Introduction: Black Hearts, Red Spades

Contesting Master Narratives

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3.3 Contesting Master Narratives

Canadian literature in general has also witnessed a considerable interest in contesting and rewriting master narratives. According to Marta Dvorak, these rewritings often scrutinize “historico-political events that have become New World myths” while re-examining the questions “of territory, (de)possession, and appropriation, and interrogating the Eurocentric assumptions that have been offered and accepted as objective truth, or even as a given” (165-6). To fit within the topic of human-animal relationship, I have decided to mention firstly the authors who contest ancient master narratives, including the story of creation and the Covenant between Noah and God, together with the implications these have had upon the resultant cohabitation of human and nonhuman animals. These issues have been revisited by many contemporary Canadian authors, including Timothy Findley in his Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), Margaret Atwood in The Year of the Flood (2009), and Barbara Gowdy in The White Bone (1998).

As mentioned in the introduction to this thesis, the attitude of Western society towards other living beings is defined mostly by the Judeo-Christian and Ancient Greek mythology. Among the founding myths to be presented in the Book of Genesis is the story of creation and of Noah’s Ark and the following Covenant with God. The biblical myth of the creation of the universe confirms the inferior position of animals in relation to man. The man was created in God’s image and God gave him dominion over all birds and other living beings on earth (King James, Genesis 1:24-28). Moreover, God confirmed this subordination of animals even more in the Covenant with Noah after the fall of man, when He gave him and his family everything that moves for food (King James, Genesis 9:1-3).

In the powerful novel Not Wanted on the Voyage, Findley establishes a historiographical context as a writing back to Genesis, particularly the chapters 6:12 up to 9:2. There are some disputes which Findley draws upon, especially over the meaning of the chapter 9:2, where God says to Noah, that “… the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered” (King James, Genesis 9:2). Findley questions the veracity of the Covenant and suggests that it was Noah, i.e. the man, and not God who devised this pact only to suit his own needs and plans. Findley shows how not only animals but also women have been subjected to the male supremacy as a consequence of Christian mythology. In the novel, Noah’s wife Mrs Noyes represents the pro-animal voice, while Dr Noah Noyes stands for the idea that animals exist only as a means to human’s ends. This is in accordance with the way that also Atwood portrays the gendered nature of the attitude to animals, i.e. male characters as the killers and female characters as the sympathizers of animals. In Findley’s story, Noah is an unscrupulous scientist, and doesn’t value the lives of others, be it women’s or animals’. His friend Jahew, the ageing and senile God, doesn’t show himself to Noah after the flooding rains stop, thus Noah invents the symbolic Rainbow to countersign the pact between God and the human race. Therefore, the idea that all animals are here only for human use is Noah’s invention, and not a God-imposed right of humankind. By contesting the seemingly steadfast religious myth, Findley offers a satirical version of the Noah’s story from the point of view of women as well as animals. This perspective makes us realize that all stories might change significantly when told from the point of view of different characters, especially those who have been marginalized, such as women and animals as is the case in the story of Noah.

Even though Findley’s writing back to the story of creation is very original and provocative, Barbara Gowdy goes even further in The White Bone (1998). Among the examples of the mythical character of the elephant mind which Gowdy invents, the author re-tells the story of creation from the elephants’ point of view. According to the elephant belief, the first humans emerged ten thousand years ago, when a famished elephant bull and cow ate a gazelle, thus breaking the sacred law of not eating any other living or dead creature (Gowdy 7). As a punishment, the elephant pair transformed into human beings and started to prey on every living creature that did not stand on its hind legs (7). Thus, instead of being expelled from the paradise, the worst punishment of all for the elephant mind is to be made to eat animal flesh, which carries a strong pro-vegetarian undertone. This might even suggest, that eating meat is what defines the Fall of Man.

Another historical chapter that Canadian authors often write back to concerns “the master narratives of our modern times” (Dvorak 166), meaning the twentieth century world wars and the Holocaust. In Wars (1977), Timothy Findley gives an account of the First World War with a strong emphasis on the animal experience of it. In Wars, animals comprise one of the most profound symbolic imageries present in the novel. Probably the most important symbolical role is ascribed to horses, who are present in the most crucial situations in the life of Robert Ross. At the end of the story, when the Germans start bombing Bailleul, Robert wants to save the horses and mules which are trapped in a barn, but his captain does not allow such seemingly pointless act in a time of the imminent death of them all. Nevertheless, Robert decides not to follow his orders and starts releasing the horses. He continues in his efforts to save as many animals as he can, but his struggle comes out in vain as the place gets bombed and the only thing he can do for the horses, is to end their suffering and shoot those who hadn’t died already (210-11). In this and other scenes, Robert assumes responsibility for animals as other people fail to perform this task effectively. He does not treat any of the human nor nonhuman groups favourably, and when necessary, he is ready to kill to enforce the just actions.

Another animal frequently recurring in the story is a rabbit. Before Robert’s sister died, she kept a number of rabbits as pets. After her death, their mother insists that the rabbits must be killed and that Robert has to do it, which he rejects and is immediately scorned by his mother for his unmanly feelings (19). Again, the theme of the gendered nature of killing of animals is put forward by Findley. Robert’s masculinity is questioned when he refuses to kill the rabbits and feels compassion towards them, a behaviour that is denounced as unmanly. Dogs constitute another symbol appearing in crucial scenes. Preceding the final scene, a black saddled horse accompanied by a black dog is seemingly waiting for Robert, and the black mare is the one to draw Robert’s attention to an abandoned wagon loaded with horses, which he consequently opens and sets the trapped horses free. Furthermore, before Robert left home, he also kept a dog called Bimbo and now addresses him the field cards which he sends home to his family (74). All of the aforementioned appearances of animals in a war story remind strongly of how destructive human actions are for other living creatures. It is also a reminder of how people have had to rely on animals, such as war horses, before they were replaced by machines, and how human and animal lives used to be interconnected and human and nonhuman animals were dependent on each other.

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