The Plague Dogs

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1961

The Plague Dogs is Richard Adams’ third novel, and like the acclaimed rabbit epic Watership Down and the mythical bear saga Shardik, this work focuses on the animal world. As in the first two novels, Adams’ storytelling art compels the reader into so strong an empathy with the creatures that the beasts become brothers, and their quest for survival against terrible odds and stronger forces becomes intensely personal while at the same time epic in scope and magnitude. Here, however, Adams’ central characters, Snitter and Rowf, are dogs, so thoroughly domesticated that their instincts have been deadened. For them, therefore, a return to the wild world of nature is perilous, uncomfortable, and ironically unnatural. However, they are not safe and secure in the world of man either. They are always on the run—first from the whitecoats (doctors performing experiments upon animals) and starvation; then from sheepherders and the cold of the Lake District; and finally from paratroopers, the British government, and their own despair.

Laced throughout the narrative of the month and a half dodge in the wild is a rather heavyhanded satiric attack on man, the cause of the dogs’ decision to flee. Adams attacks government bureaucrats, unscrupulous journalists, and unfeeling scientists—men who have lost sight of their purpose and responsibility. The message is that man has been grossly irresponsible in managing the natural world, and that the institutions of his own creation are corrupt, self-serving, lifeless, and destructive, especially of man’s dignity. The attack suffers only from its hyperbole, even as the dog saga suffers from its sentimentality, Adams’ touch being more exuberant than subtle. Nevertheless, The Plague Dogs offers much to marvel at and enjoy, particularly in its characterizations.

The most intriguing character in the work is not the tod, a fox of great cunning, who, speaking in Upper Tyneside dialect (made understandable by Adams’ glossary), helps the dogs hunt and hide. Nor is he Digby Driver, the brash muckraking reporter who, through his pot-boiling articles portraying the dogs as mad, plague-carrying killers, nearly single handedly arouses the countryside, Parliament, and the British Army against the creatures. He is not even Rowf, a powerful mongrel who was the subject of an animal experiment in which he was repeatedly immersed in water until near death, a dog who now laments that “It’s a bad world for animals.” Rather, the most unconventional and well-developed character is Snitter, a fox terrier with a huge gash in his head, the result of experimental brain surgery the purpose of which was to induce him to confuse the subjective and the objective. As an experiment, it succeeded; the result, for the reader, is a story that is both fascinating and pitiable.

“Rowf. They’ve taken away all the rhododendrons and just left the maggots. O spin like a ball, isn’t it dark? There’s just this one star shining down my throat, that’s all. You know my master—,” says Snitter, in his first words to the reader. This statement is typical of Snitter’s language and thought throughout the novel, as he meshes images from his memory with his present feelings and his perceptions of the world around him. Accidentally causing his master to be seriously injured and thinking that he is dead, the terrier laces concrete moments of the incident into the present, his language disconnected, seemingly illogical, but full of vibrant images and uncommon sense. The reader readily empathizes with the tremendous pain he feels as a result of his operation, and with his horror at the atrocities performed on other animals by members of Animal Research (Scientific and Experimental), whose acronym is a rather obvious reflection of the author’s attitude toward such bodies. Songs about himself and Rowf, about their condition and their past are also scattered throughout the work. If during much of the novel Snitter seems incoherent, at least superficially, at other moments he is perfectly lucid. It is obvious that at times his brain and tongue function well. He masterminds his and Rowf’s escape from A.R.S.E. and keeps them alive and their spirits up for a long time in such an inhospitable environment as raw nature seems to offer. He is nonetheless a victim of delusions, at one time imagining that he is the harbinger of death and that, while locked in a shed, he is actually seeing inside his brain. Very sensitive, perceptive, joyous, and still deeply attached to his master, Snitter is a character that one will long remember as a trembling voice, but a voice of hope and spirit. One is also drawn to him because of the great agony he has had to endure at the hands of Dr. J. R. Boycott and the rest of the A.R.S.E. researchers.

The description of the research center, a sprawling complex of laboratories, sheds, and stables, and its activities is Felliniesque in its grotesquerie and magnitude. Reminiscent of Yossarian’s walk through Rome in Catch-22 or of Dante’s journey through the Inferno in The Divine Comedy is Snitter and Rowf’s escape from the center, the description of which acts as a catalogue of horror. En route through the complex, the dogs pass pigeons deprived of their senses, rats infected with cancer, dogs with limbs amputated—just a few of the 131,994 subjects experimented on for a host of purposes, most of which Adams finds ridiculous. For example, hairspray is systematically shot in the eyes of rabbits to observe the severity of damage it does to their corneas; hundreds of animals are subjected to overcrowding and rough handling to see if that affects the creatures’ death rates (a “remarkable” research question); drugs are dispensed to destroy pain, to induce disease, to transform the personality, and to force the animals to hallucinate, ovulate, and gestate.

All these experiments are done in the name of science. But the point is that the scientists seem more concerned with the question “How much knowledge can I discover?” than with “How much knowledge am I justified in seeking?” And in many of the experiments, especially those done for commercial companies, Adams charges that there is little justification for the scientists’ actions. More important, the result of such useless experimentation is that medical research is hampered by delays. Crucial to Adams’ argument, too, is that scientists have become detached, inured to the fact that they are experimenting with creatures that can feel pain and thus suffer intolerably. Thematically, as communicated in Snitter’s mythical tale of the Dog Star and in Major Awdry’s and Sir Peter Scott’s comments, Adams is stating that man is but one of a number of species inhabiting the planet and that he has the duty to manage the natural world reasonably, with purpose. Furthermore, all of nature’s creatures must be treated with dignity. To communicate his theme, Adams anthropomorphizes his animals, giving them the power of human speech and the turbulence of highly strung temperaments. In this way, the reader may readily identify with them and become sensitive to their plight. Adams’ ability to create a willing suspension of disbelief is so great that one does not even question a dog’s talking.

It is primarily Adams’ descriptive power and his manipulation of point of view that compel identification on the part of the reader. Even before Snitter’s first words, the reader has seen Rowf almost drowned by men who are worried about graphs and silt, but oblivious to the feelings of the creature at the bottom of the tank—although they are overly concerned about their own minor muscle strains and head colds. Reader identification increases as the dogs escape the laboratory complex and head for the country.

On Walna Scar, Dow Crag, and the Coniston Fells; in the mineshaft at Seathwaite; in henhouses and behind boulders and on flinty soil, the reader runs with the dogs, sensitive to the sound of the leather footfall of a sheep tender or the muffled bleat of a fat yew through the mist of the Lakeland. Since Snitty’s dream of finding a good man to be their master is hopeless, and since Rowf’s contention—that they should give in to man because it is a dog’s duty to serve regardless of the treatment he receives—is suicidal, the dogs invoke the old wild life from the primeval memory within them, asking for the power to change into killers, to lose their separate identities, to become one with the elemental forces, “innocent of mercy to any other creature, cunning and ruthless, living only to hunger, to smell out and pursue and devour.” And, for a time, Rowf and Snitter seem capable of this role. With the help of the tod, they forage and pillage what they can to survive, while suffering greatly. It becomes apparent, after the tod’s death and the accidental deaths of two men, that the dogs cannot last long, however, for the alarm has been sounded throughout the country. What occurs during the rest of their quest is a mad rush away from the hunters, toward the sea and imminent destruction.

As the story of Rowf and Snitter is being played out, Adams interweaves several subplots, breaking up the major story line but also reinforcing it with each addition. First, there is the story of Stephen Powell, Boycott’s harried assistant. At first somewhat coldly analytical like his supervisor, Powell softens as the work progresses. Beginning with the evening that Rowf and Snitter escape from their cages, Powell has been monitoring a social deprivation experiment using a monkey as a subject; the dogs’ story is then periodically interrupted with hints of Powell’s becoming more and more uncomfortable with his job because of the nature of the work and Boycott’s treatment of him, and more and more empathetic with the monkey locked in the cylinder. Finally, when Powell is fired at the end of the work, he takes the monkey out of isolation and home with him; he feels that his dignity has been restored and that he would like to pass that on to a fellow creature.

Other subplots deal with Digby Driver’s rather brutal investigation of the dog’s rampage and his incendiary articles, Boycott’s unsuccessful attempts to evade responsibility for the dogs’ escape, and political innuendo and outright attack over the issue in Parliament. In all of these, Adams is asking the reader to see what human beings are doing to their own kind; how we take a beating every day from one another, cutting human ties to survive in our civilized world of bureaucracy and commercialism. Surface impressions have become more important than openness and sincerity. In ironical contrast, the dogs consistently sacrifice themselves for each other.

These subplots are more than mere vehicles for satiric attack, however. Skillfully spliced into the dog narrative, they add variety and prevent the journey of Rowf and Snitter from becoming too laborious and repetitive. They also serve to show the varying reactions of man both to the dogs’ actions and to their own struggles, and, lastly, increase the suspense. What could have led to fragmentation has been handled very effectively by Adams, the whole work possessing remarkable unity.

Intense, vibrant, and touching, The Plague Dogs goes beyond Watership Down in several respects. The same moving adventure story and rather glorious ending are there; the quality of the prose—lyrical, playful at times, but powerful—seems the same; there is similar success in creating an animal mythology and unique animal perceptions of the human world. But here Adams expands his vision to the relationship between man and animal, co-inhabitants of this world, and, if he is to be believed, similar victims of barbarism.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

Atlantic. CCXLI, April, 1978, p. 126.

Christian Science Monitor. March 21, 1978, p. 30.

New Statesman. XCIV, September 23, 1977, p. 418.

New York Times Book Review. March 12, 1978, p. 10.

Newsweek. XCI, March 13, 1978, p. 86.

Times Literary Supplement. September 30, 1977, p. 1096.

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