The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The novel developed through a series of long letters that William S. Burroughs sent to various friends. The letters were collected as a selection of manuscripts. Fragments were published in The Chicago Review in 1958, but it was not until 1959 that the work was pub-lished as a novel. The book was rejected by many American publishers and was finally published as The Naked Lunch in Paris, France. Grove Press put out an American edition under the title Naked Lunch (1962). Shortly after publication, the book was banned by the American government. A trial ensued in which Burroughs was accused of writing a blasphemous and obscene book. Burroughs finally won his case in 1966. The book in the meantime had become a best-seller.

In the introduction to Naked Lunch, Burroughs suggests that the novel is simply a collection of “the notes” that he wrote while he was addicted to heroin. As a result, Naked Lunch cannot be said to have a plot as such. In the novel, Burroughs even tells readers that “this book spill [sic] off the page in all directions” and that one “can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point.” In his letters, Burroughs also suggested that Naked Lunch is in fact a montage of scenes connected only by a series of themes. The narrative wanders through a number of comic sketches, sexual fantasies, and stories that seem to appear from nowhere and often end abruptly....

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Subway. New York City’s subway system is a dirty underground environment where criminals and drug addicts mix with the citizenry. The stairs, turnstiles, platforms, and closing doors of trains afford opportunities for criminals to elude police. One can emerge from the subway in one place and quickly descend into another, catching a train in another direction. In the subway system, especially late at night, hustlers and thieves take advantage of drunks, robbing them after they have passed out; however, in some stations, such as Queens Plaza, a station with various levels, the police cleverly conceal themselves and make criminal activity risky for the criminals. Burroughs makes the subway stand as a metaphor for the wretchedness and corruption of society.

Freeland Republic

Freeland Republic and Annexia. Dr. Benway arrives from Annexia, a quagmire of bureaucratic requirements, where people are constantly stopped and made to validate themselves by presenting documents. Now Benway is an adviser to the Freeland Republic, a place devoted to free love. In Freeland, Benway takes William Lee, the narrator, on a tour of the Reconditioning Center. In Drag Alley, Benway shows Lee victims of Irreversible Neural Damage. One patient has no apparent awareness but does, as a reflex, bark like a dog and salivate when taunted with chocolate. In the next ward, Benway shows Lee drug addicts waiting for their fixes. An iron shutter opens, and...

(The entire section is 606 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Burroughs is such a controversial figure that discussions of his work, even among devotees, are likely to involve some serious contention,...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Considering the howls of outrage from many quarters that greeted the publication of Naked Lunch, and the demands that the book (and...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

To fully understand the uniqueness of Burroughs's technical elements in Naked Lunch, it is necessary to consider one of the problems...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The material which was transformed into Naked Lunch from Burroughs's "Word Hoard," consisting of letters, journals, and other...

(The entire section is 123 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Since Burroughs himself has used the techniques of film in some of his books, notably The Wild Boys (1971), which is structured in...

(The entire section is 816 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Goodman, Michael Barry. Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981. A narrative history of the writing, publication, critical reception, and censorship of Naked Lunch in the United States. Well documented, it includes much previously unpublished material.

Miles, Barry. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible. London: Virgin Books, 1992. An entertaining overview of Burroughs’ literary and artistic output. Includes chapters devoted specifically to Tangier and to Naked Lunch. Offers a personal portrait of Burroughs the man and artist.

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of...

(The entire section is 210 words.)