Naked Lunch

William Burroughs

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Naked Lunch | Symbols


Safety Pin and Dropper

In Chapter 3 the narrator describes how addicts use safety pins and medicine droppers to administer a fix. This practice is used when only a small amount of heroin is available, or if proper materials aren't on hand. He returns to this image in a few subsequent sections, but the meaning of these devices remains the same. These objects represent the sense of desperation addicts feel when they need a fix. When withdrawal symptoms set in, they are willing to use any instruments available to get the drugs into their bodies. The safety pin reveals little concern for sanitation or for personal pain. The only thing that matters is the fix.


Nooses and execution by hanging figure prominently in two sexually explicit scenes. One of these is the orgy in Hassan's rumpus room in Chapter 9. The other is the blue (pornographic) movie A.J. shows at his annual party in Chapter 11. In each of these scenes, a character hangs another character midcoitus. In his 1960 essay "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness," Burroughs describes these scenes as a satirical criticism of capital punishment. The nooses, placed in the context of an explicit sexual scenario, represent the "obscene, barbaric, and disgusting anachronism" of public execution. These scenes highlight hypocrisy in society. Burroughs knew the authorities would be concerned with the obscenity of the sex acts, but not the obscenity of the executions their own government sanctions.

Used Condoms

Garbage figures prominently in many descriptions in Naked Lunch, and almost all those descriptions of garbage include used condoms lying in alleys and streets. In a general sense, the condoms represent the waste associated with modern society. In a more specific sense, used condoms signify the way sex is commodified among drug addicts. It is impersonal and disposable, like the condoms are. They are dirtier than the rest of the garbage, containing bodily fluids that may also be diseased. They decay in these discarded containers just as the addicts' bodies are decaying containers for the drugs they take.

Black Meat

Black Meat is a substance derived from the flesh of giant centipedes that live in the polluted waters around Interzone. As the Sailor's exchange with "Fats" Terminal in Chapter 6 reveals, this material is highly addictive and difficult to obtain. At the same time, the Black Meat is very much in demand. Black Meat serves as a symbol of all drugs because it is addictive, hard to get, and requires users to enter into arrangements with unsavory characters. In this case the strange creatures called Mugwumps are the unsavory characters.

Steely Dan

Aside from being the namesake of a real-life band from the 1970s, Steely Dan is the name given to a series of sex toys. These mechanical phallic sex devices are used in the blue movie A.J. shows at his party in Chapter 11. These devices are numbered Steely Dan I, II, and III, each one purportedly an improvement on the last. They represent the technologies of the post-World War II era, which are meant to improve all aspects of daily life; however, these items create a world that is more convenient but also more isolating. The Steely Dan reduces the already impersonal sex of the blue movie to something literally void of human connection.

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