seems possible the book may launch itself into strange realms, following the odd notions of Foer’s grandmother, who clips coupons she has no need of and who builds up a hoard of sixty pounds of flour. Foer also tells stories involving his father, an experimental cook, and a tiny village on the Bering Strait that somehow has need of a dating service.

Thus, Eating Animals shows glimmers of inventiveness. It also hints, even at the end, at an interesting point about the alienation created in workers in meat-processing plants. All of this potential, however, is subordinated to the polemic against factory farms, which becomes as well a polemic against many readers of the book. Some have found this decision bracing and vow to at least think about the issues involved; others may feel alienated.


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Booklist 106, no. 6 (November 15, 2009): 3.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 21 (November 1, 2009): 1147-1148.

New York 42, no. 37 (November 9, 2009): 76-77.

The New York Times, November 20, 2009, p. 25.

The New Yorker 85, no. 36 (November 9, 2009): 74-78.