1.1 Animals: Symbols, Metaphors or Living Beings?
While the introductory chapter provided an outline of human-animal relationship in the context of Western societies in general, this chapter focuses mainly on how animals have been interpreted and depicted in art, mainly literature, providing examples of this portrayal in English-language fiction. In different national literatures, animals are depicted differently, and this distinction will be mentioned later in the comparison of Canadian, American and British genre of animal stories. When talking about animals in literature in general, Margaret Atwood claims that as animals cannot really talk effectively with humans or write stories, the allegation to write realistic animal stories or stories from the animals’ point of view must inherently be a false statement (Survival 74-75). As a result, the function of any animal in literature is always a symbolic one (Atwood, Survival 75). This claim is questioned by Mrs. Noyes, the wife of Noah, in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, when Noah fails to see animals for what they really are and always assigns a figurative meaning to their behaviour (Mason 106). In order to reinforce his power over the situation, Noah interprets a peacock’s mating call as a sign, which only favourably confirms his action and decision (Findley, Not Wanted 13). On the other hand, Mrs. Noyes refuses this interpretation and asserts that the peacock is “only calling to his mate” (13), thus promoting the reading of animals in literature not solely as signs and symbols, but also in a non-symbolic way (Mason 106).
Susan McHugh expands on this discussion by adding that “animal agents are never entirely separable from human forms or presences” (Animal Stories 12). The general assumption used to be that animals have appeared in English literature solely as metaphors or figures, meaning they had no agency whatsoever (McHugh, Animal Stories 7). This largely metaphoric use of an animal as the other, as distinct from the man, might have accounted for the nineteenth-century crisis in defining the term human, thus employing anthropocentrism in literature as a means to reassert the human dominance over nonhuman animals (8). According to McHugh, animal studies ruminate on three main issues: firstly, conceptualizing agency as surpassing the property of the human subject form; secondly, recovering the scale of agency forms found in cultural traditions that pose challenges to constituting the literary canon; and, lastly, “the interrelations of the representational forms and material conditions of species life” (10).
As Lutts puts it, “animals are ideas as well as living, breathing creatures” (2). The form of these “ideas” has been changing and developing throughout the history of humankind and people have always associated different ideas with individual animals or groups of animals, or else with nonhuman animals as opposed to human animals. Moreover, there is a difference in the perception of wild animals and domesticated animals, as wild animals live independently of humans, but both of these groups have been seen through the veil of symbolism. Another level from which we can take a look at animals is the contemplation whether they are just means to human ends – machines as René Descartes claimed – or whether they should be assigned rights appropriate to their needs, as Peter Singer suggested in Animal Liberation. As will become clear from the examples stated below, the power of representing animals in literature has a more extensive role than just the mystical and enticing exploration of the realm of the nonhumans who surround us so closely, yet are so distinct at the same time.
In the following part some fundamental animal stories that have defined the further development of human perception of animals are outlined. As John Burroughs claims, the true founder of the animal story was probably the American writer Charles D. Warner, who described a hunt realistically from the point of view of the animals in the story “A-Hunting of the Deer” written in 1878 (132). This story has allegedly affected all its readers and “forever killed all taste for venison” in them. Anna Sewell also cherished this tradition of focusing on the animals’ viewpoint with her Black Beauty (1877), in which the black cab horse describes the difficulties of his life. Black Beauty was also nicknamed the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Horse”, probably because of the similarity in affecting the readers’ emotions using pathos, but most importantly because of its hidden power to contribute to preventing the cruelty to animals in the same way that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did to the abolition of slavery (Davies 174). This story can be seen as a political campaign aimed at increasing animal welfare, in which it succeeded (Davies 174). Another example of an early extremely popular story collection about wild animals is The Jungle Book (1894) by Rudyard Kipling, in which a boy called Mowgli is raised in the jungle by wolves. Both Black Beauty and The Jungle Book are far from depicting the animals realistically, for one instance, horses do not speak English and, secondly, Mowgli’s story could not be more unrealistic. Polk likens Kipling’s animal protagonists to “miniaturized people” and “disguised sergeants and schoolmasters” (“Lives of the Hunted” 52). Nevertheless, the popularity of these allegories can be measured by the continuing reprinting of new editions and the many film adaptations still emerging up to this day.
1.2 Nature Fakers Controversy
Following in the footsteps of the success of Black Beauty and The Jungle Book, the realistic wild animal story emerged from Canada and was co-founded by E. T. Seton and Charles G. D. Roberts. It was, however, pursued by many others, both Canadian and American authors. These stories are narrated as if seen through the eyes of the wild animals. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the realism in such stories is disputable, and the issue of credibility started a fierce debate in North America which harmed the reputation of the wild animal story writers. The “nature fakers” affair was commenced in 1903 by John Burroughs, “the dean of American nature writers” (Lutts 8), when he accused E. T. Seton and, in Burroughs’s words, “his awkward imitator” Rev. William J. Long, of crossing the line between fact and fiction in their purportedly real animal stories, and of faking natural history (Burroughs 132). Burroughs also accused other popular writers of those times, including Charles G. D. Roberts and Jack London, for counterfeiting the wildlife reality solely with the purpose of taking advantage of the popularity of the wild animal story genre. The whole affair had lasted four years until the intervention of president Theodor Roosevelt, who supported Burroughs in his defamatory claims and condemned Long, who was the one to defend himself most eagerly in public (Lutts 8).
The “sham naturalists” affair brought forward issues that pertain to the controversy of animal writings up to this day. As Lutts states, there were three main conflicts of interest that stemmed from the “nature fakers” debate. Firstly, it was the demand for accuracy in nature writing, including animal stories (Lutts 8). Secondly, the degree up to which the animals’ behaviour is controlled by reason versus instinct (9). However, the third and the main issue was the attempt for a balance between emotion and science as the starting point in appreciating nature (9). Other questionable issues include the difficulties of avoiding anthropomorphism when writing about animals and from the point of view of animals, because, as stated above, there is an unbridgeable gap between human and nonhuman animals as they lack a common language. Thus, anthropomorphism is inherent in all writings concerning animals, no matter how realistically the author tries to depict them, because the animals can never speak for themselves.
All of the reasons mentioned above might also be the reason for why the genre of wild animal stories gradually lost its popularity. Nevertheless, it was again recovered in the 1940s by two American women writers, Rachel Carson and Sally Carrighar, who did not focus their stories on specific animal heroes, rather they portrayed the animals as part of ecological community (Lutts 10). Aware of the “nature fakers” affair, they were more careful to avoid anthropomorphism and based their writings on scientific data and their own field research (Lutts 10). Another important author of animal stories was Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, or Grey Owl, as he called himself. This famous writer outdid all of the “nature fakers” in their presumable fraud by pretending to belong to the indigenous population of Canada, when in fact he was of British ancestry (Polk, Introduction 9). His life might be full of scandals and paradoxes, but the message he was spreading in his writings in order to raise awareness of the importance of wildlife, especially the beaver protection and preservation, partly outweighs the defamation caused by his fake identity. Another important figure was the Canadian naturalist Fred Bodsworth, who in his realistic yet pathetic story, Last of the Curlews (1953), disclosed how the humans, with their wanton and widespread hunting are to blame for the extinction of entire species, the Eskimo Curlew. Bodsworth’s and Grey Owl’s work, together with that of Farley Mowat, who accomplished a similar task to Grey Owl in the preservation and breaking of prejudice regarding another species of the wilderness, the wolves, will be analysed later as the foundational texts defining contemporary Canadian approach to writing about animals.
Stories about domestic animals often present their animal protagonists as abiding by their masters’ interest, in contrast to the wild animal stories where the non-human protagonists pursued their own animal interests. Sometimes the wild and domesticated animal stories merge, as is the case with Jack London’s White Fang (1906), which starts as a wild animal story and ends with the domestication of the wolf (Lutts 7). Polk describes the first half of White Fang as a story with typical Canadian elements, where the wolf has to face the harsh conditions of the north and of cruel men (Lives 54). Nonetheless, the second half has an American undertone as the wolf becomes absolutely devoted to its master and family, which could not be encountered in Canadian literature (Lives 54). More about the distinction in different depictions of animals in various English-written literatures can be found at the end of the next chapter.
Apart from animal stories, depending on the genre animals have also taken different roles than those of the main protagonists. Nonhuman animals (though already dead in the form of meat) have also appeared in literature in relation to the conditions in the meat industry and the discussion over workers’ rights, as is exemplified in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). More recently a similar issue is discussed in Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka (2002), which compares the conditions and the whole concept of intensive farming to that of the holocaust. Another contemporary example discussing the notion of meat-eating versus vegetarianism and animal rights and welfare on the academic ground is J. M. Coetzee’s metafictional novella The Lives of Animals (1999). In the genres of dystopias which warn about the dangers of intensive farming practices for the environment as well as the ethical impacts that follow from objectification of animals, Don LePan’s Animals: A Novel (2009) is a very disquieting reminder of a possible future scenario, where disabled children take the place of domesticated pets and meat animals, as the latter were all wiped out by a virus due to their antibiotic-resistance.
In science fiction and speculative fiction, the use of animals has been even more multi-layered than in other genres. As Sherryl Vint claims, science fiction, “as a literature concerned with the social impact of science and technology, can contribute to a necessary rethinking of responsibility and ethics” in the twenty-first century techno-scientific culture (178). As Berger’s philosophical input suggests, the animals have been deprived of their agency and human animals tend to forget that nonhuman animals also have the capacity to actually look at humans, not only the other way round. This is primarily due to the gradual disappearance of people’s interactions with animals in real life. Yet in science fiction, “the animal can be given a voice to address and to look back at the human” without the fear of excessive or overt anthropomorphism, as often these “representations may be informed by current research on animal behaviorism” (Vint 179), as well as technological and scientific trends, which is clearly the case of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. So far the main tendencies in portraying animals in literature have been foreshadowed. In the next chapter, my thesis discusses mainly what is distinctive in the approach Canadian literature takes on the animal question.