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  • Reading Meat in H. G. Wells
  • Michael Parrish Lee

The nineteenth-century novel is stuffed with meat—recall Catherine's refusal to eat her goose after Heathcliff's flogging in Wuthering Heights (1847), Pip's theft of pork pie for Magwitch in Great Expectations (1860-61), or Fred and Rosamond Vincy's quarrel over a grilled bone in Middlemarch (1871-72)—and if the subject has been largely passed over by critics in the field, we might attribute this neglect or resistance at least in part to the novel's own apparent tendency to separate bodily appetite from the more "refined" pursuits of knowledge and human understanding that would seem to inhere in the act of reading. For example, in the last of these texts, Fred begins reading a novel without ringing the bell to have his plate cleared away, and Rosamond rebukes him as "vulgar" (100), a judgment which insists on a division between food and book that acquiesces to an Enlightenment tradition that follows Plato in cordoning off gustatory taste from the more "intellectual" senses of vision and hearing (Korsmeyer 1-6, 12-18) and confining appetite like "a wild animal" "as far as might be from the council chamber" of reason (Plato 70e-1, qtd. in Korsmeyer 14; see also Bourdieu 5-6). But while it might be comforting to imagine that eating is indeed truly separate from the "higher" functions of perception and cognition, the spread of evolutionary theory during the second half of the nineteenth century would render this separation at best unstable. As a closer look reveals, soon after Middlemarch evokes the division between reading and meat-eating, the novel gives us Tertius Lydgate, "a vigorous animal," going to the library to "hunt" for "a book which might have some freshness for him" (141). The text thus implies a collapse of book into prey, and approaches a working through of its own apparently taken-for-granted division of meat from information. Yet the collapse of this division remains safely metaphorical, and the meat remains dispersed throughout the text. It is not until the early fiction of H. G. Wells, more prepared at the century's close to [End Page 249] test the full implications of the human as a "vigorous animal," that the former metaphor takes on extensive narrative force and the division between meat and knowledge is self-consciously and mercilessly taken to task.

In the work of H. G. Wells, meat becomes both something capable of shaping narrative structure and the visceral evidence of an imperial culture in which social interest is inseparable from appetite and illumination is bound to carnage. In both The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), the seeker of information—the explorer, the scientist, the attentive conversationalist, even the reader of these books—is figured as a sublimated hunter of human meat. So while it is a commonplace in interdisciplinary work on cannibalism that in Western culture the cannibal has long been "a figure associated with absolute alterity and used to enforce boundaries between a civilized 'us' and savage 'them'" (Guest 2), to read early Wells is to find that late nineteenth-century British culture was already beginning to question the viability of a tidy separation between normative civilization and cannibalistic savagery. Indeed, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau ruthlessly dismantle the possibility of holding cannibalism as an "outside" against which we can define our culture, suggesting that the "civilized" desire for knowledge is not essentially different than the cannibalistic hunger for flesh.

The more general blurring, in the Victorian imagination, of the line between "civilization" and "savagery" owes much to the work of Charles Darwin1 and Darwinian-influenced theories of degeneration (see Lankester, Lombroso, and Nordau). Degeneration theory regarded evolution as a reversible phenomenon, meaning that the so-called "civilized" races of humanity could never be entirely free from potential regressions to savagery and animalism. In the midst of proliferating concerns about the stability of the civilized Western subject, attempts to keep such anxieties at bay sprang up in force. One such form of "anxiety management" was an insatiable hunger for knowledge, and particularly knowledge of an "abnormal" against...


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pp. 249-268
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