Consider The Lobster Summary, Analysis and Themes

“Consider the Lobster” is a famous essay by David Foster Wallace that originally appeared in Gourmet magazine. It centers on the Maine Lobster Festival, which prompts an exploration of the ethics of killing lobsters for human consumption.

Wallace dives deep into the lobster’s physiology and potential capacity for pain, questioning whether the pleasure we derive from eating them justifies the methods of preparation. The essay blends humor and philosophical inquiry, ultimately challenging readers to think critically about the food they eat and the ethical implications of their choices.


The essay begins with an evocative portrait of the bustling Maine Lobster Festival. However, the initial notes of culinary enthusiasm quickly give way to a complex meditation on the ethics of killing and eating these creatures.

Wallace delves into the history of lobster, outlining its curious shift from an undesirable food source to a luxurious treat. He explores the festival in detail, highlighting both its celebratory atmosphere and the unsettling realities concealed behind the veneer of fun and festivities.

The central question of the essay emerges: do lobsters feel pain, and if so, does that fundamentally alter the morality of consuming them? 

Wallace examines the common method of boiling a lobster alive and the creature’s undeniable struggle during the process. This leads to a consideration of the broader debate about animal suffering.

He introduces PETA’s protests against the festival, highlighting their arguments about lobster sentience. In turn, this prompts a scientific inquiry into the lobster’s nervous system and the nature of pain. 

Wallace explores the concept that lobsters might lack the complex brain structures necessary to experience pain the same way that humans do. While this idea initially offers some comfort, he soon dissects its problematic implications.

Should pain be measured solely by its emotional and intellectual complexity, or is the raw experience of physical distress enough to warrant ethical concern? 

Wallace wrestles with the lobster’s evident fight for survival, acknowledging that even if the animal’s pain is different from a human’s, it remains unsettlingly real.

He further challenges the reader by contrasting the Maine Lobster Festival’s giant, public lobster cooker with the intimate act of killing the creature in a home kitchen. The essay highlights the uncomfortable dissonance between the festive atmosphere of the event and the hidden, brutal truth of its culinary practices.

Wallace grapples with his own hypocrisy– an awareness of the moral complexities of eating animals, coupled with a continuing desire to consume meat. He questions the notion of “gourmet,” wondering if it merely refers to presentation and taste rather than the full ethical picture of the meal.

Ultimately, “Consider the Lobster” doesn’t provide neat answers. 

Instead, it forces readers to confront uncomfortable questions about the food they eat and the often overlooked ethical trade-offs embedded in their choices. 

Wallace’s introspective narrative style invites readers to follow him on this unsettling journey, questioning their own assumptions and the ease with which they may have previously ignored these difficult considerations.

The essay becomes an exercise in empathy, an invitation to extend compassion beyond the familiar boundaries of human experience. It is an exploration of the messy, unresolved contradictions that exist within most of us when confronted with the reality of causing suffering to satisfy our own appetites.

Consider The Lobster Summary, Analysis and Themes


The Ethics of Consumption & Suffering

At its core, “Consider the Lobster” questions the morality of causing suffering to living creatures for our own pleasure. Wallace meticulously describes the process of cooking a lobster alive, forcing the reader to confront the uncomfortable reality behind a delicious meal. 

He challenges our automatic acceptance of practices that cause pain, simply because they bring us enjoyment. This theme extends outwards from the lobster, suggesting we re-examine our broader consumption habits, and whether those cause unnecessary suffering to other living beings.

The Illusion of Choice

Wallace questions whether we truly have free will in our food choices. He presents the Maine Lobster Festival as a microcosm of American society – a spectacle driven by tradition, advertising, and social pressure. 

The sheer availability of lobsters, the festive atmosphere, and cultural expectations all manipulate our choices, leading us to make decisions without fully considering their ethical consequences. Wallace implies that we often prioritize convenience and cultural norms over a truly conscious, moral evaluation of our actions.

The Complexity of Sentience

While the essay centers around the question of whether lobsters feel pain, Wallace expands the debate to the larger issue of what defines sentience and consciousness. He argues that our anthropocentric lens often prevents us from truly understanding the inner lives of other species. 

By acknowledging our limitations in this area, the themes of compassion and respect extend beyond creatures we easily relate to. Wallace forces us to grapple with the possibility that just because we don’t fully grasp a creature’s experience doesn’t justify causing it harm.

The Hypocrisy of Modern Life

Wallace subtly critiques the contradiction between our supposed values and our actions. He highlights how we celebrate the Maine Lobster Festival – a symbol of abundance – while simultaneously ignoring the realities of suffering involved in creating that feast. 

This contradiction, Wallace argues, reveals a profound disconnect in modern society, where we profess concern for animal welfare yet often turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable realities that make our lifestyles possible.


David Foster Wallace’s essay isn’t merely about crustaceans; it’s an unflinching interrogation of human morality within a consumerist society. By framing his inquiry around the Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace unveils a profound tension at the heart of our choices. 

On one hand, the festival presents itself as a celebration of community and tradition, a bounty of fresh seafood enjoyed by all. However, beneath this veneer, Wallace reveals the unsettling reality obscured for the convenience of our palates – the systematic infliction of suffering upon sentient creatures. 

This central juxtaposition – the juxtaposition between festive enjoyment and the hidden violence it rests upon – serves as the catalyst for a broader discussion on our ethical blind spots.

Wallace’s genius lies not in providing a neatly packaged moral verdict, but rather in meticulously deconstructing the complex layers surrounding the issue. He forces readers to confront the vivid, visceral process of a lobster meeting its end, prompting genuine discomfort that’s difficult to brush aside. 

Yet, Wallace doesn’t stop at the individual lobster. He skillfully shifts focus outwards, questioning the very systems that make such practices not only acceptable but also desirable. 

The abundance at the festival, the social pressure to participate, the carefully crafted marketing; all of these elements contribute to a societal apparatus that manipulates individual choice and obscures true ethical consideration.

Furthermore, Wallace challenges our anthropocentric notions of sentience and suffering. 

He acknowledges the inherent limits of human understanding when it comes to the inner lives of other species, forcing us to confront the possibility that just because we don’t fully comprehend a creature’s experience doesn’t justify inflicting pain. 

This challenges our cultural habit of prioritizing humans over all else, hinting at the need for a more expansive and compassionate ethical framework.

Ultimately, “Consider the Lobster” leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease. 

While not explicitly condemning the consumption of lobster, it unveils the hypocrisy we engage in to maintain our lifestyles. 

We profess to care about animal welfare, yet often participate in systems that cause profound harm, while carefully shielding ourselves from the uncomfortable truths behind them. 

Wallace’s essay serves as a mirror, reflecting back the disconnect between our stated values and our actions, forcing us to question what we truly stand for.

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