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Naked Lunch | Themes


Drug Addiction

Drug addiction lies at the heart of Naked Lunch, which William S. Burroughs calls a "How-To Book" in Chapter 24. The novel portrays the inner life of a drug addict, its very structure surreal and nightmarish, reflecting this state of mind. The lengths to which addicts will go to get a fix is portrayed in the desperate acts the characters commit in order to obtain drugs. This is usually some kind of perfunctory sexual activity. They administer their drugs using whatever instruments and means are necessary, and if their drug of choice is unavailable, they substitute one substance for another. The vivid description of the Rube's waxy and decaying flesh in Chapter 3 provides a clear illustration of the effects these drugs have on their users. The boy in Chapter 20 who is afflicted with imaginary "coke bugs" highlights the desperation addicts face when a fix isn't readily available. Other characters such as Bradley the Buyer show how addiction can take many forms. So do the subjects of Dr. Benway's "experiments," driven to degrading behavior to slake their thirsts for their substance of choice, whether sex, narcotics, or chocolate.

Sexuality as Addiction

The other primary addiction driving the characters in Naked Lunch is sex. The novel is filled with increasingly lurid and disturbing descriptions of sexual activity in all forms. Although these descriptions are presented in a repellent manner, they are also presented without judgment. These activities would be readily censured by mainstream society—evidenced by the obscenity trials that accompanied the novel's release. But within the world of the novel, they are just another part of that world. Homosexual behavior figures prominently, notable because when the novel was written, gay relationships were carefully hidden and conducted illicitly, often in dangerous circumstances. The violent portrayals of sexual activity, such as A.J.'s blue (pornographic) movie and Hassan's orgy, criticize the risks inherent in driving any kind of behavior underground. Sex and addiction are intertwined in the bodies of the Mugwumps, whose penises secrete an addictive substance. Addicts participate in demeaning sexual acts, devoid of pleasure or joy, because they are not able to live openly with their addictions. These scenes also highlight the hypocrisy about sex in American culture. While Americans may sexualize entertainment stars and produce pornography, they may also hold strict, puritanical views of sexuality. The exaggerated portrayal of sex, and the repressed American women who arrive at Hassan's rumpus room, illustrate how these restrictions are psychologically destructive.


In his 1991 essay "Afterthoughts on a Deposition," published with later editions of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs reasserts narcotics addiction is the world's most pressing "public health problem." He criticizes government-sanctioned solutions to this crisis, calling "anti-drug hysteria ... a deadly threat to personal freedoms and due-process protections of the law everywhere." The text of Naked Lunch reveals a strong distrust of governments and authority well before 1991. From the first line of the novel—"I can feel the heat closing in"—Burroughs establishes an adversarial relationship between the narrator and law enforcement. These officers are a menace to the narrator and his acquaintances. They seek only to punish and maintain order, even though the narrator is more a danger to himself than to others.

The narrator's skepticism about government ranges beyond day-to-day law enforcement. He describes the president (presumably the president of the United States) as a junkie who engages in homoerotic acts to get his fix. This isn't true in a literal sense, but it points to the president's (and other government officials') addiction to power. Outside the United States, in the alternate realities of Interzone and Freeland, the government is no better. Interzone is ruled by assorted political parties, each of which is equally unappealing. They are all driven by a desire for absolute control over the bodies and minds of the citizens. Only their means of control differ. The only representative of the government of Freeland the reader sees closely is Dr. Benway. His sadistic cruelty in the name of maintaining order—his treatments in the Reconditioning Center and his harassment of Carl Peterson—reveals the ethos of Freeland's government. This is a country that kills its citizens' independence by giving them everything and expecting a total surrender of liberty in return.


Although government officials are menacing, the most villainous villains in Naked Lunch are doctors. The government forces seeking to oppress citizens are, by and large, nameless and faceless entities. But in contrast, the corrupt and cruel doctors are named and given specific character development. Dr. Benway, the most prominent of these doctors, is actually both a physician and government entity. He uses his skills to torture or "recondition" patients who don't conform to the values mandated by the government and society of Freeland. Notably, this is not far removed from actual treatments for homosexuality during the 19th and 20th centuries. He performs unnecessary operations using unconventional methods, and he expresses no concern when patients die, considering death just part of a day's work.

Dr. "Fingers" Shafer is another sinister doctor, revealed to have stood trial in the past for performing "forcible lobotomy" on an untold number of patients. He conducts experiments on a man that eventually turn him into a monstrous black centipede, which is destroyed by an angry mob. His experiments indicate a sense of ambition and a desire to raise his profile and reputation. His forcible lobotomies indicate a need for control. Moreover, they represent a criticism of the ubiquity of lobotomies as a treatment for mental illness as well as "deviant" or "undesirable" behavior in the 1950s. Readers should note that until the late 20th century, homosexuality was treated as a mental disorder in Western nations. This misunderstanding of mental illness is also visible in Dr. Berger's radio show. Berger showcases the mentally ill for entertainment and treats nonmainstream behavior, such as homosexuality and being a writer, as sicknesses as well.

The novel's criticism of the medical establishment may be the most personal, possibly stemming from Burroughs's own brief medical studies in Vienna in the 1940s. In 1956 Burroughs's "Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs" was published in the British Journal of Addiction. It is also included in later editions of Naked Lunch. This letter criticizes the failure of medical professionals to address drug addiction in an effective and nonpunitive way. The letter suggests the portrayal of doctors in Naked Lunch may also reflect the inadequate treatment Burroughs experienced in his efforts to end his addiction.

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