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Naked Lunch

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Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch, Content warning, StudySmarter

Disturbing, ambiguous, and controversial—Naked Lunch (1959) by American author William Burroughs has been the subject of debate since its initial publication in 1959. The novel is narrated by one of the central characters, a drug addict named William Lee, based on Burroughs himself. While taking various drugs, Lee leaves the United States and travels to fictional cities where he becomes involved in their politics, homosexual scene, and drug culture. The novel was the subject of obscenity trials in the United States for its vulgar language, lurid depictions of sex, and gritty portrayal of drug culture. Though still highly controversial, the meaning of Naked Lunch has made it a popular postmodernist book today.

Content warning: this article contains mention of sexual assault, violence, and drug usage.

Naked Lunch Meaning

Naked Lunch was first published in France in 1959 but wasn't published in the United States until 1962 because of obscenity laws. The novel contains descriptions of drug usage, sexual acts (including homosexuality, rape, and pedophilia), and crude language. The American publication led to arrests, bans, and a court case as the novel was attacked for being vulgar and obscene. Naked Lunch was banned in Los Angeles and Boston, and the argument over whether it was too obscene to be published went as far as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court deemed it not obscene because it was found to have some social value.

The public's response to the novel is exactly what Burroughs was speaking to in the meaning of the title. "Naked Lunch," originally suggested by Jack Kerouac, refers to a clear, unaltered depiction of reality, free from the glamour and facade often used to romanticize daily life. In the introduction to the novel, Burroughs writes,

"The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork." (Introduction to Naked Lunch)

Many readers are offended by Naked Lunch because it offers an unflinching look into the dark and gritty world of drugs, capitalism, and power imbalances. This approach to writing differed drastically from the outwardly cheerful, family-oriented world of the 1950s and 60s when it was published. Society's rejection of anything that doesn't fit the status quo is what Burroughs was responding to in the title Naked Lunch.

Naked Lunch, Hand holding a fork, StudySmarter

Burroughs claims that Naked Lunch refers to an unedited, realistic depiction of the darkness inherent in society.

Naked Lunch Summary

Naked Lunch is comprised of a series of vignettes following the character William Lee. Lee is a drug addict from New York on the run from the police for drug charges. He evades them by jumping on the subway and meets up with a group of fellow drug addicts. Lee decides to make his way to Mexico, where he hopes to be safe from the American police. Along the way, his group disbands, and Lee encounters various drug dealers.

Lee travels to the fictional state of Freeland, where he is introduced to Dr. Benway, and Islam Inc. Benway has recently left the totalitarian state of Annexia, claiming that he hates the brutality Annexia uses to control its citizens. Lee is assigned to help Benway with psychological reconditioning, although Lee doesn't know what exactly he is doing. It is later revealed that Benway is a sadist who tortures drug addicts and homosexuals under the guise of science. When a computer malfunction causes all the gates to open, the prisoners riot, and Lee and Benway escape on a helicopter.

Naked Lunch, Doctor performing surgery, StudySmarter

Benway is a sadistic doctor who experiments unethically on his patients.

Lee and Benway travel to a coastal state called Interzone. Here, sex and drugs are freely available for a price. Violence is also normal in Interzone, and Lee records pedophilia, rape, murder, and necrophilia during an orgy hosted by Hassan. One of the worst offenders is A.J., known for pulling pranks, who crashes Hassan's party decapitating female partygoers. A.J. later throws his own party. He shows a blue (pornographic) movie in which the performers have sex and kill each other in the middle of intercourse.

In Interzone, Dr. Benway continues his unethical experimentation, and Lee begins to work as an agent for Islam Inc., which A.J. finances, but each agent has different goals. Similarly, Interzone is governed by four different political parties, each with its own agendas and bias. The vignettes become increasingly abstract and disjointed before Lee suddenly returns to New York.

New York was where Burroughs met his friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged him to start writing. Can you think of any other significance New York might hold?

Back in New York, Lee is still being chased by two police officers, Hauser and O'Brien. When they catch up to him, Lee shoots them and goes into hiding. The next morning, Lee can't find anything in the paper about their deaths. He calls the Narcotics Bureau and asks for O'Brien and then Hauser. The officer on the other end says no one with either of those names works in the bureau. Lee realizes he will never be able to go back to Interzone.

Naked Lunch Characters

The main characters in the novel are William Lee, Dr. Benway, A.J., and Hassan.

William Lee

The narrator and Burroughs's alter ego, William Lee, is a drug dealer and addict from New York. He travels to Mexico and then an alternate dimension while he is on the run from narcotic officers. Lee becomes involved in the drug and homosexual cultures everywhere he flees. He eventually becomes involved in the shady Islam Inc. organization. It is ambiguous whether Annexia, Freeland, and Interzone are really states in a different dimension of time and space or if they are the result of Lee having a drug-induced hallucination.

Dr. Benway

A sadistic doctor in Freeland and later Interzone, Dr. Benway performs unethical experiments on his patients in the name of science. Benway claims to hate the brutal totalitarian government of Annexia, but he ironically tortures his patients through gruesome experimentation. In Freeland, he performs lobotomies, and in Interzone, he performs unnecessary surgeries. Benway primarily experiments on drug addicts and homosexuals.

In one scene, Benway plans to massage a woman's heart with a toilet plunger to resuscitate her during surgery, but the patient dies. What might Burroughs be saying about the medical industry through the incompetent, sadistic doctors that appear in Naked Lunch?

A.J.

A.J. uses pranks to create chaos and disrupt the status quo in Interzone. Although he claims to be a fun-loving jokester, A.J. is violent and sadistic. He rouses the crowd into an orgy at a U.S. Embassy function, decapitates American women in Hassan's rumpus room, and shows a pornographic video of people having sex and murdering one another. A.J. is deeply involved in Islam Inc.'s operations, although his motive is unclear.

Hassan

Hassan built his fortune from the ground up. He started by trading sexual favors for drugs and now is a major drug and sex lord in Interzone. Hassan is involved with Islam Inc., and he throws massive, violent orgies in his rumpus room.

Naked Lunch Analysis

Naked Lunch is a highly symbolic novel that speaks to social issues present in 20th-century American society. The book is purposefully vulgar and absurd in order to make the reader question the ways in which they have been socialized. Consider this passage from the novel:

Naked Mr. America, burning frantic with self bone love, screams out: "My asshole confounds the Louvre! I fart ambrosia and shit pure gold turds! My cock spurts soft diamonds in the morning sunlight!” (Hassan's Rumpus Room)

This passage is considered obscene and distasteful in American society, but Burroughs wants readers to question why we think that way. The body parts he talks about are considered taboo, and his actions are vulgar. Yet the speaker isn't doing anything damaging or hurtful. So why does this passage make readers so uncomfortable?

Naked Lunch, The Louvre, StudySmarter

The speaker juxtaposes the high culture Louvre with the taboo and vulgar word "asshole."

The irony that Burroughs hints at here is further depicted in the mass orgy in Hassan's rumpus room and the pornography shown at A.J.'s house. In both situations, the novel includes lurid descriptions of sex acts intermingled with violence and even murder. When the novel was released in the United States, it was the sex that critics scorned for being obscene, not the public executions or depiction of death. The nooses in the novel thus symbolize the hypocrisy in American society. While sex is scorned, death is allowed and even praised. Naked Lunch thus stands as a satirical criticism of capital punishment in the United States.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, an estimated 15,269 Americans have been executed via the death penalty.

Another symbol in the novel is the Black Meat introduced in Chapter 6. Black Meat, harvested from the flesh of giant centipedes, is highly addictive and difficult to get. The Black Meat serves as a symbol for drugs because those who are addicted to it will do whatever it takes to get their hands on more. Drug dealers and addicts in Interzone are willing to travel, enter into contracts with shady individuals, and trade whatever he has of value to get more Black Meat.

The novel also speaks to the government's abuse of power. Each of the governments in Freeland, Annexia, and Interzone attempt to gain control over their citizens in different ways. In Freeland, Dr. Benway attempts to rewire people's minds. At the same time, Annexia is ruled via arbitrary punishment, and four competing political factions dominate Interzone: the Liquefactionists, the Senders, the Divisionists, and the Factualists. The Liquefactionists wish to physically absorb people, the Senders vie for control using telepathy to influence people's minds, the Divisionists wish to clone themselves and populate the earth with copies, and the Factualists oppose the other parties' plans for complete control.

Naked Lunch, Republican and democrat logos, StudySmarter

As opposed to the United State's two dominant political parties, Interzone is divided into four, each trying to gain control over its citizens.

Naked Lunch Quotes

The major quotes of the novel speak to themes of human impermanence and powerlessness, drug addiction, and the difficulties of overcoming addiction.

You were not there for the beginning. You will not be there for the end. Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative." (Atrophied Preface)

In this quote, the speaker considers his place in the world and how he ended up where he is currently. He realizes that his knowledge is incredibly limited and his place in the world is impermanent. Ultimately, he is unable to make sense of life because he realizes there are much bigger forces at work that have existed long before him and will persevere long after he's gone.

The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client,” (Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness)

This quote speaks to drug addiction and how drug usage degrades the addict. Not only do drugs lead to addiction and physical consequences, but they also cause emotional and social consequences. When drug addicts become so addicted they are willing to go to any lengths for their next hit, dealers no longer see them as people with families, jobs, and lives but as desperate consumers who can be manipulated and degraded.

It is not the intensity but the duration of pain that breaks the will to resist.” (Letter from a master addict to dangerous drugs)

In this letter, Burroughs acknowledges that recovering from addiction is hard, if not impossible. He states that there are no good techniques to help people maintain sobriety because even after their clean, they constantly want the next hit. While the speaker critiques drug culture in the novel, he is sympathetic towards addicts, implying they are not unfeeling criminals like society makes them out to be.

Naked Lunch - Key takeaways

  • Naked Lunch was written by William Burroughs and originally published in 1959.
  • The novel was the subject of obscenity trials for its vulgar language, descriptive depictions of sex, and unflinchingly realistic portrayal of drug culture.
  • The title means a realistic depiction of the world, free from facades, where everything is "naked" and out in the open.
  • Naked Lunch is highly symbolic, using Black Meat to stand in for drugs and public displays of death during sex to highlight the hypocrisy of the death penalty.
  • Some of the main themes are human impermanence and powerlessness, drug addiction, and the difficulties of overcoming addiction.

Naked Lunch, Crisis Banner, StudySmarter

Frequently Asked Questions about Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch was written by William Burroughs. 

Naked Lunch does not have a clear story or plot line, but is instead a series of disjointed vignettes. 

Black meat is a drug made from giant centipedes. 

Naked Lunch means presenting the world how it really is, free from the glamour and facade that makes it seem better than it is. 

Naked Lunch is based off of Burroughs's experiences with drugs, but the plot is largely fictionalized and imaginary. 

Final Naked Lunch Quiz

Question

Who wrote Naked Lunch

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Answer

Naked Lunch was written by American writer William S. Burroughs. 

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When was Naked Lunch published? 

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Answer

1959 

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Why was Naked Lunch controversial? 

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Answer

It was controversial for its crude language, lurid depictions of sex, and gritty portrayal of drug culture. 

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Question

Why was Naked Lunch ruled as not being obscene? 

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Answer

It was found to have some social merit/significance 

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Question

What does the title Naked Lunch mean? 

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Answer

It means a realistic portrayal of society, unhidden by an pretenses. 

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Who is the main character in Naked Lunch

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Answer

William Lee, the alter-ego of Burroughs himself

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Question

Who is William Lee? 

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Answer

A drug dealer and addict on the run from the police

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Who is Dr. Benway?

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Answer

A sadistic doctor, who performs torturous experiments on his subjects; also the leader of Freeland

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What kind of parties do Hassan and A.J. throw? 

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Massive orgies that involve sex, violence, and even death

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What corporation does the main character work for? 

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Answer

Isalm Inc

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What happens to Lee at the end of the novel? 

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He is back in New York, he shoots two police officers, and he realizes that he cannot return to Interzone

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What is Black Meat? 

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An addictive, difficult to obtain substance that is symbolic of drugs

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What are the major themes in the novel? 

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Answer

The main themes are human impermanence and powerlessness, drug addiction, and the difficulties of overcoming addiction

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What is the significance of people being executed in the middle of sex? 

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Answer

Burroughs is criticizing the use of capital punishment and how people are uncomfortable about public sex but not public death

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What do all the governments in the novel want? 

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Answer

Complete control over their citizens

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