Animals in Literature
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.
Janet E. Aalfs
“A Chicken's Tale in Three Voices” (short story) 1990
Seascape (drama) 1975
Surfacing (novel) 1972
Selected Poems (poetry) 1976
Daphne du Maurier
“The Birds” (short story) 1952
Invisible Man (novel) 1952
Carmen Dog (novel) 1990
The Black Stallion (novel) 1941
A Boy's Will (poetry) 1913
A Witness Tree (poetry) 1942
North of Boston (poetry) 1914
The Soft Voice of the Serpent (short stories) 1952
Death in the Afternoon (novel) 1932
Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel) 1937
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
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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...
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Criticism: Animals In American Literature
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 white point of view the world of Bigger Thomas and of America, because Bigger is a beast among beasts, living in the wild forest. The discursive narrative line in the novel is developed, commented upon, and reinforced by Wright's use of images from man's primitive original state, which, as Wright shows, still obtains in the white man's view of the black man's world.
The pattern of beast imagery informs the violent opening scene in which Bigger and his family awake to the sound of “a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room.” (8) A huge black rat finds itself trapped in the Thomas's one-room apartment: “The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again...
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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 nonchalant attitude toward poetry and his recognition of writing as a playful enterprise may in part account for his being a popular as well as provocative literary figure. He did not strike a pose as a wizard; he presented himself merely as one who played a game well and strictly according to the rules.
Considering poetry as a sort of game disguised did not diminish Frost's serious literary purposes. He seems to have wished to avoid direct statement of strong feelings. Whimsy and wit become shields protecting the author and hiding both strong feelings and unpleasant convictions. This idea of poetry itself as play sets a context for discussion of Frost's playful use of animals.
The frequent appearance of...
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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 inner problems1 through the language of symbols2 and, therefore, communicates various depths of meaning to various levels of the personality at various times.3 This is the method of Seascape.
The play's principal concern is the realization of the proximity of death that comes with the passing of middle age. Albee depicts the adjustments that this realization entails, adjustments made difficult in the twentieth century by a tendency to deny mortality. Sigmund Freud spoke of this denial as an inner struggle between Eros and Thanatos which he viewed as the wellspring of all neuroses. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the need for a oneness that would embody the affirmation of death as...
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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 reflecting two levels of meaning. “On the physical level,” Lisca observes, “Pepé's penetration into the desert mountains is directly proportional to his increasing separation from civilized man and reduction to the state of a wild animal. … The symbolic meaning of Pepé's flight moves in the opposite direction. On this level, the whole action of the story goes to show how man, even when stripped of all his civilized accouterments …, is still something more than an animal.”2
Other critics have also given notice to the story's animal references. Joseph Fontenrose, for instance, in correcting an erroneous comment made by Edmund Wilson about The Long Valley, generally interprets the plants and animals of...
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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.
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 one of her guests.1 Here was a brick with the imprint of a cat's paw brought from Pennsylvania. And in this apartment she kept Tibby, her pet alligator.
Moore's reputation for the exotic elicited a request from the Ford Motor Company for assistance in the “ethereal” matter of naming a 1955 series of cars, for which the company's tally of labels was “characterized by an embarrassing pedestrianism.” The poet's supply of titles was predictably rich with odd animal names, her first line of thought being that of a bird series: Hurricane Hirundo (swallow), aquila (eagle), or accipiter (hawk). Mongoose Civique, cresta lark, and Turcotingo (finch or sparrow) followed. For Utopian Turtletop, Ford sent back a...
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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 likeness typically limited to psychological and cultural connotations. Given this focus on psycho-cultural meaning, critics should consider carefully the psychoanalytic history of dissociated images in a poetic canon, if only to understand better in modernist poetry the complex crucial relation between autobiography and cultural criticism. By explaining the key stylistic developments of dissociation as a defense mechanism in a modernist's canon, the psychoanalytic critic brings to light those underlying fantasies which are, for readers as well as for writers, both private and cultural.
Marianne Moore chose almost to specialize in the juxtaposition of unrelated naturalistic surfaces, often to picture vividly in the mind's eye...
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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 as far back as the letter one man wrote to O'Connor demanding to know “what happened to the guy in the ape suit.”2 Subsequent complaints about the novel have also centered on Enoch Emery—in particular on the supposed disconnectedness of his subplot from the structure of the rest of the story. One critic, for example, while admitting there are thematic parallels between Enoch and the Christ-haunted Hazel Motes, concludes that the episode of Enoch and the gorilla “would have better been deleted from the novel.”3 Taking the opposite position is Jonathan Baumbach, who, far from viewing Wise Blood as a collection of thematic loose ends, argues that the novel is overly schematic.4 In the last...
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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 going to have to play variations on your themes, and you are going to have to make everything vivid, so that the reader can see and hear and feel and smell, and, if you're lucky, even taste. … But … there are things in Invisible Man … that I can't imagine my having consciously planned.1
Whether consciously woven into the fabric of his story or not, the animal imagery graphically highlights Ellison's theme that when one sex or race treats another as an object or animal, both become dehumanized or bestial. Early in the story, the invisible man (hereafter, “IM”) overhears his grandfather tell his father to live with his head “in the lion's mouth.”2 The lion is...
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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 process.1 Literature is full of purely mythological, mostly composite, creatures—phoenix, unicorn, basilisk, chimera, hydra, centaur—as nature is even more full of creatures totally innocent of interpretation—woodchuck, anteater, turbot, Shetland pony, jellyfish, quail.
But then there are the fallen creatures—lion, eagle, ant, grasshopper, barracuda, fox, hyena—who have been infected with signification from Aesop on. It is one of the tasks of poetry to keep renewing the taxonomic class of such creatures, by luring them, unwittingly, into a cage of trope (which of course, they are not aware of inhabiting). Such new reconstructions of animals are almost a post-romantic cottage industry, even as the rehearsal again and...
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Criticism: Animals In Canadian Literature
SOURCE: “Nature Writers and the Animal Story,” in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, Vol. I, revised edition, edited by Carl F. Klinck and others, University of Toronto Press, 1976, pp. 380-404.
[In the following essay, Lucas presents an overview of Canadian literature featuring animals and nature themes.]
Nature writing is a comparatively recent literary development. Yet its roots lie deep in folklore, the Bible, and the myths, fables, and pastorals of Ancient Greece, for man has always been concerned with his relationship to the natural world. For the Jew of the Old Testament it manifested the power of the Deity and revealed His purpose. For the Greek it stimulated the mind and fed a love of beauty. The growth of the Christian Church, however, set man at odds with nature, which, as the medieval writers saw it, was distinct from and inferior to man, a massa perditionis unworthy of his study. The proper study of mankind was God. Even St. Francis loved birds and animals from a sense of love of God, not from one of companionship with them. He had no desire to learn from and to study them for their own sakes, an attitude which, generally speaking, characterizes modern nature writing. As for the natural historians (except Frederick II, Roger Bacon, and Albert of Cologne), they, too, made little effort to observe for themselves and looked on nature as a way of teaching the...
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Criticism: Animals In European Literature
SOURCE: “The Animals in Fiction,” in D. H. Lawrence's Bestiary: A Study of His Use of Animal Trope and Symbol, Mouton, 1971, pp. 108-88.
[In the following essay, Inniss surveys animals in the fiction of D. H. Lawrence.]
A. PURE PASSIONATE EXPERIENCE
If we examine Lawrence's major fiction for its use of the animal rhetoric and symbolism we have been describing, the following things become apparent: even before Lawrence began, in 1912, to issue statements of doctrine from Italy, we can find in his fiction some hints of the future bestiary. Secondly, the degree to which Lawrence uses animals as emblems and analogues of human states and qualities seems to bear little relationship to the aesthetic value of the work; though more important in some books than others, the rhetoric and symbolism are prominent both in major triumphs and in partial failures. Finally, while the animal rhetoric and philosophical myth-making persist to the end of his life (we can trace an unbroken line in the poetry and essays from 1912 onwards) the rhetoric is reduced to insignificance in Lady Chatterley's Lover, the one full-scale novel Lawrence undertook after his American experience.
The present [essay] is not intended as an exhaustive analysis of Lawrence's novels. Keeping the entire range of Lawrence's work in view, it concentrates on six books which best reveal the animal...
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SOURCE: “Sartre's Nature: Animal Images in La Nausée,” in Symposium, Vol. 31, Summer, 1977, pp. 107-25.
[In the following essay, Brosman argues that the animals in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel La Nausée are intended to represent the worst in human nature.]
Although a number of scholars have noted the presence in Jean-Paul Sartre's fiction of images of insects and crabs, the role of numerous other animal images in La Nausée and their psychological and philosophical suggestiveness have not been fully explored.1 In the present essay I shall be concerned to study these in relation to its thematics and to draw some conclusions concerning Sartre's early view of nature. While not proposing a new reading of the novel, I believe this study can show additional aspects of its thematic construction and imaginative fabric.
This examination might be organized according to types of figures of speech, or according to the characters mentioned, or the quality or impression the images convey, that is, their tenor. It seems simpler to proceed according to the vehicles: categories of animals. Such a procedure will require, I hope, a minimum of repetition and cross-reference and will also make clear Sartre's predilection in his imaginative patterns for certain species and their typical association with the feelings and reflections of Roquentin.
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SOURCE: “Is Gregor Samsa a Bed Bug? Kafka and Dickens Revisited,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 225-28.
[In the following essay, Fleissner examines the literary origins of the insect in Franz Kafka's “The Metamorphosis.”]
The title of this essay is manifestly facetious, for my donnée is that the pathetic speaker in Kafka's “The Metamorphosis” actually has no specific identity, but still can be classified validly as a “bed bug.” His “formulation” as an insect is metaphoric, and, if he can be interpreted denotatively at all, he may best be thought of as a generic byproduct of the confluence of Kant, Dickens, and Shakespeare. But mainly the throwback is to England's Shakespeare of the novel, namely the Inimitable himself.
Let us briefly review Gregor's status in the critical lab. According to John Updike's recent summary, the novelist V. Nabokov in a Cornell lecture seriously disputed the popular view that Gregor is entomologically a cockroach; Nabokov contended that the narrator is “too broad and convex” for that.1 Although the charwoman designates him a “dung beetle” (Mistkäfer), as Nobokov reminded us, “it is obvious that the good woman is adding the epithet only to be friendly.”2 Perhaps so. Moreover, Updike added that Gregor's numerous legs, if more than six, would label him a...
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Criticism: Animals In Latin American Literature
SOURCE: “Animal Symbolism in the Fiction of Ramón Sender,” in The Meaning of Existence in Contemporary Hispanic Literature, University of Miami Press, 1969, pp. 99-111.
[In the following essay, Schwartz examines animal imagery in the works of Ramón Sender.]
Animals and their relationships to man have preoccupied human beings since the beginning of time. Some ancient peoples felt animals to be their brothers in a physiological sense; others believed in metempsychosis. Aesop and Aristotle used animals to reflect human character and to portray individuals or groups. Actual or imagined resemblances between men and animals were used in the Greek drama and epic, in the works of Virgil, Shakespeare, the Bible, and in medieval moralizing and allegorical treatises. In France and elsewhere in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although much of the religious significance of the medieval treatment had been lost, animal life and its importance concerned a great number of writers and philosophers, including Montaigne, Charon, and Descartes, and acrimonious debate ensued about the human attributes or defects of animals in their relationships to men. Animal metaphor and imagery have been used throughout literature for derogatory, satirical, or sympathetic purposes, to make characterization more vivid, and to pose generalizations about human beings.
Although Ramón Sender makes great use of...
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Criticism: Animals In Women's Literature
SOURCE: “The Power of Otherness: Animals in Women's Fiction,” in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, edited by Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan, Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 231-62.
[In the following essay, Scholtmeijer provides a feminist reading of animals in literature written by women.]
CONTEXTUALIZING THE PROBLEM
In her introduction to Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, Ursula Le Guin raises the issue of talking animals in literature and conceives of the alienation of the Other in the following superb analogy:
In literature as in “real life,” women, children, and animals are the obscure matter upon which Civilization erects itself, phallologically. That they are Other is … the foundation of language, the Father Tongue. If Man vs. Nature is the name of the game, no wonder the team players kick out all these non-men who won't learn the rules and run around the cricket pitch squeaking and barking and chattering! (10)
Le Guin's image is lighthearted: phallological civilization is a game, and the indifference of “these non-men” to the rules of the game leads merely to their being barred from the field. There are benefits to such lightheartedness. It mocks reified attitudes toward the Other, renders those attitudes absurd, and prepares the way for...
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Calvino, Italo. “The Bestiary of Marianne Moore.” In The Uses of Literature, translated by Patrick Creagh, pp. 307-14. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
Calvino discusses animals in the poems of Marianne Moore.
Norris, Margot. “The Animal and Violence in Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.” In Beasts of the Modern Imagination: Darwin, Nietzsche, Kafka, Ernst & Lawrence, pp. 195-219. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
Norris discusses Ernest Hemingway's depiction of animals and violence in his novel Death in the Afternoon.
Reed, Richard. “The Animal World in Robert Frost's Poetry.” In Frost: Centennial Essays II, edited by Jac Tharpe, pp. 159-69. University Press of Mississippi, 1976.
Reed argues that the development and maturation of Robert Frost's poetry can be traced by examining the evolution of Frost's animal imagery.
Ross, Bruce. “Fables of the Golden Age: The Poetry of Marianne Moore.” In Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 30, Summer, pp. 327-50. 1984.
Ross argues that Moore used the fable form in her poetry to illustrate moral truths through the actions of her animals.
Stine, Peter. “Franz Kafka and Animals.” In Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, pp. 58-80. 1981....
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