Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703

A principal theme in this story, as in several José Donoso novels, is the complicated relationship between order and chaos, between rationality and irrationality. Before the appearance of the mongrel bitch, the narrator’s household was a perfectly ordered world in which nothing was left to chance, with no room for anything new or unexpected. At several points in the story, the witness-narrator compares his childhood home to a closed book. This comparison highlights the closure and confinement that characterize his family’s life.

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Once the mongrel bitch appeared, however, that “world of security” that Aunt Matilde and her brothers had so carefully constructed began to fall apart. Coming from the streets, the dog represents a worldliness that began to crack open the “closed book” of the house. The dog brought into the house the element of chance—she was a foreign body, an agent of worldliness that shattered the sanitized peace and security of the family. One evening, when the dog urinated on the floor of the room in which Matilde and her brothers gathered after dinner to play billiards, the three brothers got upset and retreated to their bedrooms. Although nobody said anything about the incident, it was clear that the family’s life was no longer what it had been.

In order to dramatize the destruction of the household’s order, the author insinuates parallels between events in this story and the biblical story of the Fall. For example, the narrator compares his childhood house not only to a closed book but also to a “heaven,” an artificial paradise shut off from the dangers of the outside world—a world that he knew only through the lights and foghorns of ships in the nearby harbor. Then, much as the serpent entered Eden and seduced Eve, the dog strayed into the house and won Matilde’s affection, changing the family’s life beyond repair.

The reader may well wonder, however, whether what happens in the story constitutes a fall or a redemption, as the dog’s intrusion into Matilde’s life also had salutary consequences. Although the rigid routines of the household kept everything in order, they also stifled feelings. As the narrator remarks about the older members of his family: “With them, love existed confined inside each individual, never breaking its boundaries to express itself and bring them together. For them to show affection was to discharge their duties to each other perfectly, and above all not to inconvenience, never to inconvenience.” The other side of order, the author seems to say, is sterility. If the house is a paradise, it is also a stifling, airless one, into which the vitality of the real world cannot penetrate.

When Matilde undertook to nurse the dog back to health, she broke the house rules—choosing an elective pastime over duty, thereby inconveniencing her brothers—but she was also getting in touch with a side of her that had not expressed itself before. In caring for the dog, she displayed a warmth and tenderness that she had never shown in her dealings with members of her own family. Paradoxically, the mongrel bitch brought out Matilde’s humanity in a way that her brothers and nephew never did. When Matilde abandoned the house, she may have been choosing a more vital, if less tidy, existence. The stray dog thus may not have been Matilde’s temptress but her redeemer.

A related theme of the story is the fragility of excessive order. When people try to impose too rigid an order in their lives, they make themselves more vulnerable to the intrusion of disorder. If the narrator’s house had been less of a closed book, the outside world would not have subverted it so easily. If Matilde had had other outlets for her human feelings, perhaps she would not have become so strongly fixated on the dog. In addition, it is clear that because they always led such sheltered lives, Matilde’s brothers were not prepared to deal with the crisis precipitated by the intrusion of the dog and her subsequent disappearance. Instead of taking effective action, all they did was retreat behind the massive door of their study and discuss what had happened.

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