Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 215
The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee is a mise-en-abyme: this is a term appropriated by Andre Gide for literary criticism (earlier it was used mostly for images), and it refers to a story within a story. In this case, it's almost an isomorphic mise-en-abyme. J.M. Coetzee, the novelist, was asked to deliver the annual Tanner Lecture on Human Values; most people expected him to talk about literature. His lectures took the form of a story about a novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who has been invited to give a series of lectures and, instead of talking about literature, ends up talking about the moral rights of animals. Coetzee has always experimented with narrative innovations—for example, in Diary of a Bad Year—and The Lives of Animals is no exception.
Apart from its literary merits, the novel is a remarkable philosophical dialogue in the true spirit of Plato. While the protagonist has a rather singular and dogmatic point of view about the moral status of animals, Coetzee deploys the other characters to question and challenge this point of view. No point is allowed to stand just as it is, but is almost always questioned and defended, even if not definitively.
These two aspects make The Lives of Animals a remarkable literary and philosophical feat.