A Dark Brown Dog

by Stephen Crane

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"A Dark Brown Dog" Themes

The main themes in “A Dark Brown Dog” are subjugation and submission, complicity, and power imbalance.

  • Subjugation and submission: Having once been owned, the dog can never be truly free, and its new owners mistreat it in spite of its submissive behavior and constant forgiveness.
  • Complicity: The story’s complete lack of dialogue represents the family’s silent complicity in the abuse of the dog, culminating in the dog’s death.
  • Power imbalance: While the father holds the most power of any character, the dog holds the least, and the child who protects the dog holds only a limited amount.


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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825

Subjugation and Submission

One of the key points Crane is making in this story is that the dog, having once been owned, will never be free. Evidently, he was previously owned by somebody; this symbolizes the ownership of Black people during the pre–Civil War era. The dog no longer has anybody holding the end of his rope, but this does not mean that he is actually free from that history. On the contrary, the rope remains around his neck as a constant reminder of the subjugation he has endured. The rope interferes, too, in his life now, even though he is technically no longer owned. From time to time it trips him up; this suggests that the dog, representing Black people, cannot ever forget the fact that he was once a slave, and the abuses from his past life continue to affect him in this one. We can see this, too, in the fact that the dog continues to have nightmares and cry and howl at night, even when he is ostensibly comfortable and being looked after by the child who loves him and is trying to be his friend.

At the same time, the dog does not know how to relate to people because of his history with humans. He is so used to being subjugated and owned that he responds to beatings by rolling over onto his back and praying. He does this because he has learned that it is often easier to simply beg for mercy than to attempt to resist or fight. When the child, who is his friend, occasionally beats him, he forgives him immediately. Again, because the child sometimes offers him love, and because the dog has no better option available to him, he is willing to forgive the child as the easiest option. However, it is notable that when the child takes hold of his leash and tries to drag him into his home, the dog, for a moment, resists, recognizing that he is giving himself over to another form of slavery. But his spirit has been so thoroughly broken that he does not offer much resistance and simply accepts the scraps he is given by the child. 

However, as the end of the story proves, it does not matter whether the dog begs for mercy or not. The father, who is savage and cruel, does not care how the dog feels or what a good dog he is. He wants to take out his own feelings by hurting the dog, and the child cannot stop him.


There is no actual dialogue in this story. This is important, because it underlies the theme of complicity that runs throughout. The father is abusive to his own family, who are never described or even enumerated, inasmuch as he is abusive to the dog. However, his family allow this mistreatment to influence their own behavior; because the father abuses his family, the family go on to abuse the dog when they know they can get away with it. By not standing up against the father of the family, they are complicit in the continuance of abuse and hatred, and they even allow their own hurt to cause them to abuse the dog, wanting to feel that there is someone in society lower than they are. Nobody in the story speaks; they maintain a silence that again allows hatred to continue and violence to proliferate.

When, at the end of the story, the dog is thrown from the window, we also see complicity in the silence of those who stand and gaze at the small body...

(This entire section contains 825 words.)

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as it falls. They recognize that what is going on is unacceptable, but they do nothing to intervene or stop it. The only person who tries to intervene in the behavior of the father is the child, and he is too powerless to have any effect.

Power Imbalance

The balances of power within this story are complicated. Evidently, the dog has the least power of anyone in this story. This is underlined by the fact that he views the child as the king of his universe, even though the child is so young that he is still in dresses and can barely climb stairs. The dog must appeal to the least powerful member of the group with which he has now affiliated himself, in order to make any inroads at all.

The child, meanwhile, has some power—his family does not want to have to listen to him cry, and so they try to be nice to the dog when the child is around. However, it is clear that he is not taken seriously as a real power; when he is not there, the family members abuse the dog. We can see that to a certain extent, their behavior toward the dog constitutes "punching down," or a means of making themselves feel better as they continue to be subservient to the all-powerful, savage father.