Persian Sheep, Hawksbill Turtles and Vodsels: The Ethics of Eating in Some Contemporary Narratives

Conventionally , novelists have represented meals where meat is eaten uncritically: such meals tend to generate experiences of bonding between the characters. The animals whose bodies are served are unacknowledged as the humans ignore or deny the ethics of their culinary practices. In the last decade or so, however, a number of writers have chosen to engage with the ethics of eating nonhuman animals in their representation of carnivorous meals. J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999), Michel Faber's Under the Skin (2000), Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Yann Martel's Life of Pi (2002) all merit analysis in this regard. In substance and tone the books vary in the attention given to conventional habits of eating: Coetzee's novel resonates throughout with the ethics of human-animal interactions, of which eating is just one; Foer's tale bas a character's vegetarianism as a significant factor in his travels; eating and the getting of carnivorous meals are a central concern of Faber's and Martel's texts. In their representations of eating animals, these writers challenge almost universally held dualistic notions of humans and animals by situating the reader ontologically so that s/he cannot avoid the ethical content of the text. To what extent the ethical sensibilities of the reader might be attuned to what Stephen Mulhall terms 'the moral force of literature' (7) will vary of course, but in all the texts eating is significant to the narrative. Eating animals is, of course, one of the most dramatic ways we differentiate humans from animals, and the primary relationship that most urban dwellers have with animals is consuming them. Cora Diamond, in her essay 'Eating Meat and Eating People', emphasises the ontological implications of this primacy: 'We learn what a human being is in - among other ways - sitting at a table where we eat them. We are around the table and they are on it' (98). But arguments for vegetarianism, as Diamond points out, tend to have a 'nagging moralistic tone' (97), although such a tone may be justified, as she acknowledges.

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Published 1 June 2010 in Volume 25 No. 2. Subjects: Animal Studies.

Cite as: Woodward, Wendy. ‘Persian Sheep, Hawksbill Turtles and Vodsels: The Ethics of Eating in Some Contemporary Narratives.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, 2010.