2 “We and the Beasts are Kin”1
When deciding on which national literature to choose for analysis, one must weigh the key patterns that define this particular literature and distinguish it from all others. According to Margaret Atwood, this key pattern reflects also the “national habit of mind” (Survival 13), but I will leave this aspect aside in my contemplation of Canadian literature. Atwood perceives the theme of survival as the most frequently recurring pattern in Canadian literature (Survival 32). Consequently, another key pattern in Canadian thinking is identification with the victim (39). As a colony, Canada used to be perceived as the victim of external forces, thus, in the figurative sense, all Canadians are victims, all protagonists in Canadian literature are victims, and often this victim position is depicted as something irreversible (Atwood, Survival 37). The tone of portraying animals in Canadian literature is set in a similar fashion. Animals are often in the position of victims in the stories, falling prey usually to humans, and the authors (and readers) tend to sympathize with these victims.
In the article “From Within Fur and Feathers: Animals in Canadian Literature” (2000), John Sandlos aptly remarks that despite the popularity of the animal genre, the “critical reaction to animal presence in Canadian literature has been sparse at best” (73). Probably the most recent volume of critical works that study the human-animal relationship comprehensively in Canadian literature is Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination (2007) edited by Janice Fiamengo. Earlier critical accounts of the animal genre can be found in James Polk’s article “Lives of the Hunted” and Margaret Atwood’s thematic guide Survival, both published in 1972. My thesis focuses on selected Canadian works of fiction and contemplates, whether the theoretical works on the human-animal relationship in Canadian fiction published so far can be applied to them. Furthermore, it maps the progress, defines the differences and similarities, and illuminates the current attitude of treating the animal question in them. Even though Canadians were not the first to invent the animal story as such, they were often the first to innovate it and create new subgenres.
Canadian literature has an extensive history of animal writings with its boom in the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, as will become apparent, the animal story has not lost its position and attractiveness in Canadian literature ever since, it has only transformed and adapted in compliance with its readership. Starting with the short stories of the wildlife writers E.T. Seton (1860-1946) and Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943), through Bodsworth’s The Last of the Curlews (1953) and Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963), up to the more recent novels, such as Timothy Findley’s Wars (1977) and Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone (1998), Margaret Atwood’s the MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013) and many others, the human-animal relationship remains among the favourite topics that many Canadian authors choose to explore in their fiction.
Canadian literature takes a distinctive approach to animals when compared to other English-written literatures, such as American or British. This is not to undermine the distinctive approach to the human-animal relationship taken by individual authors, which is the core of the analytical section of this thesis. Nonetheless, it is necessary to study the paradigm that pervades the Anglophone Canadian literature in order to justify the selection of Canadian fiction as the point of departure. My argument takes into account Margaret Atwood’s theory of victimhood stated in her critical work Survival (1972), which emphasizes the fact that in Canadian fiction the animals are usually identified with and depicted as victims, while in other national literatures, such as American, the animals are mostly portrayed just as means to human ends. This distinction is also developed in James Polk’s article “Lives of the Hunted” (1972), which further claims that animal writings function as a mirror of the Canadian identity crisis (58).
In her recent compilation of essays, Janice Fiamengo adds that Canadian literature often makes claims on behalf of the animals while trying to show the often neglected point of view, i.e. the situation as perceived by the animal and not from the human viewpoint (Other Selves 1-2). But is such thing even possible while avoiding anthropomorphism? And, maybe a more important question, is the form of writing important as far as it accomplishes the author’s intention? In my opinion, this depends on the purpose of the written work of art. Usually, authors claiming to write realistically about animals in Canada did so with conservationist intentions in mind, trying to invoke empathy in the readers and achieve a better treatment of animals. In these cases, I believe that anthropomorphism can be justified as long as we realize that we can never write the story realistically as only the animal protagonist in question could do this, and animals do not write stories. Therefore, anthropomorphism is to some extent inherent in all animal writings. The tradition of writing animal stories with a conservationist purpose in Canadian literature can be firstly traced in the Saunders’ story Beautiful Joe, following the tradition of Sewell’s Black Beauty.
The notorious stories, such as Black Beauty (1877) by the English writer Anna Sewell and Beautiful Joe (1893) by the Canadian writer Margaret Marshall Saunders, whose work is similar in form to that of Sewell’s, are examples of a different genre than the realistic wild animal stories. They are stories for children that tell about domesticated and urbanized animals, and at the same time they are written as propaganda. These books promote animal welfare and urge to treat living creatures with sympathy and kindness. Surely everyone knows the story of Black Beauty, the black taxi-cab horse, who is also the narrator of this famous book. Beautiful Joe is a story inspired by the life of a real dog which also warns against animal cruelty. Both of these books were highly original at the time of their first publishing, because they used the first person narrative technique where animals communicate their story directly to the reader without the mediation of a human narrator. This strategy inevitably led the authors to employ extensive anthropomorphism.
Similar trends in contemporary Canadian literature can be observed as well. The writers like André Alexis or Barbara Gowdy both use the same narrative technique in their novels Fifteen Dogs (2015) and The White Bone (1999), respectively. Whereas Sewell’s and Saunders’ stories can be considered pathetic, this is not the case of Fifteen Dogs and The White Bone, even though all of these animal stories probably share the common target of raising awareness of the non-human animals’ capability to suffer and the duty to prevent it on the part of the human animals. These two recent novels aim to avoid anthropomorphism, which I believe is achieved in Fifteen Dogs, and to some extent even in The White Bone, as the discussion of both novels demonstrates later. The following paragraphs, however, shortly introduce other substantial works and authors defining the human-animal relationship.
The publication of Beautiful Joe was followed by the emergence of a different type of animal stories, and that is the realistic wild animal story, its founders being Ernest Thompson Seton and Sir Charles G. D. Roberts. In his Introduction to Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), Alec Lucas proclaims that Seton’s stories established a new literary genre – the realistic animal story (vii). In contrast to fables and fairy stories, Seton’s works take the animals’ viewpoint into account and sympathize with the animals and not with the humans that appear in the stories. Probably the most widely known story by Seton is “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw”, which depicts the life of a wolf pack led by Lobo, a giant merciless killer, who is romantically in love with his companion Blanca, which proves fatal to him. In comparison with Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (1963) which is analysed later, not only does the story of Lobo seem far-fetched, but the wolf behaviour is highly anthropomorphized and the plot only supports the misleading general notion of the wolf as a wanton killer. The ending is full of pathos and in strong contradiction to the overall tone of the story, where the wolves are depicted as cunning pests and the hunters only rack their brains over how to kill them in the most merciless and unnecessarily cruel way.
In another of his stories, “Silverspot”, which is about an old crow, Seton makes a very interesting comment that foreshadows our contemporary perception of the present-day egg industry. He observes Silverspot stealing eggs from nests of other birds, but notes that “we must not judge him for that, as it is just what we ourselves do to the hens in the barnyard” (59). That is a very interesting point of view and I’m only wondering why the author did not consider that the human actions toward the hens might be wrong in the first place, and at the same time he makes such a distinction between two birds as to place one breed – the crow – above the other – the hens. Understandably enough, at the turn of the 19th century, it was not usual to credit animals with any rights and strong anti-predator feelings prevailed (Sandlos 78), as is clear from Seton’s story of Lobo. However, Seton’s animal stories cannot be read in any other way than as raising the human race above other species, and therefore I read them as illustrious of anthropocentrism as well as speciesism. Roberts’s stories resemble those of Seton, also showing a high level of anthropomorphism and generally a lower level of accuracy. Therefore, it is not surprising that both of these authors had to face the “nature fakers” critique. Yet, when we consider the purpose with which these stories were written, i.e. to evoke feelings of sympathy in the readers towards nonhuman animals, the naturalistic inaccuracy can be forgiven, had the authors not claimed so fervently that their stories are hundred-percent realistic.
Grey Owl (1888-1938), an Englishman who immigrated to Canada, became one of the most important figures in the preservation of the Canadian wildlife icon – the beaver – in the first half of the twentieth century. Although he published only five books, their impact has been massive and ensured him “an unparalleled international career as a Native celebrity, a bestselling writer, and a popular lecturer on preserving the wilderness” (Polk, Introduction 7). Throughout his life, he underwent more than one transformation. Firstly, from an Englishman called Archibald Stansfeld Belaney to appropriating a Native identity after immigrating to Canada. Later, and under the influence of his wife, he changed from a professional hunter/trapper to a conservationist promoting wildlife protection (Polk, Introduction 12). As a typical Canadian writer, he encourages sympathy and respect towards the real animals in his works (Polk, Introduction 16).
Fred Bodsworth is another important Canadian persona that pointed out the importance of wildlife preservation. In Last of the Curlews (1953), Bodsworth records a one-year epic migration journey of possibly the last pair of the Eskimo curlew species. The plotline follows a male curlew coming to the Arctic in the mating season, yet he finds no mate and has to return to South America. The following year, he succeeds in meeting a suitable partner, but at the very moment their reproduction starts, the female is shot by a nearby farmer. Thus, the story ends in the same place and at the same time as it started a year ago. Stern as it is, the story gives a credible account of the extinction of one species caused by human means. The reasons for the massive extermination of the Eskimo curlew is outlined in the ten sections of The Ganlet throughout the novel. Excessive sport killing since the 19th century brought the Eskimo curlew at the verge of extinction already in 1915 (Bodsworth 81). The description of this wanton slaughter of the whole bird population, once so abundant, shows the perverse side of human activities.
What Grey Owl is to the Canadian beaver, Farley Mowat is to the Canadian wolf. Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf is not a typical novel, rather it is an account of the author’s experiences and findings gathered during his stay in the Barren Lands of central Keewatin on behalf of the Canadian Wildlife Service. Mowat is assigned to the lupine project, which means that he is to study the wolf-caribou relationship and bring evidence of the proposed claim that wolf is to blame for depleting of the caribou population in the North (Mowat 13). The author gains an invaluable assistant in his study, a young Inuit man called Ootek, who is considered a shaman among his people and believes to have “Amarok, the Wolf Being” as his helping spirit (85). Not only does their research prove the theory of wolves depredating the caribou population to mere extinction wrong, it also reveals many truths quite the contrary to this claim. Most importantly, Mowat’s findings show that it is the hunters who are responsible for the depredation of the caribou, not the wolves. In The Year of the Flood (2009), Margaret Atwood pays homage to the people who contributed not only to animal advocacy. God’s Gardeners, the eco-religious group introduced in-depth in the second part of the MaddAddam trilogy, celebrates many feasts, each of them dedicated to a famous persona in the field of preservation of ecosystems or animal species. She does not fail to mention the “Saint Farley Mowat of Wolves” as part of the Saint Dian’s Day of interspecies sympathy (The Year 413). As Atwood shows, the major difference between the stories of Seton and Roberts, and the later works by Bodsworth and Mowat, is that the former focus on individuals, while the latter are concerned with the species as part of an ecosystem destroyed by man (Survival 76).
From the examples of Canadian animal writings as indicated above in a chronological order, one can trace a quite regular mode of depicting the animals as victims. Drawing upon the opinions of the critics Margaret Atwood, John Sandlos and James Polk, the main differences in portraying animals in the British, American and Canadian literatures can be outlined. When James Polk compares visions of Canada by both Americans and Canadians, the former are said to perceive the country basically “as a hunter’s game park”, while the latter have a more fearful attitude towards the Canadian wilderness (“Lives of the Hunted” 51). In contrast, Polk describes the Canadian attitude towards the United States as being constantly worried that “a fanged America lurks in the bushes, poised for the kill”, which in turn also defines the Canadian self-identification as the victim, therefore the sympathy of the authors with the hunted (“Lives of the Hunted” 58).
A major difference also occurs in the depiction of the animal characters. While in American stories, the anthropocentric emphasis is put mainly on the hunter and his success in killing his prey, Canadian stories are concerned with the animals as the prey and therefore usually feature doleful endings (Polk, “Lives of the Hunted” 53, 55). In Survival, Atwood describes the British depiction of animals in stories as essentially human in nature, which reflects “their assigned places in a hierarchical social order”, while “they speak fluent English” (73). As opposed to Canadian animal stories, the British are usually concluded with happy endings (73). As John Sandlos highlights, the current popularity of Canadian animal stories and “the important position for non-human actors in the recent history of the Canadian imagination remains intact” (73). This claim will be proved even more truthful in the following chapter where recent trends in depicting animals in Canadian literature are foreshadowed.