The Plague Dogs (Magill's Literary Annual 1979)
The Plague Dogs is Richard Adams’ third novel, and like the acclaimed rabbit epic Watership Down and the mythical bear saga Shardik, this work focuses on the animal world. As in the first two novels, Adams’ storytelling art compels the reader into so strong an empathy with the creatures that the beasts become brothers, and their quest for survival against terrible odds and stronger forces becomes intensely personal while at the same time epic in scope and magnitude. Here, however, Adams’ central characters, Snitter and Rowf, are dogs, so thoroughly domesticated that their instincts have been deadened. For them, therefore, a return to the wild world of nature is perilous, uncomfortable, and ironically unnatural. However, they are not safe and secure in the world of man either. They are always on the run—first from the whitecoats (doctors performing experiments upon animals) and starvation; then from sheepherders and the cold of the Lake District; and finally from paratroopers, the British government, and their own despair.
Laced throughout the narrative of the month and a half dodge in the wild is a rather heavyhanded satiric attack on man, the cause of the dogs’ decision to flee. Adams attacks government bureaucrats, unscrupulous journalists, and unfeeling scientists—men who have lost sight of their purpose and responsibility. The message is that man has been grossly irresponsible in managing the natural world, and that the institutions of his own creation are corrupt, self-serving, lifeless, and destructive, especially of man’s dignity. The attack suffers only from its hyperbole, even as the dog saga suffers from its sentimentality, Adams’ touch being more exuberant than subtle. Nevertheless, The Plague Dogs offers much to marvel at and enjoy, particularly in its characterizations.
The most intriguing character in the work is not the tod, a fox of great cunning, who, speaking in Upper Tyneside dialect (made understandable by Adams’ glossary), helps the dogs hunt and hide. Nor is he Digby Driver, the brash muckraking reporter who, through his pot-boiling articles portraying the dogs as mad, plague-carrying killers, nearly single handedly arouses the countryside, Parliament, and the British Army against the creatures. He is not even Rowf, a powerful mongrel who was the subject of an animal experiment in which he was repeatedly immersed in water until near death, a dog who now laments that “It’s a bad world for animals.” Rather, the most unconventional and well-developed character is Snitter, a fox terrier with a huge gash in his head, the result of experimental brain surgery the purpose of which was to induce him to confuse the subjective and the objective. As an experiment, it succeeded; the result, for the reader, is a story that is both fascinating and pitiable.
“Rowf. They’ve taken away all the rhododendrons and just left the maggots. O spin like a ball, isn’t it dark? There’s just this one star shining down my throat, that’s all. You know my master—,” says Snitter, in his first words to the reader. This statement is typical of Snitter’s language and thought throughout the novel, as he meshes images from his memory with his present feelings and his perceptions of the world around him. Accidentally causing his master to be seriously injured and thinking that he is dead, the terrier laces concrete moments of the incident into the present, his language disconnected, seemingly illogical, but full of vibrant images and uncommon sense. The reader readily empathizes with the tremendous pain he feels as a result of his operation, and with his horror at the atrocities performed on other animals by members of Animal Research (Scientific and Experimental), whose acronym is a rather obvious reflection of the author’s attitude toward such bodies. Songs about himself and Rowf, about their condition and their past are also scattered throughout the work. If during much of the novel Snitter seems incoherent, at least superficially, at other moments he is perfectly lucid. It is obvious that at times his brain and tongue function well. He masterminds his and Rowf’s escape from A.R.S.E. and keeps them alive and their spirits up for a long time in such an inhospitable environment as raw nature seems to offer. He is nonetheless a victim of delusions, at one time imagining that he is the harbinger of death and that, while locked in a shed, he is actually seeing inside his brain. Very sensitive, perceptive, joyous, and still deeply attached to his master, Snitter is a character that one will long remember as a trembling voice, but a voice of hope and spirit. One is also drawn to him because of the great agony he has had to endure at the hands of Dr. J. R. Boycott and the rest of the A.R.S.E. researchers....
(The entire section is 1961 words.)
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