Animal Dreams Essay - Essays and Criticism

Barbara Kingsolver

Essays and Criticism

The Search for Identity

The unifying theme in all the different strands of plot that make up Animal Dreams is Codi Noline's recovery of wholeness in her own psyche and in her relationship with her environment, both human and natural. This takes her on an exploration of the nature of memory and its problematic relationship to truth and self-identity, a theme in which her father, Doc Homer, is deeply involved also. Ultimately, Codi learns that the search for individual identity is by itself not enough to grant her the peace, security, and sense of belonging she craves; she must also understand the relationship between human culture and the natural world.

The framework within which Kingsolver traces this journey is in the form of a circle. The novel begins and ends on All Soul's Day, which takes place in the first week of November; it is the Roman Catholic day of commemoration of the dead. This is significant for Codi because in her life the dead cast a long shadow; the scars left by the early loss of her mother and her miscarriage at the age of fifteen prevent her from living fully in the present. Deceptions engineered by her father about their family origins have had a similarly deleterious effect on Codi's life. In this novel, there are skeletons from the past that need to be confronted and exorcised.

For Codi, however, the very act of remembering the past is fraught with ambiguity. Memory is a minefield. Looking back, the mind distorts, forgets, invents, plays tricks. Codi remembers things that according to others she could not have witnessed, and yet she does not remember other events that are recalled clearly by her sister and by other townsfolk. As she says, "Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth but not its twin." Nonetheless, Codi is compelled to delve into the past to find out whether recalling and understanding it can relieve the acute aimlessness and rootlessness that afflict her. Otherwise, she fears she will never possess a solid sense of her own identity.

Indeed, as Codi describes herself during the course of the novel, it is almost as if she is with the dead herself. Like a specter, she lacks definition and substance. She comments that she cannot remember half of what happened to her before the age of fifteen. She knows little about her origins, other than that her family came from Illinois (and even that piece of information later proves to be only a half-truth). "I guess I'm nothing," she says to Loyd, "The Nothing Tribe." This is in contrast to the surety with which Loyd knows his own background. Similarly, Codi laments in a letter to Hallie, "My life is a pitiful, mechanical thing without a past, like a little wind-up car, ready to run in any direction somebody points me in." The word mechanical is significant; Codi's life lacks conscious, organic connection to its roots in family and community, and to nature itself.

It is clear from the extreme language Codi uses to describe herself that she is in mental disarray; there is an emptiness at her core that leaves her perhaps only one traumatic event away from complete disintegration. Subconsciously, she knows and fears this. She has a recurring nightmare in which she suddenly goes blind, and she realizes midway through the novel that this dream is not about losing her vision but about losing "the whole of myself, whatever that was. What you lose in blindness is the space around you, the place where you are, and without that you might not exist. You could be nowhere at all."

This fear of nonexistence, of being nothing and existing nowhere, is what drives Codi to recover her memories of the past, hoping they will help her establish just who she is. With this in mind, she questions the women of the town who knew her when she was a child, and there are one or two moments of cathartic release when she is almost overwhelmed by memories as they come flooding back.

But to find the vital ingredient that will in part end her alienation from the society in which she was born and raised, Codi must penetrate the distortions that have been erected by her father, Doc Homer. As urgently as Codi needs to delve into the past, Doc Homer has over the years felt compelled to cover it up.

Doc Homer is a curious character. One of his hobbies is photography, but he does not record things simply as they are. He takes a photograph of one thing and then tinkers with it to make it look like something else—clouds are made to look like animals, for example, or a clump of five cacti comes to resemble a human hand. When Codi first visits him, he is working on an elaborate procedure to make a photograph of two old men sitting on a stone wall look like a stone wall...

(The entire section is 1910 words.)

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