Chapters 1-5 Summary
Justin Torres’s novella We the Animals reads more like a somewhat loose connection of stories rather than a novel per se. Each vignette is a glimpse into the world of the narrator, his Puerto Rican father, his white mother, and his two brothers.
We Wanted More
The opening story, “We Wanted More,” immediately connects to the animal theme of the work as a whole. All three of the boys could either be humans or wolves. The unnamed narrator describes their insatiable hunger for everything. The boys want more, more, and more: more food, more growth, more noise, more warmth. The brothers curl up together like a pack of dogs, seeking more of one another’s body heat.
Their authoritarian father, like an alpha wolf, checks their rambunctiousness by disciplining them physically. The boys/pups seem to understand there is something their father necessarily has to teach them, something “beyond the pain.”
Whereas the father comes storming into the scene, scattering the frightened pups, the mother is presented as worn out, tired, and unable to channel her love or properly connect to the harsh, demanding worlds of her children and her husband.
A scene of boyish mayhem opens this chapter. Imitating the prop comedian Gallagher (though he is never named), the three brothers are gathered in their kitchen, wearing raincoats, and taking turns smashing tomatoes and bottles of lotion with a rubber mallet. The tomatoes and lotion spray all over the boys and all over the kitchen.
The reason the boys are left to their own devices soon becomes clear. Their mother works the night shift at a brewery and never gets a proper amount of sleep. She awakens disoriented and disheveled. She does not make much sense, but the boys have learned to just let her think and say as she pleases when she is out of touch. They learn to live “in dreamtime.”
In this particular dreamtime, the mother is just conscious enough to be startled by the mess of tomatoes and lotion covering her children from head to foot. Their appearance reminds her of their births and the fluids that covered them when they “slid out.”
Ma shocks them all when she asks the boys to “do it to me.” She begs them to “make me born.” The boys agree, but underneath their complicity, they all feel helpless to make her life better and squirm under the neediness of her love.
The narrator’s awe for and separation from his father, and the father from his sons, is the focus of “Heritage.” The scene opens in the kitchen, where Paps is cooking and listening to music and “feeling fine,” which feeling has been induced by numerous beers. The boys stack his empty cans in the kitchen. Paps encourages the boys to dance with him to the beat of the music of his homeland, Puerto Rico. The boys try to follow him “like baby geese” and “wiggle around the kitchen.”
Try as they might, the boys cannot seem to embrace the music and move their bodies in the way Paps wants them to. He gets irritated and calls them “mutts.” “You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican,” he charges, as if this was some sort of moral failing of his offspring. He wants his sons to love what he loves; perhaps he thinks that despite their “muttness” they can learn as he did. He recalls how “his own Paps...beat him and taught him to dance.”
“Seven” begins in brutality. Paps brings Ma home with her face swollen and purple from bruises. Paps claims the dentist punched her after she had been knocked out to “loosen up the teeth,” but one suspects Paps is responsible for the injuries.
The boys are fearful and want to be near their mother. When they are finally allowed into her room, they wind themselves in her curtains. They look like monks, she...
(The entire section is 1,007 words.)