Animals in Literature Critical Essays

Introduction

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.