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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

The Lives of Animals is mostly a lecture about the animals, animal rights, and animal-human relationships in the voice of a novelist called Elizabeth Costello. Costello has been invited to Appleton College, where her son John teaches physics and astronomy, to give a talk on animals. The majority of the novel comprises the two lectures; after each lecture, Coetzee describes discussions of various kinds on the theme of animal rights, either in the form of questions after the lecture or discussions in social settings.

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In the novel, Costello is a famous novelist and is expected to deliver a talk on her subject, literary criticism or literature. However, she stuns her audiences by talking about "a crime of stupefying proportions": by this she means the inhumane treatment of animals. In the first of the two lectures ("The philosophers and the animals"), she argues that humans are capable of extending their sympathetic imaginations to animals but that they deliberately choose not to exercise their imaginations in this way because it is, in a way, easier for them. Costello takes almost an anti-philosophical stance in asking her audience to follow their hearts in thinking about important questions concerning animal rights and animal sentience. She responds to the famous philosopher, Tom Nagel, who argued in an influential essay that human beings could not possibly know "what it is to be a bat"—this spawned a lot of philosophical works talking about "what-it's-likeness." Costello claims, presumably contrary to her daughter-in-law Norma, who is a philosopher of mind, that there is no reason that humans should not be able to know what it is to be a bat.

In the second lecture ("The poets and the animals"), Costello begins by talking how it is often the case, when poets talk about animals, that they just use them as stand-ins for human qualities. She, on the other hand, is interested in "poetry that does not try to find an idea in the animal, that is not about the animal, but is instead the record of an engagement with him." She claims that Ted Hughes is an example of the latter kind of poet. She also discusses Lemuel Gulliver and Gulliver's Travels and its relationship to colonialism. The rest of the second (shorter) part of the book consists in a debate about whether animals can 'speak' and about what death might mean to them.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1995

J. M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee, internationally distinguished South African novelist and literary critic and professor of English at the University of Cape Town, was the invited speaker to give the 1997-1998 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. His two presentations, “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals,” here given in amended versions, speak powerfully to the need for a change in consciousness in human attitudes and practices regarding animals. Rather than make his arguments in lecture form, Coetzee wrote a metafictional novella, a story about a woman novelist who has been invited to speak in a prestigious lecture series at what Coetzee names Appleton College in Waltham, presumably in the eastern United States. It is this fictional novelist, the aging Elizabeth Costello, whose voice champions the “fullness of being” in the life of animals and who has herself become almost incapable of tolerating humans because of their cruelty toward their fellow life-forms.

Coetzee begins his story with Costello’s arrival in Waltham. Her son, John Bernard, meets her at the airport. It is largely through John’s eyes that the story is presented, although the narrative point of view is third person. John is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Appleton College, and not until after his mother has been...

(The entire section contains 2391 words.)

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