Animal Dreams

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With Animal Dreams, her fourth book in three years, Barbara Kingsolver adds further luster to her rising reputation as a prolific and talented Southwestern writer who deserves much wider attention. This 1990 Kingsolver novel develops social issues and universal themes that are familiar from her earlier books, but that are now woven into a more ambitious literary design. In her first novel, The Bean Trees (1988), Kingsolver’s concern over United States involvement in Central America found narrative expression in a story of working- class Americans aiding Guatemalan refugees. In Animal Dreams, the narrative includes letters sent from Nicaragua, where the protagonist’s sister is promoting agricultural reform and is threatened by American-backed Contras. Like Kingsolver’s short-story collection Homeland (1989) and her nonfictional work Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), Animal Dreams deals with universal themes of family ties and life passages in the context of struggles by Hispanics, Native Americans, and poor whites for cultural and economic survival. Yet even as Barbara Kingsolver is sharpening the reader’s awareness of these weighty issues and themes and weaving them through a complex narrative structure, she never ceases to entertain as a humorous and engrossing storyteller, a gifted creator of heartfelt characters, and a witty and poetic stylist.

Animal Dreams entertains and enlightens by drawing on a number of diverse genres: fairy tale, psychological mystery, political and ecological fable. Considered as fairy tale, the novel presents the story of a young woman who sees herself as an ugly duckling, out of place in her hometown of Grace, Arizona. In the course of the novel, Codi Noline comes to feel the power of the transforming “grace” that the locale has for her. When thirty-two-year-old Codi returns to Grace after a fourteen- year absence, her sense of alienation is even stronger than it was when she grew up there—in spite of her awareness of the special beauty of the place. As imagined by Kingsolver and described by Codi, the town of Grace has many wonders: “red granite canyon walls, orchards of sturdy old fruit trees past their prime, a shamelessly unpolluted sky” and “confetti-colored houses perched on the slopes” of the canyon. The guesthouse that she rents adjacent to the home of her high school friend Emelina Domingos seems equally enchanted, with a red enamel “fairytale bed” where Codi wishes she “could fall down and sleep a hundred years.

Ironically, Codi is already a kind of unwitting Sleeping Beauty. Marvelously alert to the beauty of the environment and the happiness of the people of Grace, she is strangely “asleep”—even actively resistant—to the idea that she has been and could again be an integral part of this world. What she remembers of her childhood is that her widowed father Doc Homer Noline tried to rear her and her sister Hallie to be superior to the other children of Grace, but that he only succeeded in making them social outcasts. Remembering herself growing up as too tall, socially inept, and forced to wear ugly orthopedic shoes, Codi now sees herself as even more alienated by reason of her fourteen-year absence, her failure to attain her M.D., and her “apologetic punk” style of dress, complete with “Billy Idol haircut.”

Despite the efforts of Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming figures, Codi continues to act as “the Opposite of a homemaker—[a] home ignorer” (in Emelina’s words) and to believe that she will only sojourn in Grace for a year. Emelina tries to act as Codi’s Fairy Godmother (Codi sees her as “my guardian angel”) by bringing Codi into the Domingos’ family life, reintroducing her into the social circles of Grace, and steering her toward Loyd Peregrina, a Pueblo Indian train engineer who is the town’s prize bachelor. Codi ’5 initial discomfort with Loyd is understandable, for a brief love affair with him in high school had left her pregnant, and though she never told him of her pregnancy, Codi still harbors resentment against him. Nevertheless, Loyd fulfills his function as the Prince Charming of the story by courting Codi with gentle sincerity and patience. He tries to reawaken her to her own beauty and ability to love, and he introduces her to the scenic and cultural wonders that are part of his American Indian heritage. Trips by Loyd and Codi to a pueblo ruin, to Canyon de Chelly, and to Loyd’s family pueblo make a strong impression on Codi and convince her of Loyd’s sincere matrimonial intentions. He even gives up cock-fighting—a sport he had pursued as a traditional inheritance from his father—partly because he sympathizes with Codi’s abhorrence of it. Yet though she comes to cherish Loyd as a lover and becomes more involved in Grace as a successful high school teacher and community activist, Codi still resists the idea that she should stay. Periodically she considers reuniting in Tucson with Carlo, a doctor and her former lover of ten years, who offers her a stable though emotionally shallow relationship.

Why is Codi so resistant to the many appeals of Grace? The full answer lies in a darker realm of a psychological mystery and involves Codi, her father, and the social history of the Grace community itself Codi believes that she is resistant to Grace and to love because she remembers experiencing so little love—apart from her close relationship with her sister Hallie—when she lived there during the first eighteen years of her life. Codi defines those years primarily in terms of loss: the loss of her mother soon after the birth of Hallie, when Codi was four, and the secret loss of her child because of a miscarriage. Most of all, Codi bitterly resents Doc Homer for his sternly prohibitive and emotionally cold...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Animal Dreams tells the story of Cosima “Codi” Noline’s return to her hometown of Grace, Arizona. Although she has long felt alienated from the community, her experiences there help her discover both literal and emotional connections with the town. Codi has returned in order to take care of her father, Homero (or Homer), who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and to teach biology in the local high school. She becomes involved in the town’s efforts to protect itself from the economic and environmental problems caused by pollution from the Black Mountain Mining Company. Over the course of the novel, Codi both learns about herself and helps the townspeople resolve their dispute with the mining company. An important subplot follows Codi’s sister Hallie as she goes to Nicaragua, witnesses the horrors of the Contra regime, and is eventually kidnapped and murdered by the Contras. Through these linked stories, Barbara Kingsolver explores themes of women’s relationships with one another and with men, the interconnections between different individuals and groups, and the importance and difficulties of creating social and personal change. Kingsolver uses Codi’s first-person narrative to tell the novel’s main story, but she also includes third-person sections from Homer’s perspective to fill gaps in Codi’s narrative. These sections are indicated by the headings “Cosima” and “Homero.” In addition, letters from Hallie, included within Codi’s first-person narrative, bring another voice and another story into the novel.

Codi has forgotten much of her own childhood. She remembers events that others tell her she should not recall, and she does not remember events that others think she should. She also does not remember many of the people who live in the town, although many seem to have clear memories of her. During the course of a year, she recovers many of her memories and reestablishes relationships from her childhood. Central to this recovery is Codi’s examination of her relationship with her father....

(The entire section is 835 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Animal Dreams, like Kingsolver’s other books, raises two central themes in contemporary women’s literature: the importance of relationships among women and the interconnections between gender, race, and ethnicity. Many contemporary women writers have explored the connections and tensions between women in their novels. In addition, women writers have become increasingly aware that gender is only one source of identity and oppression. To understand social interactions fully, their writing suggests, one must look not only at gender but also at other aspects of identity. Kingsolver also explored these themes in The Bean Trees (1988), and other contemporary women writers, such as Alice Walker and Marge Piercy, have written novels with these issues at their heart.

Kingsolver’s use of the two styles of narrative, Codi’s fairly straightforward first-person narration and Homer’s more fragmented, dreamlike third-person sections, also reflects some common trends in contemporary women’s literature. Both Walker and Piercy, for example, have used similar multiple narrators in their novels. Kingsolver’s use of dreams and legends also reflects developments in women’s writing. A number of American Indian and Latin American women writers have used dreamlike passages and traditional legends to tell their stories, much as Kingsolver does.

The use of multiple perspectives reflects theoretical discussions about possible differences between men’s and women’s writing. Some feminist critics have suggested that women’s writing should challenge “masculine ways of thinking” represented in single-voiced, realistic fiction and should emphasize alternative “women’s ways of knowing” that rely more on intuition, emotion, and nonlinear thinking. While Kingsolver’s novel does not abandon the conventions of linear plot or realism entirely, she does introduce elements of this alternative style through the multiple narrations, Codi’s and Homer’s dreams, and Loyd’s storytelling. Her work represents a step in the direction of what French feminist critics call l’écriture feminine, or feminine writing.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The United States and Nicaragua in the 1980s
Hallie's impassioned letters to Codi about the political situation in Nicaragua...

(The entire section is 897 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The novel is set mostly in the fictional town of Grace, Arizona, although some scenes take place in the Santa Rosalia...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As in The Bean Trees, Kingsolver uses shifting points of view to reveal the internal feelings of her characters. In this work in...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Animal Dreams, Kingsolver traces the personal development of Codi Noline yet also addresses larger social concerns, such as...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As in all of Barbara Kingsolver's novels, social issues are an integral part of plot and character development in Animal Dreams. In...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the history of the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s. Were the contras the evil force described in Animal Dreams, or were...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Kingsolver's depiction of the women in a community banding together for a social cause bears a resemblance to the author's nonfiction book...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Animal Dreams can easily be compared to Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees. Both novels feature female protagonists...

(The entire section is 171 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Animal Dreams is available in an unabridged audiotape version, read by C. J. Critt.

(The entire section is 14 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Animal Dreams has been recorded unabridged on ten audiocassettes, with a total playing time of 13.75 hours. The cassettes were...

(The entire section is 36 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Kingsolver's nonfictionbook, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), examines the leadership role...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Brown, Rosellen, Review, in Massachusetts Review, Spring 1991, p. 138.

Cooke, Carolyn, Review, in...

(The entire section is 504 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, August, 1990, p.2155. A review of Animal Dreams.

Chicago Tribune. August 26, 1990, XIV, p.1 A review of Animal Dreams.

Cosmopolitan. CCIX, September, 1990, p.62. A review of Animal Dreams.

Kasinec, Denise E. “Barbara Kingsolver.” In Contemporary Authors, edited by Susan M. Trosky. Vol. 134. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. This valuable article includes a brief biography of Kingsolver, a discussion of her writing career, a listing of her publications, and a list of reviews of...

(The entire section is 271 words.)