Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803

Barbara Kingsolver attempts in her fiction both to entertain and to effect change in the world. Animal Dreams, like most of her novels, addresses political, social, and environmental issues; it can be categorized as ecofiction. In 2000, Kingsolver was awarded the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for service through art.

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Kingsolver began writing the novel by asking herself a question: What causes one person to become engaged with the world while another one is not? She explores the answer through the contrasting lives of Codi and Hallie. The contrasting experiences of the two sisters shape the choices they make. Animal Dreams focuses on Codi, who has been estranged from her father, her hometown, and the larger arena of political and social issues. Codi has a negative view of herself, but she gradually makes connections that allow her to become more confident. Codi narrates most of the novel’s twenty-eight chapters in the first person, while Hallie’s voice is heard in her letters. Seven of the chapters are narrated in the third person and filtered through Homer’s perspective.

Codi has a distant relationship with her father. His high standards and protective actions do not satisfy Codi’s need for emotional support, and they serve to undermine her self-confidence. Homer cannot verbalize his love for his daughters. Codi’s secret miscarriage also separates her from her father and contributes to her sense of failure. Her decision not to complete medical school is another source of her lack of self-worth. By the end of the novel, however, Codi has managed to discuss dropping out of medical school with Homer and has learned about some secrets that he himself kept. She is able to let go of her negativity.

Codi has always felt like an outsider in Grace because Homer encouraged her and Hallie to think of themselves as more intelligent than the others in town and because she believed she had no family there. When Codi discovers her true origins, however, she realizes that she has been surrounded by family all the time.

Although Codi admires Hallie’s commitment to make the world better, she is uninterested in larger issues. Gradually, however, she becomes involved in the fight against the mining company. She recognizes the importance of environmental concerns and that the town’s heritage is her heritage too.

Codi’s gradual reconnection to her father and her community repair her sense of self-worth. Instead of leaving Grace after her year of teaching as she had planned, Codi realizes that she wants to stay because she has found her home at last. She is finally able to commit to Loyd, and their relationship will bring with it a network of Native American connections. In the final chapter, Codi’s pregnancy represents the fact that she can now look forward with hope.

In contrast to Codi, Hallie is confident, optimistic, and idealistic. Codi observes that she and Hallie actually grew up in different situations: Hallie never knew their mother and always had Codi there as her older sister; in addition, she did not have Codi’s sad secret to deal with. Codi admires Hallie and contrasts herself unfavorably with her younger sister. After receiving one of Codi’s hero-worshiping letters, however, Hallie replies by scolding Codi and telling her to get over her feelings about herself and to think about what her actions say about her. For Hallie, people’s actions determine what kind of characters they have. This philosophy helps Codi move forward, and she repeats it to her father when he wonders if he has been of any use to the town. Similarly, Loyd echoes Hallie’s idea when he tells Codi, “If you want sweet dreams, you’ve got to live a sweet life.”

Kingsolver treats environmental and political issues through her characters’ involvement with those issues. Hallie goes to Nicaragua at a time when the United States government was supporting the right-wing Contra army in its attacks on Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government and its citizens. The novel is dedicated to Ben Linder, an American engineer who was killed by the Contras in 1987. Hallie opposes the U.S. support of the Contras.

Back in Arizona, Codi discovers a copper-mining company’s poisoning of the river. While Hallie treks to another country to help improve its agriculture, Codi finds that there is plenty to do closer to home. Both sisters’ actions show that individuals should oppose powerful forces. In Codi’s case, neither she nor the Stitch and Bitch ladies seem to have any power when compared to the mining company, yet their persistent efforts bring about change. Kingsolver’s optimism comes through in the idea that actions are significant in themselves. Even though Hallie’s efforts are cut short, she acts. Without such action, change will never be possible.

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