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Animals in Literature

Animals in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Animals in Literature

Introduction

Animals in Literature

Animals have held an important place in written literature for thousands of years. And prior to written languages, ancient peoples told animal stories by drawing symbolic visual narratives on the walls of their cave homes. These early examples of animals in literary history generally were imbued with strong religious and allegorical significance. Composed around the sixth century B.C., Aesop's Fables continue to serve as standards of moral didacticism using animals as examples for humans to follow or avoid. For the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, animals such as bulls and lions, as well as hybrid creatures like the griffin and sphinx, played important roles in the development of complex mythological systems that influenced everything from the stories told to the study of the stars. The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced other symbolic animal figures into literature. Stories in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible have provided vivid and lasting images of animals that represent various human and godly attributes, including the snake, the swine, and the lamb. Similarly, Native Indian cultures have used stories of animals to help explain the mysteries of life and the universe, as have people in Asia, India, South America, and Africa. In the European Middle Ages literary animals were placed into the formal structure of the bestiary, in which different animals were categorized according to the single trait unique to each of them that might teach a moral or religious lesson. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the Age of Enlightenment—moral allegories gave way to satire, which served not so much to teach lessons as to ridicule human foibles and political corruption. Frequently angry and cynical about the state of the world, satirists such as Jonathan Swift used some of the less desirable traits of animals to skewer the less desirable traits of humans. The nineteenth century ushered in an era of Romanticism, where poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats wrote of the beauty and freedom of animals in their natural wild state and the potential for humans to unleash their creativity by emulating that wildness. In Victorian England and America animals in literature took on a more literal meaning, in part because of the publication of Charles Darwin's shocking and controversial On the Origin of Species (1859), which advanced the theory that human beings had not been created separately from animals in order to lead and dominate but had instead evolved from animals and were thus merely another link in a chain millions of years old. Over a century later, Darwin's theory continued to generate bitter debate between evolutionists and creationists. But in the years immediately following its publication, the work threw much of Western society into turmoil as many began to question their own metaphysical and ontological beliefs. With science elevating animals to a new level in the human and natural worlds, and rapidly spreading industrialization exploiting both humans and animals, concern for animal welfare became a major social issue. Humane societies and antivivisection organizations sprang up around England and the United States, and writers began to include examples of noble and heroic companion animals in their works. Similarly, tales of animal abuse arose, in which animals were seen as the victims of human greed, ignorance, and brutal industrialization. In the twentieth century many writers turned to old animal stories and genres to produce revolutionary works dealing with the uniquely modern themes of paranoia, alienation, and futility. James Joyce revived and modernized elements of Greek mythology that featured allegorical animal figures, and Franz Kafka used the traditional animal fable style to tell jarring stories of twentieth-century angst. In the latter part of the century literal and figurative animals became particularly important in gender studies and women's literature. Recognizing parallels between their own struggles for equality and the abuses of the natural world, women imagined themselves as caged and voiceless, like the animals they portrayed in their writing.

Representative Works

Janet E. Aalfs
“A Chicken's Tale in Three Voices” (short story) 1990

Edward Albee
Seascape (drama) 1975

Margaret Atwood
Surfacing (novel) 1972
Selected Poems (poetry) 1976

Daphne du Maurier
“The Birds” (short story) 1952

Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man (novel) 1952

Carol Emshwiller
Carmen Dog (novel) 1990

Walter Farley
The Black Stallion (novel) 1941

Robert Frost
A Boy's Will (poetry) 1913
A Witness Tree (poetry) 1942
North of Boston (poetry) 1914

Nadine Gordimer
The Soft Voice of the Serpent (short stories) 1952

Ernest Hemingway
Death in the Afternoon (novel) 1932

Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel) 1937

Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis (novella) 1912
“A Report to an Academy” (short story) 1919
“The Burrow” (short story) 1923
“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” (short story) 1924
“Investigations of a Dog” (short story) 1933

D. H. Lawrence
The White Peacock (novel) 1911
The Rainbow (novel) 1915
Women in Love (novel) 1920
Kangaroo (novel) 1923
St. Mawr (novella) 1925
The Plumed Serpent (novel) 1925

Ursula K. LeGuin
“A Wife's Story” (short story) 1988

Doris Lessing
“An Old Woman and Her Cat” (short story) 1974

Clarice Lispector
The Foreign Legion (novel) 1964
“The Dry Point of Horses” (short story) 1974
“The Buffalo” (short story) 1985

Jack London
Call of the Wild (novel) 1903

Thomas Mann
“A Man and His Dog” (short story) 1936

Cris Mazza
“Attack at Dawn”
(short story) 1989

Marianne Moore
Collected Poems (poetry) 1959

Alice Munro
“Boys and Girls” (short story) 1968

Flannery O'Connor
Wise Blood (novel) 1952

Jean-Paul Sartre
La Nausée[Nausea] (novel) 1938

Ramón Sender
El Lugar del Hombre [A Man's Place] (novel) 1939
Epitalamio del Prieto Trinidad [Dark Wedding] (novel) 1942
Los Cino Libros de Ariadna (novel) 1957

John Steinbeck
“Flight” (short story) 1938
“The Red Pony” (short story) 1945

Alice Walker
The Temple of My Familiar (novel) 1989

Mary Webb
Gone to Earth (novel) 1917

Richard Wright
Native Son (novel) 1940

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: An introduction to Animals in American Literature, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 3-17.

[In the following essay, Allen presents an overview of animals in literature throughout history.]

Animals1 have served literature well. They have stood as allegorical figures to represent human nature and as a rich body of metaphors for the inanimate as well as the animate. Beyond their figurative uses, animals have been man's servants, his companions, the objects of his hunt, and the food on his table. And sometimes they have been allowed to play their own parts.

Before man could write he drew pictures of animals on the walls of caves in paint made of their blood, figures that transcend time in their immediacy.2 Man looked to the heavens and saw animals sketched in the stars. The spirit that could make the corn grow was envisioned as a bull, a wolf, or even a dog. Animal properties were imagined to be magically transferred to man: he thought if he stepped on a tortoise, his feet would be made hard.3 The totem animal, taken as the tribal ancestor of a clan, was looked to as its tutelary spirit and protector. Whether as the earliest subjects of art and worship or as the later symbolic images of a culture, animal figures tell of a people's values. The Egyptians bowed to the bull. And the Christians gave us the lamb.

Animals remain a source of awe. Their means of locomotion, self-defense—the way they look—are incredible. But man's relationship with them is complex, often paradoxical. He would have their powers but would not be called an animal. Primitive man drank a beast's blood for vitality, then apologized for slaying it. Modern man reveres what is free and must possess it.

Beyond man's language, animals appeal to the symbol-making mind. They were initially established and still are usually seen as representative images in literature. It was in the sixth century B.C. that the legendary Aesop is said to have composed his fables. The collection of tales from which the medieval bestiaries derived, the Physiologus, came in the second century, giving a mystic meaning to each of fifty legends of animals and natural objects. Animals were epitomized by a single characteristic—the industry of the ant, the cunning of the fox, the majesty of the lion. Such stereotyping served a definite moral end. Yet it also reflects cultural and aesthetic biases. In the East, the placid cow is revered—in the motion-loving West, the horse.

As the beast fable and the bestiary gave way to the humanism of the Renaissance and the metaphorical language that centered on man, the basic symbolic values of the earlier period were retained. The animal simile became so prevalent during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that natural history was “ransacked” for material to illustrate everyday experiences.4 Caroline Spurgeon finds in her study of Shakespeare's imagery, based on the premise that analogy holds the spirit of the universe, that the second largest category of Shakespearean metaphors (after references to the human body) is birds—not for their form or their song but for their flight. It was the life of things which most enchanted Shakespeare,5 and that life in his work is unimaginable without the allusions to animals, over 4,000 of them.6

The power of Shakespeare's animal metaphors is felt through realistic detail and a keen compassion for suffering creatures. Yet as Elizabethan drama assumes a metaphorical view of the universe around man, most of Shakespeare's references to animals are figurative. The sharpness of the serpent's tooth is of interest as it illustrates human ingratitude. King Lear needs no real snakes. Even Richard III's “My kingdom for a horse!”—indeed, a call for an actual horse—is rather a revelation of the man's desperation than a focus on the animal.

As the age of satire presented a diminished version of man, the animal metaphor served a specific message of disdain. Swift's human race is equated to “odious vermin.” But he also satirizes the happy beast tradition of seventeenth-century France, in which animals were considered equal or superior to man because of their naturalness. The Houyhnhnms, who have only the bodies of horses and not their other characteristics, excel not as animals but as beings with extraordinary powers of reason.

The eighteenth century also saw the development of the non-human narrator in the novel, based on the rationale of the fifth-century B.C. philosophy of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. The use of the animal's point of view became the target of satire in France, most vividly with the minuscule creatures who could see all, a satire reaching the epitome of coarseness in such a work as Memoirs and Adventures of a Flea.7 The humanitarian movement to prevent cruelty to animals of this period, however, led to a more sympathetic version of their point of view. By the nineteenth century a literature for children had developed that presents the animal's own account of his suffering. Black Beauty draws tears for the abused cab horse. Such a sympathetic rendering of the animal has become a standard feature of juvenile fiction (as well as a temptation to those who would present animals realistically but with compassion).

The romantic literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with its intent to free man physically as well as spiritually, epitomizes the spirit of the new freedom in the symbolic bird. While suggested as an actual bird, this romantic figure is distant, impalpable, even static. The nightingale lives primarily in the imagination. In a study of the modern bestiary Christopher Nash points out that when actual animals are referred to by the romantics, even in their more vivid roles, Blake's tiger and Coleridge's albatross, for example, they are not alive. For the romantic, the more “terrestrial” the creature, “the less worthy of the poet's song it is.”8

The realism that superseded romanticism focused for the most part on social man, an increasingly urban man, a context in which animals play little part. While realism follows no particular style, the tendency is away from symbolism, in some cases away from metaphor altogether; thus the figurative animal occurs less frequently than before. With naturalism, the metaphor of man as beast in an urban jungle is a standard feature—Frank Norris's brute McTeague and O'Neill's hairy ape. Yet the animals themselves are rarely featured.

As science, psychology, art, and new kinds of mass communication have reestablished the worship of symbols in the twentieth century, the earlier symbology of animals is revived. Joyce's Dedalus, based on the Greek artisan ordered to design an elaborate cage for the Cretan Minotaur, confronts the labyrinth of the unconscious as “a human structure fabricated to contain and withhold an animal core.”9 Reverting to the fable, Kafka creates his unforgettable image of modern man—Gregor Samsa as a beetle swept into the trash.

The metaphorical far outnumber the literal animals in literature. But actual ones do appear from time to time in their own right. If they also serve a symbolic function, the power of the symbol depends on how vivid the actual animal is. While some types of literature, the fable, for one, preclude the development of realistic animals, no genre or literary movement has made particular use of them. They are invited in rather at the inclination of the individual author, whether he be classic or romantic, poet or novelist. Poetry has most often featured the bird, while fiction's favorite is the pet dog—the loyal, obedient companion, who offers a satisfaction untainted by the complexities of human relationships. Thomas Mann's “A Man and His Dog,” for example, centers on the “dumb paean of joy”10 the dog Bashan brings his master. The source of this happy connection is attributed to the patriarchal instinct of the dog to honor the man as his absolute master.

One of the most moving accounts of an animal in all literature is the scene in The Odyssey when Odysseus comes home. His son thinks he is a beggar in town, and his wife requires proof of identity. Only the dog knows him: “Here lay the dog, this Argos, full of fleas. Yet even now, seeing Odysseus near, he wagged his tail and dropped both ears, but toward his master he had not strength to move. Odysseus turned aside and wiped away a tear.” Argos does not represent anything but himself, nor would we wish him to. He acts as a dog acts, and that is enough.

While the animal simile is far more prevalent than the literal animal in Greek poetry, regard for the physical world is reflected in a view that is not primarily metaphorical. In a study of Homer's perception of reality Paolo Vivante makes the case that the function of the Homeric simile is to stress the essential nature of the subject, not to suggest other possibilities. If warriors are said to move like scared fawns, it is simply their common response to fear which the simile presents. For Homer things exist in their own right, “with nothing to sustain them but their solitary power and the earth upon which they stand.”11 This process works in the reverse of the symbolic approach in which the tangible is a sign of a superior spiritual realm. The Greek passion for this world is suggestive of the spirit with which many actual animals are portrayed in modern literature. The brilliantly intellectual art of our time rarely offers such feeling. But where animals are, so is emotion. It is worth reading about them for that refreshment alone.

It was to the actual animals that Aristotle turned in the classification which was the beginning of natural science, The History of Animals. Although much factual information was available, it is probable that many accounts of remote species came through the limited descriptions of explorers. In fact, by the thirteenth century Europeans still knew of the rhinoceros only through Marco Polo's description of “lion-horns.”12 To illustrate fables of exotic animals, the miniaturists used the familiar bodies of dogs and horses and added a fabulous version of teeth or tails.13 In this way many fantastic creatures came into being. Still, man's creations did not outdo the uncanny subjects in nature.

The commencement of modern zoology in the sixteenth century heightened the artist's interest but at the same time enhanced many a zoological fable. Sir Thomas Browne continued in the belief that mice were generated by wheat, and Milton reaffirmed that creation is a process rising up miraculously from slime and mud. Investigations by the newly established Royal Society set forth ideas such as parthenogenesis, which led to the belief that as the creator of art forms his work, so are animals brought into mysterious being. In Hudibras Butler supports the notion that the baby bear is created as the mother licks lumps of matter into shape.14 As scientific fact did take hold, the literary artist became more precise, although rather with the approach of the naturalist, who sees the creature whole in his habitat, than the scientist, who dissects.

As the old hierarchy of the kingdoms toppled with Charles Darwin, and the belief in human dominion over the animal lost its force, the creatures consequently loomed into a new place. Darwin's intent was not to reduce man; only one line in On the Origin of Species even suggests that light might be shed on human origins. He intended rather to “ennoble and humanize animals.” Stanley Edgar Hyman describes Origin as a scientific argument that reads like a dramatic poem in which animals are the actors.15 It is one of the ironic twists of history that an appreciative view of animals was reversed in the image of man as ape. But if Darwin's ideas were received in a spirit contrary to his own, he did succeed in raising animals to a more important place than they had occupied for centuries.

Man's ambivalent relationship with animals has raised many an intriguing issue. If man and beast commit the same vicious deeds, are they not similarly responsible? This line of reasoning led to the bizarre practice of criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals, dating from the ninth century. Sentences were inflicted by secular tribunals on pigs, cows, and horses for the crime of homicide; judicial proceedings of ecclesiastical courts against rats, mice, locusts, and weevils resulted in exorcisms and excommunication. It was believed that if domestic animals were not punished for homicide, devils would take possession of them and their masters. In the sixteenth century a French jurist made his reputation as a counsel for rats charged with eating a barley crop, successfully arguing that the rats summoned to appear were prevented by serious perils, “owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats.” As late as 1906 in Switzerland two men and a dog were convicted of murder. The men were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the dog was condemned to death.16

If primitive man was...

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Criticism: Animals In American Literature

Robert Felgar (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “‘The Kingdom of the Beast’: The Landscape of Native Son,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 17, March, 1974, pp. 333-37.

[In the following essay, Felgar comments on the animal imagery in Richard Wright's Native Son, finding that it symbolizes the white view of blacks in America.]

When Buckley, the State's Attorney in Native Son, sums up the prosecution's case, he says, “‘Man stepped forward from the kingdom of the beast the moment he felt that he could think and feel in security, knowing that sacred law had taken the place of his gun and knife.’”1 In making the statement, Buckley unknowingly and ironically described from the...

(The entire section is 1782 words.)

Margaret Edwards (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Play of ‘Downward Comparisons’: Animal Anthropomorphism in the Poems of Robert Frost,” in Frost: Centennial Essays II, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1976, pp. 236-45.

[In the following essay, Edwards examines the comic elements of Robert Frost's anthropomorphism.]

Robert Frost regarded the writing of poetry itself as a form of play. He says in “The Craft of Poetry,” “I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” He warned his readers: “It takes all sorts of in- and outdoor schooling / To get adapted to my kind of fooling” (p. 470). His kind of fooling was, first of all, poetry itself. His...

(The entire section is 3437 words.)

Lucina P. Gabbard (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Albee's Seascape: An Adult Fairy Tale,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 21, September, 1978, pp. 307-17.

[In the following essay, Gabbard finds Edward Albee's use of animals in Seascape to symbolize the human struggle to cope with inevitable death.]

Edward Albee's Seascape is obviously not a realistic play. When the two great lizards slide onto the stage, behaving like ordinary married human beings and speaking perfect English, realism is immediately dispelled. Encounters between human beings and talking animals are the stuff of fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, describes a fairy tale as a work of art which teaches about...

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Edward J. Piacentino (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Patterns of Animal Imagery in Steinbeck's ‘Flight’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 437-43.

[In the following essay, Piacentino agrees with the critical assessment of the animal imagery in John Steinbeck's “Flight.”]

Published initially in The Long Valley (1938), “Flight,” a work that one of Steinbeck's most discerning critics has called a tale of “frustrated young manhood,” a depressing account of an unprepared youth's failure to achieve maturity,”1 has often been regarded as one of John Steinbeck's best stories. Peter Lisca, in his analysis of the story, sees Pepé Torres' flight as...

(The entire section is 3261 words.)

Mary Allen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Controlled Creatures: Marianne Moore,” in Animals in American Literature, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 97-114.

[In the following essay, Allen argues that Marianne Moore associated discipline and modesty with freedom in the animals in her poetry.]

Among animals, one has a sense of humor.

—Moore

The apartment in Brooklyn where Marianne Moore lived for thirty-six years was furnished with minuscule mice of carved ivory, pictures of kangaroos, and an ebony sea horse. A box of wild bird feathers graced the home, and the poet was known to offer eagle down and a bluejay claw to...

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Stanley Lourdeaux (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Marianne Moore and a Psychoanalytic Paradigm for the Dissociated Image,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 30, Summer, 1984, pp. 366-71.

[In the following essay, Lourdeaux finds in Marianne Moore's animal imagery an example of the modernist “dissociated image.”]

A hallmark of modernist poetry is the dissociated image—the evening sky once Eliot has compared it to a patient etherized on a table—as opposed to images with more conventional shared relations of time, or place, or logical type.1 The modernist basis for the reader's intuitive perception of similarity-in-difference, to use Aristotle's criterion for a good metaphor, is a...

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William Rodney Allen (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Cage of Matter: The World as Zoo in Flannery O'Connor's Wise-Blood,” in American Literature, Vol. 58, No. 2, May, 1986, pp. 256-70.

[In the following essay, Allen discusses Flannery O'Connor's use of animal imagery to depict her notion of the world as a zoo of misfits in her novel Wise Blood.]

In Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity, Frederick Asals observes that Wise Blood “seems to have become the whipping-boy of the O'Connor canon, a mass of faults that reveals the greater expertise of The Violent Bear It Away or the superiority of the stories to both novels.”1 Objections to Wise Blood go...

(The entire section is 5735 words.)

Norman German (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Imagery in the ‘Battle Royal’ Chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 31, June, 1988, pp. 394-99.

[In the following essay, German discusses animal imagery as representative of racism and sexism in the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.]

Chapter one of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was initially published as a short story; thus, it has an artistic unity independent of the novel. One of the threads binding the narrative together while reinforcing the theme is the animal imagery. In an interview, Ellison has said,

When you begin to structure literary forms you are...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)

John Hollander (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Robert Frost and the Renewal of Birds,” in Reading in an Age of Theory, edited by Bridget Gellbert Lyons, Rutgers University Press, 1997, pp. 131-45.

[In the following essay, Hollander discusses Robert Frost's place in “poetic ornithology.”]

Mythologizing a construction of nature's—an animal, plant, geological formation, moment of process—could be seen both as a desecration and a celebration of pragmatically considered fact. When this goes on in poetry—what Frost called “the renewal of words for ever and ever”—it is accompanied and invigorated by a reciprocal mythologizing, as it were, of the very words used in the poetic...

(The entire section is 6939 words.)