Ian McEwan, of course, is an English novelist. The English, as with many Europeans, have a historical connection to mythology that is generally lacking in the relatively recent construction of the United States of America. Mythology predates the modern era, and America is a modern creation, existing for a mere 237 years (dating from the Declaration of Independence). In mythology, the black dog, especially in those legends that have their origins in the British Isles, is representative of evil, of death, of sorrow. When, while traveling through France in 1946, very soon after the end of World War II, June is mysteriously attacked by a pair of large black dogs, the metaphor becomes very clear. A marriage that, like most, begins happily and romantically, soon degenerates into one of barely concealed hostility as June and her new husband, Bernard, begin to grow apart politically and spiritually. The attack by the black dogs has scarred June not so much physically, as emotionally.
The black dogs in McEwan’s novel don’t symbolize evil in the demonic sense of the word; rather, they represent the horrors that took place by man against man right there in Europe, and the dogs’ assault on June shocks her out of her previously dispassionate left-wing intellectual framework into one more spiritual and less conducive to reason – at least from Bernard’s perspective. One particular passage in Black Dogs presents the allegory behind the title and the precipitating event’s meaning quite aptly:
“So June´s idea was that if one dog was a personal depression, two dogs were a kind of cultural depression, civilisation´s worst moods.”
June’s descent into a permanent state of depression and her turn to the notion of a Supreme Being as a means of emotional salvation not only marks a permanent divide between her and her husband, but a lingering sense on her part of mankind’s proclivity for self-destruction. The effects of this crisis-imposed sense of despondency on June was devastating for her marriage. As her character laments the rift that grew between her and Bernard during that honeymoon in France that was interrupted by the attack by the dogs, she later notes:
“These were the months that shaped us. Behind all our frustrations over all these years has been the wish to get back to those happy days. Once we began to see the world differently we could feel time running out on us and we were impatient with each other. Every disagreement was an interruption of what we knew was possible-and soon there was only interruption. And in the end time did run out, but memories are still there, accusing us, and we still can't let each other alone.”
Touring France and Europe immediately after the most destructive and inhumane conflict in human history could not have helped but to have left emotional wounds on the novel’s central characters. Writing of another time and another genocide, Peter Balakian, in his memoir of growing up in the shadow of the Armenian genocide earlier in the century, Black Dog of Fate, “In the 1960s, I hadn’t even heard the phrase ‘starving Armenians . . .” But Balakian learned that many of his relatives died in that cataclysmic event. The “black dogs” of McEwan’s novel are a metaphor for the horrors that befell civilization, and that threatened to do so again.