Eating Animals

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 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....

(The entire section is 1815 words.)