My Name is Celeste Groux. This year I will be graduating from Dawson from the Enriched Pure and Applied Science Program. I took Short Fiction as my second English class and enjoyed it very much; I was able to learn about multiple trends in writing through this medium. Some of my other favourite classes during my studies at CEGEP were Business Ethics and Spanish. In the future, I plan on attending McGill University to continue my studies in the sciences. I am very interested in mathematics and I hope that I will be able to improve my skills in that domain.
Satirizing the Impulsivity of the Ignorant Mob in Yann Martel’s
“We Ate the Children Last”
By Celeste Groux
Society is always aiming to progress, to find ways to be more effective, to get tasks done more efficiently, and to be able to solve problems that seem unsolvable today. This desire for progress is often depicted in film and literature through the science fiction genre, but it can also be criticized in these same forms of media. Yann Martel’s short story “We Ate the Children Last” satirizes how society is quick to accept new technological advances and innovations without being sufficiently informed about the possible consequences. The story satirizes the public’s impulsivity; as a result, the reader feels encouraged to seek out information before making decisions, therefore feeling empowered to resist peer pressure. The satire is depicted through the reactions of the medical team, the actions of the public, and the final effect on society.
The reactions of the medical team satirize the impulsivity of the public. Their first conclusions concerning the results from the experiment are made quickly: “Two days after the operation, he ate six lunch meals in one sitting. Clearly his liver, pancreas, and gallbladder, the source of greatest worry, had adapted to the transplant” (89). The word “clearly” characterizes the scientists; they are quick to make assumptions. The contrast between their simple conclusions and the complexity of the experiment and science itself exaggerates this. Their attitude when finding their idea for the experiment is described: “The French were certain that their simple solution to the double problem – using the digestive system of a smaller, pot-bellied species of pig – would become the stuff of scientific legend” (90). In this description, the scientists deflate the difficulty of the experiment and the problems that may arise. The scientists are characterized as being more focused on the perception of others and finding easy fame than on the potential health benefits of the experiment. As well, the medical team hardly considers the negative side effects: “[They] would have been concerned except that his hemoglobin was excellent, his blood pressure was excellent… the man was bursting with good health” (90). Since doctors typically place a great importance on healthy eating, the scientists seem ignorant by dismissing the eating of garbage, even if they do so because they believe it to be of less importance than the health benefits. The scientists only look on the surface and ignore deeper questioning into the cause of the side-effects. The attitude of the scientists satirizes the public’s desire for simple solutions and their lack of deeper questioning, leading them to act impulsively.
The actions of the public further satirize this hasty and rash behaviour. Once the procedure acquires government approval, it is quick to become a trend: “The procedure caught on with the young and bohemian, the chic and the radical, among all those who wanted a change in their lives” (90). The situational irony of a surgery becoming a trend illustrates how the public is blinded by their desire for change. This description also demonstrates that their fickle attitude allows them to be influenced by their desire to fit in and be accepted by others. The narrator continues to describe the movement: “It was all so heady” (90). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “heady” as intoxicating or exhilarating. The word “heady” has connotations of alcohol and socializing, where peer pressure and the fear of missing out can influence people to drink. The title “We Ate the Children Last” is also evidence of satire. The child is a symbol of innocence, ignorance, and impulsivity, so the choice to eat them last shows that the public values those qualities. This childlike mentality ultimately brings about a societal crisis, so the use of the symbol emphasizes the need for greater reflection and education in the public, as is needed in children.
Moreover, the final effect produced on society satirizes the public’s attitude. Something meant to lead to greater health instead leads to countless deaths. After the emergence of the trend, a sudden change is described: “Unscrupulous racketeers began selling it. Dumps became dangerous places. Garbage collectors were assaulted” (90-91). The parallelism in syntax and the short sentences placed one after another illustrate the rapid negative development caused by the procedure. This development only worsens, so the government intervenes by creating internment camps among other measures: “No provisions were made for food in any camps … The weaker men and women disappeared … Then we ate those we loved most” (91). The allusion to cannibalism in the first sentence demonstrates that the reality caused by the movement is even too horrible to say directly. It is indeed situationally ironic that the medical advancement, meant to cure many, has caused people to either die or to eat others. The narrator, a survivor of these camps, describes his feelings after leaving: “I still have a good appetite, but there is a moral rot in this country that I cannot digest. Everyone knew what happened … But no one talks about it and no one is guilty” (91). The metaphor compares the ignorance of the public to garbage, emphasizing its negative value. By not being able to digest it, the narrator suggests that the indifference, ignorance, and impulsivity still remain; the public still has not learned the importance of being informed and how it could have prevented the deaths of many.
In conclusion, the medical team’s reactions, the public’s actions, and the final effect all satirize the public’s impulsivity concerning the acceptance of technological advances in “We Ate the Children Last.” This quality is exaggerated throughout the story and causes many horrific events among the population. The use of the extreme consequences of this quality in the plot incites the reader not to be blinded by their desire for progress, but to be careful and analytical when considering technological advances. It warns against the dangers of making simple conclusions concerning complex matters and of being influenced by one’s peers. Society will always aim for progress, but the story suggests that this goal will yield the best results if progress is examined with a critical attitude.
“Heady.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 8 May 2018. < http://www.
Martel, Yann. “We Ate the Children Last.” Short Fiction, compiled by Sabine Sautter-Léger,
Dawson College, 2017, pp 89-91.