The Lives of Animals

by J. M. Coetzee
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Last Updated 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 invited to give the lectures are his colleagues aware of the family connection. John’s wife, Norma, has a Ph.D. in philosophy with a specialty in the philosophy of the mind, but she has been unable to find a teaching position. Norma has never gotten along with her seldom-seen mother-in-law, and her hostility shows immediately; she has fixed a light supper but has put the children in the playroom to eat chicken, which she knows offends what she calls “your mother’s delicate sensibilities.”

A noted Australian fiction writer, Elizabeth Costello is most famous for her novel about “Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom,” an allusion to Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922). This novel is often “spoken of in the same breath as The Golden Notebook and The Story of Christa T as pathbreaking feminist fiction,” references to the novelsThe Golden Notebook (1962), by Doris Lessing, and Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1970), by Christa Wolf. Yet Costello does not overtly lecture about literature or feminism. Instead, she speaks of the horrors done to animals “in production facilities (I hestitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world.” She compares—essentially equates—the degradation, cruelty, and killing of animals with the atrocities inflicted on millions of people in the concentration camps of Germany’s Third Reich between 1942 and 1945. She attacks numerous historical philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant—for their emphasis on human “reason” and the corollary that animals cannot reason and therefore human beings may do to animals whatever they please.

Costello also takes on contemporary scientists and researchers who study or experiment on animals. One example is her comments about a project involving an ape called Sultan who is kept in a pen and given bananas out of his reach so the experimenter can see how Sultan goes about acquiring them, such as stacking up three crates and climbing on them. At every turn, Costello says, Sultan is driven to think less interesting thoughts. Sultan may be speculating about why the man sadistically behaves like this or wondering about the justice of the universe and the place of this penal colony in it. Yet the experimenter’s regime conducts Sultan unceasingly away from ethics and metaphysics to the lowest levels of “practical reason,” how to get the food most quickly. “The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo, is: Where is home, and how do I get there?”

Costello maintains that the issue is not about “reason” anyway, but about human failure to understand and admit that animals are “full of being,” just as humans are. “To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.” Human beings, Costello says, all too often deny such “being” to animals and, further, refuse to allow themselves to acknowledge that such fullness of being is a state hard to sustain in confinement for animals as well as for people.

In addition to her initial lecture, Elizabeth Costello has other occasions to assert her position and be subjected to negative questioning and opposition, including public comments by her daughter-in-law at a dinner hosted by the college president. Costello gives a colloquium about the use of animals in poetry, sponsored by the English department but pointedly not attended by the resident poet, Abraham Stern. He has sent her a note saying he objects to her comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle, a comparison that he maintains insults the memory of the Holocaust. The final session is in the form of a debate between Costello and Thomas O’Hearne, professor of philosophy at Appleton. Among other points, O’Hearne suggests that the animal-rights movement is perhaps yet another Western crusade against the practices of the rest of the world. Costello accepts his concern about Western cultural arrogance but adds, “It is appropriate that those who pioneered the industrialization of animal lives and the commodification of animal flesh should be at the forefront of trying to atone for it.”

Throughout Elizabeth Costello’s campus visit, John worries about how she is handling herself and how it may reflect on him. He is also subjected to a barrage of complaints from Norma about how wrong his mother’s arguments are and how much she resents her telling the grandchildren about poor little veal calves. Norma does not get up to say goodbye to Elizabeth on the morning John drives her back to the airport. During that drive, Elizabeth admits to John that she worries that she can no longer come to terms with what she sees around her, which seems to be people participating in “a crime of stupefying proportions.” Seeing “the fragments of corpses” of animals (meat) has become to her as horrible as if she were to see a soap-wrapper that says, “Treblinka—100% human stearate.” John has no idea what to say to her. Instead, he pulls the car over and hugs her, feeling the “old flesh.” “There, there,” he whispers in her ear. Ambiguously, he adds, “There, there. It will soon be over.”

J. M. Coetzee’s two-part story The Lives of Animals covers fifty-four pages. The rest of the book contains an eight-page introduction by editor Amy Gutmann and four responses from academicians from four different disciplines. Some reviewers have found these responses redundant and windy. To a certain extent, this “Reflections” section does deflect the emotional impact of Coetzee’s fiction. It perhaps lets readers feel less guilty about their participation in meat-eating and in society’s atrocities toward animals.

Still, the responses are insightful and instructive commentaries on Coetzee’s text and interesting in their own right. Marjorie Garber, director of Harvard’s Center for Literary and Cultural Studies, discusses Coetzee’s use of literary forms. Coetzee’s “lectures” constitute a fable, presented as a framed story within a story, a metatextual fiction about fiction, a hall of mirrors with endless references to other stories and other writers. Garber explicates some of the convoluted in-jokes Coetzee makes through names. For example, Costello gives her presentation in the English department in Stubbs Hall, reminiscent of George Stubbs, the great English painter of horses, dogs, and their keepers. The scholar who introduces Costello at one of her lectures is named Elaine Marx. Louis Marx Hall is the home of the Princeton University Center for Human Values, which sponsors the Tanner Lecture series. Elaine Marks is the chair of the English department and the translator of a book on French feminism, and Elaine Showalter, another feminist who writes about women’s fiction, is a Princeton English professor and former chair of the department.

The complexities of literary form, the allusions in the “fictional” to the “real,” as well as other language issues that Coetzee raises in his text, such as the slippery nature of analogies, lead Garber to suggest that the novella is not only about animals but about the value of literature as well. Elizabeth Costello would like to hope that literary works help change people’s attitudes toward animals, though she knows that so far it has not made readers rush out and close down the slaughterhouses. Garber implies that literature is a shaping influence that, even if it fails to ignite immediate action, offers the solace of the art of language itself.

Garber also notes that Coetzee’s text belongs to “that most accomplished and most maligned of modern literary genres, the academic novel,” and adds that the tendency of the academic novel to merge with the murder mystery is itself a symptom of culture. (Coetzee’s novella has at its heart the murder of animals.) Among the works Garber lists in this context is Carolyn Heilbrun’s novel Death in a Tenured Position (1981), in which the first tenured woman in the Harvard English department comes to an untimely end. Marjorie Garber was herself the first tenured woman in the English department at Harvard University, taking up her position in 1981, a position she still held at the time of this book’s publication.

Peter Sanger, professor of bioethics in the Princeton University Center for Human Values, picks up on yet another Garber categorization of Coetzee’s text: the debate form or philosophical dialogue. Sanger creates a fiction, picturing himself eating (a vegetarian) breakfast and worrying about writing a response to Coetzee’s lectures. His daughter refers to Coetzee’s text as tres post-moderne and chides her father for needing to ask what is postmodern about it, since it is a lecture about someone giving a lecture, with layers of simulation and self-reference, breaking down the distinction between reality and representation. For him, the technique makes it difficult to decide what Coetzee’s view is and what should be attributed to his protagonist. Father and daughter debate attitudes toward animals, using the family dog Max as their primary example. He argues that Max could be replaced with another dog. She disagrees because Max is unique. She argues that pigs on factory farms lead such a miserable existence that they would be better off not existing at all. He argues that there is more to human existence than there is to bat existence, for example, so it is more morally wrong to kill a person than to kill a bat. Since they can think of no solution to the problematic topic, the daughter suggests he use fiction for his response.

Wendy Doniger, professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, explores the links between humans and animals in a variety of religious and cultural settings. Barbara Smuts, professor of psychology and anthropology at the University of Michigan, completes the responses with a personal account of living as the only human among 140 African baboons. Later she speaks of her connection to her dog Safi, whom she regards as a “person,” that is, an individual social subject with whom she has a personal relationship. Smuts finds the lack of reference to real-life animals a striking gap in Coetzee’s text (the reader discovers only secondhand that Elizabeth Costello lives with cats, since she never mentions them). Smuts concludes with an appeal: Open your hearts to the animals around you. It is a cogent summary of the entire project that makes up The Lives of Animals.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (March 15, 1999): 1262.

The Christian Century 116 (May 19, 1999): 569.

Kirkus Reviews 42 (February 15, 1999): 264.

Natural History 108 (June, 1999): 18.

Publishers Weekly 246 (February 8, 1999): 193.

SciTech Book News 23 (June, 1999): 13.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 16, 1999, p. 25.

Whole Earth, Summer, 1999, p. 13.

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