Never had the proverb You are what you eat came to mind so often as I was reading Frankenstein was a Vegetarian by Michael Owen Jones.
The book encompasses a wide-ranging assortment of essays about subjects such as the last meals of death row inmates, the meals politicians choose to be photographed eating, and cultural significance of comfort food.
As a vegan, I was drawn to this book for the chapter about Mary Shelley and her creation, the novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein (the mad scientist) was not a vegetarian but the creature he gave life to very much was.
In the early 1800s, both Mary and Percy Shelley were vegetarians, which I would say is equivalent to being vegan today. Jones devotes the bulk of the essay to Percy, which I found unfortunate. I wanted to learn more about Mary and her parents, who were also vegetarians, as well as any insights into why she created a character that wanted only to live in peace but found only violence.
I did learn that Percy was a vocal critic of allocating of so much fertile land to producing food to feed animals that would only be consumed by the upper classes. While his motivation may have had less to do with animals than the social classes, his argument rings as true today as it did then. And it is important to be reminded that so much of the vegan movement we’ve inherited today began hundreds of years earlier. Jones writes:
Several food-related beliefs, images, and symbols in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries persist. A recurrent metaphor is that of meat eating as ingesting a “burnt corpse” that defiles the temple of the body. As Thomas Tryon (1691) put it, those devouring meat are “making themselves the Sepulchres of the dead Bodies of Beasts,” an image not uncommon among vegetarians today.
Jones also devotes chapters to the language of food and food as identity. And here is where I find that despite the many well documented environmental reasons for not eating meat, millions of people continue eating meat, not because they don’t care about the planet but because they care about how they are viewed. When meat is correlated with masculinity (see Carol Adams) it takes a strong man to give up meat.
And, as Jones writes, Americans have a deeply unhealthy obsession with meat…
In regards to meat, visitors to America were amazed at the amount of flesh ingested. In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Frances Trollope wrote, “They consume and extraordinary quantity of bacon. Ham and beef-steaks appear morning, noon and night.” Letter after letter to relatives in the Old World proclaimed, “We eat meat three times a day;” in one instance an immigrant wrote “twice a day” fearing that readers would not believe the actual frequency.
And yet identities do have the ability to change, to evolve. Perhaps over time we’ll see new heroic archetypes emerge that shift momentum away from animals and back to plants.
Throughout, Jones writes about the symbolism of food:
Human beings feed on metaphors in order to talk about something else. We hunger for, spice it up, sugarcoat, hash things out, sink our teeth into, and find something difficult to swallow.”
Anyone with an interest in our complex and often contradictory relationships with food, will find this book to be an entertaining and thought-provoking read.
Frankestein was a Vegetarian
By Michael Owen Jones
University Press of Mississippi
Author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. Co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of Writing for Animals (also now a writing program).