Animals in Literature Criticism: Overviews And General Studies - Essay

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Animals in American Literature, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 3-17.

[In the following essay, Allen presents an overview of animals in literature throughout history.]

Animals1 have served literature well. They have stood as allegorical figures to represent human nature and as a rich body of metaphors for the inanimate as well as the animate. Beyond their figurative uses, animals have been man's servants, his companions, the objects of his hunt, and the food on his table. And sometimes they have been allowed to play their own parts.

Before man could write he drew pictures of animals on the walls of caves in paint made of their blood, figures that transcend time in their immediacy.2 Man looked to the heavens and saw animals sketched in the stars. The spirit that could make the corn grow was envisioned as a bull, a wolf, or even a dog. Animal properties were imagined to be magically transferred to man: he thought if he stepped on a tortoise, his feet would be made hard.3 The totem animal, taken as the tribal ancestor of a clan, was looked to as its tutelary spirit and protector. Whether as the earliest subjects of art and worship or as the later symbolic images of a culture, animal figures tell of a people's values. The Egyptians bowed to the bull. And the Christians gave us the lamb.

Animals remain a source of awe. Their means of locomotion, self-defense—the way they look—are incredible. But man's relationship with them is complex, often paradoxical. He would have their powers but would not be called an animal. Primitive man drank a beast's blood for vitality, then apologized for slaying it. Modern man reveres what is free and must possess it.

Beyond man's language, animals appeal to the symbol-making mind. They were initially established and still are usually seen as representative images in literature. It was in the sixth century B.C. that the legendary Aesop is said to have composed his fables. The collection of tales from which the medieval bestiaries derived, the Physiologus, came in the second century, giving a mystic meaning to each of fifty legends of animals and natural objects. Animals were epitomized by a single characteristic—the industry of the ant, the cunning of the fox, the majesty of the lion. Such stereotyping served a definite moral end. Yet it also reflects cultural and aesthetic biases. In the East, the placid cow is revered—in the motion-loving West, the horse.

As the beast fable and the bestiary gave way to the humanism of the Renaissance and the metaphorical language that centered on man, the basic symbolic values of the earlier period were retained. The animal simile became so prevalent during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that natural history was “ransacked” for material to illustrate everyday experiences.4 Caroline Spurgeon finds in her study of Shakespeare's imagery, based on the premise that analogy holds the spirit of the universe, that the second largest category of Shakespearean metaphors (after references to the human body) is birds—not for their form or their song but for their flight. It was the life of things which most enchanted Shakespeare,5 and that life in his work is unimaginable without the allusions to animals, over 4,000 of them.6

The power of Shakespeare's animal metaphors is felt through realistic detail and a keen compassion for suffering creatures. Yet as Elizabethan drama assumes a metaphorical view of the universe around man, most of Shakespeare's references to animals are figurative. The sharpness of the serpent's tooth is of interest as it illustrates human ingratitude. King Lear needs no real snakes. Even Richard III's “My kingdom for a horse!”—indeed, a call for an actual horse—is rather a revelation of the man's desperation than a focus on the animal.

As the age of satire presented a diminished version of man, the animal metaphor served a specific message of disdain. Swift's human race is equated to “odious vermin.” But he also satirizes the happy beast tradition of seventeenth-century France, in which animals were considered equal or superior to man because of their naturalness. The Houyhnhnms, who have only the bodies of horses and not their other characteristics, excel not as animals but as beings with extraordinary powers of reason.

The eighteenth century also saw the development of the non-human narrator in the novel, based on the rationale of the fifth-century B.C. philosophy of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. The use of the animal's point of view became the target of satire in France, most vividly with the minuscule creatures who could see all, a satire reaching the epitome of coarseness in such a work as Memoirs and Adventures of a Flea.7 The humanitarian movement to prevent cruelty to animals of this period, however, led to a more sympathetic version of their point of view. By the nineteenth century a literature for children had developed that presents the animal's own account of his suffering. Black Beauty draws tears for the abused cab horse. Such a sympathetic rendering of the animal has become a standard feature of juvenile fiction (as well as a temptation to those who would present animals realistically but with compassion).

The romantic literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with its intent to free man physically as well as spiritually, epitomizes the spirit of the new freedom in the symbolic bird. While suggested as an actual bird, this romantic figure is distant, impalpable, even static. The nightingale lives primarily in the imagination. In a study of the modern bestiary Christopher Nash points out that when actual animals are referred to by the romantics, even in their more vivid roles, Blake's tiger and Coleridge's albatross, for example, they are not alive. For the romantic, the more “terrestrial” the creature, “the less worthy of the poet's song it is.”8

The realism that superseded romanticism focused for the most part on social man, an increasingly urban man, a context in which animals play little part. While realism follows no particular style, the tendency is away from symbolism, in some cases away from metaphor altogether; thus the figurative animal occurs less frequently than before. With naturalism, the metaphor of man as beast in an urban jungle is a standard feature—Frank Norris's brute McTeague and O'Neill's hairy ape. Yet the animals themselves are rarely featured.

As science, psychology, art, and new kinds of mass communication have reestablished the worship of symbols in the twentieth century, the earlier symbology of animals is revived. Joyce's Dedalus, based on the Greek artisan ordered to design an elaborate cage for the Cretan Minotaur, confronts the labyrinth of the unconscious as “a human structure fabricated to contain and withhold an animal core.”9 Reverting to the fable, Kafka creates his unforgettable image of modern man—Gregor Samsa as a beetle swept into the trash.

The metaphorical far outnumber the literal animals in literature. But actual ones do appear from time to time in their own right. If they also serve a symbolic function, the power of the symbol depends on how vivid the actual animal is. While some types of literature, the fable, for one, preclude the development of realistic animals, no genre or literary movement has made particular use of them. They are invited in rather at the inclination of the individual author, whether he be classic or romantic, poet or novelist. Poetry has most often featured the bird, while fiction's favorite is the pet dog—the loyal, obedient companion, who offers a satisfaction untainted by the complexities of human relationships. Thomas Mann's “A Man and His Dog,” for example, centers on the “dumb paean of joy”10 the dog Bashan brings his master. The source of this happy connection is attributed to the patriarchal instinct of the dog to honor the man as his absolute master.

One of the most moving accounts of an animal in all literature is the scene in The Odyssey when Odysseus comes home. His son thinks he is a beggar in town, and his wife requires proof of identity. Only the dog knows him: “Here lay the dog, this Argos, full of fleas. Yet even now, seeing Odysseus near, he wagged his tail and dropped both ears, but toward his master he had not strength to move. Odysseus turned aside and wiped away a tear.” Argos does not represent anything but himself, nor would we wish him to. He acts as a dog acts, and that is enough.

While the animal simile is far more prevalent than the literal animal in Greek poetry, regard for the physical world is reflected in a view that is not primarily metaphorical. In a study of Homer's perception of reality Paolo Vivante makes the case that the function of the Homeric simile is to stress the essential nature of the subject, not to suggest other possibilities. If warriors are said to move like scared fawns, it is simply their common response to fear which the simile presents. For Homer things exist in their own right, “with nothing to sustain them but their solitary power and the earth upon which they stand.”11 This process works in the reverse of the symbolic approach in which the tangible is a sign of a superior spiritual realm. The Greek passion for this world is suggestive of the spirit with which many actual animals are portrayed in modern literature. The brilliantly intellectual art of our time rarely offers such feeling. But where animals are, so is emotion. It is worth reading about them for that refreshment alone.

It was to the actual animals that Aristotle turned in the classification which was the beginning of natural science, The History of Animals. Although much factual information was available, it is probable that many accounts of remote species came through the limited descriptions of explorers. In fact, by the thirteenth century Europeans still knew of the rhinoceros only through Marco Polo's description of “lion-horns.”12 To illustrate fables of exotic animals, the miniaturists used the familiar bodies of dogs and horses and added a fabulous version of teeth or tails.13 In this way many fantastic creatures came into being. Still, man's creations did not outdo the uncanny subjects in nature.

The commencement of modern zoology in the sixteenth century heightened the artist's interest but at the same time enhanced many a zoological fable. Sir Thomas Browne continued in the belief that mice were generated by wheat, and Milton reaffirmed that creation is a process rising up miraculously from slime and mud. Investigations by the newly established Royal Society set forth ideas such as parthenogenesis, which led to the belief that as the creator of art forms his work, so are animals brought into mysterious being. In Hudibras Butler supports the notion that the baby bear is created as the mother licks lumps of matter into shape.14 As scientific fact did take hold, the literary artist became more precise, although rather with the approach of the naturalist, who sees the creature whole in his habitat, than the scientist, who dissects.

As the old hierarchy of the kingdoms toppled with Charles Darwin, and the belief in human dominion over the animal lost its force, the creatures consequently loomed into a new place. Darwin's intent was not to reduce man; only one line in On the Origin of Species even suggests that light might be shed on human origins. He intended rather to “ennoble and humanize animals.” Stanley Edgar Hyman describes Origin as a scientific argument that reads like a dramatic poem in which animals are the actors.15 It is one of the ironic twists of history that an appreciative view of animals was reversed in the image of man as ape. But if Darwin's ideas were received in a spirit contrary to his own, he did succeed in raising animals to a more important place than they had occupied for centuries.

Man's ambivalent relationship with animals has raised many an intriguing issue. If man and beast commit the same vicious deeds, are they not similarly responsible? This line of reasoning led to the bizarre practice of criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals, dating from the ninth century. Sentences were inflicted by secular tribunals on pigs, cows, and horses for the crime of homicide; judicial proceedings of ecclesiastical courts against rats, mice, locusts, and weevils resulted in exorcisms and excommunication. It was believed that if domestic animals were not punished for homicide, devils would take possession of them and their masters. In the sixteenth century a French jurist made his reputation as a counsel for rats charged with eating a barley crop, successfully arguing that the rats summoned to appear were prevented by serious perils, “owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats.” As late as 1906 in Switzerland two men and a dog were convicted of murder. The men were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the dog was condemned to death.16

If primitive man was...

(The entire section is 5492 words.)