Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
From Seton to Atwood: The Thin Line between Human and Animal in Canadian Fiction
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Mgr. Martina Horáková, Ph.D.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Black Hearts, Red Spades 3
1 (Un)Real Animal Stories 14
1.1 Animals: Symbols, Metaphors or Living Beings? 14
1.2 Nature Fakers Controversy 17
2 “We and the Beasts are Kin” 23
3 Recent Trends 33
3.1 Symbolic Use of Animals 33
3.2 Symbolic Omission of Animals and Wilderness 37
3.3 Contesting Master Narratives 41
3.4 Elephants and Dogs Writing Stories 46
3.5 Animals as Food and Entertainment 50
3.6 A Thin Line between Human and Animal 53
4 Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy 57
4.1 A Future: Possible, but not Inevitable? 57
4.2 Pigs with Human Brain and People with the Brains of Pigs 62
4.3 Eating “Smelly Bones” 74
Works Cited 90
Introduction: Black Hearts, Red Spades
We perceive the surrounding world as we are used to perceive it or in the manner that the society shapes our vision and encourages us to follow the beaten track. Christopher Lloyd tells Neal, the main character in the film Interstate 60 (2001) as he fails a visual card test when recovering after an accident, that “experience has conditioned you into thinking that all hearts are red and all spades are black, because their shapes are similar. It’s easier for your mind to interpret them based on that past experience. We see what we expect to see, not necessarily what’s really there” (Interstate 60 14:24). The same concept of thinking applies to our perception of animals. We have been conditioned to see the animals and parts of them as many different things, including our food, clothes, entertainment, companions, laboratory equipment, or working tools, but not to see them for what they actually are, that is living beings who share a degree of intelligence, independence and emotional development. In Western cultures, many people are squeamish when thinking about the habit of consuming dogs and cats in cultures like Chinese or Korean, while they eat species of animals which would be out of the question in other cultures. They keep some animals as companions, sometimes even consider them to be family members, and hurting or killing them is inconceivable, while they deliberately exploit other species without hesitation. Nevertheless, the interests and intelligence of the latter does not differ in any profound way from the former. Indeed, as Melanie Joy asks in the title of her book, “why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows” (2010)? All of this is an example of a heavy cultural conditioning that affects the entire species of human animals.
As G. B. Shaw once said, “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity, and fashion will drive them to acquire any custom” (qtd. in Joy 105). The controversial topic of human-animal relationship permeates human history across all ages and cultures. This thesis focuses only on the Western culture and tradition, and in the literary part of the thesis solely on the British, American and English-written Canadian canon. In this introductory chapter I seek to provide a succinct overview of the historical roots of the social and cultural conditioning which defines the treatment of animals in the European and North American contexts, together with a look into the current trends and developments in the field of animal studies. Drawing mainly upon Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) as one of the most influential works written so far, this chapter will examine the cultural context in which authors of fiction operate and which they reflect in their works. Within the debate of animal advocacy movements, terms like non(-)human animals and human animals, or non(-)humans and humans, are used to blur the dividing line that implies human dominance over other living beings. For practical reasons, these terms, together with those that may be considered discriminatory, i.e. speciesist, are used interchangeably with no intended undertone of meaning.
As Singer points out, in most Western cultures, there are two quintessential influences, the Judaism and Greek antiquity, which have in turn conditioned Christianity and its perspective of the world then prevailed throughout Europe (226). It was not until the eighteenth century that the thinkers started to break away from the church gradually, yet the hierarchy where animals are inferior to humans has already been deeply embedded in Christian thinking, as can be seen from a number of Biblical references. To the already not much favourable position of nonhuman animals, Christianity added the belief that every, but only, human life is sacred (Singer 232). Moreover, the New Testament does not in any way discourage from the cruelty to animals, and even though there were some pro-animal voices among the ancient Greek philosophers like Plutarch’s, these were very rare. Saint Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century representative of the Roman Catholic philosophy, honoured Aristotle as the greatest philosopher of all, and thus Aristotle’s determining stance on exploiting animals on the pretext of their inferiority to humans did not alter much even in the Medieval Period (Singer 235). Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most important religious figures in history, revered all sentient creatures as his brothers and sisters, within his universal love for the whole creation (Singer 239). The age of the Renaissance and humanism did not bring much change, as solely human beings were at its core and as Singer writes, humanism had nothing to do with acting humanely towards other living beings (240). Nevertheless, as a rule there were exceptions, like the Italian fifteenth/sixteenth century polymath and vegetarian Leonardo da Vinci. As a stroke of fate for the nonhuman realm, then came the French philosopher René Descartes and the status of animals was put to the lowest place imaginable hitherto. They were generally viewed as soulless machines, a concept that legitimized cruelty towards and experiments on animals in the name of scientific progress under the belief that animals cannot feel pain (Singer 244).
The Enlightenment era featured a synergy of influences that worked together to improve the status of animals. Partly due to the scientific experiments that showed similarities between humans and animals, people started to recognize the capacity of animals to suffer, and therefore the need to use them with care, but use them nevertheless (Singer 245). Even though Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century German philosopher, considered animals to be mere things and means to human ends, he does not suggest we should dispose of them any way we want. Kant imposes indirect responsibilities towards animals, mainly because people’s cruel behaviour towards them might damage humanity in a person. In effect, this can be harmful to the humankind, as the improper treatment of other living creatures by a person could be then applied also to fellow humans (qtd. in Gruen L. n.pag.). Even though this theory favours the treatment of nonhumans with more care, its motive is still anthropocentric and the interests of nonhumans are not considered.
Eighteenth century also witnessed the rise of modern utilitarianism, an ethical theory founded by Jeremy Bentham and contemporarily proclaimed by Peter Singer. Utilitarianism rejects rationality as an applicable measuring scale, but stresses the importance of the capacity to suffer as the sufficient and appropriate moral criterion (Gruen L. n.pag.). In the 1820s, the first society protecting the rights of animals emerged in the UK, later to become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. With Darwin’s publishing of The Descent of Man in 1871, the notion of the human and nonhuman animal relationship shook the founding Christian belief in humans as the special creation of God and brought the man closer to the animal (Singer 249). Despite Darwin’s theory of evolution and the rise of humanitarian thinking, Singer notes that from the late eighteenth century onward, most of the authors who denounced abusing animals were still not able to refrain from eating them, and thus showed the most widespread practice of speciesism (251). Singer calls this phenomenon from the beginnings of the Animal Liberation movement launched by Jeremy Bentham “the era of excuses” (251).
John Berger’s insightful essay “Why Look at Animals” (1977), to be found in his About Looking (1980), provides yet another viewpoint for the human-animal relationship. Berger considers the gaze between a man and an animal possibly one of the most important influences on the development of human society, one which has disappeared almost completely about a century and a half ago due to the marginalisation of animals (28). He describes how animals have first entered human imagination, and it was not in the form of their economic or productive necessity for the man, but as messengers and promises, often possessing magical functions (Berger 4). Historically, animals have always accompanied people as they were dependent on them as the source of their food, work, transport and clothing, and the other way round, people have made most animals dependent on them by means of domestication. Yet there was and still is an unbridgeable gap when a man looks at an animal due to the lack of common language. Thus the silence of the animal “guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man” (Berger 6).
The relationship between a man and an animal has always been a metaphorical one. Animal symbolism has been used across many cultures, including the signs of the zodiac, the Greek twelve signs for hours of the day or the Hindu belief that the world is carried on the back of an elephant and the elephant on a tortoise (Berger 8). The issue of anthropomorphism has historically played an essential role in the relationship between humans and nonhumans, and only helped to emphasize their proximity (Berger 11). However, Descartes’ reduction of animals to soulless machines legitimized their exploitation during the nineteenth century industrial revolution. Consequently, as Kant’s theory puts forward, this treatment of nonhumans foreshadowed the same position for the industrial workers as time progressed. In the societies where the service sector outweighs the manufacturing sector, animals have been reduced to “raw material” and processed like “manufactured commodities” (Berger 13).
With the complete marginalisation of and human dominance over the realm of animals, living nonhumans that we now encounter are mainly household pets or those animals placed in zoos, and in both of these cases these animals maintain little of their original behaviour. Animal imagery now permeates children’s consciousness mainly by means of fluffy toys, cartoons, pictures, decorations, and the occasional visits to the zoo or to the circus, where they can observe the (un)real animals in an even more unrealistic environment (Berger 22). All of these encounters are very tricky, especially because they pretend to be realistic, yet they are nothing but misleading. This deceptive perception of animals starting from childhood spreads as a result of the animals being systematically withdrawn from people’s daily lives.
Fortunately for the nonhuman animals, more and more people have been experiencing awakening in the past decades which then conditions them to see animals as sentient beings capable of feeling both pain and joy. Put in the words of Aldous Huxley, “the facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” (qtd. in Joy 73). The most massive movement centred on animal advocacy was commenced in the 1960s simultaneously with the social movements demanding rights for women and people of colour (Ryder 4). It has been over forty years now since Peter Singer’s highly influential manifesto Animal Liberation (1975) was published and has changed the perception of human exploitation of animals not only in the United States, but throughout Western society. In the eyes of many people affected by the movement, the nonhuman animals started to be viewed as sentient beings instead of just means to human ends. Borrowing the phrase from the aforementioned Interstate 60 film, black hearts stopped to be seen as spades but people started to recognize that animals have certain inherent rights, such as a right to live a decent life. As Kohák states in his introduction to the 2001 Czech edition, Animal Liberation provided the American society with new ideals, especially after the fiasco of the Vietnam War (5).
In Animal Liberation, Singer uses a very factual writing style while giving philosophical, moral and ethical arguments for radical changes in our attitudes to non-human animals. Speciesism, a term coined in the 1970s by Richard D. Ryder and popularized by Singer in Animal Liberation, can be defined as treating other living beings as morally less important based solely on the fact that they belong to another species (Duignan, “Speciesism”). Thus, it is similar in its form of discriminatory prejudice to racism or sexism. After stating the ethical reasons, Singer continues with a matter-of-fact description of how people have exploited animals for scientific experiments and laboratory tests. Singer condemns intensive farming, providing the background information of the chicken, beef, veal and pork industry, together with the hideous living (“barely surviving” would be more accurate here) conditions of the laying hens and milk cows. He draws a conclusion that it is morally impossible to eat meat, eggs and dairy produced by intensive farming methods and not be complicit in speciesism.
In his introduction to the 40th anniversary edition (2015), Peter Singer sums up the development of how the perception of animals and their living conditions improved since the first publication of Animal Liberation. He states that even though there are still huge numbers of especially factory farm animals that are suffering today, there has also been a general shift in people’s attitude towards animals. A powerful animal advocacy movement exists to protect the rights of animals and the modern media has enabled to release the evidence of animal suffering and spread it among the general public (Singer 3). Legal reforms are enforced and becoming a vegetarian or vegan is not regarded as something completely out of place anymore (4).
The current animal advocacy debate is divided into two basic groups: those who promote animal rights and those who promote animal welfare (Sunstein and Nussbaum 4-5). Animal welfare advocates support and lobby for a more thorough legislation protecting animals and the humane treatment of them, while animal rights advocates reject any indication of the use of animals by humans whatsoever (Sunstein and N. 5). However, in this thesis I do not intend to analyse the differing visions of the ideal human-animal relationship or the strategies that individual subdivisions of the animal movements adopt. More importantly, my thesis focuses on the reflection of this relationship in fiction without any attempts to judge whether the view in question is right or wrong.
Recently, the impacts of the large-scale human exploitation of animals used mainly in the food industry have been given a serious place in the popular culture and media as well, even though the main motive is not to draw attention to animal suffering. The serious dangers of factory farming industry have been mentioned recently in the mass media, mainly in connection with the global climate change. The films like Cowspiracy (2014) or Before the Flood (2016) connect factory farming with global warming and climate change. Even though these claims do not promote animal welfare as such, they point to the devastation of our planet which factory farming largely contributes to. These and similar documentaries thus inadvertently support a better treatment of animals by promoting vegetarian and vegan diet as the solution to averting climate change.
This short introduction to the history of animal advocacy movement provides at least some context for the main arguments in this thesis. My purpose is to study the ways in which the human-animal relationships are reflected in fiction, mainly in the tradition of the English-written Canadian literature. The first chapter provides an overview of how animals have been portrayed in literature and a brief history of the genre of animal stories. In the second chapter, the discussion focuses on the Canadian tradition of animal stories and what is unique about it. The third chapter then analyses specific Canadian novels. The core analytic part of the thesis scrutinizes Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, including Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), using the knowledge of the layer of contemporary Canadian fiction discussing the human-animal relationship.