In the English language, a single word can have multiple meanings. It is not until you study the word to find the true meaning. Writers have that effect on their readers; they want us to become one with them and to think exactly what they are thinking about at that moment in time. Writers also want readers to immerse themselves in the world they have created, they want them to become one with the characters.
Justin Torres does just this. He uses imagery to enhance his writing. By using the word hunger over again throughout the story. But every time the reader comes across the word hunger, it has a new meaning. In We The Animals, hunger refers to malnutrition and poverty, hunger is also evident in the toxic relationship between Ma and Paps. Lastly, the theme of hunger arises within the complex protagonist of the story. What exactly is he hungry for? Throughout his wild journey we soon find out.
As a literary device, imagery consists of descriptive language that can function as a way for the reader to better imagine the world in a piece of literature and also add symbolism to the work (Literary Devices). This is what Torres intended when using imagery in his novel. When someone thinks about hunger, the first thought that comes to mind is malnutrition. In We the Animals, the three brothers are hungry from the first two lines of the haunting story, “we wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry” (Torres, 1). They continued with this heartbreaking picture of all three of them being skinny and undernourished and having to huddle up with each other for warmth.
By having the word, hunger used in multiple ways demonstrates the tone of the novel. Being hungry is something that some people can relate too, however, having young children talking about how hungry they are touches to the readers and they can sympathize with the characters. Halfway through the story, Torres brings up another situation when the boys are hungry:
“We tiptoped. We ate peanut butter on saltine crackers and angel hair pasta coated in vegetable oil and grated cheese. We ate things from the back of the refrigerator, long-forgot-ten things. Harry and David orange marmalades, with the rinds floating inside like insects trapped in amber. We ate instant stuffing and white rice with soy sauce or ketchup” (Torres, 30).
He portrays this picture of the three boys in their kitchen when their own mother is sound asleep and depressed in her room after Paps walked out yet again.
Hunger does not just mean malnutrition, but can mean the lust and love Paps has towards Ma. In relationships with younger couples, it is clear that there is passion and romance between them. However, Paps only sees Ma as his property and demands that his sexual desires be met or there will be consequences. For example, “we watched him watching her, we studied his hunger, and he knew we were seeing and understanding. Now he winked at us; he wanted su to know that she made him happy. ‘That’s my girl,’ he said, slapping her bottom” (Torres, 46). There is no doubt that Ma makes Paps very happy, but in a toxic and twisted way. He sees Ma as ‘a piece of meat’ that only he can use and abuse whenever it is convenient for him which proves his desire of feasting.
On the other hand, Ma is a character that does not see how she is being mistreated and abused as a bad thing. Possibly due to an abusive childhood, or due to the fact that she has been with Paps since the tender age of 14 and believes this treatment is “normal.” Sadly she doesn’t know any better. Or does she?
“Ma tried to keep talking, tried to keep all of it–the silence and hunger and the idea of Paps–at bay, but she was running out of words. ‘Honestly,’ she finally asked, ‘what should we do?’ She waited. ‘We can go home, but we don’t have to. We don’t ever have to go home again. We can leave him. We can do that. But I need you to tell me what to do” (Torres, 71-72).
Ma seems to have had enough of being abused, used and mistreated by Paps. She decides to take the boys away after a long shift at the brewery to escape it all. They end up at a park, where Ma ends up falling asleep in the bed of the truck which results in the boys exploring the park.
Afterwards, Ma confines in her sons about how she has always wanted to go to Spain and now she sees this might be the perfect opportunity to chase that dream. However, one of the boys sadly informs her that you cannot drive to Spain. But you can tell she is hungry, hungry for the taste of freedom; the wanting of starting over with a new life, a clean slate.
Love is something that almost everyone in the entire world wants to have; that warm feeling that fills our own hearts when someone so close to us shows just the smallest amount of affection. The three brothers shows the reader within the first few pages that there is a lack of love flowing through their household;
“We were brothers, we were Musketeers. ‘Three for all! And free for all!’ we shouted and stabbed each other with forks. We were monsters–Frankenstein, the bride of Frankenstein, the baby of Frankenstein […] we were the Three Bears, taking revenge on Goldilocks for our missing porridge. The magic of God is three. Manny was the Father, Joel the Son and I the Holy Spirit” (Torres, 24-25).
The three brothers call out for help from the very beginning, they were hungry for that feeling of being loved by another person and they craved the stability in their family unit. Instead of having two parents who are supposed to love them unconditionally, they have to rely on each other for that feeling of being wanted and loved.
These brothers have all this anger and fraustion built up within them for some quiet time, that during a friendly, family game of hide-n-seek they released what their feelings were on their parents. The boys were hiding in the bathtub when Paps was supposed to look for them, but instead got distracted by Ma and they started to have an adult moment. Afterwards, the boys explained to their father that he was supposed to look for them, but replied with how he found something better (Torres, 48-49).
However, the brothers did not take that response from Paps lightly; our narrator explained just how it was not enough:
“ Our towels had slipped off, and blood pumped through our naked bodies, our hands shook with energy, we were alive and it was not enough; we wanted more. We started tickling Ma too, started poking her, and she collapsed onto Pap’s chest and covered her head, and wrapped his arms around her. Then Manny slapped Ma hard on her back. It sounded so satisfying, the thwack of his palm on her skin. ‘You were supposed to come find us,’ he said (Torres, 50).
Manny, Joel, and the youngest brother expressed how they felt about feeling abandoned and how all they want is to be loved by them; for someone to take care of them, and to let them know that everything is going to be okay.
As our narrator, the youngest brother gets older and starts to find himself and his place in this world. When he grows older, he finds himself and comes out in his private journal where he expresses his darkest sexual fantasies that he has. One night, he finds himself at a bus station seeking someone to love since no one ever seemed to fill that hole. He ends up with the bus driver who ends up showing him the dark love that the youngest brother always hungered for;
“I trudged back in the predawn. The winter sky was clouded over, all pink gloom. I wanted to look at myself as he had; I wanted to see my black curls peeking out from under my ski cap [..] The cold gathered in the tips of those fingers, so everywhere he touched me was a dull stab of surprise. I wanted to stand before a mirror and look and look at myself, I opened my mouth and stretched my voice over the buzz of passing cars. ‘He made me!’ I screamed. ‘I’m made!” (Torres, 115).
During that special moment for the youngest brother, he felt the love he always wanted and hungered for. The void is not completely filled, but it is a start.
Justin Torres plays with the readers emotions throughout this novel when it comes to imagery, especially when he refers to hunger in different ways. After reading We the Animals, readers will have a different approach on the feeling of imagery and how it can impact the readers views on certain words used in the novel and how the writer wants you to view them.
“Imagery Examples and Definition.” Literary Devices, 31 Oct. 2015,
Torres, Justin. We the Animals. New York: Mariner. 2011. Print.