Beatrice and Virgil Themes
by Yann Martel

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Beatrice and Virgil Themes

Representation of the Holocaust

One of the prime concerns of Beatrice and Virgil is the way the Holocaust is represented in narrative. Henry is especially worried that the historical realism of the stories that usually take the Holocaust as their subject is leaving out a more imaginative, metaphorical truth. In his consideration, people have lost much by failing to consider the Holocaust from a more imaginative perspective.

Martel’s novel becomes the answer to the question it seems to pose. The taxidermist’s play, “A 20th Century Shirt,” discusses the “Horrors,” but Henry realizes that the taxidermist

was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews. The Holocaust as allegory.

If the play itself were the sole subject of the novel, it would seem that the imaginative use of the Holocaust by a man that actually participated in it is heinous. The taxidermist is using the calculated, statewide murder of six million Jews to discuss the plight of animals. Furthermore, inherent in this allegory is the suggested comparison of Jews to animals.

Martel seems to be aware of the ethics of his allegory. Henry is, in many ways, a stand-in for Martel himself. Henry is a writer, like Martel, and his wild success was about zoos and animals, recalling Martel’s Life of Pi. To carry the parallels further, the taxidermist is also named “Henry.” By making the author of “A 20th Century Shirt” a Nazi collaborator, Martel signals that he is aware of the dangers of writing a fable about the Holocaust. Consequently, the fable is itself buried within the larger body of a different narrative, suggesting that Martel seems to have found a new story that discusses the Holocaust.

The Tragic Fate of Animals

The taxidermist’s play, “A 20th Century Shirt,” is ostensibly about the “tragic fate of animals.” A donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil represent the plight of animals. Both animals have been preserved through the art of taxidermy, and it is in fact a taxidermist who seeks to document this tragedy in his play. He notes that there was once a time when animals and the forest were brought into living rooms through taxidermy. Now taxidermy is a dying art, and the forest has been forced to continually give ground to agriculture and urbanization. Species are rapidly going extinct, though it seems that many people turn a blind eye to the plight of animals.

The Importance of the Arts

Throughout Beatrice and Virgil, Martel emphasizes the importance of the arts. In Henry’s initial consideration of the way the Holocaust is represented in literature, he reflects that fiction is more powerful than nonfiction because it is free to express and explore the full range of the human experience. Even after his publisher rejects Henry’s proposed novel and he loses the urge to write, he continues to value creativity. He plays the clarinet and joins an amateur acting group that works together “for nothing, for the simple joy of being theatrically creative.” In fact, although the taxidermist is a cold, gaunt man whom everyone else hates, Henry is attracted to his desire to finish his play. Henry notes that through art, people make their mark on the world and they make sense of the world.

Perhaps it is the desire to make sense of the world through art that drives Henry to...

(The entire section is 860 words.)