Naked Lunch | Study Guide

William Burroughs

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Naked Lunch | Chapter 18 : The Examination | Summary



Dr. Benway summons Carl Peterson for an exam at the Ministry of Mental Hygiene and Prophylaxis in Freeland. Carl is obligated to appear for the exam. Freeland is a "welfare state," which means the government has departments to serve every possible human need. The narrator explains, "The threat implicit in this enveloping benevolence stifled the concept of rebellion."

Benway asks Carl probing questions about his sexual activity, trying to determine whether Carl is homosexual. Carl asserts his heterosexuality repeatedly, despite Benway's assurances. Benway tells him, "We regard it as a misfortune ... a sickness ... certainly nothing to be censured or sanctioned" any more than any other illness. However, Benway also alludes to the possibility of treatment for this sickness. He subjects Carl to tests that indicate his heterosexuality, but Benway is not satisfied. He asks Carl about his knowledge of drug dealers. Carl finally describes his homosexual experiences in the military when he was "blank." Carl dozes off and remembers some details of an experience with a man named Hans. Carl wakes and attempts to leave as the room expands then explodes "out into space."


Dr. Benway's lies and hypocrisy are on full display in his treatment of Carl Peterson. Dr. Benway lulls Carl into a false sense of security by telling him homosexuality is no more "wrong" than a disease such as tuberculosis. This hints Carl may be the same person who went to the sanitarium to see Joselito in Chapter 5. But then Benway makes the sinister remark all diseases must be treated. This implies a drive to uncover the truth about Carl's past so he can be "reconditioned" to no longer engage in homosexual acts. This plan seems redundant because whatever exists in Carl's past, he is living as a straight man now. This discrepancy indicates Dr. Benway's real motivation is to cause suffering. Even if homosexuality were a disease with a cure—which it isn't—Dr. Benway isn't interested in curing anyone of any ailment.

As additional proof he is interested in inflicting maximum discomfort on his subject, Dr. Benway subjects Carl to a series of humiliating "tests," starting with making him masturbate into a jar. Even though the tests come back negative for gay activity, Dr. Benway continues with more tests. He is determined to strip away any semblance of privacy Carl may believe he has in his life. This absence of privacy seems to be the way of life in Freeland, where the extensive welfare state allows the government total control over the citizens. Privacy and autonomy are not allowed in a system where every need is catered to by the government. Carl learns the futility of his resistance when he tries to walk out of Dr. Benway's office. He walks and walks, only to find the space expanding, then exploding into space, preventing his exit.

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