A Canine-centric Critique of Selected Dog Narratives
Info: 50664 words (203 pages) Dissertation
Published: 16th Dec 2019
A CANINE-CENTRIC CRITIQUE OF SELECTED DOG NARRATIVES
Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Problem of Language …………………………………………………………………….. 10
Chapter Two: Dogs as Objects or Subjects-of-a-Life …………………………………………………….. 48
Chapter Three: The Canine Companion as a Dual Device …………………………………………….. 81
Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 118
Works Cited………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 125
In this thesis I perform a canine-centric reading, within the theoretical frame of Critical Animal Studies, of nine ‘dog narratives’ from the last three decades – that is, novels in which dogs and human-canine relationships are central to the story. While the novels differ from each other in numerous and substantial ways, they share a common trait: a conduciveness to the examination of tensions, paradoxes and contradictions inherent to the human-canine bond as it exists in Western culture. Each chapter centres on a key motif present in various groupings of four of the selected novels: human and canine interspecies communication; the socio-cultural categorisation of dogs; and the dual role of the domesticated dog as a device in life and literature. Just as Western cultural attitudes, overt and implicit, arise in these dog narratives in turn, these dog narratives provide valuable insight into our contradictory perceptions and subsequent treatment of dogs bred to serve as companions. Dog narratives present us with an opportunity to examine and critique some of the assumptions made about dogs – assumptions that result in their paradoxical status in Western culture. While some dog narratives reinforce the belief that human language privileges the human species, others undermine this claim by privileging canine forms of language and through depicting human language as problematic or as overrated as a means of communication. Authors of dog narratives utilise conflict stemming from opposing views of dogs’ subject/object categorisation in Western culture to challenge the deleterious object status of dogs. Most, if not all, dogs depicted in dog narratives are devices to facilitate the conveyance of stories primarily concerned with human experiences; nevertheless, authors of dog narratives can and do find efficient ways to challenge and question reductive representations of dogs. By utilising techniques such as point of view, characterisation and the itinerancy trope, and by creatively and effectively imagining their way into the canine mind, many authors of dog narratives bestow a canine identity upon the dogs they depict, which challenges our ability to view and treat dogs with detached objectivity and, in doing so, they offer more positive representations of the literary canine companion.
Genetic evidence suggests Canis familiaris (the domesticated dog) became distinct from
Canis lupus (wolves) as early as 500,000 BC, while archaeological evidence of dogs living
alongside humans dates back to 12,000 BC (McHugh 200). Hence, dogs have lived alongside
humans for (at the very least) fourteen thousand years, and consequently they feature
prolifically in Western cultural narratives such as visual art, books and film. As Susan
McHugh observes, “Dogs seem unthinkable outside the context of human culture and, what is
more, culture as we know it has been inseparable from their presence” (19-20). From
Homer’s early depiction of Odysseus’ loyal and faithful canine companion Argos in The
Odyssey (800 B.C.E.) through to Eric Knight’s classic novel Lassie Come-Home (1938), and
the abundance of fictional narratives focussing on canine characters that have emerged in the
early twenty-first century, authors have utilised the character and charisma of domesticated
dogs to embellish stories about human beings. They are, as Erica Fudge writes, “the most
storied of all pet animals” (10).
Novels that feature one dog or incorporate a few dogs as central characters could be
said to belong a sub-genre of fiction that Laura Brown calls the “Dog Narrative” (113). There
are many famous dog narratives, such as Jack London’s 1903 The Call of the Wild, which is a
story about a sled dog named Buck; Richard Adams’ 2006 The Plague Dogs, the tale of two
escaped ‘laboratory dogs’, and Jon Katz’s 2011 Rose in a Storm: A Novel, which is about the
tribulations of a loyal working farm dog. These works share a number of key traits; primarily,
a canine character is central to the narrative and, secondly, the dogs are depicted as having a
‘role’: as sled dog, lab animal and herder, respectively. Of course, one other role that the
majority of dogs in a Western cultural context perform in life (and literature) is that of the
‘pet’. The term ‘pet’, while still widely used, is considered by some to be “demeaning”
(Herzog 74) and typically associated with a period in which dogs were kept as ‘playthings’,
‘lapdogs’, and status symbols; since the late twentieth century, therefore, the term
‘companion animal’ has become more popular in certain discourses as it is thought to
represent the human-canine relationship in a less trivial, more egalitarian manner (Irvine 57-
In addition to the roles dogs perform literally and in literature, they often fulfil a more
practical purpose in novels. Authors of dog narratives often utilise canine characters to
examine some aspect of human experience: that is, dogs are useful as devices to explore or
provide insight into human lives. The usefulness of the canine character as a literary device
can be observed in Fred Gipson’s 1956 illustrated novel Old Yeller. In the story, young
Travis Coates learns about judgement and acceptance, loving others, loss and sacrifice as a
direct result of a stray dog entering his life. Another example is Stephen King’s 1981 novel
Cujo, in which a rabid St Bernard becomes the metaphoric vehicle for delivering a dire
warning about the consequences of marital infidelity (Williams; Scholtmeijer). A more recent
example is found in Michelle de Kretser’s 2007 novel The Lost Dog in which character Tom
Loxley struggles to deal with his mother’s aging and his lack of human connection through
the lens of searching for his lost dog. In each of these novels, the canine character – Old
Yeller, Cujo and Tom Loxley’s dog, whose name is not revealed in the novel – acts as a
device. These dogs are supplementary to the human protagonist and his or her journey.
While Western dog narratives more often than not focus on the human experience in
favour of exploring the experiences of being a dog, they also, inevitably, provide insight into
how humans relate to dogs. Over the last few decades, a growing body of scholars, including
many from within the academic field of Critical Animal Studies, have critiqued
representations of nonhuman animals in fiction to gain insight into how these depictions
reflect societal attitudes about nonhuman animals, and to ascertain what literary depictions of
animals might reveal about the animals themselves. Sociologist Nik Taylor explains that
those who choose a Critical Animal Studies theoretical approach to examining animal
depictions in literature seek to go beyond the use of animals “simply as analytical tools”, and
she argues that there is a way to read these texts so that “embodied animals [remain] at the
forefront” of the analysis (158). Marion Copeland explains that the task of animal-centric
criticism is to “examine works of literature from the point of view of how animals are treated
therein, looking to reconstruct the standpoint of the animals in question” (359). The nine
primary novels selected for analysis in this thesis will be examined by adopting a Critical
Animal Studies theoretical perspective because this will enable a canine-centric critique,
meaning that the canine characters will always remain at the forefront of the analysis.
Reading the novels in this way exposes some of the explicit and implicit assumptions that
humans make about dogs and reveals the many paradoxes associated with Western society’s
treatment of the ubiquitous canine companion.
The novels featured in this thesis are Dean Koontz’s Watchers (1987); Jack
Ketchum’s Red (1995); Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (1999); Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of
Babel (2003); Dan Rhodes’ Timoleon Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental Journey (2003);
Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome (2006); Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain
(2008); Nancy Kress’ Dogs (2008) and David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
(2008). Each of the three chapters deals with four of the nine novels in various combinations,
and each chapter centres on a key motif: ‘The Problem of Language’, ‘Dogs as Objects or
Subjects-of-a-Life’ and ‘The Canine Companion as a Dual Device’. By adopting a canine-
centric perspective – to the extent that is humanly possible – my critique of these dog
narratives provides insight into the paradoxical ways dogs are positioned and perceived in
The relationship between the lives of dogs in Western societies and Western literary
depictions of dogs is an important one. As Philip Armstrong points out, “Literary texts testify
to the shared emotions, moods and thoughts of people in specific historical moments and
places, as they are influenced by – and as they influence – the surrounding socio-cultural
forces and systems” (What Animals Mean 4). Just as societal attitudes common to a certain
time period arise in literature, literature can in turn influence the thoughts and moods of a
particular population at a specific period in time. One might expect, therefore, the ways in
which dogs are regarded in various Western societies at various points in history to be
identifiable in examples of fiction from those contexts, and accordingly, the ways in which
dogs are represented in fiction should in many ways reflect how they are perceived and
treated in the societal milieu relevant to those fictions.
Adopting an animal-centric perspective can be fraught for the novelist as well as the
critic because the nonhuman mind cannot ever truly be known by a human. Yet, Margo
DeMello states that “what is important about literary representations of animal minds isn’t
whether or not they’re accurate; it’s what they reveal about how humans think about animals,
and what the consequences of that thinking is” (10). In her statement, DeMello places
emphasis on the ways in which literary depictions can reflect, perpetuate and challenge ideas
about nonhuman animals and the consequences of the ideas generated. Accordingly, this
thesis is concerned with what depictions of dogs in Western dog narratives can reveal about
humanity’s perceptions of dogs and explains how this relates to the consequent treatment of
humankind’s so-called ‘best friend’.
Chapter One begins with a brief overview of how humans have come to view
themselves as superior to other animals through a combination of Western theological,
philosophical and scientific beliefs. I critique four novels to explore how the perceived ‘lack’
of language is used to disenfranchise dogs. I argue that while some novels reinforce the belief
that human language privileges the human species, some dog narratives undermine this claim
by valorising canine forms of language and through depicting human language as overrated
as a means of communication. The outcome of these polarised viewpoints can mean the
difference between dogs’ being appreciated for their uniqueness or their being devalued when
the perceived lack is used as justification.
In Chapter Two I investigate four novels that reflect either socio-cultural anxieties
relating to the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence, the relationship between
animal cruelty and hunting practices, biological engineering and domestic dog attacks. As a
result of these authors’ exploration of such anxieties, tension over whether domesticated dogs
should be categorised as property or persons arises. Conflict stems from dogs’ legal
classification as property or objects on one hand, and their positioning as cherished, valued
members of human families on the other hand. Authors of dog narratives can utilise this
conflict to raise questions about dogs’ place in Western culture and problematise the object
status of dogs.
In Chapter Three, I analyse depictions of the literary canine companion and his or her
role as a dual device. Dogs often function as narrative tools to assist with the telling of a
human story. Furthermore, dogs in dog narratives are often depicted as providing
companionship to a socially isolated human being, making the canine character a surrogate.
A canine-centric reading can identify instances where a dog serves as a device and determine
when such depictions constitute mere instrumentalisation; however, many authors of dog
narratives resist reductive instrumentalisation of canine characters by extending subjectivity
to canine protagonists. While arguably most, if not all, dogs in novels are devices in some
capacity, employed to help convey stories more concerned with human experiences, authors
can and do find ways to subvert reductive representations of the literary canine companion.
In reference to her cultural exploration of the human-canine bond (published as Dog
Love) Marjorie Garber states that she seeks to answer the question: “What does the [literary]
emphasis on animals tell us about people” (“Reflection” 74 original emphasis). While this is
an important and engaging question, my aim is the converse; that is, I wish to explore the
following questions: What does the literary emphasis on animals tell us about animals and, in
addition, what does the literary emphasis on animals tell us about people’s perceptions and
treatment of animals, or more specifically, dogs.
The Problem of Language
The domesticated dog is an apt species to examine in literary representations because it is a
species that humans simultaneously accept and reject; dogs are familiar, and yet unfamiliar to
us. Dogs, writes Karla Armbruster, “are seen as existing on the boundary between nature and
culture – and of all the domestic animals, they are most often seen as the closest to human
beings and culture” (353). They adapt well to living with humans and are easily
anthropomorphised because they display behaviours and express emotions associated with
humanness, such as joy, sadness, affection and love. They are the animals “considered to be
most humanlike” in Western culture (Taylor 66). Nevertheless, as nonhumans, they remain
‘other’ and despite their privileged status, dogs remain subjugated along with all other
nonhuman animal species. One of the main factors in this subjugation is language: in
particular, the claim that since dogs cannot speak, they are therefore deficient in comparison
In discussing dominant anthropocentric attitudes, cultural theorist John Berger states
that despite the usefulness of the various domesticated animal species, it is the animal’s “lack
of common language, its silence [that] guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion,
from and of man” (4). Certainly, there are many justifications put forward for the
disenfranchisement of nonhuman animals in Western culture but reasons related to language
are one of the most common. Yet not everyone agrees. Stanley Coren, psychologist and
author of How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication (2000) is one
of many scholars who reject the proposition that human language is essential for human-
canine interspecies communication; rather than devalue dogs for their inability to form words
he places the onus on humans to learn the language of dogs (11). Coren believes that dogs
have a unique vocabulary in addition to being able to participate in some aspects of human
language; he believes effective interspecies communication is possible if humans can meet
dogs halfway. If Coren is correct, then only by doing so will we realise, as Orhan Pamuk
writes, that “[d]ogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen” (11).
In this chapter, I focus on Dean Koontz’s Watchers (1987); Garth Stein’s The Art of
Racing in the Rain (2008); Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel (2003) and David
Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008) to illustrate how these dog narratives
approach the topic of language and its effect on interspecies communication. I argue that
Koontz reinforces notions of human exceptionalism by privileging human language and
undervaluing dogs’ unique mode of speech and communication, and by implying that
‘ordinary’ dogs are dumb. Stein, on the other hand, effectively imagines his way into the
canine mind and his canine protagonist’s point of view often disrupts and challenges
complacency about human superiority; however, his narrative also ultimately reinforces
anthropocentric assumptions. Critique of the novels by Parkhurst and Wroblewski shows how
authors of dog narratives can effectively challenge the assumption that dogs are deficient
communicators simply because they lack the capacity for human speech.
The term ‘language’ typically refers to the spoken and written forms of
communication used by human beings to communicate amongst ourselves. Humans also use
non-verbal forms of communication such as gestures to communicate but our physiology and
brain capacity means that we tend to claim the status as the only animal to use language. In
the nineteenth century, American author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe argued (in an
article she entitled “The Rights of Dumb Animals” published in an 1869 edition of the
magazine Our Dumb Animals) that because nonhuman animals could not speak or write and
had no hope of being taught these skills, they were not part of the linguistic community
However, her position drew criticism from an anonymous reader who
rejected Stowe’s claim that nonhuman animals were dumb. The reader asks, “Is there no
language but that made up of vowels and consonants, and uttered by vocal organs?” (Pearson
92). The fact that the standard definition of language is so narrow and excludes nonverbal and
non-written forms of communication – and in the process excludes all animals except for
humans from the pool of language users – is as problematic for me as it was for Stowe’s
anonymous reader over a century ago. Nonhuman animals, or more specifically dogs, do
participate in communication involving human language, evident in their ability to respond to
verbal commands. In addition, they use barks, whines and growls along with tail, ear and eye
signals that constitute a species-specific “system of communication” of their own (Fudge 52-
3). Accordingly, unless prefaced with the word ‘human’, the term ‘language’ in this chapter
refers to non-species-specific forms of communication: spoken, written and nonverbal alike.
Dean Koontz’s novel Watchers reproduces many prejudices that modern Western
culture harbours towards ‘ordinary’ nonhuman animals because they cannot produce human
language. The story follows Travis Cornell, a 36 year old ex-Delta Force member who
encounters ‘33-9’– a dog so named because of an identification tattooed in his ear. The dog is
considered to be more intelligent than the ‘average’ dog because, while he does not speak
words, he has been genetically engineered to produce human language. When Travis finds
the retriever in the forest he is unaware that the dog has escaped from Banodyne Laboratories
where he is the focus of the Francis Project, named after Saint Francis of Assisi who
according to some traditions was able to speak to, and be understood by, nonhuman animals.
By contrast, toward the end of the nineteenth century, H. G Wells, author of The Island of Doctor Moreau
(1896), certainly believed that, as reflected in simian language acquisition research, humans were not the only
animal species to communicate using language (McLean 43).
The Project is explained in the novel as aiming to make “human-animal communication
possible” (Koontz 278). Koontz writes:
The idea was to apply the very latest knowledge in genetic engineering to the creation
of animals with a much higher order of intelligence, animals capable of nearly
human-level of thought, animals with whom we might be able to communicate. (278)
Key assumptions about nonhuman animals, language and communication are revealed
through the project’s aim. There is no indication that these attitudes are being presented at all
ironically; instead, Koontz unproblematically stereotypes ‘ordinary’ dogs as being ‘dumb’ by
comparing them to Einstein and by implying that humans do not already communicate with
‘ordinary’ dogs. Through privileging the genetically engineered dog, Koontz diminishes the
capacities of ‘average’ dogs to participate successfully in communication with human beings
and casts them as being something more like Descartes’ sixteenth century ‘automata’.
Sometimes regarded as the “father of modern philosophy” (Bracken 1), philosopher
and mathematician René Descartes was, and in many ways remains, a powerful figure in
Western culture. Descartes’ work relating to rationalism, which valorises the human mind as
the source of all knowledge, his views on the soul, and his concept of the mind-body dualism,
have been widely influential. While the traditional concept of the mind/body split predates
Descartes, he reinforced it by describing it in terms of rationalism (Taylor 142). In regards to
the impact that Cartesian doctrines have had on nonhuman animals, it is arguably Descartes’
automata theory, which casts nonhuman animals as ‘simple machines’ incapable of rational
thought that has had long-lasting and detrimental impact. This, coupled with his affirmation
of the Christian belief that souls are specific to humans and thus denied to nonhuman
animals, made Descartes an authority on the ways Western society perceives, values and
treats nonhuman animals.
Before and after Descartes’ era, the opinion that nonhuman animals are ‘dumb’
because they cannot speak or write words, and links between speechlessness and stupidity,
were common. One way in which this prejudice manifests relates to the hearing impaired. In
“Speaking Bodies, Speaking Minds: Animals, Language and History”, Susan Pearson states:
“[T]he deaf were the original ‘dumb’ creatures” (100) – that is, at least until the early
nineteenth-century when debates between deaf educators saw factions divided between those
called oralists, who privileged verbal language, and those called manualists, who promoted
sign language as the superior method for teaching the deaf to communicate (101). In many
ways, the debates between those who privilege the spoken word and those who privilege
gesture as means to communicate are relevant to the conceptualisation of the human-
nonhuman animal divide. This is because the associations of spoken and gestural forms of
language are also linked with ideas about nature and culture.
Debates over whether spoken or gestural forms of communication are superior are
well-established and ongoing. The belief that gestures as a form of expression are inferior or
less sophisticated than spoken or written language has largely to do with the assumed
connection between the former with nature, and the latter with culture. In discussing
American attitudes in the nineteenth-century, Pearson explains:
[T]he difference between expression and language was the difference between the
natural and the conventional. Expression was natural and corporeal – it was the facial
expressions, the gestures, the grunts, and the groans the body gives forth. Language,
on the other hand, was conventional and came not from nature or the body, but from
the mind and human culture. (93)
Hence, the association of human language with culture also led to a belief that nonverbal
forms of communications were more primitive or less sophisticated. This paradox between
nature and culture is another example of the ways authors reinforce the anthropocentrically
driven concept of the mind/body split.
Issues relating to gesture and spoken forms of communication can be observed at play
in Koontz’s novel. In the beginning, when the human and canine protagonists first meet,
Travis is unaware of the retriever’s ability to produce human language. The dog cannot
generate spoken works using his voice box but he can read and spell human words.
Additionally, whereas real dogs have an impressive but limited vocabulary of words that they
can understand, 33-9 understands almost every word that is spoken to him and fully
comprehends their meaning in the context. However, until the dog can access props that
enable him to spell out words, his presentation is that of a common domesticated dog. When
33-9 appears in the clearing, he is, unbeknown to Travis, being hunted by another escaped
trans-genetic animal Koontz calls ‘The Outsider’. Travis logically assumes that the scruffy
anxious dog he finds in the forest is therefore an ‘average’, ‘ordinary’ dog.
Since no props are available for the dog to use to communicate using words, Travis,
like the readers, are initially unaware of the dog’s extraordinary linguistic abilities. Therefore,
along with Travis, they must attempt to interpret the dog’s gestures, vocalisations and general
behaviour to determine his character and intention. The conversation begins with Travis
asking the dog a series of rhetorical questions. “‘Surely you’re not a wild dog – are you,
boy?’ The retriever chuffed…‘Not lost, are you?’ It nuzzled his hand” … ‘Looks like you’ve
had a difficult journey, boy.’ The dog whined softly, as if agreeing with what Travis has said”
(Koontz 8). Even though the dog’s vocalisations and gestures occur immediately after each
question or comment, Travis overlooks the chuff, hand nudge and whine, presuming them to
As Travis continues to misinterpret the dog’s attempts to communicate using gestures
and vocalisations the dog grows increasingly anxious. However, before leaving the clearing,
the dog decides to warn Travis that he is in imminent danger. Koontz writes:
‘On your way now.’
[Travis]…gave the retriever a light slap on its side, rose, and stretched. The dog
remained in front of him. He stepped past it,
heading for the narrow path that
descended into darkness. The dog bolted around him and blocked the deer trail.
‘Move along, boy.’
The retriever bared its teeth and growled low in its throat. (8)
The retriever continues to block Travis’ attempts to exit the clearing down the same path in
which the threat approaches, by biting, growling, snapping and lunging. Travis is confused by
the dog’s behaviour, which alternates between seemingly friendly and aggressive. When the
dog reverts from acting aggressively “to a friendly mood”, and licks Travis’ hand, he calls the
dog “schizophrenic” (11). This is clearly a reference to the reductive stereotype of those
diagnosed as schizophrenics who are perceived to oscillate between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’
behaviours making them seem irrational and erratic, passive some of the time and
unpredictable and dangerous at other times. When Travis pauses to analyse the dog’s
behaviour, he finally recognises there is intention. Koontz writes:
The dog returned to the other end of the clearing. It stood with its back to him, staring
down the deer trail…The muscles in its back and haunches were visibly tensed as if it
were preparing to move fast.
‘What are you looking at?’
It is important to note Koontz’s use of the word ‘it’ in place of ‘the dog’ or ‘him’. Not using the pronoun to
describe nonhuman animals is objectifying and also serves to reinforce the human-animal divide.
Travis was suddenly aware that the dog was not fascinated by the trail itself but,
perhaps, by something on the trail. (11)
Once Travis heeds 33-9’s gestures and vocalisations he is able to extract the meaning of the
dog’s behaviour. Fortunately, despite the earlier dismissal of the dog’s behaviour as bizarre,
erratic and meaningless, 33-9 is able to utilise vocalisations and gestures to provide Travis
with enough forewarning to save his life.
Travis’ suspicion that the dog is different is expressed through a comparison between
33-9 and ‘ordinary’ dogs and the comparison entails the assumption that dogs are typically
dumb. The first example of this occurs in the car, after the pair escapes from The Outsider
and Travis decides to take the retriever home with him. During the car ride, Travis speculates
about the dog’s origin. He senses something unusual about the animal. There is a certain look
in the dog’s eyes: “they seemed somehow more expressive than a dog’s eyes usually were,
more intelligent and aware” (Koontz 26). When Travis mentions the location of a peanut bar
in the car, the dog promptly opens the glove compartment to remove it with his teeth. Travis
takes this as evidence of extraordinary canine intelligence but in reality, of course, this is well
within the capability of actual dogs. Their powerful sense of smell sees them used in
numerous human service roles such as detecting cadavers, illegal drugs, unexploded
landmines and biological hazards for customs and quarantine. Indeed, dogs’ incredible
olfactory capacities enable them to detect cancer in the human body (Willis et al). In
communication between dogs, the canine capacity for scent is crucial (Coren 184-5). Hence,
any animal belonging to a species that can detect cadavers, illegal drugs, unexploded
landmines, biological hazards and even cancer by scent would not have to be told there is a
candy bar in the glove box right in front of his nose.
Travis’ suspicion that the retriever is ‘special’ continues once he reaches home and
his assumption that dogs are ordinarily dumb persists. After announcing his intention to bath
the dog, Travis observes: “The retriever turned towards him and cocked its head and
appeared to listen when he spoke. But it did not look like one of those smart dogs in the
movies. It did not look as if it understood him. It just looked dumb” (Koontz 52). Then,
when Travis briefly exits the room and returns to discover the dog has turned the water faucet
on, he is, in this case justifiably, astonished (52). The sequence of events that leads Travis to
consider 33-9 more intelligent than other dogs culminates when he announces his intention to
give the dog a name. The retriever sits up attentively, as if in anticipation of his naming.
Travis correctly interprets this response but then reconsiders:
God in heaven…I’m attributing human intentions to him. He’s a mutt, special maybe
but still only a mutt. He may look as if he’s waiting to hear what he’ll be called, but
he sure as hell doesn’t understand English. (56)
In all likelihood, although we cannot know for sure, it is beyond the capacity of dogs to
interpret such a statement, although they are capable of various modes of complex thought.
Nevertheless, this passage does reveal something about the way humans view dogs. Travis
believes he is anthropomorphising 33-9, which means attributing to 33-9 human-specific
behaviours, in this case, the ability to interpret and comprehend the meaning and context of
information presented in words. To attribute the capacity for reason to the dog would, of
course, conflict with Descartes’ rationalism, which erroneously posits the ability to reason as
a human-specific trait. Notably, research shows that many nonhuman animals have the
capacity for reason and are self-aware, including primates (Byrne), parrots (Pepperberg),
chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and magpies (Broom). Nevertheless, Travis’ reluctance to
attribute the capacity for reason to the dog reflects the influence of social discourses that
construct dogs, as well as most other nonhuman animals, as inferior, simple, stupid and
Still unaware of the dog’s ability to produce human language, but impressed by what
he has seen thus far, Travis chooses to name the retriever ‘Einstein’, in reference to the man
often considered to be the greatest intellectual figure in Western history. Einstein goes on to
perform many tasks during his first night at Travis’ house that in reality are called ‘tricks’,
actions that could reasonably be expected of any dog with appropriate motivation or training.
For example, he retrieves beer from the fridge. What transpires to differentiate Einstein from
other dogs, in Travis’ view, is that he seems to be self-aware, or possess consciousness:
another trait long considered as being human-specific. Travis suspects that Einstein is using
deception by pretending to be less intelligent that he actually is. Koontz writes:
Dogs – all animals, in fact – simply did not possess the high degree of self-awareness
required to analyze themselves in comparison to others of their kind. Comparative
analysis was strictly a human quality… To assume this dog was, in fact, aware of such
things was to credit it not only with remarkable intelligence but with a capacity for
reason and logic, and with a facility for rational judgement superior to the instinct that
ruled the decisions of all other animals. (66)
In this passage, Descartes’ famous rationalist proposition is implicitly invoked: “I think
therefore I am” (Descartes 18-19). This dictum, advanced in the same treatise that goes on to
deny ‘mind’ to nonhuman animals, is reflected in Travis’ explanation of nonhuman animal
consciousness because he is envisaging self-reflection and asserting that ‘ordinary’ dogs lack
self-awareness. Thus, it is not so much the ‘tricks’ that Einstein performs that impresses
Travis, but the idea that a nonhuman animal, in this case a domesticated dog, might share
what is thought to be the human-specific capacity for reason and self-reflection.
Travis devotes considerable time to pondering how much an ‘average’ dog does or
does not know, can or cannot comprehend in matters of language and communication. During
the first evening at Travis’ home, he observes that Einstein shows an interest in his bookshelf
and appears to intentionally withdraw selected books from the shelves. Travis, again,
attempts to rationalise Einstein’s behaviour by drawing on what he thinks he knows about
Surely, [the dog] could not understand the synopses [Travis] provided. Yet it seemed
to listen raptly as he spoke. He knew he must be misinterpreting essentially
meaningless animal behaviour, attributing complex intentions to the dog when it had
none. (Koontz 68)
This sequence in Koontz’s novel has the effect of denying real dogs – in contrast to the
literate Einstein – the capacity for complex intentions. Of course, by all reasonable accounts,
understanding the synopses of books is actually beyond the capability (and probably the
interest) of actual dogs. At the same time, what is insinuated in this passage is that nonhuman
animal behaviour must be meaningless if humans cannot understand it. Koontz also reminds
the reader here that books are products of human culture: sophisticated and specialised
medium crafted from human language; thus, if animals cannot produce human spoken
language, then human written language is surely even further beyond their comprehension –
an even more inaccessible territory of the human ‘mind’.
Before discovering Einstein’s scientific role as the “most important experimental
animal in history” (Koontz 354), Travis assumes he has found a regular dog, and therefore a
‘dumb’ dog. Notably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘dumb’ is
defined as “Applied to the lower animals (and, by extension, to inanimate nature) as naturally
incapable of articulate speech” (“dumb”). This explains why it is so often automatically
associated with nonhuman animals as it combines the two meanings of ‘unintelligent’ and
‘incapable of speech’. Indeed the term ‘dumb’ features repeatedly in Koontz’s novel in
reference to ‘average’ dogs. In one passage, Einstein is upset by an image of a demon in a
magazine. Unaware that the image resembles The Outsider, and therefore terrifies Einstein,
Travis cannot fathom why the dog takes the magazine and places it in the bin. Travis’
confusion is apparent when Koontz writes: “Sometimes Einstein exhibited uncanny
intelligence, but sometimes he behaved like an ordinary dog, and these oscillations between
canine genius and dopey mutt were enervating for anyone for anyone trying to understand
how he could be so bright” (265). Suggesting any dog is a just a ‘dopey mutt’ is clearly
reductive, although in this context, the distinction is primarily being made to elevate
Einstein’s supposedly superior intellectual status.
Koontz casts dogs as typically dumb when in order not to be exposed as extraordinary
Einstein must pretend to be like normal dogs, which in Koontz’s novel means unintelligent.
In one final example, Koontz explicitly links dogs with dumbness. Travis suspects that
Einstein fears being recaptured and returned to Banodyne Laboratories where he lived
unhappily in captivity. This leads Travis to form a hypothesis about Einstein’s inconsistent
behaviour. He suggests the dog’s fear of being captured “is why he usually plays at being a
dumb dog in public and reveals his intelligence only in private” (Koontz 304). ‘Playing
dumb’ here involves Einstein concealing his linguistic abilities. In fact, the ability to deceive
is another capacity often presented as evidence of a higher intelligence that distinguishes
humans from other animal species (Searcy and Nowiki). And in reality, dogs routinely
practise deception, particularly during the complex social activity of play (Irvine 152). As a
result of Koontz’s approach, Watchers incorporates and introduces many of the basic
assumptions about animality, humanity and language that novels such as The Art of Racing in
the Rain, The Dogs of Babel and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle explore in much more complex
Eventually, Einstein is able to articulate his thoughts in Koontz’s novel with the
assistance of a spelling device that Travis creates using Scrabble tiles placed in Lucite tubes.
Articulating a dog’s thoughts in fiction can be achieved through various means, one of which
is using the conventions of first-person interior monologue to enable the reader to access the
dog’s thoughts, which are then ordered and expressed in human language. This is the
approach taken by Garth Stein in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The canine protagonist,
Enzo, an elderly mixed-breed, tells his life story on the eve of his euthanasia. Unlike Einstein,
Enzo is a typical dog who does not speak or write in ways that constitute producing human
language, but in the world of the story, his perspective allows for his thoughts and
observations to be known to the reader. What a dog thinks or might say if granted the ability
to use human language cannot ever be known; thus, Stein imagines what he thinks Enzo
might say and assumes how he might feel. Of course, this form of nonhuman animal
representation involving a kind of ‘ventriloquism’ constitutes radical anthropomorphism
(Harel 49), and to this extent it is not an authentic representation of canine reality. However,
as mentioned in my introduction (in accordance with Margo DeMello’s point about reading
narratives from an animal standpoint), it is not accuracy or authenticity that necessarily
matters in regards to analysing animal representations but rather what a novel like Stein’s can
tell us about how humans perceive dogs, and the consequences of these perceptions.
Stein’s story is primarily about a human-canine bond: the interspecies relationship
between a human named Denny Swift and his canine companion. The narrative follows
Enzo’s life with Denny and then Denny’s partner Eve, and their daughter, Zoe. The novel
opens with Enzo, old and incontinent, lying in a pool of urine while lamenting the limitations
he perceives to impede his ability to communicate with humans. He says:
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I
occasionally step over the line…it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly
and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no
words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and
flat and loose. (Stein 1)
Enzo believes his struggle to communicate with humans is owing to his vocabulary being
limited to gestures. He claims that it takes great effort for him to communicate when limited
to gestures because there is a high risk of misunderstandings. In talking of his long, flat loose
tongue, Enzo finds his own condition lacking when it is the case that dogs’ tongues are
perfectly suited for canine needs. Indeed, dogs presumably find their tongues to be extremely
valuable as the unique design enables them to lap water efficiently from bowls and release
heat from their bodies via panting (Coren 70). Dogs also use their tongues to communicate in
complex ways; the withdrawal or exposure of the tongue, and its shape and position in the
mouth, are integral aspects of dogs’ “gesture-based communication systems” providing visual
cues to others regarding mood, such as “information about anger, dominance, aggression,
fear, attention, interest or relaxation” (Coren 84-8). Yet in this passage, Enzo assumes all the
responsibility for interspecies communication breakdown and blames misunderstandings on
his own physical ‘limitations’ and his inability to form words.
Enzo’s sadness and frustration as a result of his inability to speak words lead him to
desire reincarnation as a man. His knowledge of matters relating to interspecies reincarnation
derives from a television documentary he once watched. The documentary film that Enzo
refers to in the novel relates to the 1998 documentary “State of Dogs”, based on a Mongolian
legend, which Stein credits as his inspiration for The Art of Racing in the Rain (Stein “Garth
Stein”). In the film, the spirit of canine protagonist Baasar – who is shot dead by a dog hunter
at the outset – reflects on his life while transitioning from dog to human form via
reincarnation. Baasar’s interactions with humans cause him to view them as untrustworthy
and cruel, therefore undesirable to be; thus, he resists taking the human form. This marks a
crucial point of difference between the desires of Baasar and Enzo. Enzo eagerly anticipates
taking on the human form and proudly declares: “When I return to this world, I will be a man.
I will walk among you. I will lick my lips with my small dextrous tongue. I will shake hands
with other men, grasping firmly with my opposable thumbs. And I will teach people all that I
know” (Stein 312). So while Baasar views reincarnation as a human unpleasant, Enzo views
it as a kind of promotion. He states this explicitly when he lists all the ‘superior’ body parts
he will acquire through his transformation.
Reincarnation, or transmigration as it is sometimes called, is a concept of many
Eastern religions but there is no concept of reincarnation in the ubiquitous Western Judeo-
Christian religion. Within some of the Eastern religious traditions, humans can be
reincarnated on Earth as another species of animal and it is not thought impossible for a
nonhuman animal to return to Earth as a human being. The ascension to a ‘higher’ life form
echoes the teachings of influential Greek philosopher Aristotle. Born in 384 BC, Aristotle
had a substantial impact on Western cultural attitudes regarding the social and moral status of
nonhuman animals. He devised the Scala Naturae, or The Great Chain of Being, which is a
scale that ranks animals and plants according to their apparent intellectual aptitude. On the
scale, human beings are situated at the pinnacle above other mammals, below which in
descending order come birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and so forth, concluding with inanimate
matter at the base. Thus, in contrast to Baasar in “State of Dogs”, Enzo’s desire to end his life
as a dog and reincarnate as a human aligns more with dominant Western anthropocentric
standpoints through the suggestion that there is a system of promotion and demotion at play
in matters of interspecies reincarnation.
Enzo venerates the soul and values his sense of inner-humanness over his canine
exterior. He states, “I’m stuffed into a dog’s body, but that’s just the shell. It’s what’s inside
that’s important. The soul. And my soul is very human” (Stein 3). The soul is a pivotal
feature of Judeo-Christian doctrine – and remained an important feature of Descartes’
philosophy – and is usually understood to be a gift from God that only humans possess. Once
the soul exits the body, it transits to either Heaven or Hell for all eternity.
destination is determined by how an individual lives his or her life: Heaven is a reward and
Hell is a punishment. In Christianity the human soul does not transmigrate because
reincarnation is not a concept adopted by this religion. Reincarnation would not apply to
nonhuman animals anyhow since according to orthodox Christianity, and Descartes, they do
not possess souls.
Christian and Cartesian doctrines support the assumption that nonhuman
animals are physically and spiritually less significant than human beings, which reflects
Enzo’s beliefs about himself in Stein’s novel. Like Descartes, Enzo believes that the soul and
the ability to produce speech is what makes the human animal exceptional (along with the
opposable thumb). Thus the Christian belief in the ‘exclusive’ human soul posited alongside
Cartesian doctrine and echoes of Aristotelian hierarchy all contribute to the idea that it is
better to be a human than a dog: in Stein’s novel, ironically, this anthropocentric assumption
is made even more difficult to dispute because it is a dog himself who declares it.
On the one hand, Enzo’s expressions of inadequacy might lend verisimilitude to his
claim of inferiority; however, his self-deprecation can also be read as structural irony. This is
because Enzo can be considered a naïve and unreliable as a narrator. Consider the opening
However, the Roman Catholic tradition allows for an interim period in Purgatory to do penance for sins.
Although nowadays, an increasing number of non-mainstream theologians and Christians do believe that
nonhuman animals do in fact have souls (Camosy 76).
passage in which Denny arrives home to find Enzo lying in urine and apologises to him for
being delayed and arriving home late. Enzo responds to this by thinking:
I realize that he thinks my accident was because he was late. Oh, no. That’s not how it
was meant. It’s so hard to communicate because there are so many moving parts.
There’s presentation and there’s interpretation and they’re so dependent on each other
it makes things very difficult. I didn’t want him to feel bad about this. (Stein 5)
Enzo’s concern that his inability to speak words will leave Denny feeling guilty about the
indoor urination lacks logic because Denny, and presumably the reader, recognises that
incontinence is involuntary and therefore uncontrollable. The reader knows that there is no
theory under which an aged and incontinent dog locked alone inside a house could reasonably
be expected to make it outdoors to urinate, which is an insight that Enzo lacks but that Denny
and the reader share. The reader, therefore, is encouraged to respond emotionally and
empathetically to Enzo’s desire to do the ‘right’ thing despite being physically incapable.
Another incident that exposes Enzo’s naïveté occurs when Denny’s partner, Eve,
leans down near the dog’s muzzle to place a food bowl on the floor. Enzo explains: “I had
detected a bad odour, like rotting wood, mushrooms, decay. Wet, soggy, decay. It came from
her ears and sinuses. There was something in Eve’s head that didn’t belong” (Stein 36).
Despite having identified Eve’s undiagnosed brain tumour with his remarkable sense of
smell, Enzo feels that his early detection is pointless if he cannot tell of his discovery. In
Enzo’s view, the fact that he cannot tell Eve her life is in danger means, as ‘the family’s
protector’, he has failed. Once again, he laments his perceived physical limitations, saying,
“Given a facile tongue, I could have warned them. I could have alerted them to her condition
long before they discovered it with their machines, their computers and super-vision scopes
that can see inside the human head” (36). Irony once again transpires as a result of Enzo’s
sense of inadequacy because he overlooks the incredible skills he possesses that enables him
to detect the cancer long before humanity’s sophisticated and expensive machines. Readers
are reminded of dogs’ powerful and acute sense of smell, which in reality can and does detect
cancer in the human body.
Stein’s characterisation of Enzo as a naïve narrator continues when the dog is
accidently abandoned. The progression of Eve’s tumour causes her symptoms including
nausea, pain and debilitating headaches and, with Denny away in France, she leaves the
house with her daughter, Zoe, to stay with her parents. Since she forgets to take Enzo, he is
left locked in the house alone for three days during which time he survives by drinking from
the toilet bowl. However, when his hunger becomes unbearable on the second night, he
claims to suffer hallucinations involving a stuffed zebra toy belonging to Zoe. Enzo describes
watching the zebra come to life, abuse and humiliate the other stuffed toys in Zoe’s bedroom,
then, he says, “I could take no more and I moved in, teeth bared for attack…” (Stein 53). But
before he can attack the toy, he claims the zebra rips open its own stitching and pulls the
stuffing out. When Denny returns home the following day, he is initially furious at Eve for
leaving Enzo alone. However, his anger shifts to Enzo with the discovery of the destroyed
toys in Zoe’s bedroom. Enzo explains that Denny, consumed with rage, “reared up and
roared, and with his great hand, he struck me on the side of the head. I toppled over with a
yelp, hunkering as close to the ground as possible. ‘Bad dog!’ he bellowed and he raised his
hand to hit me again” (57). Denny never gets to hear about Enzo’s experience with the
‘depraved zebra’; meanwhile, readers recognise that the zebra story is fabricated to
counteract the shame Enzo feels about his ‘bad’ behaviour. Readers also recognise that Enzo
is a victim here, in the first instance, as a result of being left alone without food, water or
company for three days and secondly because he is then corporally punished for venting his
frustrations in a way many dogs would, and do, in a similar situation. Stein’s use of structural
irony, via the naïve narrator, enables him to deliver insights to the reader by way of using
complex point of view, narrative structure and by complicating ideas about human/animal
distinctions based on assumptions about human uniqueness and language.
Clearly, we are meant to see that it is humans, not dogs, who are limited in their
understanding in Stein’s novel. Stein reflects the social reality whereby dogs who do not
behave in a manner consistent with humans’ expectations are widely pathologised as being
‘bad’, ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘destructive’. Two useful literary examples of this are memoirs
about dogs: John Grogan’s Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog (2005)
and Milk Teeth: A Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog by Robbie Pfeufer Kahn (2008). Like
Stein’s fictional Enzo, whom Denny explicitly calls a bad dog, the central canines in these
non-fiction dog narratives are corporeally punished when normal canine behaviours are
pathologised as being ‘bad’. Unlike Grogan’s ‘perfect’ childhood dog, Shaun, whom he
recalls never stole food, was easily trained, obeyed all commands, returned when called,
never broke or destroyed objects and sat quietly in the car, Marley, a golden Labrador, pulls
on his lead, chews on foreign objects, barges into people, defecates in the ocean, chews door
frames and resists training. He is castrated in order to diminish his energetic disposition, but
to no avail. After John and his wife Jenny begin a family and their second child is born, Jenny
grows intolerant of Marley’s behaviour. With a toddler and a new born to care for Jenny’s
postpartum stress worsens and Marley’s ‘bad’ behaviour becomes a target of her frustration.
John recounts arriving home on one occasion to find Jenny “beating Marley with her
fists…crying uncontrollably and flailing wildly at him, more like she was pounding a
kettledrum than imposing a beating, landing glancing blows on his back and shoulders and
neck” (Grogan 162). Jenny demands that Marley be re-homed but reconsiders after a period
Another rambunctious Labrador features in a journal-style memoir penned by
sociologist Robbie Pfeufer Khan. It is immediately clear that Khan has an idealised
expectation of how her dog Laska should behave and how their relationship together should
be; but Laska seems determined to undermine that expectation at every turn. Laska can do
little right as she eats cat faeces, defecates indoors, misses the newspaper when defecating
indoors, issues bites instead of gentle licks, licks Khan after eating faeces, nips at Khan’s
heels, chews on shoes, jumps up and tears stockings, dislikes sitting still to be petted and
bites and snarls when roughly handled or struck on the head. When Khan seeks ‘professional’
help from Laska’s breeder, she is told that she should stop Laska jumping up using “an
approach based on the old-fashioned style of correction” which, Khan explains, involves
waiting for Laska to jump and then “punch[ing] her on top of the head or kick[ing] her in the
chest with my knee” (126). Khan’s frustration at Laska’s ‘bad’ behaviour and ‘disrespect for
authority’ leads her to conclude that her puppy has a genetic predisposition for disobedience.
Khan’s initial issues with Laska clearly stem from her ignorance of dog behaviour and lack of
understanding that dogs are not human and do not instinctively know what humans expect of
them. In most of Khan’s examples, Laska appears to be using bites and jumping to seek
attention, while chewing interesting objects and eating faeces are typical behaviours for most
dogs. Like the factual experiences of Marley and Laska, recounted by their frustrated, and at
times intolerant and abusive guardians, in Stein’s novel, Enzo is punished by his human
guardian who displays frustration and intolerance at the dog’s behaviour. In Marley and Me,
Milk Teeth and The Art of Racing in the Rain, normal dog behaviour is labelled ‘bad’ and
incites physical violence. From the canine-centric perspective enabled by Stein’s
‘ventriloquism’ of Enzo’s naïve point of view, however, it becomes clear that in each of these
cases, the dogs are not bad but rather these miscommunications stem from humans’
insufficient expertise in interpreting ‘doglish’ – a term used here to refer to the language of
dogs, and lack of insight into the nature and experience of ‘dogdom’, meaning the experience
and condition of being a dog.
While Denny and Enzo’s relationship is at times marred by misunderstandings, for the
most part the two have a strong and untroubled relationship. An example of this can be seen
in the passage when after being struck, Enzo cautiously approaches Denny who apologises
for hitting Enzo. In response, the dog places his head on Denny’s lap and gazes upwards.
Denny says, “Sometimes I think you actually understand me” (Stein 61). This is another
example of structural irony, only on this occasion the naïveté is Denny’s. Enzo and the
readers know that this particular dog indeed understands Denny since Enzo confirms this at
the outset when he says, “I might not be able to form words, but I understand them” (7).
Denny may think that Enzo cannot comprehend him but he still talks to him. When Denny
speaks out loud, Stein has Enzo reply in gestures (or for the reader’s benefit, in thoughts).
The proficiency of this kind of non-verbal interspecies communication is demonstrated in the
passage when Denny helps Enzo up and gently guides the dog until he can stand unassisted.
To this, Enzo says, “To show him [that I can stand], I rub my muzzle against his thigh” (7).
This representation of non-verbal interspecies interaction will resonate with many, if not most
dog ‘owners’, who will have observed similarly subtle gestures being used by dogs as a
means to communicate with the humans in their lives.
Human-canine communication occurs most successfully without words at another
point in Stein’s novel involving an interaction between Enzo and Zoe, who is pre-lingual.
Having destroyed Zoe’s toys, and being smacked for it, Enzo explains the intricacies of his
relationship with the toddler, saying, “she trusted me but was afraid when I made faces at her
that were too expressive and defied what she’d learned from the adult-driven World Order
that denies animals the process of thought” (Stein 58). While he may not know the specifics
of the teachings of the ‘adult-driven World Order’, Enzo is referring to the way in which
Western religion, philosophy and science have combined over many thousands of years to
influence the way in which humans view themselves as intelligent and exceptional, and other
animals as stupid and subsidiary. Enzo knows that humans deny him the capacity to
understand their world and seems aware that children raised in anthropocentric culture are
indoctrinated into believing nonhuman animals are ‘dumb’. This assumption is challenged in
the novel, however, when by way of offering an apology for tearing up her toys, Enzo crawls
forward on his elbows and positions his muzzle aside Zoe’s leg. He explains, “She waited a
long time to give me her answer, but she finally gave it. She placed her hand on my head and
let it rest there…she did touch me, which meant she forgave me for what happened” (58). In
this instance Enzo’s request for forgiveness and Zoe’s answer are unspoken. Human language
is redundant as gestures powerfully and proficiently communicate the characters’ emotions.
This more immediate and mutual communication is, perhaps, only made possible because as
a child, Zoe is not yet fully integrated into the adult-driven World Order of human language.
The complex intimate exchange that takes place between Zoe and Enzo demonstrates
that a dog’s life is not simple or insignificant because of his lack of capacity to produce
spoken words. While Enzo wants to escape from his dog body and inhabit the human form,
he is still depicted as a sensitive social being whose experience of being a dog is in various
ways rich and rewarding. It is significant that after a lifetime of dreaming about reincarnation
as a man, as he lies dying in Denny’s arms it is not the human world that Enzo’s mind
wanders to but the “rolling hills covered with the golden grasses” of his birth town (Stein
315). He suddenly realises that this could be his last chance to embrace the experience of
being a dog, and he asks rhetorically, “Have I squandered my dogness? Have I forsaken my
nature for my desires? Have I made a mistake by anticipating my future and shunning my
present?” (315). However, Enzo’s recognition that being a dog is just as valuable as being a
human being, while pleasing, is short-lived and, as a result, Stein’s novel concludes in a
manner more consistent with dominant anthropocentric Western ideologies. Enzo achieves
his life-long dream of being reincarnated as a human being and of speaking directly with
Denny and in the process his regrets over squandering his dogness are promptly forgotten.
The novel closes many years after Enzo’s death when Denny is introduced to a young speed
car racing fan. When the boy reveals his name is Enzo, Denny is stuck by a sense of
familiarity. The long-running ‘problematic’ language barrier as expressed by Enzo the
narrator throughout the novel is finally overcome as the reader suspects that the human Enzo
is the canine Enzo reincarnated. To this end, the reader is left believing Enzo and Denny are
reunited and, even better, they are able to communicate effortlessly as both are now human.
This idea is further reinforced by the fact that the boy is speaking Italian, which Denny just
happens to understand. This ending ultimately devalues the experience of dogdom and
despite the many ways that Stein challenges anthropocentric assumptions of human
superiority based on language, The Art of Racing in the Rain reinforces in the end the idea
that being a dog is an inferior experience to being a human.
Until he is reincarnated as a human and acquires a human voice, Enzo feels stymied
by his inability to produce human language and thinks that given the appropriate ‘equipment’,
he could break down the perceived communication barrier between himself and the humans
in his life. Reincarnation as a human being is a convenient device for novelists to give a dog
the capacity to breach the species barrier, produce and comprehend human language (Lord
Dunsany’s 1936 novel My Talks with Dean Spanley is one example) but the mechanism for
creating talking dogs in Carolyn Parkhurst’s novel The Dogs of Babel is the spiritual’s arch-
enemy, science. Like the scientists of Banodyne Laboratory in Koontz’s Watchers,
Parkhurst’s protagonist, linguistics professor Paul Iverson, desires to have a dog produce
human language. Paul sets about teaching his Rhodesian ridgeback, Lorelei, to speak using
words after his wife Lexy commits suicide and Lorelei is the only witness. Paul hopes that
Lorelei will provide him her eyewitness testimony. Unlike Koontz, but more consistently
than Stein, Parkhurst challenges notions of human exceptionalism and does not privilege
human language; rather, she portrays human language as being profoundly flawed. In doing
so, she exposes the unreasonable expectations that humans pose on dogs kept as companion
animals in regards to the ways in which they are expected to communicate.
In a manner reminiscent of Enzo’s lament in The Art of Racing in the Rain, in
Parkhurst’s novel, once again the tongue is considered a failure if it cannot produce words.
But here, it is a human tongue at fault. Paul’s problems with language began the moment he
was born: “I became a linguist in part because words have failed me all my life. I was born
tongue-tied in the most literal sense…I was born with a tongue not meant for speaking”
(Parkhurst 38). Fortunately for Paul, his tongue-tie is easily remedied with minor surgery;
however, it is the psychological barriers to communication that go on to cause Paul the most
grief. The first glimpse into his struggles with language comes when he explains his marriage
breakdown with ex-wife, Maura. He recounts, “[Maura] spoke so much while saying so little
that I sometimes felt as if I were drowning in the heavy paste of her words” (21). While
Maura apparently speaks many words of little consequence, he says of himself, “I had to
choose my words carefully, because I knew that any one of them, innocuous though they
seemed to me, might mire me in a nightlong conversation about my motives in uttering them”
(21-2). Their relationship ends when Paul ceases to engage in conversations with Maura and,
as a result, he becomes the recipient of her increasingly hostile notes. It is with an impersonal
note reading, “Fuck you. I’m sick of your fucking notes” that Paul ends the marriage (22).
Written words substitute for spoken words but neither are sufficient to save this union.
Just as Paul’s marriage to Maura is negatively affected by poor communication, so too
is his marriage to Lexy one year later. The primary source of conflict between them involves
having children, as Lexy feels that she is not suited to motherhood. When pressed on the
subject, Lexy responds, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, okay?” (Parkhurst 104).
Lexy’s unwillingness or inability to articulate her aversion to having children leads Paul to
experience confusion, which fuels tension and resentment between them. After Lexy’s death,
Paul is watching television and recognises Lexy’s voice on a pre-recorded call to a Psychic
Helpline hosted by Lady Arabelle. He calls the Helpline hoping Lady Arabelle will recall
speaking with Lexy and might be able to answer some questions and shed some light on her
unexpected death. Even after Paul is told that the woman he is speaking to is not the same
woman that Lexy spoke to (rather she is one of hundreds of psychics who work on the
Helpline) he calls her regularly to talk about Lexy’s death anyway. This demonstrates that for
Paul, any words spoken about Lexy are better than silence, and he indulges in the words
knowing that they are purely conjecture.
While the false words of the psychic bring Paul some solace, it is the eyewitness
testimony of Lorelei that he believes will truly help him solve the mystery of Lexy’s death.
Teaching a dog to speak human words might seem futile to a reader who knows this has
never been done in reality; thus, to lend credibility to the endeavour, Parkhurst has Paul draw
on three instances where dogs have supposedly been taught to talk. The first case is drawn
from the sixteenth-century and involves a story about a dog who was surrogated by a woman
and learnt to speak from her. As the tale goes, the dog was with the woman as she lay dying
and the dog’s final words to her were, “Without your ear, I have no tongue” (Parkhurst 10).
This story lends little credibility to Paul’s research because it seems more like a fable or
myth. It does, however, reinforce the anthropocentric idea that language only matters if it is
heard and understood by humans.
The second example Paul offers to lend credibility to his research involves a
nineteenth-century Hungarian named Vasil, whose experiments on a litter of Hungarian
vizsla puppies involved massaging their throats to produce the capacity for human speech. As
the story goes, Vasil’s experiment resulted in one puppy gaining the ability to speak one word
and another to gain fluency in a dialect that sounded like French. However, the final and most
disturbing precedent to Paul’s research involves a vivisectionist named Wendell Hollis,
whose experiment is outlined in the novel as follows: “Over a period of years, Hollis
performed surgery on more than a hundred dogs, changing the shape of their palates to make
them more conducive to the forming of words” (Parkhurst 12). Hollis’ experiments go further
than merely surgically reconstructing palates. Paul explains that when Hollis’ home
laboratory was uncovered many of the dogs kept there had incurred horrific facial
mutilations. A dog named Dog J was Hollis’ only ‘success’ and subsequently, having being
enabled the capacity to produce words, testified at Hollis’ animal cruelty trial. The dog’s
testimony resulted in Hollis being convicted and sentenced to prison. Hollis’ experiments to
make dogs productive participants in human language were not only deemed cruel, but
backfired on him as in the process of creating a linguistic dog, he provided a witness to attest
to his crime.
Paul believes that Hollis’ experiment to make a dog speak human words is a success.
Indeed, he feels “a sort of kinship” with Hollis, and says, “Whatever the differences in our
methodologies, we are both driven by the same desire. We both want, more than anything, to
coax words from the canine throat” (Parkhurst 83). Since Paul has no intention of subjecting
Lorelei to vivisection, he devises a more humane methodology:
It is my proposal to work with Lorelei on a series of experiments designed to help her
acquire language in whatever ways are possible, given her physical and mental
capacities. It is my proposal to teach Lorelei to speak. (13)
Paul’s experiments involve training exercises to teach Lorelei tricks and to play certain
games. While his project fails to achieve its aim, the process does inadvertently lead Paul to
discover Lorelei’s capacity as a receptive participant of human language and, more
importantly, to recognise that she is already a highly skilled, communicative individual.
In order to determine Lorelei’s potential for human language acquisition Paul begins
with recording what he knows. Lorelei already engages with human language as a receptive
participant and readily understands the meaning of many words spoken to her. Until he
compiles a list, however, Paul does not realise that Lorelei knows around fifty words,
including her name, certain commands and specific objects, which Paul points out matches
the vocabulary understood by a thirteen-month-old child. The problem he faces is replicating
in dogs the point whereby infants progress from being receptive participants to productive
participants. Again, like the scientists from Banodyne Laboratory in Koontz’s Watchers, Paul
is interested in the progression from understanding words to comprehension, then the “leap
from comprehension to speech” (Parkhurst 18). But where Koontz’s novel, by emphasising
Einstein’s exceptionalism, reinforces assumptions about the ‘dumbness’ of ordinary dogs,
something different happens in Parkhurst’s text. Although he never does succeed in
progressing Lorelei to the point of human speech, through the process of researching, Paul
discovers the unique and complex language that is her own.
In addition to understanding many words, Paul discovers that Lorelei has a second
vocabulary. Just as she was once unaware of the existence of human words, it seems Paul has
been ignorant of the existence of canine language: or doglish. He makes a remarkable
I’ve isolated and catalogued six distinct kinds of bark, four different yelps, three
whines, and two growls. There is, for example, a certain sharp, staccato burst of noise
she makes only when she has been trying to get my attention when it’s past her
feeding time, say, or time to go for a walk, and she utters it only when a sustained
period of sitting at my feet and staring pointedly up at me has failed to elicit a
response. There is a soft, low growl, almost leisurely in its cadences, that rises from
deep in her throat when she hears that slam of a car door outside the house, which is
entirely different from the angry warning growl that precedes a bout of barking in the
event that the owner of said car has the nerve to walk up the front steps and knock on
the door. (Parkhurst 82)
Observing Lorelei reveals the complex ways she communicates and Paul realises that her
vocabulary is extensive and purposeful. After much practice, he says, “I have reached the
point where, when Lorelei makes a sound, I know exactly what she means” (82). To this end,
Paul gets much closer than Travis Cornell or Denny Swift in realising the innate
communicative capacity of animals. His recognition of Lorelei’s unique capacity for
language and communication, however, does not prevent him from pursuing his research into
canine language acquisition.
Paul’s discovery that Lorelei is a proficient receptor of human language and that she
has her own unique, complex language does not help him obtain the dog’s testimony.
Moreover, having come to appreciate Lorelei in a new way, Paul learns that Hollis was not as
successful in achieving human language acquisition for dogs as he thought. Paul’s research
leads him to attend a clandestine suburban meeting of Hollis’ disciples, called the Cerberus
Society. He is told that Dog J, Hollis’ famous speaking canine, will address the members at
the event. When Dog J is led out before the crowd, Paul is shocked by the degree of facial
mutilation the dog has endured. He explains, “His head has been completely reconstructed.
His snout has been shortened so much that his face looks almost caved in. His jaw has been
squared and broadened to resemble the shape of a human jaw” (Parkhurst 179). Then when
Dog J begins to speak, Paul’s hopes of teaching Lorelei to speak words fade. He observes,
The sound that comes out is unearthly. A cross between a howl and a yelp, the noise
shapes itself into a string of random vowels and consonants. I’ve never heard a living
creature make a noise like this before. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. But it
isn’t speech. (179-80)
Paul does not consider the sounds that Dog J produces to be speech but others in the room
disagree. They listen enraptured as to Dog J makes vocalisations such as “Ayayay”,
“Kafofwayo”, “Woganowoo” and “Jukaluk” (180). Now confused, Paul narrates, “Everyone
in that room heard the same garbled noise I heard, and everyone but me interpreted that noise
as speech. What did they think he was saying, that poor mutilated dog?” (199). His shocked
reaction to Dog J’s facial mutilation highlights the horrific consequences that befall
nonhuman animals as a result of our failure to recognise that there are more kinds of
communication, and different kinds of intelligence other than those privileged by the human
Human and canine vocabularies differ in Parkhurst’s novel just as they do in reality,
but there are also times when humans and dogs share one language. The first instance of this
occurs in a passage where Lorelei sleeps in her designated place on the floor beside Paul’s
bed. Feeling sad and anxious about spending the night alone after Lexy’s death, Paul invites
Lorelei to join him on the bed. Paul describes this moment:
‘Come one up, girl. Up. Up.’ I pat the bed.
This is an unusual request on my part, and I have to repeat it a second time before she
obeys. She yawns, then stands and stretches, and finally jumps on the bed and settles
herself next to me. I stroke her fur…She sighs deeply – one of her most human sounds
– and closes her eyes. (Parkhurst 88)
Notably, Lorelei does not obey Paul’s first command to break from protocol and climb onto
the bed because this has not been allowed in the past. Indeed, this passage is a depiction of
two individuals whose lives had been forever changed as a result of Lexy’s suicide and who
are both expressing anxiety. Sighing – Lorelei’s most human sound – is often an expression
of contentment in dogs as well as humans (Coren 71) and Lorelei sighs only once she is close
to Paul and feeling content. Hence, Parkhurst writes a passage where the greatest degree of
information about these characters’ states of mind, and the way they are communicating their
feelings to each other, is achieved in gestures and sounds, not words. Thus, Paul moves
beyond the anthropocentric assumption that what matters most in interspecies encounters is
one or both parties’ ability to produce human language.
There are further examples of overlap between human and canine language in
Parkhurst’s novel; however, it is not always the dog who is seen to replicate human-
associated gestures and sounds. During the crucial passage in which Paul sits watching the
telephone psychic infomercial on television, as he realises that the voice on the end of Lady
Arabelle’s call is his late wife, he says “I lose my legs beneath me…and I make a sound like
an animal struck” (Parkhurst 112). In this instance, Paul’s shock defies expression in words
and instead his anguish is represented by a sound. In another example, Paul recalls an
incident before Lexy’s death when after a serious argument Lexy shuts herself in the
bathroom. Paul enters to find her sitting naked on the floor. At first she resists his embrace
but then submits. Paul narrates, “Her skin was hot to the touch. She let out a guttural sound,
an animal noise of frustration and resistance. And still I held her fast” (147). In these
examples, words prove insufficient to express the profound emotions being felt by the human
characters. In place of words, ‘animalistic’ or non-species-specific vocalisations emerge.
The same dominant Western cultural attitudes that cast dogs as inferior because they
cannot produce human language are shown to produce the kind of species prejudice that
results in the victimisation of Lorelei in Parkhurst’s novel. Paul explains that Lexy found
Lorelei on her doorstep as a five-month-old puppy. At this time, Lorelei had a neck wound
that Paul would later come to discover was inflicted by The Cerberus Society before Lorelei
escaped from their suburban vivisection laboratory. Lorelei, having avoided being the victim
of vivisection once already as a puppy, attracts the Society’s attention as an adult through
Paul’s involvement with them. Key members of the group steal her from Paul’s backyard in
order to enact revenge on him for exposing their illegal activities to the authorities. Paul
recovers Lorelei but while in the hands of the Cerberus Society, her larynx is surgically
removed. Paul is devastated because his hopes of teaching Lorelei to speak words are ended
but also because he has only just discovered her own unique voice. His hopes of obtaining
her testimony are lost but so too is her ability to vocally communicate with him.
Jill Morstad keenly observes that The Dogs of Babel “is the story of a silent man and a
talking dog, and the space they must travel together in an effort to reach understanding”
(195). While the loss of a unique voice is a tragedy in Parkhurst’s novel, ‘voicelessness’
provides the opportunity for David Wroblewski to challenge assumptions regarding who does
and does not possess a ‘voice’ in his novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar Sawtelle is a
boy born mute who lives on farm in Wisconsin where the family business is breeding dogs.
Wroblewski’s novel suggests that interspecies communication is not necessarily hindered by
the lack of linguistic ability and the author does this by employing a human protagonist who
lacks the capacity for speech. Yet, it is this character with whom the dogs most effectively
The primary human-canine relationship depicted in the novel is that of Edgar and
Almondine. Edgar is an only child who bonds instantly with Almondine, a Sawtelle dog who
lives in the family home. Their bond is established in the passage describing Edgar’s first
memory of Almondine. Edgar is in his crib when a “muzzle comes hunting” and “tunnels
beneath his blanket” and Edgar playfully squeezes “the crinkled black nose” (Wroblewski
46). Wroblewski describes how Almondine’s tail switches side to side as Edgar “tugs the
blackest whisker on her chin”; she licks his hand gently and he blows air in her face softly
(46). She then “bows and woofs” before “she smears her tongue across his nose and
forehead”; Edgar “claps a hand to his face but it’s too late – she’s away, spinning, biting her
tail” (46). No words are exchanged throughout this interaction and yet Wroblewski describes
a complex and intricate interspecies encounter that establishes the nature of Edgar and
Almondine’s speech-free relationship.
Almondine is one of the few in Edgar’s life to accept him as he is, and local psychic
Ida Paine is another. Edgar’s parents, Trudy and Gar, are so desperate to find the cause of
their son’s muteness – a process that sees them consult multiple physicians and subject Edgar
to many diagnostic tests – that Trudy takes Edgar to Ida’s store and places her baby on the
counter. Ida answers Trudy’s unspoken question (which one assumes is related to whether
Edgar will ever speak) with the word, “No” (Wroblewski 38). “Not ever?” Trudy asks, to
which Ida replies, “He can use his hands” (38). Like Almondine, Ida does not assume that
Edgar’s communicative capacity is in any way diminished by his inability to speak words.
It is because Almondine has no expectations of Edgar that she is able to immediately
and efficiently communicate with him. After describing Edgar’s first memory of Almondine
from the human perspective, Wroblewski balances this by having Almondine describe the
moment she met Edgar. Their introduction occurs when Edgar is brought home from the
hospital after his birth. Wroblewski writes:
Faint huffing sounds emanated from the fabric and a delicate pink hand jerked out.
Five fingers splayed and relaxed and so managed to express a yawn. That would have
be the first time Almondine saw Edgar’s hands. In a way, that would have been the
first time Almondine saw him make a sign. (38)
In this passage, Almondine is attentive to the motion of Edgar’s hands and translates the
human hand gesture as a yawn rather than await sounds that might, under other
circumstances, emit from his mouth. For Almondine, Edgar’s vocal silence does not diminish
his capacity to communicate with her. It merely changes the basis upon which
communication between them takes place.
Wroblewski presents Edgar’s bond with Almondine as being more than an
interspecies relationship: it is a kinship. The basis of this kinship becomes known when
Edgar is six months old and a stranger named Louisa Wilkes arrives unexpectedly at the
Sawtelle’s house, having been directed to the property by Ida Paine. It transpires that Louisa
is the child of deaf parents and a teacher of sign language, and so she initiates a discussion
with Trudy about Edgar’s muteness. During the conversation she notices Almondine, whose
expressions Louise says, reminds her of her nephew’s dog, Benny, who, it turns out, is also
Sawtelle bred. Regarding Benny, Louisa says, “I’ve never seen a dog quite so aware of
conversation. I could swear he turns towards me when he thinks it is my turn to speak”
(Wroblewski 46). When Louisa signs to Edgar – who she recognises is mute but not deaf or
unintelligent – the nature of Edgar and Almondine’s kinship materialises. Literary reviewer
Mike Peed identifies it when he writes Edgar is “a boy who, like the family’s dogs, can hear
but cannot speak” (“The Dog Whisperer” 2008). Until he is taught to sign, Edgar partakes in
human language as a receptive participant, in precisely the same way as dogs, and thus
Just as dogs use species-specific gestures, Edgar creates a distinctive vocabulary of
his own, although his vocabulary, which is distinct from conventional sign language, makes
him prone to being misunderstood and, as a consequence, feel alienated. Unlike dogs, he does
develop to be a productive participant in conversations involving human language;
nonetheless, his version of sign language is unique. Edgar’s manner of signing is not
inefficient but it does need to be learned in order to be understood. This is clear in the
passages involving Edgar and his uncle Claude, who makes little effort to learn Edgar’s signs.
Edgar does not know Claude prior to his arrival at the farm for a short stay; hence, Claude
does not know Edgar, or anything about sign language. Edgar teaches his uncle a “couple of
signs”, which the reader is told, “Claude promptly forgot” (Wroblewski 61). This reveals
Claude’s disinterest in learning Edgar’s language, which is demonstrated again during a
discussion in which Claude tells Edgar that one of the stairs in the barn squeaks. When Edgar
responds by signing that he already knows about the squeaky stair, Claude is not looking at
him so does not see his sign. These examples show that – like Enzo and pre-lingual Zoe in
Stein’s novel – Edgar’s difference, that is being mute, positions him outside of the so-called
‘adult-driven World Order’ as are the Sawtelle (and all other) dogs. In other words, he too is
the possessor and user of a nonverbal, gesture based communication system that adults, with
the exception of his mother and father, do not understand. It does not matter that Edgar and
Claude are members of the same species, or what vocabulary they use, because their attempt
to communicate fails. Almondine, on the other hand, who is not a human and does not have
the capacity to produce human language, understands Edgar better than Claude. She actively
seeks ways to communicate with Edgar, observes and respects him.
While Edgar is perceived to be deficient in human spoken language the Sawtelle dogs,
on the other hand, are perceived to be more proficient than typical dogs in engaging with
human modes of communication. Sawtelle dogs have supposedly been selectively bred with a
greater ability to interact with humans on an intellectual level. When talking with Edgar
about the business of breeding Sawtelle dogs, Trudy asks her son whether he thinks they are
selling dogs or something more. Edgar does not know the answer until later in the novel, after
he has run away from home and is observing an interaction between Henry, a Samaritan who
takes him in, and one of the Sawtelle dogs named Tinder. Edgar attempts to teach Henry how
to command Tinder to perform guided fetches. At first, Henry’s flawed attempts to use
command using hand gestures confuses Tinder. When Henry finally masters the skill of
commanding the dog, Edgar, who is observing, realises the answer to Trudy’s question. The
Sawtelles are not selling ordinary dogs, but are rather selling dogs with enhanced abilities to
communicate with humans.
One example of successful non-verbal communication between human and dog
occurs in the passage where Edgar patiently instructs Almondine how to descend the stairs in
the barn without making a sound. Wroblewski writes:
[Edgar] stepped quickly down to the sixth and fifth and turned back and picked up
Almondine’s foot and stroked it.
He tapped the owl-eye.
She stepped down.
5 ‘Owl eye’ refers to the knot in the wood.
Yes. Good girl. (55)
Teaching Almondine where to step by utilising her power of observation and memory is no
extraordinary feat and is within the capability of most dogs. Many dog trainers would likely
agree that patience, repetition and praise are all that is required to teach a dog most things,
including the sequence of steps that allow one to silently descend stairs. Human language is
made redundant here and the assumption that effective and complex communication relies on
human language is challenged. In this passage, the boy and his dog are able to communicate
using only gestures at an advanced level without the need for either to produce or
comprehend human language.
Since Edgar’s mode of communication is unconventional and, as outlined previously,
signing is not always recognised to be as sophisticated as spoken word, he represents dogs
who like him, are marginalised because they have ‘trivialised’ vocabularies. Ron Charles,
writing for the The Washington Post, chooses the phrase “Terrible Silence” to head his
review of Wroblewski’s novel, but silence is far from terrible in this novel. As Marion
Copeland observes, “Edgar’s muteness…allows him to attend to voices other than his own”
(357-8). Indeed, Wroblewski’s novel, like Parkhurst’s, demonstrates that there is more than
one kind of voice and the voice is not human specific.
Authors of dog narratives often incorporate into their novels issues relating to
language and its effect on interspecies communication. Watchers is a narrative that reflects
many of the Western cultural prejudices that see nonhuman animals cast as inferior to
humans. Koontz brands dogs as ‘dopey’ and ‘dumb’ by comparing them to Einstein, who is
able to produce human language. This diminishes the value of dogs’ unique and exceptional
species-specific skills and qualities. Stein’s decision to have a dog narrate The Art of Racing
in the Rain lends verisimilitude to the canine protagonist’s feelings of inferiority, which
stems from his inability to speak using words. Read as structural irony, it can be argued that
Stein effectively undermines notions of human exceptionalism based on the privileging of
human language. In the end, nevertheless, Western anthropocentric ideologies proposing that
humans are superior to other animals are ultimately reinforced when Enzo is reincarnated as a
human and finally achieves his life-long dream of shaking hands with and speaking to Denny.
In different ways and to various degrees Koontz and Stein reinforce notions of human
exceptionalism stemming from humans’ ability to communicate using human language.
Parkhurst and Wroblewski, on the other hand, explicitly challenge human exceptionalism and
the assumption that dogs are unintelligent in their narratives by highlighting the canine
species’ ability to communicate successfully with humans using non-linguistic methods. In
The Dogs of Babel, Parkhurst suggests that human language is flawed, and the efficacy of
human language is destabilised though the juxtaposition of the plot and subplot. While Paul
strives to teach Lorelei to speak words, in order to obtain the truth about Lexy’s suicide,
flashbacks to Paul and Lexy’s marriage show words to be deceptive and unreliable. In a
horrible irony, Paul’s quest to obtain words from Lorelei results in her larynx being surgically
removed, which strips her of her own unique voice and the ability to vocalise at all.
Wroblewski also challenges the veneration of human language in The Story of Edgar
Sawtelle by employing a protagonist who, like dogs, is perceived to be ‘voiceless’.
Wroblewski further disrupts assumptions about the importance of spoken words by having
Edgar – despite his ‘disability’ – emerge as the one who communicates the most successfully
with dogs in the novel.
Performing a canine-centric critique of dog narratives can expose some of the key
dominant discourses that underlie reductive attitudes towards dogs in contemporary Western
culture. Species prejudice stemming from Western religious and philosophical perspectives
often rests upon assumptions that animals other than humans lack an immortal soul, the
capacity for reason, the capability to produce human language, and a voice with which to
speak. Dogs’ limitations as participants in human language results in their marginalisation
and often fuels misunderstandings that can lead to their victimisation and exposes them to
violence. Each of these novels raises important questions about the narrow definition of
‘language’ and they offer us the opportunity to question the prevailing prejudices that humans
impose on dogs and other nonhuman animal species who do not communicate using spoken
or written words. Importantly, novels incorporating dogs as characters can help us recognise
that there are voices other than those of humanity.
Dogs as Objects or Subjects-of-a-Life
As outlined in Chapter One, a perceived division exists between humans and other animals
that has been created and fortified by influential ideas stemming from Classical Western
philosophy and reinforced by subsequent discourses such as Christianity and Cartesianism.
Dogs – along with all other nonhuman animal species – have been denied souls, sensibility
and intelligence, attributes that are uniquely associated with humans and notions of
Nonhuman animals are not typically considered to be persons and are
positioned instead under antonymic categories like ‘things’, ‘property’ and ‘objects’.
borrow a phrase from author J. M Coetzee’s pro-animal protagonist Elizabeth Costello: “man
is godlike, animals thinglike” (23). Contrary to common belief, the word ‘person’ does not
mean human, and actually derives from persona and means “a mask” or character (Midgley
53). Mary Midgley summarises German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s definition of what
constitutes a ‘person’: “It is the idea of a rational being, capable of choice and therefore
endowed with dignity, worthy of respect, having rights; one that must be regarded always as
an end in itself, not only as a means to the ends of others” (54).
While Kant does not exclude
nonhuman animals from this definition, the fact they are still deemed to lack valued forms of
intelligence such as rationality implicitly excludes them from being granted personhood.
Midgley, however, argues that certain species of nonhuman animals should not be
denied personhood simply because of any particular feature they lack; rather they should be
For further discussion of nonhuman animals as nonpersons, see Mary Midgley’s essay “Persons and Non-
Persons” in Singer, Peter, ed. In Defense of Animals. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985. 52-62.
Midgley also explains that historically, women and slaves were denied personhood (52), which was crucial in
the oppression, and social and legal disenfranchisement of these individuals who like nonhuman animals, are
classed as ‘others’.
Ethologist Marc Bekoff points out that while many nonhuman animals meet the definition of ‘person’ but are
nevertheless denied personhood, many humans (such as those who suffer “major losses of locomotor, cognitive
and physiological functions”) remain classified as persons even after they no longer fit the definition (14).
viewed as persons because “they are highly sensitive social beings” (62).9
To counter the
view that nonhuman animals are objects, American animal rights philosopher Tom Regan
argues that nonhuman animals of many species fulfil the definition of what he terms ‘the
subject-of-a-life’. In his 1983 book, The Case for Animal Rights, Regan explains that the
subject-of-a-life category applies to any animal who has
beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future,
own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference
and welfare interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals;
a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their
experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for
others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests.
Animals who fulfil these criteria have, he states, “a distinctive kind of value – inherent value
– and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles” (Regan 243). It is because of their
inherent value that such animals are worthy of moral consideration and consequently humans
have a moral duty not to act cruelly towards them (Regan 195). When referring throughout
this chapter to the way novelists represent dogs as ‘persons’, I am therefore using the term in
accordance both with Midgley’s assertion that nonhuman animals are highly sensitive social
beings, and with Regan’s definition of the subject-of-a-life.
Many would agree that dogs are social, sensitive beings with rich emotional lives,
desires, goals and interests independent of their usefulness to others (Bekoff; Dawkins;
Horowitz; Coren; Garber). Yet despite occupying a privileged position in human hearts and
I would argue that even sensitive solitary animals can fulfil the criteria of personhood.
Or had these capacities at one time in the case of long-term or permanent memory loss resulting from disease
or injury, one might presume.
homes, dogs remain, to varying degrees, outcasts of human society. While they are
sometimes thought to possess traits typically associated with humans, such as feelings,
intelligence and agency, dogs are often adopted then abandoned, welcomed then rejected,
cherished and mistreated en masse (Palmer 570). Susan McHugh explains, “The dangers for
contemporary dogs are real: destroyed by the millions every year as unwanted pets, strays
and research subjects, domesticated dogs bear the double-bind of sharing many of the
maladies as well as the joys of living the so-called good life…” (9). McHugh suggests that it
is through these “lived contradictions” that Western humanity’s “conflicting attitudes towards
dogs” becomes visible (9). The double-bind that produces this paradoxical treatment of dogs
in Western society is both reflected and interrogated in many works of popular fiction,
especially the genre I have been calling ‘dog narratives’. Such novels often represent the
most negative aspect of the double bind by incorporating depictions of animal abuse.
Various forms of animal abuse ranging from violence through to neglect are central
motifs in four of the narratives examined in this thesis: Jack Ketchum’s Red (1995), Gerard
Donovan’s Julius Winsome (2006), Nancy Kress’ Dogs (2008) and Dan Rhodes’ Timoleon
Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental Journey (2003). Via their inclusion of depictions of animal
abuse, these novels raise questions regarding the paradoxical way dogs are categorised in
Western culture. In raising these questions, these narratives challenge the view that dogs are
‘things’ or ‘objects’ by finding literary ways of presenting accounts of dogdom, and thereby
allowing the reader to visit the grim social realities of many dogs living in contemporary
Western culture. These texts offer representations of the negative aspects of being a dog bred
for the purposes of providing humans with companionship and, as a result, they expose the
consequences of the conflict between dualistic views of dogs; that is, when dogs are
considered objects or property by some and sensitive social beings by others.
The canine companion at the centre of Ketchum’s novel, an elderly crossbreed named
Red, is fatally shot in an apparently random act of violence. Red’s human companion is 67-
year-old Avery Allan Ludlow, a retired war veteran and widower, who is approached by three
youths while river-fishing. After a failed attempt to rob Avery, one of the boys shoots Red
with a shotgun. Ketchum presents Red’s murder and events surrounding it in ways that reveal
tensions stemming from conflicting attitudes towards dogs as they exist in Western culture,
such as the ways dogs are considered to be unique, valuable and significant individuals by
some, and replaceable possessions by others.
Ketchum exposes the causes and consequences of paradoxical attitudes towards dogs
in his novel by focussing explicitly on the social reality linking domestic abuse and animal
cruelty, and he takes this approach to critique the abuse of power. He begins by revealing
Red’s killer to be 18-year-old Daniel McCormack, whose temperament and upbringing are
shown to be contributing factors to his cruel and violent behaviour, not only towards
nonhuman animals, but also fellow humans. On the day of the shooting, Avery is fishing as
Red lies in the sun on the riverbank nearby. While Avery is hunting fish, it is clarified that he
no longer partakes in “blood sports” (Ketchum 16); that is, he is no longer a recreational
hunter but a subsistence hunter who takes only what is legally allowed and is sufficient to
feed him and his dog.
The approach of the amateur hunters is signalled when Avery hears
them disturbing the peace and detects the smell of gun oil, indicating a poorly swabbed
firearm. When the boys appear, Avery notices that one, later revealed to be Daniel, is wearing
a t-shirt brandishing a sexist image and the slogan “STOLEN FROM MABEL’S
Of course fishing cannot in reality be isolated from other forms of hunting as this recreational pastime is just
as brutal as hunting with guns (Gadenne 67-8). Furthermore, fish feel pain and can suffer (Braithwaite).
Ketchum deliberately distinguishes Avery’s hunting practice from Daniel’s when he clarifies that Avery is
subsistence hunting whereas hunting for fun or entertainment is particularly cruel. He equates recognition of this
distinction with maturity and wisdom and most importantly, with respect for nonhuman animal life.
WHOREHOUSE”, and has a shotgun recklessly “slung over his shoulder like it was a stick or
a bat, not a firearm” (17-18). This passage clearly hints that Daniel has no respect for either
women or weapons.
Ketchum develops Daniel’s characterisation as a social deviant and it becomes clear
that Daniel also lacks respect for his elders and nonhuman animals. After a brief, seemingly
polite conversation about Avery’s daily catch, Daniel asks about Red. Avery tells the boys
that Red is about thirteen or fourteen years old and friendly. One of the boys, named Pete,
then rudely remarks, “Raggedy old fella” (Ketchum 19). Ketchum writes: Avery “had
nothing to say to that. He didn’t much like the boy’s tone, though. He gathered that the boy
didn’t have much use for animals” (19). Although friendly, Red growls when Daniel orders
Avery to hand over his wallet and flicks off the gun’s safety catch. Since Avery’s wallet is in
his car, the boys take his keys, but before they leave, Daniel asks for the dog’s name. Avery
says “Red” and Ketchum writes:
The boy took a deep breath and blew it out and seemed calmer and the old man
thought it was possible that the storm in the boy was passing though he didn’t
understand why that should be with just the knowing of a name and then the boy
whirled and the dog was getting up out of his crouch, so much slower that he would
have just a year ago when he was only that much younger, sensing something beyond
the old man’s staying hand or his power over events and the boy took one step
towards him and the shotgun tore deep through the peace of the river…there wasn’t
even a yelp or a cry because the top of the dog’s head wasn’t there anymore nor the
quick brown eyes nor the cat-scarred nose, all of them blasted into the bush behind
the dog like a sudden rain of familiar flesh, the very look of the dog a sudden
Having shot Red for no apparent reason, the boys cruelly laugh and shout, “Red!”, “He’s red
now!” (23). Ketchum writes: “The old man stood there stunned. Why? He thought. Dear god
[sic], why?” (23).
As the novel progresses the circumstances leading up to this incident are unravelled
and the paradoxical reactions of the town citizens to the crime are exposed. Ketchum reveals
that Daniel McCormack’s ability to perpetrate such a violent act of animal cruelty is a
symptom of the socio-cultural conditions in which he was raised and now lives. His lack of
compassion towards others is presented as a consequence of his home life and the attitudes of
the culture within which he belongs. Avery discovers that Daniel is the teenage son of
Michael D. McCormack, a local wealthy property developer and that Daniel’s domestic
situation is one defined by power relations. This is first implied when after the shooting,
Avery visits the McCormack family home and is met at the door by a maid described as “a
small young black woman with a withered left hand that was discoloured white from her
wrist to the knuckles” – a detail that will become significant a little later in the novel
(Ketchum 38). Daniel’s father summons his sons to face Avery, who recognises the second
younger sibling, Harold, as having been present at Red’s shooting. In their father’s presence,
the boys deny their involvement in the crime but through observing Harold’s body language,
Avery detects the boy’s fear. Hoping to gain a confession, Avery later follows Harold to talk
with him alone. During their conversation, Harold is anxious that Daniel might observe them
talking and says Daniel would be “pretty damn mad if he knew I was talking to you” (110).
Avery then asks, “He get mad a lot, your brother?” When Harold does not reply, Avery asks,
“Who are you afraid of, Harold? Your brother? Your father?” to which Harold replies, “Mr
Ludlow, believe me, you haven’t got a clue” (111). Crucially, before walking away, Harold
says, “I want you to consider why my father would hire a maid with a crippled hand…Out of
all the help available around here, my father chooses her” (112). Harold’s comment leads
Avery to ponder the values of the people he is dealing with. Ketchum makes it clear that
Michael McCormack did not hire the woman out of compassion for her disability; rather,
“[Avery]wondered how often McCormack found some way to remind the woman of her
withered hand or even how he might choose to go about it. If with regard to McCormack he
was dealing with the ordinary smug superiority of the rich or whether it was cruelty” (112).
Avery links the McCormacks’ wealth to their sense of superiority, visible in their abuse of
others whom they perceive as weak or inferior. Daniel and his father equate wealth with
dominance and dominance involves the exertion of power. They abuse their power to
victimise those they consider less valuable and significant than themselves, such as Carla the
maid, Avery, and Avery’s gentle, elderly canine companion, Red.
The social link between domestic violence and animal cruelty is reflected in
Ketchum’s novel through his attention to the ways in which abuse of power is learned and
12 Ketchum’s novel is structured around a victim hierarchy whereby Michael
McCormack exploits Carla and then Daniel mirrors this behaviour through the intimidation
and bullying of his brother, Harold, his disregard and disrespect for Avery and the murder of
Avery’s dog. Perhaps inadvertently on Ketchum’s part, the way that abuse is produced and
replicated in the McCormack family reflects the generational inheritability of reductive
attitudes about nonhuman animals in Western culture stemming from religious, philosophical
and scientific discourses that largely centre on distancing nonhuman animals from humans
and categorising them as property or objects rather than as subjects or persons.
Companion animals are not considered to be persons in Western legal discourse
because they are viewed as objects; bred to be sold, purchased traded and ‘owned’. Joan
Dunayer explains: “Under the law, ‘persons’ are rights-holders whereas ‘animals’ are not”
For comprehensive studies on the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty see Gullone (2012).
(171). Of course, Homo sapiens are taxonomically classified as animals but legal discourse,
as well as the numerous cultural discourses discussed in Chapter One, reinforces the
assumption that humans are superior to, and distinct from, nonhuman animal species. So
instead of being granted individual rights, dogs are legally declared human property; thus,
despite being adopted into human families and treated as family members, dogs are not
afforded legal rights as ‘persons’. This means they are often insufficiently protected when
they are abused (Dunayer 170). It is a crime to shoot and kill a dog for pleasure in Ketchum’s
fictional world just as it is in many societies with animal welfare legislation; nevertheless,
Avery feels legally unsupported. He does receive moral support from some members of the
community, including his employee, Bill Prine, Clarence, an elderly clerk employed by the
store who sold Daniel ammunition, Sheriff Tom Bridgewater, his friend Emma Siddons and
journalist Carrie Donnel; nevertheless, the law does not support him. In the novel, Avery’s
lawyer Sam Berry explains the status quo to his client:
“First let’s assume your boy is eighteen or over. If not, it’s a matter of juvenile court
and all they’re going to give him is a slap on the fanny…But let’s assume he is [over
eighteen years old]. A crime like this would go before a judge in district court under
title 17, section 1031, cruelty to animals. That carries a mandatory fine of a hundred
dollars, though, theoretically, a prosecutor could go for more. I say theoretically
because most prosecutors would be happy with the hundred and some jail time. Under
the law the most you could ask for in jail and on animal cruelty is three hundred and
sixty-four days. And practically speaking, no prosecutor in his right mind would
shoot for more than thirty. Fact is, he’d be hoping like hell to get ten.” (49-50)
Sam’s explanation shows how the legal devaluation of animal lives is structurally related to,
and complicit with, the kind of callousness that Daniel shows when he shoots Red. He goes
on to say why this is the case: “I’m talking property here, Av. Under the law, an animal’s just
property. Not only here in Maine but in damn near every state in the Union” (50). Sam
Berry’s summary of the way that the law fails to take animal cruelty seriously and
successfully prosecute perpetrators is not limited to the fictional world as Ketchum’s
summary of the animal cruelty laws in Maine, United States is drawn from the actual
13 The legal system’s failure to enact justice for Red’s death is a source of
frustration for Avery. He puts his faith in the law but is disappointed to learn that the
Assistant District Attorney has declined to prosecute.
Avery is left unsupported by the law and he also encounters insensitive attitudes
among acquaintances. Emma Siddons, for example, suggests Avery should go straight out
and buy himself a puppy to deal with his loss. Suggesting a person replace a human loved one
immediately following such a tragic loss would surely be construed as insensitive and yet, it
is “almost commonplace” to suggest pets are replaced soon after their deaths to accelerate
emotional healing (Podrazik et al 376), which is clearly a point Ketchum wants to emphasise.
Emma’s comment reinforces the idea that however much they may be loved, dogs are liable
to be seen as replaceable objects rather than irreplaceable subjects. Another example is Sam
Berry who discourages Avery from pursuing a law suit, saying, “All this time, all this work
and all this expense for an old mongrel dog you already buried” (Ketchum 51). However,
Avery clearly does not consider Red to be a worthless mongrel dog.
Although Red is killed in the novel’s opening pages he has a presence throughout the
narrative via Avery’s memories of him. Red is remembered as a dog who once slept on a
floor rug but then decided to sleep on the bed beside Avery after his wife Mary and son Tim’s
deaths. Avery remembers how Red would pass wind in his sleep and how he seemed to be
dreaming, perhaps “running, chasing, cats or rabbits” or “running next to Mary or Tim”
(Ketchum 147). Red clearly displays autonomy and shows preference in his choice to sleep in
one particular location over another. The focus on Red’s dreams suggests that he has an inner
life, which expresses his subjectivity. Red even maintains a literal presence after his death
when Avery exhumes the dog’s body to show to the McCormacks. Avery’s determination not
to allow Red to be disregarded after his death is apparent when, despite having been shot in
the ear, run off the road into a ditch, bludgeoned and left for dead in the forest by the
McCormacks, Avery regains consciousness only to stagger back to the McCormacks’ cabin –
where he had visited earlier to confront the family – to retrieve Red’s body, which he left on
their porch. Red’s presence in this novel through Avery’s refusal to let his dog’s death pass as
insignificant contrasts with the many dismissive and reductive attitudes of those people he
encounters and is testament to depth of his attachment to his canine companion. He rejects
Red’s categorisation as a disposable, replaceable commodity.
Avery’s father is one of the few in the novel to believe that Red’s life matters and that
a dog has intrinsic worth outside of his or her value to humans. Feeling frustrated with the
dismissive attitudes of those around him and the lack of legal support, Avery visits his father
in an aged-care facility for advice. When Avery tells his father that his anger and frustration
has driven him to contemplate taking drastic, unlawful action to avenge Red’s death, his
father understands. He says, “Hell, blood’s blood. You ever taste an animal’s? It tastes
exactly like your own does. You tell me why a man’s blood is any better or more precious
than a dog’s blood” (Ketchum 107). Even though Avery’s father was not Red’s human
companion, he is able to recognise that Red was not just an object, but a feeling living being
whose life had meaning and value. More than just being a unique individual who Avery cared
for, Red is, in Avery’s and his father’s opinions, as worthy of justice as any victim of a
In Ketchum’s novel, therefore, dogdom is depicted as being a state of limbo; that is,
dogs are situated somewhere between person and property in the eyes of society and this
leads to conflict between people. In this way, Ketchum’s narrative is comparable with the
storyline of Gerard Donovan’s novel, Julius Winsome. In Donovan’s narrative, a friendly pit-
bull terrier named Hobbes is shot dead at point blank range by an unidentified hunter. Just as
Ketchum explores ideas relating to power and abuse in Red, so too does Donovan in Julius
Winsome; however, whereas Ketchum approaches the topic through the link between the
abuse of power and animal cruelty, Donovan addresses violence perpetrated against
nonhuman animals through the lens of hunting culture. Of course, hunting is also the situation
that brings Avery and Daniel McCormack together in Red – since Daniel is out hunting with
a shotgun when he comes across Avery fishing. However, issues relating to hunting do not
dominate the narrative in Red to the degree that they do in Julius Winsome. Hobbes’ human
guardian, Julius Winsome, lives in a secluded cabin in the woods, in an area in Maine popular
for hunting bears and deer. Almost forty minutes after hearing a gunshot unusually close by,
he finds Hobbes “lying in the flowers, bleeding, breathing, but barely” with a fatal shotgun
wound (Donovan 12). Julius rushes Hobbes to the veterinarian who informs him that the
gunshot was administered at close range, just inches away. When the veterinarian says, “You
have to be mighty cruel and then some to pull the trigger on a dog like that” (13), Julius
realises that Hobbes’ fatal injury was intentionally and maliciously inflicted.
Like Avery Ludlow in Red, Julius Winsome cannot comprehend why anyone would
murder a friendly domesticated dog, and like Avery, Julius draws conclusions about the
character and values of the type of person who would commit such an act. Owing to the
remote location of his cabin, and the frequency with which hunters use the surrounding
woods, Julius concludes that the person who murdered Hobbes is a hunter. He determines the
person to be what reviewer Diane Evans craftily summarises as a “roaming hunter – probably
a man, a rifle-carrier, enthuser of Remington slide action and Rifle Association badges, killer
of bears, deer, birds – and dogs” (52). Therefore, Hobbes’ killer is a person for whom
violence is commonplace, for whom killing is a hobby and a way of life; a person who has
the capacity to view nonhuman animals as objects rather than subjects and who enjoys
dominating nonhuman animals and seeks to kill them for pleasure.
The motive for Hobbes’ murder is never revealed but there is the hint of a possible
motive in the novel: Hobbes is a pit-bull terrier. As discussed earlier in this chapter,
domesticated dogs under the law are property, and not persons, and the novels of Ketchum
and Donovan reflect societal attitudes that diminish the value of dogs as subjects-of-a-life.
The pit bull is one breed, however, whose object status is compounded not only as a result of
being a dog, but because this particular breed is often despised and demonised. A common
reaction amongst Western middle-class people to this maligned breed is described by Judy
Cohen and John Richardson as “Pit Pull Panic”. In their article by the same name, they
reiterate how pit-bulls are “the archetype of canine evil, predators of the defenseless.
Unpredictable companions that kill and maim without discretion. Walking horror shows bred
with an appetite for violence” (citing Verzemnieks 285).15
In order to maintain this negative
perception of pit bulls, dogs of this breed are often denied personal identities and succumb to
the demonisation of the entire breed. They become seen as dangerous weapons; as objects,
rather than as sensitive individuals.
It is necessary to note that in contrast, some hunters believe that their hunting practices are a way of showing
respect for nature and state that they view their prey as subjects rather than objects. Eco -feminist Marti Kheel
discusses this category of hunter, calling one who engages in this form of hunting a “Holistic Hunter” (35-6).
15 According to Twining et al, negative perception of pit bulls is quite a recent phenomenon, for between 1890
to 1948 “pit bulls were very popular dogs to own because they were seen as ‘a good-natured watchdog and
family pet’” (26).
Read in this way, Donovan’s novel is a response to the widespread stigmatisation and
demonisation of this particular breed. This author subverts the stereotypic notion of the
menacing pit bull who makes victims of others by positioning Hobbes as the victim of social
stigma. Donovan’s intentions are revealed in an interview with Dermott Bolger, where he
I lived with a pit bull terrier for five years. A much-maligned breed that does not
deserve its reputation because the conditions where you hear about them attacking
people are based on them being chained up or kept in small spaces and made to fight
with each other. I lived with this dog for five years and it took me five years to learn
the language of dogs, how dogs relate to you, how they speak to you, and all of that
went into the novel. (14)
Firstly, it is significant that Donovan places emphasis on learning the dog’s language in order
to ensure harmony and efficient interspecies communication. As discussed in Chapter One, a
lack of understanding of another species’ mechanisms of communication is often the cause of
problematic interspecies relations, which can lead to violence. Donovan not only advocates
that humans have a responsibility to learn doglish and relate to dogs in a way that recognises
and respects the experience of dogdom, but he specifically utilises the socio-cultural anxiety
arising from a fear of certain dog breeds to challenge assumptions that lead to the
depersonalisation and persecution of pit bulls in his novel.
Donovan begins his critique of breed stigmatisation by revealing reductive attitudes
towards dogs generally before focussing specifically on breed prejudice. Julius uncovers the
dismissive attitudes aimed at domesticated dogs that permeate his community when he posts
a public notice to gather information about the shooting. Clearly, not everybody considers the
wanton killing of a dog worthy of seeking justice because shortly after pinning the notice up,
it is defaced with insensitive comments such as “Bye-bye dog” and “So what, one less dog.
Get over it” (Donovan 22). Such dismissive responses reflect the same indifferent and
insensitive attitudes that Avery Ludlow experiences in response to the shooting death of his
dog Red in Ketchum’s novel. Thus, both authors depict a gentle-natured, much-loved and
well socialised dog who is shot in a random act of violence and, based on those attitudes
expressed in the novel by members of the respective societies, there is surprisingly little
sympathy for the dogs or the dogs’ human companions.
Donovan’s critique of breed prejudice appears to begin in the passage where he
reveals how Hobbes was acquired as a puppy from the Fort Kent animal shelter for the
purpose of providing Julius with companionship. It is not surprising that Julius immediately
identifies with this particular puppy considering that the two – man and dog – share the
experience of being social outcasts. When Julius sees Hobbes as a puppy in a cage, his female
companion at the time, Claire, points out “That’s a dangerous breed” (Donovan 89). Julius
adopts the puppy anyway and Claire, who first suggested Julius acquire a canine companion,
says, “I’m sorry I suggested anything…Now when I come [to visit] I will be facing a pit bull”
(89). Julius is also made privy to the stigma associated with this particular dog breed during
an encounter with a shelter worker. Donovan writes:
The boy who worked there nodded sadly as if he knew this fellow’s time was up; the
breed and his size would win no one’s heart or a home to him. He would be put to
sleep. The boy said he was brought in by a couple who had baby twins and couldn’t
have him around the house, they were afraid. (52)
While certain dog breeds, such as the golden retriever, are idealised as the ‘perfect pet’, pit
bulls exist at the other end of the spectrum. Hillary Twining, Arnold Arluke and Gary
Patronek, who performed an ethnographic study on this theme, explain that
pit bulls have come to be seen as an abomination or disturbance in the natural order –
an unacceptable threat to the perceived security and stability of the entire community
and a violation of the almost sacred image of the dog as an amiable cultural hero. (26)
Donovan builds this prejudice into the structure of his novel by implying that, although
Hobbes displays no aggressive tendencies and does no harm, he is shot and killed simply
because he is identifiable as a member of this socially reviled dog breed.
Just as Ketchum does in Red, Donovan gives his canine character Hobbes personality
and character even after his death via Julius’ memories of him. Hobbes is remembered as a
“friendly but punchy little pit-bull terrier” who, Julius says, “always greeted me when I
returned home” (Donovan 58, 69). He elaborates:
[H]e ran from his spot in the hot wood-pile, from his walks in the woods, where he
went for solitude or whatever drives them there, ran to see me after my landscaping
work, ran to greet me when I was happy, ran to greet me when I was unhappy, ran to
greet me when I was distracted, vague, thoughtful. (69)
Furthermore, Julius describes the small pleasures that existed in Hobbes’ life, such as “the
sound of the truck’s keys…[which] brought him bounding from the woods or scratching to get
out the door” (57). Julius recalls: “With his head out the window and a breeze in his face as
we drove along the countryside, he was a dog run through with happiness…” (57). As Julius
buries his companion’s body, he struggles to “throw that first shovel of clay over his face, to
see a hole gouged around the body that had so often ran [sic] after toys I’d thrown or shivered
in dreams on the floor as he ran and barked” (15). Notably, the reference to a dog’s capacity
to dream is, similarly to Ketchum in Red, used by Donovan to imply the existence of an inner
life and therefore subjectivity.
It is such poignant memories that go some way towards explaining Julius’ extreme
reaction to Hobbes’ wrongful death. Julius Winsome, like Avery Ludlow in Red, does not
condone recreational hunting or the wanton killing of socially ‘protected’ companion
animals, but unlike Avery, who places his faith in the law, Julius bypasses the legal system
and decides to personally enact revenge for Hobbes’ murder. However, because he does not
know the identity of Hobbes’ killer, Julius chooses to undertake a sniper-styled assassination
of random hunters in the woods proximate to his cabin. On the first morning of his revenge
expedition he waits two hours before a truck brandishing deer antlers on the grille appears.
He observes a man in his thirties, wearing camouflage, carrying a rifle while drinking a beer.
Julius wounds the hunter with a shot to the neck before showing the dying man a drawing of
Hobbes and saying, “Did you shoot this dog” (Donovan 33). Significantly, Donovan omits
the question mark here indicating that this is not a question, but rather a statement. Despite
the hunter’s denial, Julius watches him die. He then removes a magazine entitled Hunt from
the man’s vehicle, returns to his cabin and calmly drinks tea. He stands in the spot where
Hobbes used to sleep and simply states, “I missed my friend” (35).
In Chapter One, I discussed the way language functions to divide humans from other
animals, as this trope is common in fiction exploring human-dog relationships and I argued
that humans often use the ‘language barrier’ to justify the objectification of nonhuman
animals. Language is also used as a device to create distance between human and victim in
Donovan’s novel. After Hobbes’ murder, Julius randomly stalks and kills hunters who stray
into the vicinity of the cabin. On each occasion after shooting a hunter, he approaches the
dying man and speaks to him using obscure words that his father tells him were invented by
Shakespeare. “You are blood-bolted…You are besmoiled,” he tells his first victim (Donovan
33). To another he says, “Amort, bow hunter” (48), and he tells another “your convoy is a
cullion”; finally, he says, “Prithee…I took you, harvested you” (49). Julius explains:
As part of my education [my father] had me write out lists with Shakespeare’s words
in them, a few new words every day, using his fountain pen, and soon those words
and the smell of ink entered my mind, and when I began to speak them in daily use
my father was quietly pleased… (20)
The effect of using Shakespeare is two-fold in this novel. In the first instance, it relates to the
connection between Shakespeare’s words and Julius’ memory of his father, who encouraged
his son to read Shakespeare. More importantly, Julius’ use of Shakespearian vocabulary
alienates his victims because they cannot understand this language. In the same way as
humans disenfranchise nonhuman animals because they ‘cannot’ use human language, as
discussed in Chapter One, Julius can rationalise that his victims are not akin to him for this
same reason. Moreover, his use of a ‘foreign’ vocabulary makes it easier for him to distance
himself from his victims and view them as ‘other’; as objects rather than as people.
Donovan cites an actual instance of animal cruelty as the inspiration for his narrative
and this revelation goes a long way towards answering some of the questions that arise from
his novel, such as: How should the reader react to Julius Winsome’s unlawful vigilantism as
he sets about seeking justice for his murdered dog? Donovan states:
I knew the story because someone actually shot my neighbour’s dog in real life and
the dog had gone 500 yards and collapsed in the flowers, although the dog in real life
survived. I was talking to myself afterwards and wondering what would I do if
someone shot my dog, and the answer was that I would have killed them. (Bolger 14)
Donovan has Julius Winsome challenge the anthropocentric status quo when his character
decides to avenge his dog’s death and in a manner inconsistent with anthropocentric social
expectations. Julius does not identify with the individual who writes “People are more
important than dogs!!!” on the public notice he posts up to gather information about the
shooting (Donovan 68). He explicitly rejects anthropocentrism in this way and is presenting a
countercultural understanding and experience of human-animal relations. Indeed, Julius has a
history of showing concern for the welfare of animals, evident through a childhood memory
when he single-handedly fought a group of boys who were torturing a domesticated cat.
Thus, it seems, he recognises nonhuman animals are valuable individuals, sensitive social
beings who have an interest in living a pleasurable, pain free life. Julius states this explicitly
when he says, “Hobbes [was] taken from me, taken from his own life, his joy” (203). “He
was my friend” he says, “and I loved him” (213). In his view, this is justification for seeking
justice and enacting revenge.
Donovan shows how an intense human-canine bond centred on love and loyalty can
inspire violence. The socially trivialised act of animal cruelty perpetrated against Hobbes
incites a larger, more socially recognised form of violence against humans. The link between
violence against animals and violence against humans is a crucial aspect of research into
human-animal relationships because it shows that there is no such thing as trivial violence, or
an unimportant victim of violence. Julius Winsome, which is clearly meant to be an
uncomfortable novel to read, reflects the relationship between animal abuse and human
violence which is now widely recognised (Gullone). Yet, Donovan achieves more than that
and he highlights society’s paradoxical view of nonhuman animals by depicting the
victimisation of a much maligned and socially stigmatised dog breed. In his interview with
Bolger, Donovan states that the novelist’s task is “to admit things in public… [to] say what
other people won’t say” (14). As he reflects on Julius’ reaction to Hobbes’ murder, and
discusses how this character comes to rationalise taking human life as recompense for a dog’s
life, Donovan explains, “It was an uncomfortable truth. Have I ever shot anyone? No. But in
my mind I said if I could get away with it and I knew who had done it, I would probably kill
them” (Bolger 14). Of course, the most disconcerting aspect of Donovan’s novel is that Julius
does not know who killed his dog and murders multiple hunters anyway.
The issue of breed stigmatisation and conflict over the social status of domesticated
dogs also features in Nancy Kress’ novel, Dogs. The story is set in the fictional town of
Tyler, wherein dogs kept as companions begin to attack – and in 36 instances – kill the
humans with whom they live. Pit-bull terriers are just one of many dog breeds in Kress’ novel
who transform from being benevolent to aggressive when they become infected with a
pathogen as a result of an act of bioterrorism. While the plot of Kress’ novel seems extreme
and unlikely, the premise is rooted in contemporary social anxieties. Whereas Donovan
concentrates on the social stigma associated with one particular dog breed, Kress utilises the
fear of domestic dog attacks in order to critique Western humanity’s paradoxical attitudes
towards dogs more broadly.
The response of Tyler’s citizens to the dogs’ atypically aggressively behaviour
provides insight into how dogs are valued by some and devalued by others in human society.
Kress raises the stakes when instead of depicting these attacks as being committed by a
particular or socially stigmatised breed, the first attack to appear in her novel is perpetrated
by a sweet-natured eleven year-old golden retriever named Princess. More surprising than the
attack being at odds with Princess’ characterisation as a gentle, elderly dog of a typically
highly benevolent breed, is the revelation that the victim is a child called Jenny who is a
member of Princess’ human family. The attack on Jenny is followed in quick succession by
further reports of suburban domestic dog attacks in Tyler. It is clear that this is unprecedented
when Animal Control Officer (ACO) Jess Langstrom states that he has never encountered
“six bites within twelve hours in his own small jurisdiction” (Kress 8). What follows is a
systematic division between the residents of Tyler; approximately half of whom think dogs
showing symptoms of infection should be killed and the other half who want the town’s dogs
to be protected and saved.
Princess’ attack on Jenny is the first instance in which attitudes towards domesticated
dogs are shown to move rapidly between dogs being viewed as subject or object, person or
property. Although once a cherished and trusted companion to the Kingwell family, Princess’
seemingly unprovoked attack on Jenny changes the family’s attitudes towards her. Evidence
of her change in status moving from subject to object arises when she is no longer called by
her name. When Jess and his fellow ACO Billy Davis attend the Kingwell property to seize
Princess after the attack, Daniel, the dog’s human guardian, tells them, “You’re too late…I
shot the bitch” (Kress 9). When she was a benevolent family pet, Princess was called by her
name; however, once she acts in an uncivilised, savage or ‘animalistic’ manner, she is
stripped of her personal identity and becomes a detested object, denoted by the impersonal
and pejorative term ‘bitch’.
Language continues to feature as a mechanism by which the human characters in the
novel depersonalise ‘deviant’ dogs. Despite the fact that his job requires him to work closely
with animals, ACO Billy considers dogs to be little more than ‘items’ he must catch, deal
with or dispose of. Billy rarely addresses a dog using his or her given name. For example,
when a report comes in that a pet pit-bull named Duke has attacked two children, and one
child remains trapped in the house with the dog, Billy and Jess attend the property. When
Billy looks through the kitchen window, he sees Duke and says, “That bastard got blood on
his jaws already” (Kress 21). After Billy shoots Duke in the head, he tells Jess to go home,
saying “I can deal with Fang here alone – ain’t like the son-of-a-bitch’s going to attack
anybody else. Right between the eyes. Damn, I’m good” (22). Clearly, Billy dislikes dogs,
which enables him to detach himself from the fact this dog was named Duke, not ‘bastard’ or
‘Fang’ or ‘son-of-a bitch’, and at one time, Duke was a beloved canine companion who lived
with a human family, as one of them.
The intersectionality of oppression arises in Kress’ novel through one character’s
reductive comparison between certain dog breeds and human ethnicities. Cora Dormund and
her husband Ed, guardians to three Siberian huskies, are neighbours to Del Lassiter who has a
Chihuahua named Folly. When Del contacts the Dormunds to warn them about the dog
plague, Cora, who is sceptical that such a thing exists, later says, “Some people will believe
anything. Probably afraid that little Spic mutt of his will bite his finger” (Kress 49). The use
of non-human animal associations as racial epithets and the association of certain kinds of
nonhuman animals with people of certain ethnicity is a historically ubiquitous occurrence
(Dunayer 161). In this passage, however, Cora projects her racist attitudes onto Folly by
pejoratively calling the dog a ‘Spic mutt’, because, of course, the Chihuahua breed derives
from Mexico. So Cora reduces Folly to a tool to insult Latin Americans which demonstrates
how contempt for certain breeds of dog is often linked to racism towards humans. The aim of
these epithets is to depersonalise a particular person or culture through the association to the
already depersonalised nonhuman animal. Thus, as a result of Cora’s comment, Folly is
viewed though a racist and speciesist lens to be doubly depersonalised.
Daniel Kingwell, Billy Davis and Cora Dormund are all characters in Kress’ novel
who view domesticated dogs as objects rather than persons. There are, however, characters in
the novel who oppose this view of dogs. Ex-FBI domestic counter-terrorism agent, Tessa
Sanderson, guardian to toy poodle Minette, is one example. Another is young Allen Levy,
whose family canine companion is a cocker spaniel named Susie. In contrast to the other dogs
in the narrative who are treated like objects, Minette and Susie are portrayed as being unique,
cherished individuals. Unlike the many depersonalised dogs, Minette and Susie are given
embellished descriptions; for example, Minette is described as an “elegant little bundle of
silvery fur and huge black eyes” (Kress 23) and Susie is said to have “long silky ears” and a
wagging tail (68). While depersonalised dogs feature in the narrative only when attacking
someone, Minette is described as going about her daily activities, sleeping on Tessa’s bed,
toileting, play fighting with Tessa and walking on a leash. Minette is considered worth saving
when she is seized by the authorities and placed in a quarantine facility where vivisection to
research the ‘dog plague’ occurs. ACO Jess, who is Tessa’s friend, swaps the labelling on
Minette’s cage, preventing her from being earmarked as a “sacrifice for dissection” (127).
Allen Levy maintains that his dog Susie is “not an ‘it’!” (221). When Allen learns that dogs
are being seized by the authorities, he sedates Susie with Phenobarbital and hides her in the
bottom draw of a filing cabinet in his home, which prevents her being seized by the
authorities. Minette and Susie survive Tyler’s uncompromising response to the dog plague as
a result of Tessa and Allen’s actions and attitudes: they love them and view them as persons,
not property. Furthermore, as a result of their more personalised characterisation, readers are
encouraged to identify with them as individuals and thus are more likely to care about their
Ellie Caine, guardian to four rescued ex-racetrack Greyhounds named Song, Chimes,
Music and Butterfly also views her dogs as persons. Ellie is already sympathetic to the
objectification of dogs before the plague strikes because prior to adopting the dogs, they
endured a severe form of exploitation as tools of the commercial Greyhound racing industry.
Kress writes: “Dogs were trained to run by starving them and then forcing them to chase a
piece of meat on a mechanical arm that moved faster and faster” (40). Dogs who do not
perform are simply killed. Despite not supporting Greyhound racing herself, Ellie feels guilty
for the way that humans have commercially objectified greyhounds for financial gain. Thus,
upon hearing news of the dog plague, and realising that her dogs will be seized, destroyed or
vivisected, Ellie chooses to set them free. When Song and Butterfly later return to the house
infected with the viral agent, they attempt to maul Ellie. Even then, she cannot suppress her
perception of the dogs as precious individuals, “her pets, her babies” (161). When Butterfly
is shot and killed, rather than feel relief or resentment towards her once beloved companion,
she sobs hysterically, soon stops eating and sleeping, and suffers from depression.
Daniel, Billy and Cora view dogs as objects and Tessa, Allen and Ellie consider their
companion animals to be subjects-of-a-life. These polarised attitudes towards dogs are
represented more broadly in the novel because approximately half of the town demands that
their dogs be preserved and protected while the remainder agree that they should be seized or
captured and killed. The divide between those who want to protect dogs as if they are persons
and those who consider dogs to be replaceable property is represented by two groups that
form in response to the plague. After the authorities order that all dogs, whether infected or
not, are to be caught and quarantined, a vigilante group led by Ed Dormund forms to oppose
the seizure of asymptomatic dogs. They bomb a Stop’n’Shop store owned by the mayor’s
son; an act which is met with accusations that they are irrational pet owners (Kress 177).
Meanwhile, an antithetical vigilante group forms who threaten to kill all the town’s dogs
themselves if the government does not do so. Thus, while the pro-dog faction says, “Return
all uninfected dogs to their owners within the next twenty-four hours, or this [bombing] will
happen again”, the anti-dog faction says, “If you and the whole damn federal government
can’t kill these vicious dogs, we’ll do it for you” (223). These opposing factions aptly and
succinctly reflect polarised attitudes relating to dogs who are viewed as subjects by some in
Western culture and as objects by others.
Another dog who moves from being seen as a unique and valued individual to a
disposable object features in Dan Rhodes’ novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental
Journey. Timoleon Vieta is the name given to a crossbreed dog who one rainy night, aged
approximately two years, wanders into Carthusians Cockcroft’s kitchen in Umbria, Italy. A
retired man in his 60’s, Cockcroft has a poor history of caring for canine companions across
fifteen years. His first dog, a red setter, died of a drug reaction and he accidently killed the
second when, during an argument with an Austrian lover, he threw an ashtray which hit the
Dalmatian’s head fracturing the skull. The third dog, a Samoyed, unexplainably vanished
four years prior to Timoleon Vieta’s arrival. So when Timoleon Vieta wanders in he becomes
“the centre of Cockcroft’s world” (Rhodes 5) because Cockcroft is depicted as a lonely man
who lives in social isolation and the presence of a canine companion makes his loneliness
As a stray, Timoleon Vieta is a victim of societal abuse in the form of neglect before
Cockcroft begins to care for him. In addition to those who are rescued, an untold number of
domesticated dogs are born, live and die as strays in the Western world, without the sanctuary
of human homes or shelters. Timoleon Vieta’s origins are unknown. It is possible that he was
either born a stray dog, or more likely, considering his affable and sociable disposition, he
was abandoned by someone else prior to finding a home with Cockcroft. Either way, he is
without a guardian. Timoleon Vieta’s fate echoes the fates of many strays, who are
abandoned and neglected in vast numbers for numerous reasons such as they become
troublesome, too expensive, inconvenient or simply come to be viewed as tiresome.
For five years Timoleon Vieta resides with Cockcroft in the villa and is shown
affection, given food and comfortable, safe lodgings. He is “unshakably loyal” to Cockcroft
(Rhodes 5) and remains so even after Simon, a stranger in his mid-twenties pretending to be a
Bosnian refugee, arrives unannounced at Cockcroft’s home. Despite Timoleon Vieta’s instant
dislike of Simon, evident by a rumbling growl, Cockcroft welcomes Simon in. As Simon
moves to sit down, Rhodes writes that Timoleon Vieta “exploded with rage, his hackles
raised and his barks piercing the still night air” (11). Timoleon Vieta’s intense aversion to
Simon foreshadows a series of severe physical assaults perpetrated by ‘the Bosnian’ against
this already once victimised animal.
Prior to Simon’s arrival, Timoleon Vieta is treated well by Cockcroft who cares for
him and considers him a cherished companion. After Simon’s arrival, however, and over a
number of weeks, the dog is increasingly treated like a thing. Cockcroft ignores Timoleon
Vieta’s aversion to the stranger because Cockcroft finds Simon sexually attractive. The
polarised feelings that the dog and his guardian have for Simon becomes clear in the passage
where Rhodes explains how Timoleon Vieta sits with his “half-closed eyes” fixed on “the
newcomer’s face” while Cockcroft inspects Simon’s “young, firm body” and fantasises
about giving him “a lot of very close attention” (12). Simon is aware of Timoleon Vieta’s
hostility towards him; nevertheless, he accepts Cockcroft’s offer of lodging. Rhodes writes:
“The only things he didn’t like about the new home were the growling dog and the way of
paying his rent”, which involves providing Cockcroft with sexual favours despite not being
homosexual. It is Cockcroft’s obsession with keeping Simon at his home and in his life that
leads to Timoleon Vieta’s subjection to severe physical abuse, rejection, abandonment and
Simon exploits Cockcroft’s loneliness, his need to be needed and his desire to be
desired, when he plots Timoleon Vieta’s disposal. Although he has lived with the dog as a
companion, Cockcroft craves emotional and physical connection with another human being
and Simon presents him with this opportunity. This situation exemplifies Yi-Fu Tuan’s
argument that “pets exist for human pleasure and convenience. Fond as owners are of their
animals, they do not hesitate to get rid of them when they prove inconvenient” (88).
Timoleon Vieta becomes inconvenient for Cockcroft because Simon does not want the dog
around. Although Simon’s physical abuse of the dog is upsetting for Cockcroft, the promise
of a human relationship involving sexual intimacy changes the way he views and values his
dog. As Cockcroft’s desire for Simon’s companionship increases, so does Simon’s power
over Cockcroft which extends to him having greater power over Timoleon Vieta. The men’s
sexual relationship is crucial in the narrative because sexual intimacy is something Cockcroft
craves and which Simon can provide, so in this case, the ability to fulfil this role defines the
difference between the value of the companionship offered by man and by dog.
Simon’s vendetta against Timoleon Vieta takes shape as he slowly begins to drive a
wedge between man and dog. The first time Simon abuses his power over Cockcroft and his
dog arises during a dispute over who should take the front seat in Cockcroft’s car. When
Cockcroft offers to take Simon into town to acquire some new clothes, Cockcroft assumes
Timoleon Vieta will accompany them because “he loves his trips into town” (Rhodes 26).
Cockcroft says, “We go everywhere together, don’t we Timoleon Vieta?” as his canine
companion scratches at the car’s passenger door. Since the vehicle is a pick-up, and there are
only two seats in the front cab, Simon suggests that the dog travel on the tray back. When
Cockcroft explains that back of the vehicle is not a comfortable place for Timoleon Vieta to
ride, and suggests Simon ride in the back instead, Simon remarks, “He is dog, right? He is
animal?” (26). Simon uses species as a way to disenfranchise and depreciate the dog. He is
explicitly suggesting that the front seat is the superior position in the vehicle and as a human
being he should be assigned the seat. Despite Timoleon Vieta’s usually claiming the front
seat, which he has sat in for many years, Simon argues that the rightful place for a dog is in
the back of the pick-up and not the front seat because a dog is not a person. Timoleon Vieta
retains the front seat on this occasion but his victory is temporary because Cockcroft
promises Simon the dog will travel in the back in the future.
The consequences of being caught between subject and object worsens for Timoleon
Vieta when the three next take a car trip and Simon claims the passenger seat. Timoleon
Vieta is displeased with being supplanted and tied in the back. Rhodes writes, “Timoleon
Vieta peered into the cab through the dirty back window, his whines escalating into snarls”
(Rhodes 54). After a stroll around town, they all return to the car and Timoleon Vieta, likely
out of habit, heads to the passenger door. As Cockcroft drags the dog to the back of the car,
Simon, annoyed with the dog’s ‘complaining’, kicks him in the abdomen. Cockcroft is
shocked and upset when his dog is harmed, but Simon explains, “I’m sick of his fucking crap.
You treat him like a fucking baby. You should teach him to shut the fuck up” (57).
Simon’s power over Cockcroft escalates and the rift between Cockcroft and his dog
deepens when the two men start taking car rides together leaving Timoleon Vieta home
alone. The second major incident occurs one day when Cockcroft walks out of the house to
inspect some maintenance work Simon has done. Timoleon Vieta follows his human
companion and when Simon decides to pat the dog on the head, Timoleon Vieta bites him.
Simon, once again, uses physical violence to demean and dominate Timoleon Vieta and kicks
the dog in the head with his booted foot. This incident distresses Cockcroft who starts to
contemplate life without Timoleon Vieta around. Meanwhile, Simon fantasises about killing
the dog but reconsiders because “if he killed it and dumped it in the woods”, Cockcroft would
be bereft (Rhodes 77 emphasis added). To illustrate the degree to which Simon
depersonalises the dog, Timoleon Vieta is stripped of the personal pronoun ‘him’ – a
common way in which human language delegitimizes nonhuman animals (Dunayer 149-56).
Faced with the prospect of being left bereft of human company, Cockcroft agrees to consider
Simon’s suggestion that they return Timoleon Vieta to live in the ‘wild’ (in this case an urban
wilderness) and begin a “fresh start in life” (Rhodes 83), which is simply a euphemism for
abandoning him. The two men drive Timoleon Vieta to Rome and dump him outside the
Coliseum. Through his cruel abandonment, Rhodes has Timoleon Vieta exemplify the
‘disposability’ of dogs kept as companions in Western culture. Indeed, he is a prototypical
victim of what Clare Palmer terms an “attitude of instrumentalisation” (575); an attitude that
makes it possible for people who feel inconvenienced by their pets’ presence to simply
abandon and dispose of them.
After Timoleon Vieta is abandoned, Rhodes’ novel employs a series of vignettes in
which the dog enters and exits the lives of numerous people. This technique draws on a
common trope seen in dog narratives, which Laura Brown terms “itinerancy” (133). The
itinerancy trope can be traced back to Eric Knight’s novel Lassie Come-Home in which Sam
Carraclough sells his prized Collie dog Lassie to a wealthy Duke but the dog repeatedly
escapes to return to the Carraclough home. The Duke relocates Lassie from England to
Scotland but Lassie escapes from the Scottish property and embarks on an arduous journey
through moors, flatlands, farming districts, industrial centres and across rivers in order to
return to her human companion, young Joe Carraclough. She is witnessed at different stages
of her journey; first by two men sitting outside a cottage, by a weasel from who Lassie
snatches a rabbit carcass, a landscape artist, two men hunting feral dogs, brutal animal control
officers, a kind and compassionate elderly couple and finally a travelling potter. Similarly to
Lassie, and despite his rejection and abandonment, Timoleon Vieta chooses to return home.
Along this journey he encounters an Italian police-officer named Cosimo who pities
Timoleon Vieta having witnessed him being dumped; an English girl visiting Italy who
shares a chocolate bar with Timoleon Vieta; a father dealing with his daughter’s progressive
decline towards death, as well as others. Just as Lassie is renamed ‘Herself’ and ‘Your
Majesty’ as she encounters different people, Timoleon Vieta is given various names
including ‘Abbondio’; ‘Teg’; ‘Dusty’; ‘Giuseppe’ and ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’. The itinerancy
trope extends to these dogs individuality and agency and shows how humans often treat dogs
like ‘blank canvases’ upon which we can write, erase, and rewrite upon. It also shows that
through all their adversity, these canine characters maintain their history of experiences and a
simple name change does not change who they are or erase what they have been through.
Furthermore, they do not have to be witnessed or valued by humanity to be significant or to
Hence, after many months and an arduous journey, Timoleon Vieta’s journey
concludes on the track leading to Cockcroft’s house. Having followed Timoleon Vieta’s
travels from the time he was dumped outside the Coliseum, and observed his interaction with
the various people he met along the way, readers are invested in the dog’s success, which for
Timoleon Vieta involves reunion with Cockroft. Following the dog through this part of the
story encourages readers to care about Timoleon Vieta and builds anticipation as the weary,
loyal dog finally arrives at the laneway leading to his one-time loving home. Rhodes,
however, shocks the reader with an unexpected ending to this promised ‘sentimental journey’
when Simon, who is leaving Cockcroft’s home at the time, meets Timoleon Vieta on his way
out, lifts the dog up by the scruff and then slits his throat. Rhodes writes:
The dog made a choking sound, twitched, and fell still. The Bosnian dropped
Timoleon Vieta on the ground. ‘I am from Bosnia,’ he said, kicking and stamping on
the dog’s head and neck. ‘I kill the dogs.’…The dog lay dead on its side, one of its
eyes facing upwards as though it could see the sky. Noticing this, the Bosnian jabbed
his knife into the eyeball over and over again, until it was a mess and no longer
looked as though it could see the sky. (212)
Erica Fudge states Rhodes’ narrative “mocks our desire for Lassien endings” (37). However,
while credited as being the most sentimental of all dog narratives, Lassie is, in reality, also a
story about an animal regarded as disposable property. The catalyst for her journey home is
the fact she is sold by the Carracloughs so that the money she fetches can pay some bills.
While the ‘loyal dog makes a return journey’ feature of Lassie and Timoleon Vieta’s stories
resonates, their endings are converse. Lassie’s is a happy ending as she is allowed to stay
where she most desires whereas Timoleon Vieta goes from being Cockcroft’s cherished
companion and genuine friend to being repeatedly assaulted, abandoned, mutilated and
A significant aspect of Timoleon Vieta’s murder is the mutilation of the dog’s eye.
The eyes are often thought to be the windows to the soul, which is a common cultural cliché
deriving from the Latin proverb oculus animi index, meaning “the eye is the soul’s
window/mirror” (Rauthmann et al 147 foot note). By mutilating the dog’s eye, Simon enacts
the ultimate and complete annihilation of Timoleon Vieta as a person and as a subject.
Another way to read the stabbing of Timoleon Vieta’s ‘witnessing eye’ – an eye that even
post mortem has the ability to enrage Simon – relates to the power of the animal gaze. In his
2011 essay, “The Gaze of Animals”, Philip Armstrong provides a historical account of the
ways in which the animal gaze appears in narratives stemming from the early days of myth,
to post- enlightenment, through to postmodernity. He writes: “The human experience of
discomfiture before the gaze of other animals has a long genealogy. For many centuries the
eyes of animals were thought to emit a physical force, an irradiation with the power to
transfix or infect those who encountered it” (Armstrong “The Gaze” 178). This fear of the
animal’s gaze is linked to mysticism and superstition as well as to humans’ anxieties
regarding their control over other animals. However, it is “the attack against the animal gaze”
that resonates here because, like Rhodes, authors have historically incorporated depictions of
mutilations of the animal eye in their fictions (Armstrong “The Gaze” 184). Rhodes detailing
of Simon’s mutilation of the dead dog’s eye suggests that Timoleon Vieta’s gaze reminds his
killer that the dog never respected or trusted him. In defiance of the perceived power emitted
by the animal gaze and in ways that reinforce humans’ mastery over nature using weapons
and violence, Timoleon Vieta’s eye and its accusation are silenced.
Ketchum, Donovan, Kress and Rhodes each incorporate depictions of animal cruelty
in the forms of violence and neglect in their novels in order to raise questions about the
perception and positioning of dogs in Western society. Ketchum creates tension in his novel
that arises as a consequence of conflicting attitudes regarding the status and value of
nonhuman animals. By centring his novel on the wanton killing of a gentle elderly dog, and
having the perpetrator of this crime a victim of his father’s abuse as well as a victimiser of
others, Ketchum connects animal cruelty to a wider cultural issue involving the abuse of
power. In drawing attention to Western legal discourse, which classifies nonhuman animals
as objects and property, Ketchum is able to challenge the status quo by having select
characters in the novel reject this classification and argue that the system is flawed because,
as Avery’s father claims, blood is blood.
Donovan’s novel is also shaped by social issues relating to power and violence,
particularly the link between violence against animals and violence against humans. By
having a hunter murder Hobbes, a person stereotypically thought to view nonhuman animals
as objects – as ‘prey’, ‘quarry’ or ‘game’ – Donovan raises questions about violence towards
animals. He complicates the assumption that a dog’s life is worthless by depicting Hobbes in
a way that affords him subjectivity. He presents Hobbes as a friendly, benevolent individual
which, in addition to extending him subjectivity, questions the problem of breed
stigmatisation. In choosing to depict Hobbes as a pit bull, a breed widely demonised in
Western culture, Donovan subverts the assumption that pit bulls are evil dogs. Donovan has
Julius dispassionately shoot random hunters in the same manner that Hobbes’ killer
dispassionately shoots nonhuman animals and he uses language as a way to alienate and
‘other’ the human victims, which reflects the way humans use language to disenfranchise
In Dogs, Kress employs a dog plague that dramatically alters domesticated dogs’
typically acquiescent temperaments so that family pets metamorphose into savage,
unpredictable enemies of humankind. The transition from subject to object is established
when beloved dogs once called by their given names are, when infected, referred to using
pejoratives such as bitch and bastard. Kress further establishes the dogs’ shift in status from
subject to object by revealing oppositional opinions about dogs that existed even prior to the
plague striking. For example, she has an Animal Control Officer describe dogs as ‘things’ to
be captured and dealt with, which contrasts with her portrayal of Minette and Susie who, by
being represented as having desires and as enjoying daily pleasures, are given subjectivity.
The polarisation of the town into opposing vigilante groups, one pro-dog and the other anti-
dog, enables Kress to succinctly and effectively capture, as well as raise questions about, the
polarised status of dogs as either objects/property or subjects/persons as it exists in Western
Rhodes makes the transition from subject to object more personal and poignant in his
novel by centring his narrative on the trials and tribulations of just one repeatedly victimised
dog. Unlike most of the dogs in the other novels featured in this chapter, Timoleon Vieta is
already a victim of Western cultural attitudes that undervalue the lives of dogs because before
finding Cockcroft he is an urban stray. By providing this back story, Rhodes encourages the
reader to immediately rejoice in the dog’s happy newfound life with Cockcroft. But then
disrupts this seemingly wonderful relationship between a man and his loyal dog by
introducing Simon, a man who exploits Cockcroft and happens to dislike dogs. Timoleon
Vieta, thus, becomes situated between Cockcroft, who loves him like a person, and Simon,
who views and treats him like an object. Rhodes is able to use the dog’s positioning between
these two men as a way to highlight the disposability of dogs in Western culture after Simon
convinces Cockcroft to abandon his dog. Rhodes’ mockery of the Lassien ending resonates as
a powerful testament to the fragility and fickleness of the human-canine bond.
The Canine Companion as a Dual Device
As my discussion so far has shown, dog narratives are fertile ground for examining how
domesticated dogs are categorised as inferior to human beings based on qualities they are
perceived to lack, such as capacity for language and personhood. Yet it is also clear that some
dog narratives can, by various means, challenge and transcend these reductive ideologies. In
performing a canine-centric critique of certain novels, a further ambivalence emerges
concerning the way novelists engage with the ways that dogs are ubiquitously classified
according to the roles they fulfil in Western culture.
Hal Herzog summarises some of the roles that dogs perform in Western culture as
follows: “[They] locate kids and rotting cadavers, warn deaf owners when the smoke alarm
goes off, and lead the blind through the city streets”, they partake in “hunting and herding”
and “sniff out bombs, dope and bladder cancer” (111). Furthermore, in the course of fulfilling
these, and numerous other social service roles, dogs attract various labels such as ‘sheepdog’,
‘rescue dog’, ‘sled dog’, ‘guard dog’, ‘guide dog’, ‘sniffer dog’, ‘hunting dog’, ‘laboratory
dog’, ‘war dog’, ‘therapy dog’, ‘police dog’ and, of course, ‘pet’ or ‘companion’.
Dogs also perform many specific functions in literature, a tradition that has captured
the attention of many literary animal studies scholars. For example, Kate Soper argues that
nonhuman animals “never appear in literature simply as themselves”; rather, she claims they
are always functioning as descriptive narrative devices, symbols or allegory (303).
Discussing Claude Levi-Strauss’ statement “animals are good to think with”, Soper captures
the appeal of using animals as devices when she writes, “In animals we discover our own
most loathsome and most laudable qualities, projecting on to them both that with which we
most closely identify, and that which we are most keen to be distanced from” (307). Dogs
work particularly well in this capacity because their species-specific traits are easily adapted
to function as symbols, metaphors, allegories, totems or metonyms. This is because dogs are
similar to humans in many ways: they enjoy human company and seem to exhibit
recognisable and familiar emotions, and so they are easily anthropomorphised. To this end,
canine characters often appear in fiction not as themselves but as literary instruments, and
such depictions tend to teach us very little about actual dogs.
Lynda Birke notes: “Within Western cultural traditions, there is a long history of
domination and of perceiving other animals as there solely for our use” (Taylor and Signal
xviii). Indeed, the designation of any role to a dog is problematic from a Critical Animal
Studies perspective because the obligations and expectations placed upon the animal forges
him or her into a tool for human purposes, however else he or she may also be perceived. The
conflation of utilisation and domination means that there is no way to assign socio-cultural
roles to animals such as dogs – either in fiction or in reality – without necessarily imposing
upon the individual some degree of human control in the process. Whether the role is social
or literary, labelling and categorising imposes certain traits and characteristics onto the
nonhuman animal and too often prevents us from recognising the animal beneath. As a
literary device, the dog becomes a means to an anthropocentric end, which constitutes a
“reductive and disrespectful” misappropriation (Shapiro and Copeland 344), just as in
carrying out a social service, whereby the dog is subjugated and becomes a mechanism when
manipulated to perform a human-designated occupation.
Since the dogs depicted in the four novels selected for this chapter are categorised as
‘companions’ it is this double-layered role – simultaneously as social support and as literary
mechanism – that will provide the foundation of my analysis. In what follows, I show how
canine characters act as devices to support and advance the human protagonist’s journey in
Dean Koontz’s Watchers (1987), Jack Ketchum’s Red (1995), Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (1999)
and David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008). Yet while both literary
representations and social utilisations of dogs can be observed as reductive and limiting, my
aim is to demonstrate how some authors of dog narratives challenge and transcend both kinds
of instrumentalism, instead encouraging us to recognise dogs as multifaceted beings who
defy cultural categorisation. Specifically, I argue that where Koontz fails, Ketchum, Auster
and Wroblewski find effective ways to move their canine protagonists beyond both their
literal and literary classifications and present them as being individuals in possession of
subjectivity and a distinct canine identity.
As the previous chapters have made clear, authors of dog narratives consider the
canine companion to be a great asset to facilitate the telling of human stories. However, while
dogs feature prolifically in fictional narratives as a means to an anthropocentric end, when
read from a canine-centric perspective, these narratives can tell us a great deal about our
tendency to construct, control and classify the ‘canine companion’. Hal Herzog states, “The
language that we use to talk about animals…affects how we think about animals” and this is
connected to “the categories we put them in” (46). The term ‘companion animal’ is a
category that seemingly privileges certain animal species such as dogs, yet it is also highly
problematic. Adopting a Critical Animal Studies perspective, Joan Dunayer explains that the
label “turns ‘companion’ into a trait, something inseparable from a nonhuman’s being, [it]
obliges certain nonhuman animals to be (and remain) some human’s companion…it restricts
animal to nonhumans” (204 original emphasis). Viewed in this way, the title ‘companion’
when applied to a nonhuman animal or animal species is just another way in which humans
use language to subjugate, shape and manipulate.
In addition to attracting the label ‘companion’, the dogs depicted in the four novels
featured in this chapter specifically provide companionship to lonely socially isolated human
beings who, for one reason or another, are estranged from humankind. For this reason, I
begin by outlining one rather divisive motivation often cited as a reason for why some
humans might invite dogs into their lives. The suggestion is that a dog’s companionship
substitutes for what would otherwise be more ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ relationships with fellow
human beings. The claim that the role of companion is simply another way that humans make
use of, or instrumentalise, dogs has been made by many. Plutarch, two thousand years ago,
was one of the first to suggest that companion animals were recipients of affection that
should rather be directed towards other humans (Serpell 24). This position has been repeated
often, right through to recent times, perhaps most notably by Yi-Fu Tuan in his 1984 text
Dominance and Affection. Another example is John Berger, who in his 1980 essay “Why
Look at Animals?” states that the pet’s dependence and susceptibility to conditioning satisfies
the human need to feel complete; they confirm and validate us (12-13). He proposes that
“…animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human
exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a
species” (4). Berger frames companion species as social and psychological devices and as
tools useful to remedy the loneliness humankind feels as a result of being disconnected from
the rest of the animal kingdom; or in other words, the relationships humans forge with
domesticated (and other captive) animals appeases our insecurities as well as our intense
feelings of disconnection from nature (24).
Others, such as Jonathan Burt, who responds to Berger’s essay by arguing that
human-animal relationships are not “monuments to disappearance” but rather are “a different
sort of relationship entirely”, challenge the reduction of the human-companion animal bond
to a social or psychological dysfunction (211). Similarly, Leslie Irvine criticises what she
calls ‘The Deficiency Argument’ and rejects the suggestion that animals are surrogates for
humans. She labels this claim sensationalist and flawed (19), and says that to imply humans’
relationships with companion animals serve primarily to substitute for otherwise ‘normal’
human relationships “assumes that people who enjoy the company of animals lack the
qualities or skills that would allow them to enjoy human company” (18). Based on the
depictions of the human-canine relationships in the novels in this chapter, dogs certainly do
appear to be surrogates or human substitutes in the fictional words that they inhabit; however,
in three of the four novels to be discussed here, there is also evidence to suggest that this
appointment is not necessarily limited or limiting.
At the same time as analysing a few of the ways in which some authors challenge the
reductive cultural categorisation of dogs, it is necessary also to outline the extent to which,
and the ways in which, portrayals of co-dependent human-canine relationships incorporate
the canine character as a literary, social or psychological device. The manner and degree of
instrumentalisation of dogs varies in the selected novels. In Watchers, for example, the dog,
Einstein, fulfils Travis Cornell’s desire to be needed and Red, the dog in Ketchum’s novel,
provides Avery Ludlow with emotional support after the loss of his wife and son. Both dogs
are catalysts that facilitate the human-centric plot involving Travis’ romantic relationship
with Nora Devon in Watchers, and Avery’s reconnection with his daughter and society in
Red. Point-of-view focalising characters like Mr. Bones in Timbuktu and Almondine in The
Story of Edgar Sawtelle enable the reader to discover things about the human characters via
the dogs’ perception of them. Mr. Bones offers intimacy and social support to his socially
stigmatised human guardian and Sawtelle dog Almondine is an unconventional sibling to
Wroblewski’s mute eponymous character, Edgar Sawtelle.
In Watchers, Travis Cornell is characterised as a deeply depressed and lonely man
who is ‘celebrating’ his 36th birthday the day that he encounters the genetically engineered
golden retriever in the forest. In contrast to typical birthday celebrations, involving parties,
gifts, cakes, friends and family, on this day he rises at 5am, dresses in hiking gear and drives
from Santiago to a rural canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles to sit alone in the woods. His
depressed state of mind is evident as Koontz writes, “During the two-and-a-half hour trip, he
never switched on the radio. He never hummed, whistled or sang to himself as men alone
often do…[he] did not once glance appreciatively at the sun-sequined water” (3). The extent
of Travis’ trauma and loneliness is clear as he is described as a man who had experienced
“his share of suffering” and whose smile “had once charmed women, though not recently”;
thus, he is a man who “had not smiled in a long time” (Koontz 4). His sadness is coupled
with anxiety as Koontz writes, “Lately, alternately depressed and angered by the loneliness
and sheer pointlessness of his life, he had been wound as tight as a crossbow string” (6). As
Travis reflects on his long term struggles to maintain friendships it is revealed that he avoids
human intimacy because he thinks he is cursed as a result of his mother’s death during
childbirth, his older brother’s childhood drowning and because he survived a car accident that
killed his father (85-6). As a result of these familial tragedies, he has lost “the ability to form
and nurture intimate relationships” and has become “emotionally isolated” (87). So it is at a
time when Travis is craving connection with another living being that the dog enters the
clearing and Travis’ life.
In the passage in which Travis and Einstein meet, Koontz draws on the fabled Collie
dog Lassie from Lassie Come-Home to signify an act of salvation is taking place. Susan
McHugh calls Lassie a ‘super dog’: “Physically strong and beautiful, emotionally available
and tactful, Lassie also tutors people she encounters; in addition to saving their lives…” (109).
Travis does not initially know that he is being saved because he struggles to interpret
Einstein’s behaviour, which is motivated by the approach of The Outsider, a deadly trans-
genetic animal. To communicate the warning (as discussed in Chapter One), Einstein growls,
snarls, wags his tail and paces back and forth, which prompts Travis to call him a “freelance
Lassie” (Koontz 12). In the Lassie film and television franchise, Lassie is always a
conscientious helper who paces, whimpers and barks, amongst other things, to communicate
urgent, often life-saving information to human beings. Lassie’s ability to sense danger and
communicate with people enables her to help save lives; similarly, in Watchers, Einstein is a
‘super dog’ whose genetic engineering for heightened understanding of human language
allows him to warn Travis of the danger and ultimately save his life.
Einstein literally saves Travis from being killed by The Outsider but there is a far
greater, less obvious rescue taking place; the dog saves Travis from social and emotional
exile. He does this by becoming Travis’ friend, by offering companionship, and he also fulfils
Travis’ yearning to be needed. This is evident in the passage where Travis takes the dog
home, bathes him and decides to put a collar on him. When the collar is presented, Einstein
growls and cowers in the corner. When he eventually yields to wearing a collar, Koontz
Travis felt a lump in his throat and was aware of hot tears scalding the corner of his
eyes…he knew why the dog’s considered submission affected him so strongly. For the
first time in three years, Travis Cornell felt needed, felt a deep connection with
another living creature. (56)
Prior to meeting Einstein, Travis’ wife Paula has succumbed to cancer, leaving him a
widower. The reader is aware that, since Paula would have needed Travis’ support during her
illness, for Travis, being needed is likely to constitute a powerful emotional connection.
Einstein’s suitability to appeasing Travis’ desire to be needed is transient as Koontz
soon has the canine character act as a social catalyst when he facilitates a meeting between
Travis and his future wife Nora Devon. Nora is a withdrawn, socially awkward 30-year-old
woman who lives alone. Since becoming the focus of a sexual predator named Art Streck, her
need for protection is equal to if not greater than Einstein’s need to be protected from those
who are hunting him – that is, The Outsider and also the staff from Banodyne Laboratory
where he was a captive laboratory animal. Streck accosts Nora in a public park when Travis
happens to be walking Einstein nearby. Sensing Streck’s intentions, Einstein defies Travis’
recall command and confronts Streck by growling and barking. Once Streck leaves the scene,
Travis looks over to see that Einstein “had settled down on his belly with his head on the
woman’s lap” (Koontz 122). Hence, in this instance, Einstein acts as a “social lubricant”, a
term used by Herzog (68) to denote the way pets facilitate social interaction between people,
in this case antisocial Travis and shy, isolated Nora. People who care for nonhuman animals
are often perceived in social circumstances as “nicer” and “less threatening” (Veevers 16);
hence, it can be inferred that Nora trusts Travis at a time when men seem especially
threatening to her because Einstein is with him.
Einstein is crucial to the connection of two socially and emotionally isolated human
individuals and Travis and Nora’s shared connection with Einstein enables them to overcome
their problems with forming human relationships and find companionship with each other.
For Koontz as a writer, the canine character fulfils a literary or plot function: he facilitates the
meeting between Travis and Nora whose relationship is the novel’s principal focus. The
dog’s appearance and his ongoing presence in the narrative enable Travis to transform from
social outcast to husband, father and devoted family man, and Nora from a shy, withdrawn
single woman to confident wife and mother. Einstein’s involvement with Travis and Nora
works out well for him because although his task as Travis’ saviour and as social catalyst is
temporary, when Travis and Nora learn that they are expecting a child, Einstein is invited to
remain with them as a member of their human family. Not all the dogs chosen for this study
fare so well.
Einstein is a flat or two-dimensional character, which means that he “is built around
‘a single idea or quality’ and is presented without much individualizing detail” (Abrams and
Harpham 43). As a result of being able to produce human speech, Einstein is heavily
anthropomorphised; thus, his desires become decidedly anthropocentric, which undermines
any attempt to present him with any qualities relating to canine subjectivity that might be
useful in our understanding of the dreams and desires of actual dogs. Apart from a few
expected likes and dislikes, such as an aversion to being vaccinated (353) and delight in
playing with other dogs (362), Einstein asks to drink beer (420) and snack on hamburgers and
weenies (438); furthermore, he gains pleasure from reading novels (366) and playing
Scrabble (495). He does tell Travis that he dreams (456), which would indicate a complex
mind, but there is no exposition as to what these dreams typically involve. As a result, such
characterising details seem more concerned with humanising him (as a way to exceptionalise
him), and as a result, he is not extended any significant degree of canine subjectivity or
bestowed a unique canine identity.
Furthermore, unlike the dogs in the novels to follow, Einstein seems valued less for
his personal qualities than for what he represents in terms of scientific importance. His
possible death from the disease canine distemper is viewed more as a tragedy for modern
science than as a personal tragedy. As Einstein fights the disease, Travis considers what it
might mean should the dog die. Koontz writes, “And what other loss could be more
devastating than the loss of Einstein, this first hopeful evidence that humankind carried with
it the seeds not merely of greatness but of godhood?” (518). When the vet explains that the
encephalitis Einstein suffers may leave him brain damaged, but emphasises that this does not
necessarily mean he cannot be a good pet, Travis shouts, “To hell with whether he’d make a
good pet or not. I’m not concerned about physical effects on the brain damage. What about
his mind?” (507 original emphasis). Then when warned of long-term consequences of the
brain damage, such as incontinence, Travis adds, “I don’t give a damn if he pisses all over the
house as long as he can still think!” (508). Travis’ concerns for Einstein centre on the dog’s
retention of the trait that Travis, as a human being, values most: cognition, which in this
novel means the dog’s ability to produce human language. Rather than view Einstein’s death
as a tragedy in and of itself, Travis focuses on what Einstein’s death might mean for modern
science and, more generally, the triumph of humankind.
Einstein expresses one significant desire towards the end of the novel that is swiftly
superseded by his commoditisation. Despite the companionship offered by Travis and Nora,
Einstein feels lonely and decides that he would like a female dog in his life. Upon learning
this, Koontz immediately has Travis contemplate the potential benefits of breeding Einstein
because there is a fair chance he will produce extraordinarily intelligent offspring, or as
Koontz writes, “a colony of intelligent golden retrievers, thousands of them all over the
world” (553). As a result of Travis’ response to Einstein’s request, what could have evolved
to be an example of complex canine subjectivity is superseded by Travis’ instrumentalisation
of Einstein as a tool useful to produce more dogs who would, presumably, be born
intellectually gifted like their father.
Einstein’s flat characterisation becomes more evident when he is compared to other
dogs in dog narratives, such as Mr. Bones from Timbuktu. Like Einstein, Mr. Bones is the
sole companion to a troubled man who needs him and in this capacity he facilitates the
exposition of a human-centric story; yet, Mr. Bones is a rounded character, which means
“complex in temperament and motivation and…represented with subtle particularity”
(Abrams and Harpham 43). Unlike Koontz, Auster presents the dog’s journey in his novel as
equal in value to the human protagonist’s journey. Since the story unfolds from the dog’s
point of view, as in Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, the reader gains access to the dog’s
personal experiences, memories, thoughts, desires and motivations. As a result, Mr. Bones’
characterisation undermines his utility as a narrative tool or a canine companion and portrays
him as possessing a unique canine identity.
Timbuktu is concerned with issues relating to human social exclusion and to that end
Mr. Bones is useful for the exploration of this motif. From the outset, Auster’s story is
narrated through Mr. Bones’ consciousness; although, at the start, the story is centred on the
dog’s human companion, Willy G. Christmas. Willy is a lonely, unemployed, unwell,
homeless poet, aged in his late forties, who suffers from schizophrenia. He is also a social
outcast. After his father’s death, which occurs when Willy is aged twelve, he embarks on a
path of substance abuse, which exacerbates his symptoms of schizophrenia. Hallucinations
lead him to spend some time in a mental illness treatment facility and, ultimately, his
problems force him out of his mother’s home and onto the street. Drug use, mental illness,
low socio-economic status and homelessness are all factors that often result in social and
cultural victimisation (Hart et al 1582) and Willy suffers not from one, but all of these
conditions. After his mother dies, Willy, now middle-aged, is left without any immediate
family to provide him with financial, emotional or psychological support. He is estranged
from human society, unemployed and bereft of family and friends. Hence, he is left with only
one source of support and companionship: his dog, Mr. Bones.
Auster’s novel invites the reader to compare Willy and Mr. Bones as they wander the
streets of Baltimore together. In obvious ways, Willy and Mr. Bones are similar because they
face the same challenges. In the first instance, as Wendy Woodward observes, the two
characters are similarly “physically challenged by disease and poverty” (26). Owing to their
circumstances, they are overlooked and dismissed by society, have insufficient food, shelter
and health care and endure a difficult and degrading existence on the streets. Both attract
negative labels. Terms such as ‘homeless’, ‘insane’, ‘unemployed’ and ‘outcast’ are
descriptions that alienate people like Willy and Auster seems particularly interested in
addressing the ways that sufferers of mental disorders are stigmatised resulting in what
psychologists term social “devaluation and rejection” (Martinez et al 2). Willy’s situation
reflects social reality whereby those with differences such as mental illness are often demoted
to a “devalued social category” and may be “animalistically dehumanized…[or] rendered
animal-like in terms of lacking such uniquely human qualities of constraint, complex
emotional capacities, and refinement” (Martinez et al 3). The devaluation, rejection,
animalisation and dehumanisation that Willy suffers as a result of the labels society imposes
on him renders him more like Mr. Bones, who happens to be a member of a disenfranchised
and less venerated species.
Just as negative labels work to stigmatise Willy, they also alter the social perception
of certain groups of dogs in Western culture. Terms used to describe cross-breed dogs like
Mr. Bones, such as ‘mutt’ and the synonym ‘mongrel’, are contrasted with the more regal
terms ‘pedigree’ and ‘pure breed’. Discussing Victorian attitudes to dogs, Nik Taylor
explains, “Purebred dogs were something to be cherished, displaying as they did their
owners’ status, while mongrels were associated with commonness and commonality and were
therefore to be avoided at all costs” (47-8). Mr. Bones’ pre-existing identity issue as a result
of being a cross-breed is exacerbated by the death of his human companion and caregiver
because the consequences of his ancestry, once left without a human carer, are compounded.
Willy, prior to his death, establishes the importance of pedigree for social acceptability when
he explains to Mr. Bones that pure or recognisable dog breeds are more appealing to humans.
So Mr. Bones believes that as a “hodgepodge of genetic strains” he is fundamentally
undesirable (Auster 5). Furthermore, Mr. Bones suspects he has an additional handicap
because of his filthy, matted coat, dental decay and sad bloodshot eyes. He knows that
because of his mixed ancestry and motley appearance, his chances of being adopted from an
animal shelter after Willy dies are extremely poor.
Like his canine companion, Willy also has issues involving his sense of identity,
which leads him to attract even more labels. Through Mr. Bones’ memories of the rambling
stories that Willy has told him, we learn that Willy’s outcast status began when he was a child
in Brooklyn. An only son of poor long-suffering polish immigrants, Willy’s childhood is
described as cheerless as a result of living in an apartment “tinged with sourness and
desperation” (Auster 13). Identifying as an American while growing up, Willy feels estranged
from his parents and considers them to be “alien”, “embarrassing” and “foreign” (14).
Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that the term mongrel, has long been used as a
pejorative to describe a “person of mixed descent; a person whose parents are of different
nationalities; a person whose parents are of differing social status…[or a] person of low or
indeterminate status” (“mongrel”). Thus, like Mr. Bones, Willy feels as if he is genetically
disadvantaged and, like Mr. Bones, his mixed heritage places him in a cultural category that
is sometimes viewed by society as inferior.
The result of being persecuted on the basis of identity arises more forcefully in the
novel through Auster’s analogy between the fates of stray dogs and the fates of Jews who
were victims of the Holocaust.
16 On the run after Willy’s death, Mr. Bones knows that he
must avoid being captured by animal control because his identity as a ‘stray’ means that if
Parallels between the treatment and fate of Jews during the Holocaust and the treatment and fate of nonhuman
animals is well represented in the realm of Animal Studies just as it is in fiction. See Patterson’s Eternal
Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, 2002 and J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, 1999.
caught, he will be locked up at a shelter and will most likely be exterminated there. Auster
writes, “Mr. Bones knew the drill by heart: how to avoid the dog catchers and constables, the
paddy wagons and unmarked cars…No matter how sweetly they talked to you, the word
shelter meant trouble” (5 original emphasis). Free-roaming strays are the least desired dogs in
society and as a result of having no one specific to care about them. They are sought out,
captured, incarcerated and generally terminated. In this capacity, they are analogous to Jews
who were deemed “undesirable” and “relegated to the status of ‘vermin’ throughout history
in order to justify their extermination” (Serpell 229). While Jews were killed in carbon
monoxide chambers using a method called ‘gassing’ (Arluke 123), dogs in shelters are
typically killed using lethal injection today, however gassing is still used as a method for
Nazi concentration camps where Jews were incarcerated and the dog shelters of
urban landscapes are, therefore, similarly sites of capture and death.
Auster reinforces the parallel between Mr. Bones’ predicament and that of the Jewish
people during Hitler’s reign in the passage in which Willy posthumously addresses his dog in
a dream. In the dream, Willy brings up his mother’s successful evasion of the Nazis when he
says, “Remember Mom-san, Mr. Bones?…Well, they tried to kill her too. They hunted her
down like a dog and she had to run for her life” (Auster 120). Like Willy’s mother, if
captured, Mr. Bones knows he will be taken to a concrete shelter, a place reminiscent of
concentration camps of the Holocaust. Willy tells Mr. Bones that “the word shelter meant
trouble. It would begin with nets and tranquillizer guns, devolve into a nightmare of cages
and fluorescent lights, and end with a lethal injection or a dose of poisonous gas” (5 original
emphasis). This sequence, as Woodward observes, reflects the genocide of Jewish people,
and this model of extermination, she argues, “recalls the Final Solution” (33). While the term
‘Final Solution’ referred to the genocide of the Jewish people, in Western culture, where dogs
As well as widely used to kill animals raised in industrialised food production industries.
are concerned, the official term use to denote the extermination of ‘unwanted’ dogs is
‘humane euthanasia’. By drawing a parallel between Mr. Bones’ predicament as a stray dog
and the treatment of Jewish people during the Holocaust, Auster emphasises not only the
gravity of the socially ‘undesirable’ dog’s plight but he compounds the extent of Mr. Bones’
victimisation at the hands of a culture who depersonalises dogs in order to justify destroying
them. As a result, the reader further empathises with Mr. Bones and desires for him a much
more positive outcome.
Woodward highlights the many parallels drawn between Willy and Mr. Bones in
Timbuktu, and suggests that these parallels reflect the novel’s concerns with “connections and
vulnerabilities”, and ideas about the “‘shared vulnerability’ of humans and animals” (28); yet,
Woodward, like Auster, does not privilege the exploration of human vulnerabilities over
nonhuman ones. In one sense, Willy reflects the devaluation and dehumanisation suffered by
those in the world who are like him while Mr. Bones embodies the plight of unwelcome free-
roaming dogs who face similar issues to the homeless human being. Yet, Auster’s novel can
either be read as a narrative about human social exclusion told through the experience of a
stray dog or it can be considered a novel about the social exclusion of stray dogs told through
a story about a human. In the former instance, the dog is used as a means to an
anthropocentric end and in the latter instance the man is a means to a canine-centric end, or
perhaps more correctly, both are devices and it is the way in which the novel is read that
changes the object of instrumentality. In this way, Mr. Bones’ function goes well beyond that
of Einstein in Watchers.
There is one further way in which Auster’s novel, whether intentionally or not,
provides a fuller and more ambivalent representation of dogs’ role as ‘companions’. After
walking through the city streets in the wake of Willy’s death, Mr. Bones encounters Henry
Chow, a lonely schoolboy. Henry, like Willy, is socially isolated but instead of suffering from
schizophrenia and homelessness, he is identified as “an only child whose parents worked long
hours” (Auster 100) and Auster describes him as “a solitary child, a boy who was used to
being alone and living in his thoughts” (105). His sense of alienation is likely exacerbated
because, like Willy and Mr. Bones, Henry’s ontological identity is destabilised, in this case
because he is a Chinese boy residing in America. Just as Mr. Bones functions as a sounding
board for Willy in life, “a man in love with his own voice” who talks to his dog constantly
(6), he also serves as a sounding board for the “smallest, most ephemeral musings that flitted
through…[Henry’s] eleven-year-old brain” (105). Henry and Willy take advantage of Mr.
Bones as an obligatory listener because neither man nor boy has anyone they feel they can
talk to. Just as Berger argues our interest in other animals is self-serving, in Auster’s novel,
Mr. Bones completes, confirms and validates these people. He fills the void of loneliness and
remedies Henry’s intense feelings of interpersonal disconnection. Furthermore, in a way that
reflects precisely the point made by Dunayer discussed above, ‘companion’ becomes Mr.
Bones’ defining trait and is something inseparable from his nonhuman being. He feels
obliged to be and remain some human’s companion, which essentially restricts and
Dunayer goes further than determining the term ‘companion animal’ to be reductive;
she claims it is potentially dangerous because “such an animal has no place… if they aren’t
some human’s companion or their companionship fails to please” and, as a result, “they can
be abandoned or killed” (8). Indeed, this is reflected in Timbuktu through Auster’s depiction
of the potential consequences of Mr. Bones’ cultural categorisation. As a domesticated dog
bred to provide humans with companionship, Mr. Bones cannot fathom a life that is not based
upon interspecies co-dependence. He is so dependent upon Willy that he suffers from what
Edward Stourton, author of Diary of a Dog–Walker, calls “canine monomania” (115),
meaning that he is fixated on his human companion and feels defined by this relationship.
Mr. Bones proclaims that it is “next to impossible for him to imagine a world that did not
have his master in it”; indeed, “pure ontological terror” is evoked when he tries to conceive
of his world without Willy and he believes that when Willy dies, “the odds were that the
world itself would cease to exist” (Auster 4). Without a human to care for him, Mr. Bones
believes he has only two options: either continue to live as a stray and risk being captured,
confined and eventually exterminated or give up on living altogether. Of the former option,
Auster writes, “Mr. Bones had run into homeless dogs in the past, but he had never felt
anything but pity for them – pity and a touch of distain” (88). He fears the “loneliness of their
lives was to brutal too contemplate” and avoids these “abject creatures” because of the “ticks
and fleas hidden in their fur”, and for fear “the diseases and desperation they carried would
rub off on him” (89), and his fear of the dog shelter is clear. Notably, even Mr. Bones
perpetrates a kind of exclusion whereby some dogs, the ones he considers to be ‘true’ strays,
are undesirable to him. Thus, his aversion to being an outcast leads him to select the latter
option, and he chooses to die on his own terms by running across a busy motorway.
Mr. Bones commits suicide because his designation as ‘companion’ makes it
impossible for him to imagine that he could have an autonomous, valuable and independent
life outside of the human-canine paradigm. His decision to die, of course, is made easier by
the fact that he believes in a spiritual place called ‘Timbuktu’, where after death on Earth,
man and dog can reunite. The appeal of reaching Timbuktu is manifold, but one benefit Mr.
Bones cites is that in Timbuktu, dogs can speak the language of humans which, as discussed
in Chapter One in regards to Stein’s Enzo, is often imagined to appeal to canine characters.
Given the impossibility of this dream, and since it is the promise of reunion with his human
counterpart that most appeals to Mr. Bones, the reader is left wondering whether there is ever
any possibility of a rich and pleasurable life for Mr. Bones outside of his role as this man’s
Lending equal weight and importance to the human and canine experiences of social
alienation makes Auster’s novel unique because the main narrative arc does not overtly
privilege the human journey over the canine one. Only if Timbuktu is read from a human-
centric perspective is Mr. Bones’ usefulness as a resource for Auster’s engagement with this
anthropocentric focus potentially reductive. There is no doubt as to the many ways Mr. Bones
as a character acts as a resource useful in the telling of Willy’s story but, as already shown,
this novel differs from typical dog narratives in the way it represents the canine experience as
equally valid as the human’s journey. Indeed, Auster employs numerous effective techniques
in order to ensure the reader recognises that dogs, with or without a human guardian to care
for them, live rich emotional lives filled with valid experiences. While the life may be one
filled with struggles and hardships, as is the case with Mr. Bones, it is a legitimate existence,
Through the exposition of complex thoughts and the revelation of dreams and desires
Mr. Bones transcends his restriction to a social role and emerges as a multi-faceted canine
character. One way this is achieved, using a technique obviously different from that used in
Koontz’s novel, is that Timbuktu is told from the canine protagonist’s perspective. Structuring
the narrative in this way encourages the reader to adopt Mr. Bones’ point of view and thus
identify with him as he endures life without Willy. Experiencing the world from the dog’s
perspective evokes an intimacy in the narrative and leads to a deeper understanding of the
gravity of Mr. Bones’ predicament. The reader shares the dog’s experiences as they witness
the many perils he faces as a free roaming stray dog. Auster evokes a sense of pathos through
the reader’s recognition that Mr. Bones is acutely aware of this dreadful fate that awaits him
should he be captured. Timbuktu is a creative imagining of how an actual dog might feel
about, and deal with, the fears, desires and motivations that might arise if put in a similar
circumstance. Of course, how a dog would actually feel can never be known, but Auster
effectively speculates how a dog who has only even known a life amongst humans might be
driven to avoid death and danger, and long to find another human to care for him.
Telling the story from the canine protagonist’s perspective means that Auster is able
to have Mr. Bones express his complex thoughts and sensations. The effectiveness of this
technique can be seen in the passage when Auster has Mr. Bones explain how being bred
dependent upon humans makes him feel once he is left alone. Auster writes: “He was a dog
built for companionship, for the give-and-take life with others, and he needed to be touched
and spoken to, to be part of a world that included more than just himself” (140). Mr. Bones’
awareness of his dependence upon humans, as a result of being bred a companion animal,
shows not only that he is a self-reflective and emotionally complex individual, it emphasises
the pitfalls of this designation. “He had grown into a soft, civilized creature, a thinking dog
instead of an athletic dog,” he laments, “and as far back as he could remember his bodily
needs had been taken care of by someone else” (Auster 88). When hunger sees him attempt to
stalk and fell a ‘stupid’, plump, slow-moving pigeon but fail, he feels embarrassed and is left
to scavenge garbage scraps (92). Mr. Bones’ experience of shame reveals him to be not
merely a literary convenience, but an emotionally intelligent, sensitive and fragile natured
canine character in his own right.
It is the itinerancy trope – previously discussed in relation to Lassie and Timoleon
Vieta in Chapter Two – that ultimately extends subjectivity to Mr. Bones and undermines his
limiting cultural classification. After Willy’s death on a suburban sidewalk, the arrival of the
police prompts Mr. Bones to flee to avoid capture. Thereafter, his journey is itinerant as he
first encounters a group of cruel boys at a park, then Henry Chow, whom he has to leave
because of Henry’s violent father; finally he spends some time with the bourgeois Jones
family. Like Lassie and Timoleon Vieta, Mr. Bones is given various names such as ‘Cal’ and
then ‘Sparky’. Laura Brown explains that the aim of the itinerancy trope is ultimately
anthropocentric as the dog’s transition from person to person serves to “assert the diversity of
human experience” (133). While this is certainly true in many cases, novels like Auster’s
suggest this anthropocentrism is not inevitable, because in such texts, the dogs’ itinerancy
also functions as a reminder that animals bred for the purposes of providing companionship
to humans are not defined by this human-relegated role. Beyond the label, there exists a dog,
not bound to a human assigned designation, but rather who inhabits a unique canine identity.
Within the world of the novel, no one observes or acknowledges Mr. Bones’
immediate and desperate search for food, water and shelter. Although he goes unnoticed as he
wanders the streets in search of food and laps up “the warm, grayish water” from puddles
(Auster 86), Auster provides a detailed account of these experiences. No one observes his joy
at finding “an ice cream cone melting on the sidewalk” or watches as he scavenges “the
remnants of a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner someone had left on a park bench” (92, 93), yet
Auster still describes these experiences in vivid detail. Auster even goes as far as to document
the dog’s capitulatory request for death. He writes:
[Mr. Bones] rolled onto his back and spread his legs wide open – exposing his throat,
belly and genitals to the sky. He was utterly vulnerable to attack in that position.
Splayed out in puppylike innocence, he waited for God to strike him dead, fully
prepared to offer himself up as a sacrifice now that his master was gone. (94)
It seems that not even God is watching as his request for death at this time is denied. Shortly
after, in the moments before his suicide on the highway, he waits in vain by the side of the
road hoping that someone driving by might stop and pick him up. Instead, he attracts a new
label and becomes just another “sick and crazy old dog” wandering on the motorway (180),
but he is certainly not just a sick and crazy dog to the reader who having witnessed his
harrowing journey feels empathy for him and invests in a happy ending for this individual at
the conclusion of an arduous and harrowing journey. Most of Mr. Bones’ experiences take
place unseen or unacknowledged by the humans around him; yet, it is by documenting these
events in detail that Auster shows that animal experiences do not require the observation or
validation of humans in order to matter or exist.
In contrast to Mr. Bones’ suicide in Timbuktu, whereby the dog is likely neither
missed nor mourned, there are multiple witnesses to the murder of the canine protagonist in
Jack Ketchum’s novel Red and at least one man is left deeply aggrieved. Like in Koontz’s
and Auster’s novels, Red’s murder at the hands of teenager Daniel McCormack enables
Ketchum to develop a human-centric narrative involving Avery Ludlow’s reconnection with
his estranged family and explore issues relating to social justice. It soon becomes clear that
Avery’s response to his dog’s killing is not just a reaction to the event itself but rather relates
to all the psychological meanings rising up from Avery’s past that have become attached to it.
In this regard, Ketchum clearly utilises Red as a character to facilitate Avery’s reconnection
with his family and the wider community.
The extent to which Red’s murder facilitates Ketchum’s human-focussed interests in
the narrative becomes evident when the true motivation for Avery’s search for justice
emerges. At first, it seems that Avery seeks justice for his dog’s murder because the act was
cruel and wanton. However, on closer inspection, it seems that to a large degree, Avery’s
need for justice stems more specifically from his outstanding issues with his son Billy. His
reaction to Red’s death is rooted in unresolved grief and anger over Billy having murdered
Mary and Tim. The novel suggests this by implicitly linking Red’s murder and the deaths of
Avery’s family members in various ways: for example, the similarities in age and the shared
tendencies towards antisocial and criminal conduct that exist between Billy and Red’s killer,
Daniel; and the fact that Avery’s family, like the McCormack family, has “a whole lot of bad
troubles in it” because of young boys with profound “problems” (Ketchum 137).
Furthermore, Avery’s quest for justice has much to do with his need to punish Daniel
because Daniel reminds him of Billy. Billy is described as a troubled boy who would lie,
steal, who dropped out of school and could not retain a job. The Navy officially discharges
him for mental instability. On the fateful night, while Avery and Alice are out, Billy, aged 24
years at the time, asks Mary for money and when she refuses he beats her and leaves. He
returns to douse his sleeping brother, Tim, and his unconscious mother in petrol and sets the
house on fire. Tim dies in the fire and Mary dies in hospital five days later. Ketchum invites
the reader to connect Billy’s acts of familial homicide and Daniel’s act of animal cruelty
when it transpires that justice for Avery constitutes no more than an admission of guilt and
apology, which despite coming from Daniel, might substitute for the admission and apology
Avery never got from Billy. The importance of gaining an apology is clear when Carrie
Donnel asks Avery what became of Billy. Avery explains that Billy blamed the murders on
another boy: “I said I’d stand by him even after what he did if he’d just admit it and stop his
damn lying and tell my why he did it, why he had to go and kill them” (97 original emphasis).
Read in this way, the literary function of the dog in this novel is revealed: Red’s death is the
catalyst to prompt Avery’s revisiting of his family trauma, the resolution of his emotional and
psychological pain and the reconnection with his fractured family.
In the world of the novel, Red, like Mr. Bones in Timbuktu, functions as a literary
device to support a human-focused narrative and he fulfills a social role as a companion.
Avery Ludlow’s wife Mary gives Red, a puppy at the time, to her husband on his 53rd
birthday. After Mary’s and Tim’s murders, Avery – now aged 67 – is devastated and
emotionally dependent on his dog who becomes a psychological prop. In other ways,
however, Ketchum – just like Auster – gives Red a subjectivity that goes beyond his
instrumental functions. The dog is characterised as possessing a canine identity and depicted
as a valuable individual. After being shot and killed by Daniel McCormack, Red is also
considered worthy of the justice his human guardian seeks for him.
Like Einstein in Watchers and Mr. Bones in Timbuktu, in Ketchum’s novel, Red is the
only friend to a socially isolated adult male. Even before Red’s death, Avery suffers some
loneliness and depression as a result of his social isolation. While he has some friendships
with the likes of lawyer Sam Berry, his employee Bill Prine and local woman, Emma
Siddons, Avery is socially withdrawn as a result of his family tragedy. His daughter Alice,
who was not home and so was not physically harmed on the evening of Billy’s killing spree,
has since married and moved away. Avery avoids her for fear she will raise the issue of
reconciliation with Billy. Avery’s father, almost ninety years of age, resides in a nursing
home and although Avery confides in him, the two seem estranged. No definitive reason
exists for this estrangement but when Avery visits his father, their conversation ends with his
father saying “Go on about your business son…Come see me again sometime before my
birthday. You can be a worrisome difficult son of a bitch but I don’t mind your company, not
at all” (Ketchum 107). Thus, for various reasons, Avery has minimal contact with his
surviving family and is distanced from friends, so without Red as a companion, he is
Ketchum’s characterisation of Red as a feeling and knowing individual begins when
Red acts autonomously to provide Avery after tragedy strikes his family. Avery struggles to
deal with his loss: “There were times after Mary and Tim’s deaths he’d drink himself to
sleep” (Ketchum 105). However Red, who has “a clock in his belly unfixed to Ludlow’s
sorrow” assists his human guardian’s recovery through his persistent attempts to rouse Avery
in the mornings. He licks Avery’s face and makes it his habit to “burrow beneath the covers
and with his cold wet nose seek out the back of Ludlow’s neck” (105). Even when Avery
responds by striking Red, he persists. Ketchum writes, “The dog would not permit Ludlow
his indulgences and self-pity…” (106). Despite struggling with severe depression, Avery finds
pleasure in the activities he shares with Red, such as fishing and hiking. Thus, Red’s
companionship compensates, at least in part, for Mary and Tim’s absence and the dog’s
presence assists Avery to partially recover.
Avery’s memories of Red and the fact he was a source of support for his grieving
human guardian provides insight into this dog’s unique personality. Furthermore, as
discussed in Chapter Two, Red is remembered as being a dog who dreamed of chasing cats
and rabbits or perhaps running alongside Mary or Tim. He has a rich inner life and exercises
preferences and expresses motivations and desires. Avery’s attachment to Red and perception
of him as a worthy individual are strong. Avery’s desire for justice after his dog’s murder is,
as previously shown, certainly linked to his desire for justice for his wife and son but, in
addition to this, Avery seeks justice for Red because he genuinely believes the dog deserves
it. Ketchum goes to great lengths to depict Red as a sensitive social being whose murder is
worthy of attention. By assigning Red such intrinsic value, Ketchum validates animal cruelty
as a serious social issue connected to human antisocial behaviour that places not only
nonhuman animals but also society in danger. In addition to this, he also demonstrates that
literature, and in particular fiction, are useful and valuable media for exploring issues about
animals and human-animal relations. By various means, Ketchum encourages the reader to
view Red as having inherent value and he emphasises that to Avery, the dog is a unique and
worthy being. In this way, like Auster in Timbuktu, Ketchum produces a paradox whereby he
uses the companion animal, in this case not to explore human social exclusion, but to
facilitate a resolution to Avery’s family drama and initiate a reunion with his daughter and
her family. Yet he also aims to ensure the dog is not just a device but rather a worthy being in
his own right.
In all three novels discussed above, then, dogs perform in various ways that provide
companionship to lonely individuals as well as functioning to support the anthropocentric
narrative; in Timbuktu and Red, however, this does not occur at the expense of representing
dogs as developed and detailed individuals. In Wroblewski’s bildungsroman, The Story of
Edgar Sawtelle, something different again happens: here, the dogs are obviously narrative
devices and the details of their instrumentalisation as companions are laid bare.
Wroblewski’s novel is widely recognised as a contemporary revisiting of
Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In her 2014 essay, ‘An Onomastic Approach to The Story of Edgar
Sawtelle: David Wroblewski’s Transformation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’, Marie Nelson
examines the significance of character names in Wroblewski’s novel. She argues that names
“guide the reader from the beginning to the end… [and] whether the source being drawn upon
is Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Kipling’s Jungle Books, the Sawtelle dogs are presented as
having as fully developed personalities as human beings” (29-30). Annette Krizanich argues,
“Wroblewski’s novel utilizes parallels with Hamlet to depict a world in which animals can be
morally superior to humans, in order to subvert the ideology of human exceptionalism” (90).
Krizanich suggests that the Sawtelle dogs Almondine and Essay represent Shakespearian
characters Ophelia and Horatio respectively, and the stray dog named Forte, who lives in the
woods, represents Fortinbras (92-3). When read in this way, the novel’s implementation of
the canine characters as literary devices is clearly apparent.
Like Watchers and Red, Wroblewski’s novel is primarily about the life of a human
being, in this case Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar is socially isolated owing to his muteness (as
discussed in Chapter One), and because he is an only child living on a remote farm. He does
attend school but there is no mention of any significant interpersonal relationships he has
outside of his immediate family. So like Travis Cornell, Willy G. Christmas and Avery
Ludlow in the previous novels, Edgar Sawtelle harbours a closer relationship with dogs than
he does with the humans in his life and, furthermore, it can be argued that the dogs actually
serve to replace human relationships. Edgar’s preference for spending time with dogs over
people stems largely from his ability to communicate with dogs using gestures. While all the
canine characters in the novel assist with the telling of this human’s story, it is Sawtelle dog
Almondine who, like Einstein, Mr. Bones and Red, serves as a substitute for a human in her
co-dependent interspecies relationship with Edgar.
Edgar and Almondine’s relationship is described as if they are siblings, even twins.
When Edgar is born and brought home, he is introduced to Almondine in much the same way
one child is introduced to a newborn brother or sister. Holding Edgar swaddled in her arms,
Trudy allows Almondine to approach and smell the baby, whispering “No licks” in her ear
(Wroblewski 33). They interact throughout his infancy and childhood; they play games
together in the hills and around the barn. They soon come to view each other as a missing
part of themselves that when absent leaves them incomplete. Wroblewski writes:
18 In Krizanich’s reading of the novel, the dogs’ parallel to human characters from Hamlet is done as a means to
an (uncharacteristically) animal-centric end. However, to what end they are used as literary devices does not
detract from the fact that they are still functioning as devices.
Others dreamed of finding a person in the world whose soul was made in their mirror
image, but [Almondine] and Edgar had been conceived nearly together, grown up
together, and however strange it might be, she was his other. (457)
Almondine misses Edgar after he runs away from the farm taking three of the Sawtelle dogs
along with him. As she is not with him when he flees, she is left behind to wander around the
farm looking for her “essence”, her “soul” (463). Working against the premise that dogs do
not have souls (see Chapter One), Almondine is humanised in the novel through her
characterisation as Edgar’s soul mate. She is his sibling because he has no human sibling, his
spiritual counterpart because he needs one: and in this sense, like Einstein, Mr. Bones and
Red, she appears to be a psychological prop.
However, in a way similar to Ketchum’s and Auster’s characterisation respectively of
Red and Mr. Bones, Wroblewski’s depiction of Almondine moves her beyond functioning as
a mere pseudo sibling or psychological prop. To begin with, two of the chapters in the novel
are written from her point of view. While speaking for dogs, as I have acknowledged
previously, might not be an accurate representation of canine consciousness, as with Stein in
The Art of Racing in the Rain and Auster in Timbuktu, Wroblewski nevertheless tries to find
ways to imagine himself into Almondine’s mind. This is evident in the passage where she
meets Edgar for the first time, as described and discussed in Chapter One. It is, however,
Edgar’s musings about Almondine while on the run that provides the most vivid account of
this dog’s unique and complex character. Upon planning his return to the farm after his
sabbatical in the woods, Edgar looks forward to reuniting with Almondine. He reminisces
about how “she liked peanut butter but not peanuts; how she preferred lima beans to corn but
refused peas; how, best of all, she adored honey, any way she could get it, licked from his
fingers, licked from his lips, dabbed on her nose. How she liked to snatch things from his
hands and let him take them back” (Wroblewski 471). In being given detailed and intricate
preferences and desires, like those given to Red and Hobbes (see Chapter Two), Almondine
becomes the subject-of-a-life. In this way, Wroblewski presents Almondine as being as apt a
soul mate and sibling as a human brother or sister or friend would be. The surrogacy trope,
then, in this case, actually offers a challenge to anthropocentrism and the deficiency
hypothesis. This human-canine interspecies relationship is not trivialised or presented as an
inappropriate or inadequate relationship and this particular dog is characterised as an
intelligent and discerning individual.
Significantly, Almondine differs from the rest of the Sawtelle dogs because she is not
for sale and is treated as a direct member of the Sawtelle family member. The other dogs
however are products fashioned into marketable commodities, or ‘companions’. It is though
Wroblewski’s meticulous outlining of the process involved in breeding and training dogs to
perform as ‘companions’ that the depth of instrumentalisation behind this ubiquitously
designated social role is revealed.
Sawtelle dogs are selectively bred are highly regimented through rigorous training
practices in order to become “Canis posterus – the ‘next dogs’” as Gar Sawtelle calls them,
which in the novel correlates to the ‘ideal’ canine companions (Wroblewski 176). The
Sawtelle family has been breeding dogs for three generations, ever since Edgar’s grandfather,
John, bought land upon which he established the Sawtelle farm and dog kennels. John’s
interest in breeding dogs begins as a hobby, when he trades his own dog’s pups with pups
bred locally. As John’s hobby develops, Wroblewski writes he “converted the giant barn into
a kennel…[and] honed his gift for breeding dogs, dogs so unlike the shepherds and hounds
and retrievers and sled dogs he used as foundation stock they simply became known as
Sawtelle dogs” (19). The breed is created by John Sawtelle’s introduction of dogs with traits
that he admires into the bloodline, especially particular kinds of intelligence. For example, he
trades a pup born to his own canine companion, Violet, for a pup sired by a local dog named
Captain. While Captain’s physical appearance appeals to John, he is more interested in the
fact there is “something about his eyes – the way the dog met his gaze” (11). Since what
captures John’s attention is Captain’s sociability, the way he “trotted around greeting the
patrons” in a local bar, and the fact that when ordered to greet John, Captain “lifted a paw to
shake” (11), it seems John equates canine intelligence with attentiveness to humans and
obedience. John Sawtelle’s search for apparently intelligent dogs is again evident in the
passage where he requests that the pup Captain’s guardian, Billy, chooses to trade with him
should be the “smartest pup” from the litter (14 original emphasis). So while aesthetics is
important, it is something “less tangible” (11) that John seeks as the defining trait of his
unique canine creation. As a result, the ‘Sawtelle dog’ is a highly regarded and much sought-
Wroblewski goes on to outline the degree unto which the Sawtelle dogs are
genetically and behaviourally manipulated in order to become so-called ‘Canis posterus’. In
addition to intelligence, the Sawtelle dogs are bred for loyalty and devotion. Margo DeMello,
discussing the story of Odysseus and his faithful dog Argos, points out that the dog who waits
for his or her master “represents two of the qualities that we most associate with dogs: loyalty
and waiting” (8). Before Trudy and Gar inherit the farm, it is said that John Sawtelle sought
out dogs showing high levels of loyalty and devotion to their human ‘master’.
One such dog
features in some letters that Edgar finds long after his grandfather’s death, sent to John from a
man named Charles Adwin, who shares the story of Hachiko, a dog in Tokyo whose tale
19 The term ‘master’ in reference to a dog’s human guardian is a ubiquitous term. It should be noted that this
term explicitly reveals the human-companion animal relationship to be one based on power inequality. The term
is used uncritically in The Art of Racing in the Rain, Watchers, The Dogs of Babel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,
Timoleon Vieta Come Home– A Sentimental Journey and Timbuktu.
resembles Homer’s story about Argos in Odyssey.
Like Argos, a loyal dog who for a decade
“awaits his master’s return from battle” (DeMello 8), Hachiko waits daily for his ‘master’
Professor Ueno at the Shibuya train station even though Ueno died three years prior. Charles
writes that he suspects Hachiko knew Ueno was dead; yet, still he returns to the station until
his own death. Hachiko’s devotion to his ‘master’ is so admirable that a monument is erected
in Japan in his honour. John Sawtelle is also impressed by Hachiko’s devotion and in a
written response he requests that Charles locate the dog’s breeder and obtain a pup for him.
To serve as ‘ideal’ companions, Sawtelle dogs are selectively bred to be smart and
loyal but it seems good genetics are not enough as extensive training is also required to
complete the process. Sawtelle dogs are taught to be obedient by enduring a strict daily
training regime virtually from birth until the dogs are placed in new homes aged eighteen
months. As pups, they are taught to obey numerous commands including, but not limited to
“hurdles”, “retrieves”, “stays”, “balance work”, “bite-and-hold exercises” (Wroblewski 22),
“come-fors” (119), “long-distance downs”, “standing stay[s]”, (121) “guided fetches” (421),
“crazywalking”, “releases” and “shared gaze drills” (180). The expectation placed on trained
dogs is high. Wroblewski writes: “From the time they were pups, Sawtelle dogs learned that
stay meant remaining not just still but quiet…” (87 original emphasis). Furthermore, the dogs
are ‘proofed’, which means taught to tolerate and respond ‘appropriately’ to unexpected or
stress-inducing stimuli (92-3). Hence, notwithstanding their supposedly superior genetics, the
Sawtelle dogs’ training schedule is protracted, exhaustive and highly complex.
20 Hachiko’s story is told in the 2004 children’s book, Hachiko Waits, by Lesléa Newman. Yet another
significant example of the ‘faithful dog’ story is the legend of Skye terrier, Greyfriars Bobby. He is deemed to
be “Scotland’s most famous dog” and “the most faithful dog in the world” because he “kept vigil at his master’s
grave for fourteen long years” until his own death in 1872 (Bondeson 7).
The Sawtelle dogs epitomise the extent unto which domesticated dogs are created and
conditioned to fulfil the role of companion in the Western world. They resemble Paul
Sheperd’s description of the contemporary domestic pet: highly genetically manipulated
“monsters of the order invented by Frankenstein…engineered to conform to our wishes”
(553). They are “biological slaves who cringe and fawn or perform whatever we
wish…embodiments of trust, dependence, companionship, aesthetic beauty, vicarious power,
innocence, or action by command… they are organic machines conforming to our needs”
(Sheperd 553). Yet, like Auster and Ketchum, Wroblewski complicates this act of strict
design and accompanying social designation by drawing his readers’ attention to ideas about
captivity and freedom, control and choice. In raising questions about the capacity of dogs to
make choices and demonstrating the possible outcomes when given the opportunity to choose
how they live their own lives, Wroblewski invites the reader to consider the legitimacy of
producing dogs to serve as contrived and controlled, commoditised providers of
companionship. It is through the characterisation of two particular dogs in the novel, Forte
and Essay, Wroblewski most obviously makes his inquiry into the ways that humans create
and control domesticated dogs.
Forte challenges ideas about dog’s willingness to submit to human dominion by
rejecting the offer of domestication. He is not a Sawtelle dog but he is a pedigree German
shepherd aged about one year who is suspicious of humans after living in the woods
surrounding the Sawtelle farm for some time. His status as a stray is apparent owing to his
emaciation and the fact he eats gravel to quell his hunger. It is his hunger that makes him
vulnerable to humans as demonstrated when Gar and Edgar repeatedly attempt to lure him
using food. For example, Gar is said to have “produced a plastic bag” from which he “shook
out dinner scraps” (Wroblewski 71) and later Gar and Edgar leave out a bowl of kibble
tethered to a tree (75). Edgar keeps the bowl regularly topped up and, eventually, having
earned Forte’s trust, Wroblewski writes that the dog “ate the kibble from Edgar’s hand” (90).
Edgar is keen to capture and domesticate Forte so that he might be brought “into the line”
(80), meaning bred into the bloodline to improve the quality of the Sawtelle pedigree. If
captured and used in this way, Forte would relinquish his freedom, subjugate to human
control and be used to manufacture ‘ideal’ canine companions alongside the other Sawtelle
Forte, whose name “comes from the Latin root ‘fortitude’ and is associated with
resolute endurance” (Nelson 26), so just happens to mean strong, resists submission to
domestication despite accepting food from Edgar’s hand and allowing Edgar to stroke and
groom him. Armbruster states that in the dog narrative, “the classic formula requires dogs to
suppress or abandon their wild or natural aspects and subjugate their own interests to those of
human culture” (354). Yet unlike the Sawtelle dogs, who are born into captivity and are bred
to be loyal and obedient companions, Forte does not suppress his own interests and
continually chooses to return alone to live in the woods. Despite Forte’s resistance, Edgar is
eager to possess him; however, Gar extends subjectivity and autonomy to the dog when he
says the decision to join them must be left to the dog. By emphasising Forte’s rejection of
domestication – which also signifies his resistance to becoming a means to improve the
Sawtelle pedigree – Wroblewski questions what freedom for a dog really means and invites
the reader to reflect on how much freedom domesticated dogs actually do or should have. The
kind of freedom, one presumes, that would include the option to reject a human-designated
social role, and freedom to mate with whom he chooses, rather than having breeding partners
chosen for him through the process of selective breeding.
Despite all efforts, Forte resists joining the Satwelles and the highly commoditised
dogs on the farm. Sawtelle dog, Essay, also called “the wild one, and the leader” in the novel
(Wroblewski 107) is the dog whose journey from captivity to freedom resonates most
prominently in the narrative. After Edgar causes the accidental death of veterinarian and
family friend Doctor Papineau, he flees the farm with the litter of seven dogs he raised;
however, four of them cannot cross the river and so return to the farm. Three dogs, Baboo,
Tinder and Essay remain with him as he spends an extended period living in the wilderness.
One night while camping in the woods together, Edgar and Essay are sitting by the fire
cooking fish when Forte appears. Not wanting Essay to rise from her position, Edgar “ask[s]
her to stay with the pressure of his hand” (455). Wroblewski writes, “It wasn’t a command.
He felt he hadn’t the right anymore…” (455). Considering that Edgar has not previously
hesitated to command the dogs, his recognition that Essay has her own desires leads him to
decide he can no longer control her. This passage in the novel questions human control over
dogs that is largely achieved through training, which was previously presented in the novel as
a necessary exercise to forge these dogs into desirable commodities. Edgar comes to realise
training directly conflicts with allowing dogs freedom of choice, which he comes to recognise
is something they deserve.
Wroblewski has his primary protagonist Edgar question the way in which humans
breed and control dogs in order to have them fulfil a particular function. He overtly questions
his right to command them. Edgar’s realisation that the Sawtelle dogs – despite having been
created to serve an anthropocentric purpose– should be given the choice to act and live as
they wish arises again in the narrative’s climactic event. When Edgar returns to the farm to
confront his uncle Claude over Gar’s suspicious murder, a barn fire breaks out during which
all the kennelled dogs are set free for their own safety. As Essay, the ever-faithful disciple,
attempts to follow Edgar into the barn, Wroblewski writes, “He took her ruff in his hands to
shake her down, scare her away, then stopped himself. They were done with commands”
(534). Once again, the reader is reminded that Edgar’s view of controlling these dogs has
evolved. He has come to consider that commanding the dogs is improper as it impinges on
their rights to choose how they wish to act and respond in a given situation. He recognises
they are more than just commodities. More importantly, this moment signals Essay’s
transition from a dog who was bred to serve humans in a social role to a dog who is being
freed from her role as a companion.
Perhaps as a result of her relationship with Forte, or conceivably acting upon her
volition, Essay’s final choice is to reject being a subjugated and dependent canine
companion. It is with her decision to leave the Sawtelles and the Sawtelle farm along with her
four remaining littermates, as well as two additional pups, that Wroblewski chooses to end
his novel. She and her new pack depart the farm and cross over into the forest where Forte,
“the missing link that will take [Essay’s] offspring safely beyond human plotting” (Copeland
358), awaits them. Leaving their lives of domestication, captivity, conditioning and forced
breeding behind, Essay and her pack choose freedom over living alongside humans.
Wroblewski ends his novel with the sentence: “Essay stepped into the grass…She looked
behind her one last time, into the forest and along the way they’d come, and when she was
sure all of them were together now and no others would appear, she turned and made her
choice and began to cross” (562). Wroblewski leaves the details of Essay’s ‘choice’
ambiguous, but perhaps the ‘grass’ in this passage is not merely foliage underfoot – or
perhaps underpaw – but representative of a preferable existence on the far side of the dividing
line between domestication and freedom. Freed of humans’ expectations of them, and given
the freedom from providing companionship, they truly achieve liberation in this novel. They
reject living as captives and refuse to be commodities on the Sawtelles’ dog-breeding farm.
For as long as dogs have been cohabiting with humans they have appeared prolifically
in cultural narratives. In this capacity, they are widely represented in accordance with the
roles they perform and as defined within certain categories. Categorising animals serves to
bracket them together under a label that prevents us from viewing them as unique individuals
rather than as generic members of a particular group (Taylor 60). Even on the most basic
level, the category of ‘animal’, widely used to differentiate humans from other species, is
“the product of a social construction” which, Taylor suggests, arises from humans’ need to
classify and compartmentalise other animals, to attach meanings to them and give them
identities, perhaps to “make sense of them” (Taylor 59). Yet, the labels nonhuman animals
such as dogs tend to attract defines them in terms of their usefulness to humankind. Thinking
about nonhuman animals in terms of their utility, and ascribing titles to them that reinforce
their culturally ascribed roles, denies the animal inherent or intrinsic worth and suggests that
their only value exists in relation to their value to us.
Dog narratives are a particularly useful medium for exploring the meanings that are
ascribed to dogs through the relegation of the various labels and social roles they are given.
Many dog narratives, including Watchers, Timbuktu, Red, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,
in various ways and to varying degrees, represent dogs as being a means to an
anthropocentric end. In Watchers, Einstein unites two lonely individuals, provides Travis
with companionship and fulfils this depressed man’s need to be needed. Details of Einstein’s
personal and traumatic journey are clearly supplementary to the narrative arcs involving the
two main human characters: Travis and Nora. Any expressions of his canine desires become
secondary as a result of Koontz’s attempts to humanise or anthropomorphise him. His death
is feared only insomuch as it would constitute a loss for science and humankind. While
Einstein’s desire for a canine companion has the potential to represent him as being an
emotional subject with intimate needs, the opportunity is immediately superseded by Travis’
scheme to breed Einstein, which, once again, relegates the dog to serve as a commodity in his
capacity to replicate similarly idealised dogs through controlled reproduction.
Auster’s Mr. Bones is undoubtedly a useful tool for the exploration of human social
exclusion in Timbuktu and similarly in Red, Ketchum utilises the death of his canine
protagonist to facilitate an emotionally fractured man’s reunion with his estranged family.
Both dogs are surrogates who provide their respective human guardians with companionship
and emotional support. Wroblewski’s dogs are also devices in numerous ways; as substitutes
for Shakespearean characters, which enables Wroblewski to reinterpret the famous tragedy
Hamlet in a contemporary format, and in the case of Almondine, as a substitute sibling to
Edgar who is a socially and geographically isolated boy. Most notably, they reflect the depth
of instrumentalisation inherent to the companion role through in their depiction as ‘designer
dogs’, through their extensive fashioning into commodities for sale to people who seek to
adopt them: through their regimental conditioning designed to ensure they become intelligent,
loyal, devoted and obedient canine companions.
Yet, while the dogs in each of these dog narratives serves a human-centric purpose in
at least two ways, the authors of Timbuktu, Red, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle also elevate
their canine protagonists from performing merely as narrative tools and represent them as
being complex three-dimensional characters. This is achieved by extending to these dogs
certain forms of subjectivity, and by presenting them as having complex motivations and
desires. Mr. Bones remedies Willy’s loneliness yet Auster also shines a light on the loneliness
felt by the dependent dog suddenly thrust into the unfamiliar realm of independence when he
becomes an urban stray. Mr. Bones has desires, such as to find food, water, shelter and a
human companion to care to him. He is motivated to avoid capture and probable
extermination and he expresses complex emotional experiences such feelings of fear, shame,
hope and eventually hopelessness. Mr. Bones does not cease to exist after Willy’s death.
Furthermore, his experiences of life are not less intense or diminished in any way. Indeed, by
telling the tale using Mr. Bones’ point of view, and dedicating the majority of the novel to the
dog’s itinerant journey, Auster produces a story about a dog whose life is brimming with
profound and consequential experiences. Beyond his status as a ‘companion’, Mr. Bones
emerges as a complex individual with a value outside of his value to others, evident in the
reader’s investment in his journey and a positive outcome.
Even after Ketchum’s canine protagonist Red is shot and killed, Avery’s memories of
his dog and the fact these memories include subtle details, show Red to have possessed his
own rich experiences, motivations and desires. Wroblewski’s Almondine supersedes her role
as a surrogate device when her personal likes, dislikes and characterological idiosyncrasies
are outlined in detail. She is granted subjectivity in the chapters that explore the world and
her experiences of the world from her canine perspective. When Sawtelle dog Essay escapes
the oppression and control on the family farm and exercises agency by choosing to live in the
woods with Forte, she, like him, rejects submitting to human dominion. In various ways,
using assorted techniques, these narratives demonstrate that the dog’s employment as a
device or cultural categorisation as a ‘companion’ does not necessarily exist as mutually
exclusive to the representation of a dog as a unique and complex living being in literature. In
fact, as the novels produced by Auster, Ketchum and Wroblewski demonstrate, deploying a
dog as a device can exist in symbiosis with an authentic, multilayered representation of the
companion canine and the human-canine relationship, and in many ways, can serve to
challenge our perception of dogs as simple, empty vessels who exist to fulfil
anthropocentrically determined designations.
No literary representation of a dog can offer an accurate representation of the canine mind
because the canine mind is unknowable to anyone but a dog and because as human observers,
our attempts to represent the canine experience will always involve some degree of
anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. However, as stated in the introduction of this
thesis, what is most important about the examination of depictions of dogs in fiction is not
whether these representations are accurate but rather what attitudes and assumptions they
have the power to reveal. As shown throughout my examination of the nine novels I classify
as dog narratives, a canine-centric analysis of fiction can reveal the various paradoxical ways
we view dogs bred to provide us with companionship.
To begin with, it is clear that dogs exist somewhere in limbo between nature and
culture, humanlike and ‘animalistic’, and in many significant ways they remain our ‘other’.
An important point of difference still used to disenfranchise dogs in Western culture involves
our reverence for human language and the assumption that language is something that
humans possess and dogs lack. In Watchers, Dean Koontz epitomises reductive perspectives
that presume dogs to be dumb and this assumption is clearly linked to pervasive and
problematic Western cultural beliefs stemming from science, Judeo-Christian religion and
Greek philosophy. Descartes’ claim that animals are machines and his belief that they are
soulless and unintelligent beings remains influential to this day. The ability to speak words is
still valorised over gestural forms of communication, even when gestures prove to be more –
or certainly no less – effective. Koontz’s exaltation of Einstein, who is genetically engineered
to produce language, results in the devaluation of ordinary dogs, whose communicative
abilities, even when gesturally based, are by no means simplistic or ineffective. Travis
Cornell suspects he is anthropomorphising Einstein and so makes a common mistake when
he dismisses the dog’s behaviour as meaningless. This leads him erroneously to deny dogs
the capacity for reason or the ability to practice deception. Indeed, Travis denies ordinary
dogs the capacity for many complex intentions that in reality they possess.
Other dog narratives imagine that their canine characters covet humans’ ability to
speak using words and blame themselves for misunderstandings that arise during interspecies
miscommunications. They often consider themselves to be voiceless or speechless, as is the
case in Garth Stein’s novel in which Enzo wants to reincarnate as a man so he can speak with
a human voice. In this case, however, Stein uses structural irony to undermine Enzo’s belief
about the so-called exceptionalism of humans. The reader recognises that Enzo is not at fault
in matters of interspecies miscommunication but the blame is often put on the dog and this
leads to the dog being pathologised and corporeally punished. Stein makes a number of
points about interspecies communication in his novel; but most importantly, he suggests
humans lack insight and understanding into the nature of dogdom. Ironically, the times when
communication occurs most fluently between dog and human in the novel are when gestures
are used, which suggests that a dog’s life is not less significant because he or she cannot
speak using words.
Breaking through the perceived speech barrier is also focus of Carolyn Parkhurst’s
novel The Dogs of Babel but in this dog narrative, the author challenges and undermines the
power and proficiency of human language as a means of communication when she exposes it
as overrated as a means of communicating, particularly when resolving disputes. Parkhurst
has her human protagonist, Paul, come to recognise that his dog Lorelei can and does
participate in human language as a recipient, and in addition to that, she possesses a unique,
complex and effective vocabulary of her own. Furthermore, this novel shows how language
based forms of prejudice can lead to victimisation.
The possibilities of gesture-based interspecies communication is laid bare in
Wroblewski’s novel as Edgar, a mute boy, and his dog Almondine bond using only gestures.
Indeed, the author portrays Edgar and Almondine as being able to communicate more
effectively than any other two characters in the novel, even humans with other humans.
Contrary to first impressions, this novel is not about silence but like Stein and Parkhurst’s
novels, it is concerned with exploring different kinds of voices. What is clear in all of these
novels is that our ideas and assumptions about language and the ways we value different
forms of language require ongoing interrogation. What these narratives can show us is that
there is more than one kind of voice, that the languages of humans and other animals often
overlap, and perhaps, the human definition of language is simply too narrow. What my
examination of these novels demonstrates is that dog narratives concerned with issues
relating to language and interspecies communication offer us the opportunity to reflect on, as
well as question, the kinds of prejudices that humans impose on dogs.
The disenfranchisement of a nonhuman individual based on a perceived lack of a
reasoning mind, consciousness, a soul or capacity for language is a common way that notions
of human exceptionalism are reinforced. Lack is commonly cited as a justification to exclude
other animals from the definition of personhood and categorise them as property or as things
instead. Denying personhood to dogs facilitates their use, abuse and, too often, their killing.
However, many dog narratives complicate the exclusion of dogs from personhood by
representing them as possessing complex emotional traits more often associated with human
beings. They often do this by exposing the paradoxical attitudes that exist in relation to the
social status of dogs. Authors of dog narratives interested in exploring this paradox often
include characters in their novels who embody the opposing views of dogs as objects or
subjects and create tension and conflict between these factions. The suggestion that dogs
better fit the category of property or object in many novels is challenged when the author
extends subjectivity by way of personal experience and a rich emotional life to the canine
characters. Moreover, these dogs are portrayed as being cherished and valued unique
individuals by the humans who care for them. In these cases, dog narratives challenge the
claim that ‘lack’ should form the basis for exclusion from personhood but rather they suggest
that inclusion and consideration should be offered to dogs upon the basis that they enjoy rich
and complex emotional lives and possess inherent value, which means a value outside of their
value to us.
In Red, Julius Winsome, Timoleon Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental Journey and
Dogs our paradoxical perceptions of dogs as existing partly in the domain of property and
partly in the realm of personhood are exposed. These authors, however, all challenge the idea
that dogs are merely things or property by providing rich accounts of dogdom. This paradox
in perception and social classification is represented in the novels by the division of
individuals and communities into those who view dogs as objects and those who consider
dogs to be persons or subjects. The consequences of attitudes that cast dogs as objects are
dire as depicted in these novels for in every instance where this attitude exists dogs are killed
as a direct result. The categorisation of dogs as objects arises in many corners of Western
society such as in legal and hunting discourses as well as in our responses to dogs as
perceived threats to us as individuals or to humanity in general.
In Julius Winsome and Dogs, breed stigmatisation is one form of prejudice that relies
on the objectification, depersonalisation and demonisation of specific dog breeds such as the
pit bull terrier. Indeed, what some of these novels suggests is that there is a direct link
between the categorisation of dogs as objects or property and acts of violence being
committed against them. Red, Hobbes, Timoleon Vieta and the many plague-infected dogs in
Kress’ novel are all killed by humans who deny them personhood and view them as valueless
‘things’. What the novels featured in Chapter Two also show us is that there is no such thing
as trivial violence. They each aim to present the human-canine bond as a valid and significant
relationship. Whether it is achieved through the exposition of memories of the deceased dog
or via implementation of the itinerancy trope or through the mockery of the Lassien ending,
these novels all suggest in unique ways that dogs do not require validation from us to be
significant or need to fit the legal definition of persons to have the right to exist.
There is little doubt that dog narratives prove a valuable resource for examining our
attitudes towards dogs kept as companions in Western culture. What they also provide is
useful insight into the role of companion that is so ubiquitously given to dogs in the Western
world. As I have argued, dogs fulfil many roles in life and literature and their fulfilment of
these various roles highlights their adaptability as literary and literal devices. The use of dogs
as narrative devices and literary depictions of dogs centring on their given role in human
society are common in dog narratives. The employment of dogs as devices can be viewed as
a reductive appropriation of the animal form just as the creation of dogs to serve in the role of
companion to humans is noted by some to be just another form of nonhuman animal
instrumentalisation. Yet, as illustrated in Chapter Three, using dogs as devices in fiction need
not be limiting or limited because authors can represent canine characters as possessing depth
of character and subjectivity. Canine characters often exist to assist with the telling of a
human’s story, which in turn tends to result in them being depicted primarily as catalysts and
surrogates, or as commoditised companions. Yet despite a novel’s primary anthropocentric
focus, I have shown that dogs can appear in narratives in a capacity that does not render them
necessarily secondary or subsidiary to the humans’ story.
Of course, not all dogs to appear in fiction transcend their more practical relegations,
such is the case with Einstein in Watchers, but many authors of dog narratives can and do
represent their canine protagonists as having autonomous desires, motivations and complex
emotional experiences. Auster and Wroblewski achieve this by telling the story, in whole or
in part, from the dog’s point of view. Canine characters such as Mr. Bones and Timoleon
Vieta are shown to have experiences outside of the human gaze via the itinerancy trope.
These dogs deal with inner conflict, their sense of loss and desperation and the representation
of this psychological process occurs in no diminished capacity in the novels. Dogs like Red,
Hobbes and Almondine are described in relation to their likes, dislikes, as well as being given
personal idiosyncrasies. Wroblewski powerfully questions our idealised conception of the
‘ideal’ canine companion, which in his novel comprises intelligence, obedience and loyalty,
and invites the reader to consider if this kind of dog bred as a device to provide
companionship can exist in communion with allowing dogs to have freedom and exercise
volition. In exploring concepts such as command and choice, captivity and freedom,
Wroblewski allows some of the Sawtelle dogs to exceed their role as a literary device as well
as their position as surrogate for Edgar. As a result, his novel also functions as a kind of
coming-of-age story about humanity as it reflects on the legitimacy of breeding and training
dogs as commoditised companions. In short, he invites us to question the nature of human
control over companion dogs.
Examining depictions of nonhuman animals such as dogs in fiction is important
because just as social attitudes influence these literary texts, dog narratives can affect and
influence societal attitudes. From a canine-centric, Critical Animal Studies perspective, the
dog must remain at the forefront of the analysis so that any prejudices and paradoxes in our
thinking can be identified, discussed and potentially challenged. In the reading of fiction, at
least, the accuracy of an animal representation is less important than determining the potential
consequences of the ways in which we think about dogs as a result of the depiction. Clearly,
while our first thought of dogs might relate to roles that they fulfil in our lives and in human
society and while dogs might in some ways remain more objectified than subjectified, more
dependent than independent and are still perceived to be lacking in many ways, we seem to
recognise that they possess a unique individuality that warrants their emancipation from the
double bind that sees them misunderstood, diminished in capacity, objectified and
instrumentalised in many facets of Western culture.
Dog narratives are important cultural narratives that make numerous significant
contributions to our understanding of the human-canine relationship as well as help us to
understand what the literary emphasis on animals can tell us about people. There are also
other important reasons to read and critique dog narratives, such as to explore the ways in
which authors experiment with dog characters, and narrators and even the literary form. They
enable us to observe the ways that authors address ideas about human exceptionalism,
language, narrative, perception and subjectivity. In these and other ways, authors of dog
narratives can extend the role and function of the novel as a medium for expression in itself.
The literary emphasis on dogs in dog narratives, it seems, tells us a great deal about our
contradictory perceptions and paradoxical treatment of dogs. Perhaps, moving forward, they
can offer us a way to re-evaluate and enhance our relationships with this extraordinary and
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