Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

The Lives of Animals, by the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, is a philosophical short novel (originally delivered as the Tanner Lectures on Human Values) about a philosophical topic: the moral status of animals and the rights that may or may not follow from it. The primary theme is that of animal rights. The protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, as well as her various interlocutors present the various points of view one might have about the moral status of animals. For example, one might, as Descartes or a Cartesian philosopher, think that the self is identical to the mind and, since animals lack minds, they are no more than thoughtless automata. Since they lack minds, they lack anything resembling personhood and we are, then, justified in treating them in any way we like. Or we could, as Costello does, focus on the embodiedness of animals as well as humans: humans, as well as animals, have bodies and are feeling, sensing creatures. We might argue, then, that we ought to extend animals the same rights as humans on the basis of this similarity. Another important topic around this theme relates to phenomenology and imagination. Costello argues that it is a choice not to use our imaginations that results in our mistreatment of animals: we fail to extend them the same sympathetic imagination that we would extend to human beings.

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Another, more minor theme, is the nature of communication. Costello is, in a way, unable to fully communicate with members of her family. She is passionate about her beliefs but in a way that blinds her to other people's sensibilities. The most striking example is the case of Abraham Stern, the Jewish poet, who boycotted Costello's second lecture because of her comparison of slaughtered animals to the Holocaust. There is a fundamental moral and aesthetic difference between the two that cannot, it seems, be bridged. Coetzee has Costello interact and have conversations with a range of characters, but Stern's note goes unanswered.

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