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Kyle Paluch
Mrs. Scibilia
12th English CP
May 3 2010
The Animals of Our Literature
Literature has evolved over the thousands of years that civilization has been around. In
stories of heroes and their trials, the hero may have had that one faithful dog that loved them
before they began their journeys. A famous example would be Argos of The Odyssey fame, who
had waited for his master for twenty years in hopes of him returning. Argos was the only one that
recognized Odysseus by himself upon his return (“Dogs in Literature” 1). Animals are important
in our lives, without a doubt, and people have learned and assumed things from the behavior of
the animals in our lives. Stereotypically, dogs are loyal, cats are clever, and coyotes are arrogant;
all traits that cultures around the world gave those animals in their different kinds of literature.
Many books now have animals with human-like traits and personalities making up their cast of
characters. Animals have come to be just as deep, interesting, and important in literature as
humans have been for a long time.
The dog Argos is an excellent example of how old the idea of animals in creative stories
is (The Odyssey was an epic poem written long, long ago by Homer in ancient Greece). Dogs are
commonly written having an innate loyalty and heroic qualities, like the faithful collie Lassie,
who travels miles upon miles to be reunited with her owner in Lassie Come-Home by Eric
Knight. A webpage on the internet, “Dogs in Literature” on Pets-of-the-Realm.com has an
interesting timeline of what ways dogs were written about in history. Marcus Terentius Varro of
the Spanish Army wrote the first recorded dog-focused written work (a practical guide on dogs)
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over 2,000 years ago as an officer in the army (1). Strangely enough, even in the late 1500’s,
European writers merely made small references to dogs in their stories, or had none to begin with
(1). Most of Europe did not write of dogs in their stories, although there were exceptions. “One
of Shakespeare’s most mischievous and memorable characters is Crab, the dog belonging to
servant Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1). Shakespeare was one of those exceptions,
having the “mischievous” Crab, as well as random breeds mentioned in a few of his works.
Dogs, “Man’s best friends,” have been a big part in our lives ever since they were domesticated
and taken in as pet. We have come a long way from the 1500’s, obviously, so our modern dog
literature tends to highlight more of the admirable qualities mentioned above. A nice example is
Nana from Peter Pan, the Newfoundland dog whose job was to take care of the kids and clean up
their messes for them, another example being author John Steinbeck’s dog Charley, who was
written about fondly in the last book of Steinbeck’s career, Travels with Charley. As people, the
observations of our dogs and cats reflect in our cultures and writings alike.
Cats’ roles in literature is conflicting at times, lending to some cultures (i.e., the
Egyptians) worshipping them while others (i.e., the Japanese) associate them with ill omen and
traps. Egyptians took cats as “personifying the universe,” as Kev Martin writes on the article
“The Symbolism of Cats”, located on the website Scapes. Superstition seems to surround cats in
all cultures, like Japan’s, where cats were seen as monsters that killed women and could take
their form (Martin 3). The Cheshire cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
is a pretty interesting cat, whose odd abilities and massive power add to its deep mysteriousness.
George Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm also has a cat character, though it has a
peculiarity of disappearing and reappearing at its leisure and benefit; it is unclear whether the cat
was any part of the political allegory, but it possibly represents the smart or sneaky Russian
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people that avoided all consequence but reaped all benefits of Stalin’s leadership. Cats in
literature are clever, sneaky creatures, but they are not alone.
Coyotes seem to be a tricky sort, as well, as Mark Twain writes in his non-fictional story,
Roughing It. Twain writes of a coyote (“cayote,” he writes) that he and his company encountered
that led a dog astray and away from its owners out into the middle of the desert, through the
dog’s constant chasing, and then ran away with its actual energy and left the dog stranded by
itself (McNamee 37). Also arrogant, the coyote is known to walk right past you when they are
fed, basically because they do not care about or fear you (McNamee 36). Still, the coyote exudes
a desperate atmosphere, always looking starving and looking through miles of desert to find
food. “[The coyote] is always hungry, poor, out of luck and friendless” (McNamee 36). Coyotes
usually do happen to be desperate, being constantly unlucky with food and friends. With a
sagging tail, slumped over body, and obvious skin-and-bones look, Mark Twain rightfully sums
up the coyote as the living representation of Want (McNamee 36). On a different note, powerful
animals like lions and leopards are important to literature, signifying strength, growth, and
wisdom in characters and their decisions (Martin 1). In the Bible, animals were used to show
godlike and human attributes (“Animals in Literature” 1). Occasionally animals in literature are
even used to teach valuable life lessons, as the famous Aesop did in his 655+ fables.
Aesop, a born slave from ancient Greece, has created hundreds of fables with animals
that teach moral lessons along the lines of “look before you leap” and “misery loves company.”
One fable that Royal Canin references in the article “Dogs in Literature” is of a dog, rooster, and
fox; the rooster saves itself by leading the fox to where a dog was, giving the moral that “wise
people put off enemies by leading them to someone stronger” (1). Aesop’s lessons in his fables
are widely known and have created a framework for teaching lessons in things like children's
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stories, shows, and movies, up to the point that some call a moral to the story “an Aesop”. People
have created other fables themselves, possibly inspired by Aesop himself, to teach others their
own morals through animal stories. Allegories like Animal Farm (a novella written by George
Orwell intended to indirectly illustrate the corruptions and atrocities of Stalin’s leadership of the
Soviet Union) can be considered extended fables, in fact, showing that not all morals are as
simple as “slow and steady wins the race”. The pigs of Animal Farm, or more importantly the
fact that they are pigs, also slip in a few meanings besides the allegory.
To a lot of people, pigs are the animal epitome of greed. Pigs used in a symbolic way is a
reference to greed somewhere; in Animal Farm, Napoleon was a very, very greedy leader. While
Snowball was not a power-hungry leader, he succumbed to the luxury of eating the good food of
the farm with the other pigs, letting another pig convince the other animals that the food was
necessary to keep their brains working, though the real reason was that the pigs were becoming
greedy. For other animal symbols, take the lion, which has almost become synonymous with
bravery, power, and wisdom in literature; some literary heroes have worn lion or leopard skins to
signify the power they have developed (Martin 1). Another few animals symbolize something a
little closer to home: the dog and the wolf. “While dogs represent loyalty and respectfully serve
their master, wolves represent freedom, the wilderness and the refusal of all constraint, even at
the risk of death” (“Dogs in Literature” 1). Being a “dog” means being safe and loyal, but being
a “wolf” means being independent and strong. As the article on Royal Canin continues, “Dog
and wolf confluct can be compared to humans being a “good” slave or resisting slavery at the
risk of death” (“Dogs in Literature” 1). While animals in stories can instill a deeper meaning in
stories for the reader to pick up, some animals can be key points of the plot, as well.
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Take, for example, the rabid dog (Hurston 165) in Their Eyes Were Watching God,
written by Zora Neale Hurston. Although it lacks even a name or backstory, the dog drastically
turns the life of the main character, Janie Crawford, upside down, biting her lover Tea Cake in
the midst of a heavy storm (Hurston 166). Days later, Tea Cake is obviously infected with rabies
and is about to shoot Janie out of confused, nonsensical anger, when she shoots him first
(Hurston 184). Tea Cake was Janie’s final marriage and she had decided that she had finally
found the perfect man, but cruel fate and the rabid dog took him out of her life forever. The dog
was used as a plot device to tragically end Janie’s marriage to help the book teach an important
lesson on love: true love stands even death. Another example of important animals, Watership
Down by Richard Adams has plenty of them. One, which earned the protagonist rabbits their
victory at the climax of the novel, was a big pet dog that was led from its owner’s backyard all
the way to the battle in front of the warren on Watership Down, where it proceeded to tear the
enemy rabbits apart while the protagonists hid underground. If it had not been for the dog, the
rabbit protagonists probably would not have made it out alive; indeed, as the dog tore apart the
enemy army, their leader (General Woundwort, a huge, ferocious rabbit that had beaten up many
predators) charged and leapt right toward the crazy animal in an insane (but almost probable,
considering the leader’s strength and prowess) attempt to battle it to the death. The leader’s death
is implied, and without their powerful leader and most of their comrades, the enemy quickly
surrendered and left the warren alone from then on. Plenty of animals are used as major plot
devices in fictional literature, as evidenced by these examples in famous books, and not all of
them are dogs. In addition to serving to turn the tides of fate in stories, a variety of animals have
great potential to become a character in their own right.
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Going back to Watership Down, almost all of the important characters are actually
rabbits. The first two main characters you are introduced to are Hazel and his brother Fiver. Fiver
is tiny, fidgeting, and somewhat of a seer of future events, which drives the main plot to escape
from the current warren because of an impending, horrible, bloody doom that he feels coming.
His brother Hazel is sensible and, while not being a genius, he does prove to have a knack for
commanding others to do what they can do best, and becomes the de facto leader of the rabbits
that they take with them a little later on. Hazel has experiences that tell him that Fiver’s visions
are actually right, so with a handful of others they set off to the envisioned perfect rolling fields
of Watership Down (a hill is a “down” in England). A lot of the rabbits they take with them get
their own chances to shine and show their development, and each one has a personality of their
own, proving that animals can be excellent characters while still living within the confines of
natural ability, even rabbits. Pigs, as well, can have a lot of character in them, as shown in
Animal Farm. Napoleon, a Berkshire boar, seizes and consolidates his command of the farm
after exiling his former co-leader, Snowball. Napoleon is shown to be reckless, arrogant, lying,
commanding, and very lazy himself; an author-intended parallel to what Joseph Stalin was like
with his authority. On the flipside, Snowball is shown to be a visionary, a revolutionary, and a
war hero, but while Napoleon was scheming for power, Snowball was not. The pig Squealer is a
fast-talker and a tricky liar that has a knack for convincing others that lies are truths, which
ended up keeping Napoleon in control of the less intelligent animals. Given that pigs are quite
intelligent animals (and greedy ones with how much they eat), it is safe to say that the innate
qualities of animals in real life affect how we write of them.
In a final analysis, the qualities of the animals that surround us every day, or that we have
heard or read of, are important to us. Animals in general are a big part of our lives. It shows in
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our many stories and fables of animals, tales of them helping us or taking the lead themselves
and triumphantly succeeding. Many famous pieces of literature like Animal Farm, Watership
Down, and Their Eyes Were Watching God referenced and used animals and our perceptions of
them to their advantage. From Snowball, to brothers Hazel and Fiver, even to a random
disasterous rabid dog, there are many beloved and unbeloved animals in fiction. In non-fiction,
as well, with Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Indeed, animals in literature have gotten far since
the scarce, passing mentions in 1500’s European fiction. It has been shown over time that
animals in literature can be just as, if not more, engrossing, interesting, important, and beloved
characters as the people in literature, and those heroic and villainous animals deserve kudos for
bringing variety and meaning to the myriad of stories we have made including them.