The Animal Family is a autobiographical fantasy, a twist on a familiar folktale, and a sensitive, subtle psychological story of human maturation based on Jarrell’s study of psychology.
Many of the story’s details are drawn from Jarrell’s own life. The setting is the California coast of his wife, Mary, whom he called his mermaid. According to a letter to her in 1951, the story began as ideas for a poem to be called “The Poet-Cook.” The furnishings of the log cabin are from the couple’s North Carolina home. The astute descriptions of the bear and the lynx are a result of the couple’s frequent visits to the Washington Zoo while Jarrell was a poetry consultant at the Library of Congress. The story also reflects deep psychological details of the author’s life, such as the trauma of his parents’ early divorce. Jarrell’s compensation for this separation anxiety is a child-centered world in which the child is the fusion of both parents and all living things around him.
As a fairy tale, the story gives a positive, comic twist to the familiar tragic Scottish love story of the selkie and the fisherman. Unlike that tricked but dutiful mermaid, the seal wife in Jarrell’s fairy tale retains her shape and freedom while choosing to remain on land. The story never spoils the fantasy by having the mermaid give birth or even describing how she is able to move about on land given her seal shape. In moments of crisis, the hunter...
(The entire section is 503 words.)