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A Canine-centric Critique of Selected Dog Narratives


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments …………………………………………………………………………………1

Abstract……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 2

Introduction……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 4

Chapter One: The Problem of Language …………………………………………………………………….. 10

Chapter Two: Dogs as Objects or Subjects-of-a-Life …………………………………………………….. 48

Chapter Three: The Canine Companion as a Dual Device …………………………………………….. 81

Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 118

Works Cited………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 125


In this thesis I perform a canine-centric reading, within the theoretical frame of Critical Animal Studies, of nine ‘dog narratives’ from the last three decades – that is, novels in which dogs and human-canine relationships are central to the story. While the novels differ from each other in numerous and substantial ways, they share a common trait: a conduciveness to the examination of tensions, paradoxes and contradictions inherent to the human-canine bond as it exists in Western culture. Each chapter centres on a key motif present in various groupings of four of the selected novels: human and canine interspecies communication; the socio-cultural categorisation of dogs; and the dual role of the domesticated dog as a device in life and literature. Just as Western cultural attitudes, overt and implicit, arise in these dog narratives in turn, these dog narratives provide valuable insight into our contradictory perceptions and subsequent treatment of dogs bred to serve as companions. Dog narratives present us with an opportunity to examine and critique some of the assumptions made about dogs – assumptions that result in their paradoxical status in Western culture. While some dog narratives reinforce the belief that human language privileges the human species, others undermine this claim by privileging canine forms of language and through depicting human language as problematic or as overrated as a means of communication. Authors of dog narratives utilise conflict stemming from opposing views of dogs’ subject/object categorisation in Western culture to challenge the deleterious object status of dogs. Most, if not all, dogs depicted in dog narratives are devices to facilitate the conveyance of stories primarily concerned with human experiences; nevertheless, authors of dog narratives can and do find efficient ways to challenge and question reductive representations of dogs. By utilising techniques such as point of view, characterisation and the itinerancy trope, and by creatively and effectively imagining their way into the canine mind, many authors of dog narratives bestow a canine identity upon the dogs they depict, which challenges our ability to view and treat dogs with detached objectivity and, in doing so, they offer more positive representations of the literary canine companion.

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Genetic evidence suggests Canis familiaris (the domesticated dog) became distinct from

Canis lupus (wolves) as early as 500,000 BC, while archaeological evidence of dogs living

alongside humans dates back to 12,000 BC (McHugh 200). Hence, dogs have lived alongside

humans for (at the very least) fourteen thousand years, and consequently they feature

prolifically in Western cultural narratives such as visual art, books and film. As Susan

McHugh observes, “Dogs seem unthinkable outside the context of human culture and, what is

more, culture as we know it has been inseparable from their presence” (19-20). From

Homer’s early depiction of Odysseus’ loyal and faithful canine companion Argos in The

Odyssey (800 B.C.E.) through to Eric Knight’s classic novel Lassie Come-Home (1938), and

the abundance of fictional narratives focussing on canine characters that have emerged in the

early twenty-first century, authors have utilised the character and charisma of domesticated

dogs to embellish stories about human beings. They are, as Erica Fudge writes, “the most

storied of all pet animals” (10).

Novels that feature one dog or incorporate a few dogs as central characters could be

said to belong a sub-genre of fiction that Laura Brown calls the “Dog Narrative” (113). There

are many famous dog narratives, such as Jack London’s 1903 The Call of the Wild, which is a

story about a sled dog named Buck; Richard Adams’ 2006 The Plague Dogs, the tale of two

escaped ‘laboratory dogs’, and Jon Katz’s 2011 Rose in a StormA Novel, which is about the

tribulations of a loyal working farm dog. These works share a number of key traits; primarily,

a canine character is central to the narrative and, secondly, the dogs are depicted as having a

‘role’: as sled dog, lab animal and herder, respectively. Of course, one other role that the

majority of dogs in a Western cultural context perform in life (and literature) is that of the

‘pet’. The term ‘pet’, while still widely used, is considered by some to be “demeaning”

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(Herzog 74) and typically associated with a period in which dogs were kept as ‘playthings’,

‘lapdogs’, and status symbols; since the late twentieth century, therefore, the term

‘companion animal’ has become more popular in certain discourses as it is thought to

represent the human-canine relationship in a less trivial, more egalitarian manner (Irvine 57-


In addition to the roles dogs perform literally and in literature, they often fulfil a more

practical purpose in novels. Authors of dog narratives often utilise canine characters to

examine some aspect of human experience: that is, dogs are useful as devices to explore or

provide insight into human lives. The usefulness of the canine character as a literary device

can be observed in Fred Gipson’s 1956 illustrated novel Old Yeller. In the story, young

Travis Coates learns about judgement and acceptance, loving others, loss and sacrifice as a

direct result of a stray dog entering his life. Another example is Stephen King’s 1981 novel

Cujo, in which a rabid St Bernard becomes the metaphoric vehicle for delivering a dire

warning about the consequences of marital infidelity (Williams; Scholtmeijer). A more recent

example is found in Michelle de Kretser’s 2007 novel The Lost Dog in which character Tom

Loxley struggles to deal with his mother’s aging and his lack of human connection through

the lens of searching for his lost dog. In each of these novels, the canine character – Old

Yeller, Cujo and Tom Loxley’s dog, whose name is not revealed in the novel – acts as a

device. These dogs are supplementary to the human protagonist and his or her journey.

While Western dog narratives more often than not focus on the human experience in

favour of exploring the experiences of being a dog, they also, inevitably, provide insight into

how humans relate to dogs. Over the last few decades, a growing body of scholars, including

many from within the academic field of Critical Animal Studies, have critiqued

representations of nonhuman animals in fiction to gain insight into how these depictions

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reflect societal attitudes about nonhuman animals, and to ascertain what literary depictions of

animals might reveal about the animals themselves. Sociologist Nik Taylor explains that

those who choose a Critical Animal Studies theoretical approach to examining animal

depictions in literature seek to go beyond the use of animals “simply as analytical tools”, and

she argues that there is a way to read these texts so that “embodied animals [remain] at the

forefront” of the analysis (158). Marion Copeland explains that the task of animal-centric

criticism is to “examine works of literature from the point of view of how animals are treated

therein, looking to reconstruct the standpoint of the animals in question” (359). The nine

primary novels selected for analysis in this thesis will be examined by adopting a Critical

Animal Studies theoretical perspective because this will enable a canine-centric critique,

meaning that the canine characters will always remain at the forefront of the analysis.

Reading the novels in this way exposes some of the explicit and implicit assumptions that

humans make about dogs and reveals the many paradoxes associated with Western society’s

treatment of the ubiquitous canine companion.

The novels featured in this thesis are Dean Koontz’s Watchers (1987); Jack

Ketchum’s Red (1995); Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (1999); Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of

Babel (2003); Dan Rhodes’ Timoleon Vieta Come HomeA Sentimental Journey (2003);

Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome (2006); Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain

(2008); Nancy Kress’ Dogs (2008) and David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

(2008). Each of the three chapters deals with four of the nine novels in various combinations,

and each chapter centres on a key motif: ‘The Problem of Language’, ‘Dogs as Objects or

Subjects-of-a-Life’ and ‘The Canine Companion as a Dual Device’. By adopting a canine-

centric perspective – to the extent that is humanly possible – my critique of these dog

narratives provides insight into the paradoxical ways dogs are positioned and perceived in

Western culture.

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The relationship between the lives of dogs in Western societies and Western literary

depictions of dogs is an important one. As Philip Armstrong points out, “Literary texts testify

to the shared emotions, moods and thoughts of people in specific historical moments and

places, as they are influenced by – and as they influence – the surrounding socio-cultural

forces and systems” (What Animals Mean 4). Just as societal attitudes common to a certain

time period arise in literature, literature can in turn influence the thoughts and moods of a

particular population at a specific period in time. One might expect, therefore, the ways in

which dogs are regarded in various Western societies at various points in history to be

identifiable in examples of fiction from those contexts, and accordingly, the ways in which

dogs are represented in fiction should in many ways reflect how they are perceived and

treated in the societal milieu relevant to those fictions.

Adopting an animal-centric perspective can be fraught for the novelist as well as the

critic because the nonhuman mind cannot ever truly be known by a human. Yet, Margo

DeMello states that “what is important about literary representations of animal minds isn’t

whether or not they’re accurate; it’s what they reveal about how humans think about animals,

and what the consequences of that thinking is” (10). In her statement, DeMello places

emphasis on the ways in which literary depictions can reflect, perpetuate and challenge ideas

about nonhuman animals and the consequences of the ideas generated. Accordingly, this

thesis is concerned with what depictions of dogs in Western dog narratives can reveal about

humanity’s perceptions of dogs and explains how this relates to the consequent treatment of

humankind’s so-called ‘best friend’.

Chapter One begins with a brief overview of how humans have come to view

themselves as superior to other animals through a combination of Western theological,

philosophical and scientific beliefs. I critique four novels to explore how the perceived ‘lack’

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of language is used to disenfranchise dogs. I argue that while some novels reinforce the belief

that human language privileges the human species, some dog narratives undermine this claim

by valorising canine forms of language and through depicting human language as overrated

as a means of communication. The outcome of these polarised viewpoints can mean the

difference between dogs’ being appreciated for their uniqueness or their being devalued when

the perceived lack is used as justification.

In Chapter Two I investigate four novels that reflect either socio-cultural anxieties

relating to the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence, the relationship between

animal cruelty and hunting practices, biological engineering and domestic dog attacks. As a

result of these authors’ exploration of such anxieties, tension over whether domesticated dogs

should be categorised as property or persons arises. Conflict stems from dogs’ legal

classification as property or objects on one hand, and their positioning as cherished, valued

members of human families on the other hand. Authors of dog narratives can utilise this

conflict to raise questions about dogs’ place in Western culture and problematise the object

status of dogs.

In Chapter Three, I analyse depictions of the literary canine companion and his or her

role as a dual device. Dogs often function as narrative tools to assist with the telling of a

human story. Furthermore, dogs in dog narratives are often depicted as providing

companionship to a socially isolated human being, making the canine character a surrogate.

A canine-centric reading can identify instances where a dog serves as a device and determine

when such depictions constitute mere instrumentalisation; however, many authors of dog

narratives resist reductive instrumentalisation of canine characters by extending subjectivity

to canine protagonists. While arguably most, if not all, dogs in novels are devices in some

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capacity, employed to help convey stories more concerned with human experiences, authors

can and do find ways to subvert reductive representations of the literary canine companion.

In reference to her cultural exploration of the human-canine bond (published as Dog

Love) Marjorie Garber states that she seeks to answer the question: “What does the [literary]

emphasis on animals tell us about people” (“Reflection” 74 original emphasis). While this is

an important and engaging question, my aim is the converse; that is, I wish to explore the

following questions: What does the literary emphasis on animals tell us about animals and, in

addition, what does the literary emphasis on animals tell us about people’s perceptions and

treatment of animals, or more specifically, dogs.

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Chapter One

The Problem of Language

The domesticated dog is an apt species to examine in literary representations because it is a

species that humans simultaneously accept and reject; dogs are familiar, and yet unfamiliar to

us. Dogs, writes Karla Armbruster, “are seen as existing on the boundary between nature and

culture – and of all the domestic animals, they are most often seen as the closest to human

beings and culture” (353). They adapt well to living with humans and are easily

anthropomorphised because they display behaviours and express emotions associated with

humanness, such as joy, sadness, affection and love. They are the animals “considered to be

most humanlike” in Western culture (Taylor 66). Nevertheless, as nonhumans, they remain

‘other’ and despite their privileged status, dogs remain subjugated along with all other

nonhuman animal species. One of the main factors in this subjugation is language: in

particular, the claim that since dogs cannot speak, they are therefore deficient in comparison

with humans.

In discussing dominant anthropocentric attitudes, cultural theorist John Berger states

that despite the usefulness of the various domesticated animal species, it is the animal’s “lack

of common language, its silence [that] guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion,

from and of man” (4). Certainly, there are many justifications put forward for the

disenfranchisement of nonhuman animals in Western culture but reasons related to language

are one of the most common. Yet not everyone agrees. Stanley Coren, psychologist and

author of How to Speak DogMastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication (2000) is one

of many scholars who reject the proposition that human language is essential for human-

canine interspecies communication; rather than devalue dogs for their inability to form words

he places the onus on humans to learn the language of dogs (11). Coren believes that dogs

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have a unique vocabulary in addition to being able to participate in some aspects of human

language; he believes effective interspecies communication is possible if humans can meet

dogs halfway. If Coren is correct, then only by doing so will we realise, as Orhan Pamuk

writes, that “[d]ogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen” (11).

In this chapter, I focus on Dean Koontz’s Watchers (1987); Garth Stein’s The Art of

Racing in the Rain (2008); Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel (2003) and David

Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008) to illustrate how these dog narratives

approach the topic of language and its effect on interspecies communication. I argue that

Koontz reinforces notions of human exceptionalism by privileging human language and

undervaluing dogs’ unique mode of speech and communication, and by implying that

‘ordinary’ dogs are dumb. Stein, on the other hand, effectively imagines his way into the

canine mind and his canine protagonist’s point of view often disrupts and challenges

complacency about human superiority; however, his narrative also ultimately reinforces

anthropocentric assumptions. Critique of the novels by Parkhurst and Wroblewski shows how

authors of dog narratives can effectively challenge the assumption that dogs are deficient

communicators simply because they lack the capacity for human speech.

The term ‘language’ typically refers to the spoken and written forms of

communication used by human beings to communicate amongst ourselves. Humans also use

non-verbal forms of communication such as gestures to communicate but our physiology and

brain capacity means that we tend to claim the status as the only animal to use language. In

the nineteenth century, American author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe argued (in an

article she entitled “The Rights of Dumb Animals” published in an 1869 edition of the

magazine Our Dumb Animals) that because nonhuman animals could not speak or write and

had no hope of being taught these skills, they were not part of the linguistic community

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(Pearson 93-4).


However, her position drew criticism from an anonymous reader who

rejected Stowe’s claim that nonhuman animals were dumb. The reader asks, “Is there no

language but that made up of vowels and consonants, and uttered by vocal organs?” (Pearson

92). The fact that the standard definition of language is so narrow and excludes nonverbal and

non-written forms of communication – and in the process excludes all animals except for

humans from the pool of language users – is as problematic for me as it was for Stowe’s

anonymous reader over a century ago. Nonhuman animals, or more specifically dogs, do

participate in communication involving human language, evident in their ability to respond to

verbal commands. In addition, they use barks, whines and growls along with tail, ear and eye

signals that constitute a species-specific “system of communication” of their own (Fudge 52-

3). Accordingly, unless prefaced with the word ‘human’, the term ‘language’ in this chapter

refers to non-species-specific forms of communication: spoken, written and nonverbal alike.

Dean Koontz’s novel Watchers reproduces many prejudices that modern Western

culture harbours towards ‘ordinary’ nonhuman animals because they cannot produce human

language. The story follows Travis Cornell, a 36 year old ex-Delta Force member who

encounters ‘33-9’– a dog so named because of an identification tattooed in his ear. The dog is

considered to be more intelligent than the ‘average’ dog because, while he does not speak

words, he has been genetically engineered to produce human language. When Travis finds

the retriever in the forest he is unaware that the dog has escaped from Banodyne Laboratories

where he is the focus of the Francis Project, named after Saint Francis of Assisi who

according to some traditions was able to speak to, and be understood by, nonhuman animals.


By contrast, toward the end of the nineteenth century, H. G Wells, author of The Island of Doctor Moreau

(1896), certainly believed that, as reflected in simian language acquisition research, humans were not the only

animal species to communicate using language (McLean 43).

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The Project is explained in the novel as aiming to make “human-animal communication

possible” (Koontz 278). Koontz writes:

The idea was to apply the very latest knowledge in genetic engineering to the creation

of animals with a much higher order of intelligence, animals capable of nearly

human-level of thought, animals with whom we might be able to communicate. (278)

Key assumptions about nonhuman animals, language and communication are revealed

through the project’s aim. There is no indication that these attitudes are being presented at all

ironically; instead, Koontz unproblematically stereotypes ‘ordinary’ dogs as being ‘dumb’ by

comparing them to Einstein and by implying that humans do not already communicate with

‘ordinary’ dogs. Through privileging the genetically engineered dog, Koontz diminishes the

capacities of ‘average’ dogs to participate successfully in communication with human beings

and casts them as being something more like Descartes’ sixteenth century ‘automata’.

Sometimes regarded as the “father of modern philosophy” (Bracken 1), philosopher

and mathematician René Descartes was, and in many ways remains, a powerful figure in

Western culture. Descartes’ work relating to rationalism, which valorises the human mind as

the source of all knowledge, his views on the soul, and his concept of the mind-body dualism,

have been widely influential. While the traditional concept of the mind/body split predates

Descartes, he reinforced it by describing it in terms of rationalism (Taylor 142). In regards to

the impact that Cartesian doctrines have had on nonhuman animals, it is arguably Descartes’

automata theory, which casts nonhuman animals as ‘simple machines’ incapable of rational

thought that has had long-lasting and detrimental impact. This, coupled with his affirmation

of the Christian belief that souls are specific to humans and thus denied to nonhuman

animals, made Descartes an authority on the ways Western society perceives, values and

treats nonhuman animals.

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Before and after Descartes’ era, the opinion that nonhuman animals are ‘dumb’

because they cannot speak or write words, and links between speechlessness and stupidity,

were common. One way in which this prejudice manifests relates to the hearing impaired. In

“Speaking Bodies, Speaking Minds: Animals, Language and History”, Susan Pearson states:

“[T]he deaf were the original ‘dumb’ creatures” (100) – that is, at least until the early

nineteenth-century when debates between deaf educators saw factions divided between those

called oralists, who privileged verbal language, and those called manualists, who promoted

sign language as the superior method for teaching the deaf to communicate (101). In many

ways, the debates between those who privilege the spoken word and those who privilege

gesture as means to communicate are relevant to the conceptualisation of the human-

nonhuman animal divide. This is because the associations of spoken and gestural forms of

language are also linked with ideas about nature and culture.

Debates over whether spoken or gestural forms of communication are superior are

well-established and ongoing. The belief that gestures as a form of expression are inferior or

less sophisticated than spoken or written language has largely to do with the assumed

connection between the former with nature, and the latter with culture. In discussing

American attitudes in the nineteenth-century, Pearson explains:

[T]he difference between expression and language was the difference between the

natural and the conventional. Expression was natural and corporeal – it was the facial

expressions, the gestures, the grunts, and the groans the body gives forth. Language,

on the other hand, was conventional and came not from nature or the body, but from

the mind and human culture. (93)

Hence, the association of human language with culture also led to a belief that nonverbal

forms of communications were more primitive or less sophisticated. This paradox between

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nature and culture is another example of the ways authors reinforce the anthropocentrically

driven concept of the mind/body split.

Issues relating to gesture and spoken forms of communication can be observed at play

in Koontz’s novel. In the beginning, when the human and canine protagonists first meet,

Travis is unaware of the retriever’s ability to produce human language. The dog cannot

generate spoken works using his voice box but he can read and spell human words.

Additionally, whereas real dogs have an impressive but limited vocabulary of words that they

can understand, 33-9 understands almost every word that is spoken to him and fully

comprehends their meaning in the context. However, until the dog can access props that

enable him to spell out words, his presentation is that of a common domesticated dog. When

33-9 appears in the clearing, he is, unbeknown to Travis, being hunted by another escaped

trans-genetic animal Koontz calls ‘The Outsider’. Travis logically assumes that the scruffy

anxious dog he finds in the forest is therefore an ‘average’, ‘ordinary’ dog.

Since no props are available for the dog to use to communicate using words, Travis,

like the readers, are initially unaware of the dog’s extraordinary linguistic abilities. Therefore,

along with Travis, they must attempt to interpret the dog’s gestures, vocalisations and general

behaviour to determine his character and intention. The conversation begins with Travis

asking the dog a series of rhetorical questions. “‘Surely you’re not a wild dog – are you,

boy?’ The retriever chuffed…‘Not lost, are you?’ It nuzzled his hand” … ‘Looks like you’ve

had a difficult journey, boy.’ The dog whined softly, as if agreeing with what Travis has said”

(Koontz 8). Even though the dog’s vocalisations and gestures occur immediately after each

question or comment, Travis overlooks the chuff, hand nudge and whine, presuming them to

be meaningless.

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As Travis continues to misinterpret the dog’s attempts to communicate using gestures

and vocalisations the dog grows increasingly anxious. However, before leaving the clearing,

the dog decides to warn Travis that he is in imminent danger. Koontz writes:

‘On your way now.’

[Travis]…gave the retriever a light slap on its side, rose, and stretched. The dog

remained in front of him. He stepped past it,


heading for the narrow path that

descended into darkness. The dog bolted around him and blocked the deer trail.

‘Move along, boy.’

The retriever bared its teeth and growled low in its throat. (8)

The retriever continues to block Travis’ attempts to exit the clearing down the same path in

which the threat approaches, by biting, growling, snapping and lunging. Travis is confused by

the dog’s behaviour, which alternates between seemingly friendly and aggressive. When the

dog reverts from acting aggressively “to a friendly mood”, and licks Travis’ hand, he calls the

dog “schizophrenic” (11). This is clearly a reference to the reductive stereotype of those

diagnosed as schizophrenics who are perceived to oscillate between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’

behaviours making them seem irrational and erratic, passive some of the time and

unpredictable and dangerous at other times. When Travis pauses to analyse the dog’s

behaviour, he finally recognises there is intention. Koontz writes:

The dog returned to the other end of the clearing. It stood with its back to him, staring

down the deer trail…The muscles in its back and haunches were visibly tensed as if it

were preparing to move fast.

‘What are you looking at?’


It is important to note Koontz’s use of the word ‘it’ in place of ‘the dog’ or ‘him’. Not using the pronoun to

describe nonhuman animals is objectifying and also serves to reinforce the human-animal divide.

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Travis was suddenly aware that the dog was not fascinated by the trail itself but,

perhaps, by something on the trail. (11)

Once Travis heeds 33-9’s gestures and vocalisations he is able to extract the meaning of the

dog’s behaviour. Fortunately, despite the earlier dismissal of the dog’s behaviour as bizarre,

erratic and meaningless, 33-9 is able to utilise vocalisations and gestures to provide Travis

with enough forewarning to save his life.

Travis’ suspicion that the dog is different is expressed through a comparison between

33-9 and ‘ordinary’ dogs and the comparison entails the assumption that dogs are typically

dumb. The first example of this occurs in the car, after the pair escapes from The Outsider

and Travis decides to take the retriever home with him. During the car ride, Travis speculates

about the dog’s origin. He senses something unusual about the animal. There is a certain look

in the dog’s eyes: “they seemed somehow more expressive than a dog’s eyes usually were,

more intelligent and aware” (Koontz 26). When Travis mentions the location of a peanut bar

in the car, the dog promptly opens the glove compartment to remove it with his teeth. Travis

takes this as evidence of extraordinary canine intelligence but in reality, of course, this is well

within the capability of actual dogs. Their powerful sense of smell sees them used in

numerous human service roles such as detecting cadavers, illegal drugs, unexploded

landmines and biological hazards for customs and quarantine. Indeed, dogs’ incredible

olfactory capacities enable them to detect cancer in the human body (Willis et al). In

communication between dogs, the canine capacity for scent is crucial (Coren 184-5). Hence,

any animal belonging to a species that can detect cadavers, illegal drugs, unexploded

landmines, biological hazards and even cancer by scent would not have to be told there is a

candy bar in the glove box right in front of his nose.

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Travis’ suspicion that the retriever is ‘special’ continues once he reaches home and

his assumption that dogs are ordinarily dumb persists. After announcing his intention to bath

the dog, Travis observes: “The retriever turned towards him and cocked its head and

appeared to listen when he spoke. But it did not look like one of those smart dogs in the

movies. It did not look as if it understood him. It just looked dumb” (Koontz 52). Then,

when Travis briefly exits the room and returns to discover the dog has turned the water faucet

on, he is, in this case justifiably, astonished (52). The sequence of events that leads Travis to

consider 33-9 more intelligent than other dogs culminates when he announces his intention to

give the dog a name. The retriever sits up attentively, as if in anticipation of his naming.

Travis correctly interprets this response but then reconsiders:

God in heaven…I’m attributing human intentions to him. He’s a mutt, special maybe

but still only a mutt. He may look as if he’s waiting to hear what he’ll be called, but

he sure as hell doesn’t understand English. (56)

In all likelihood, although we cannot know for sure, it is beyond the capacity of dogs to

interpret such a statement, although they are capable of various modes of complex thought.

Nevertheless, this passage does reveal something about the way humans view dogs. Travis

believes he is anthropomorphising 33-9, which means attributing to 33-9 human-specific

behaviours, in this case, the ability to interpret and comprehend the meaning and context of

information presented in words. To attribute the capacity for reason to the dog would, of

course, conflict with Descartes’ rationalism, which erroneously posits the ability to reason as

a human-specific trait. Notably, research shows that many nonhuman animals have the

capacity for reason and are self-aware, including primates (Byrne), parrots (Pepperberg),

chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and magpies (Broom). Nevertheless, Travis’ reluctance to

attribute the capacity for reason to the dog reflects the influence of social discourses that

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construct dogs, as well as most other nonhuman animals, as inferior, simple, stupid and


Still unaware of the dog’s ability to produce human language, but impressed by what

he has seen thus far, Travis chooses to name the retriever ‘Einstein’, in reference to the man

often considered to be the greatest intellectual figure in Western history. Einstein goes on to

perform many tasks during his first night at Travis’ house that in reality are called ‘tricks’,

actions that could reasonably be expected of any dog with appropriate motivation or training.

For example, he retrieves beer from the fridge. What transpires to differentiate Einstein from

other dogs, in Travis’ view, is that he seems to be self-aware, or possess consciousness:

another trait long considered as being human-specific. Travis suspects that Einstein is using

deception by pretending to be less intelligent that he actually is. Koontz writes:

Dogs – all animals, in fact – simply did not possess the high degree of self-awareness

required to analyze themselves in comparison to others of their kind. Comparative

analysis was strictly a human quality… To assume this dog was, in fact, aware of such

things was to credit it not only with remarkable intelligence but with a capacity for

reason and logic, and with a facility for rational judgement superior to the instinct that

ruled the decisions of all other animals. (66)

In this passage, Descartes’ famous rationalist proposition is implicitly invoked: “I think

therefore I am” (Descartes 18-19). This dictum, advanced in the same treatise that goes on to

deny ‘mind’ to nonhuman animals, is reflected in Travis’ explanation of nonhuman animal

consciousness because he is envisaging self-reflection and asserting that ‘ordinary’ dogs lack

self-awareness. Thus, it is not so much the ‘tricks’ that Einstein performs that impresses

Travis, but the idea that a nonhuman animal, in this case a domesticated dog, might share

what is thought to be the human-specific capacity for reason and self-reflection.

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Travis devotes considerable time to pondering how much an ‘average’ dog does or

does not know, can or cannot comprehend in matters of language and communication. During

the first evening at Travis’ home, he observes that Einstein shows an interest in his bookshelf

and appears to intentionally withdraw selected books from the shelves. Travis, again,

attempts to rationalise Einstein’s behaviour by drawing on what he thinks he knows about


Surely, [the dog] could not understand the synopses [Travis] provided. Yet it seemed

to listen raptly as he spoke. He knew he must be misinterpreting essentially

meaningless animal behaviour, attributing complex intentions to the dog when it had

none. (Koontz 68)

This sequence in Koontz’s novel has the effect of denying real dogs – in contrast to the

literate Einstein – the capacity for complex intentions. Of course, by all reasonable accounts,

understanding the synopses of books is actually beyond the capability (and probably the

interest) of actual dogs. At the same time, what is insinuated in this passage is that nonhuman

animal behaviour must be meaningless if humans cannot understand it. Koontz also reminds

the reader here that books are products of human culture: sophisticated and specialised

medium crafted from human language; thus, if animals cannot produce human spoken

language, then human written language is surely even further beyond their comprehension –

an even more inaccessible territory of the human ‘mind’.

Before discovering Einstein’s scientific role as the “most important experimental

animal in history” (Koontz 354), Travis assumes he has found a regular dog, and therefore a

‘dumb’ dog. Notably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘dumb’ is

defined as “Applied to the lower animals (and, by extension, to inanimate nature) as naturally

incapable of articulate speech” (“dumb”). This explains why it is so often automatically

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associated with nonhuman animals as it combines the two meanings of ‘unintelligent’ and

‘incapable of speech’. Indeed the term ‘dumb’ features repeatedly in Koontz’s novel in

reference to ‘average’ dogs. In one passage, Einstein is upset by an image of a demon in a

magazine. Unaware that the image resembles The Outsider, and therefore terrifies Einstein,

Travis cannot fathom why the dog takes the magazine and places it in the bin. Travis’

confusion is apparent when Koontz writes: “Sometimes Einstein exhibited uncanny

intelligence, but sometimes he behaved like an ordinary dog, and these oscillations between

canine genius and dopey mutt were enervating for anyone for anyone trying to understand

how he could be so bright” (265). Suggesting any dog is a just a ‘dopey mutt’ is clearly

reductive, although in this context, the distinction is primarily being made to elevate

Einstein’s supposedly superior intellectual status.

Koontz casts dogs as typically dumb when in order not to be exposed as extraordinary

Einstein must pretend to be like normal dogs, which in Koontz’s novel means unintelligent.

In one final example, Koontz explicitly links dogs with dumbness. Travis suspects that

Einstein fears being recaptured and returned to Banodyne Laboratories where he lived

unhappily in captivity. This leads Travis to form a hypothesis about Einstein’s inconsistent

behaviour. He suggests the dog’s fear of being captured “is why he usually plays at being a

dumb dog in public and reveals his intelligence only in private” (Koontz 304). ‘Playing

dumb’ here involves Einstein concealing his linguistic abilities. In fact, the ability to deceive

is another capacity often presented as evidence of a higher intelligence that distinguishes

humans from other animal species (Searcy and Nowiki). And in reality, dogs routinely

practise deception, particularly during the complex social activity of play (Irvine 152). As a

result of Koontz’s approach, Watchers incorporates and introduces many of the basic

assumptions about animality, humanity and language that novels such as The Art of Racing in

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the Rain, The Dogs of Babel and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle explore in much more complex


Eventually, Einstein is able to articulate his thoughts in Koontz’s novel with the

assistance of a spelling device that Travis creates using Scrabble tiles placed in Lucite tubes.

Articulating a dog’s thoughts in fiction can be achieved through various means, one of which

is using the conventions of first-person interior monologue to enable the reader to access the

dog’s thoughts, which are then ordered and expressed in human language. This is the

approach taken by Garth Stein in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The canine protagonist,

Enzo, an elderly mixed-breed, tells his life story on the eve of his euthanasia. Unlike Einstein,

Enzo is a typical dog who does not speak or write in ways that constitute producing human

language, but in the world of the story, his perspective allows for his thoughts and

observations to be known to the reader. What a dog thinks or might say if granted the ability

to use human language cannot ever be known; thus, Stein imagines what he thinks Enzo

might say and assumes how he might feel. Of course, this form of nonhuman animal

representation involving a kind of ‘ventriloquism’ constitutes radical anthropomorphism

(Harel 49), and to this extent it is not an authentic representation of canine reality. However,

as mentioned in my introduction (in accordance with Margo DeMello’s point about reading

narratives from an animal standpoint), it is not accuracy or authenticity that necessarily

matters in regards to analysing animal representations but rather what a novel like Stein’s can

tell us about how humans perceive dogs, and the consequences of these perceptions.

Stein’s story is primarily about a human-canine bond: the interspecies relationship

between a human named Denny Swift and his canine companion. The narrative follows

Enzo’s life with Denny and then Denny’s partner Eve, and their daughter, Zoe. The novel

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opens with Enzo, old and incontinent, lying in a pool of urine while lamenting the limitations

he perceives to impede his ability to communicate with humans. He says:

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I

occasionally step over the line…it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly

and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no

words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and

flat and loose. (Stein 1)

Enzo believes his struggle to communicate with humans is owing to his vocabulary being

limited to gestures. He claims that it takes great effort for him to communicate when limited

to gestures because there is a high risk of misunderstandings. In talking of his long, flat loose

tongue, Enzo finds his own condition lacking when it is the case that dogs’ tongues are

perfectly suited for canine needs. Indeed, dogs presumably find their tongues to be extremely

valuable as the unique design enables them to lap water efficiently from bowls and release

heat from their bodies via panting (Coren 70). Dogs also use their tongues to communicate in

complex ways; the withdrawal or exposure of the tongue, and its shape and position in the

mouth, are integral aspects of dogs’ “gesture-based communication systems” providing visual

cues to others regarding mood, such as “information about anger, dominance, aggression,

fear, attention, interest or relaxation” (Coren 84-8). Yet in this passage, Enzo assumes all the

responsibility for interspecies communication breakdown and blames misunderstandings on

his own physical ‘limitations’ and his inability to form words.

Enzo’s sadness and frustration as a result of his inability to speak words lead him to

desire reincarnation as a man. His knowledge of matters relating to interspecies reincarnation

derives from a television documentary he once watched. The documentary film that Enzo

refers to in the novel relates to the 1998 documentary “State of Dogs”, based on a Mongolian

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legend, which Stein credits as his inspiration for The Art of Racing in the Rain (Stein “Garth

Stein”). In the film, the spirit of canine protagonist Baasar – who is shot dead by a dog hunter

at the outset – reflects on his life while transitioning from dog to human form via

reincarnation. Baasar’s interactions with humans cause him to view them as untrustworthy

and cruel, therefore undesirable to be; thus, he resists taking the human form. This marks a

crucial point of difference between the desires of Baasar and Enzo. Enzo eagerly anticipates

taking on the human form and proudly declares: “When I return to this world, I will be a man.

I will walk among you. I will lick my lips with my small dextrous tongue. I will shake hands

with other men, grasping firmly with my opposable thumbs. And I will teach people all that I

know” (Stein 312). So while Baasar views reincarnation as a human unpleasant, Enzo views

it as a kind of promotion. He states this explicitly when he lists all the ‘superior’ body parts

he will acquire through his transformation.

Reincarnation, or transmigration as it is sometimes called, is a concept of many

Eastern religions but there is no concept of reincarnation in the ubiquitous Western Judeo-

Christian religion. Within some of the Eastern religious traditions, humans can be

reincarnated on Earth as another species of animal and it is not thought impossible for a

nonhuman animal to return to Earth as a human being. The ascension to a ‘higher’ life form

echoes the teachings of influential Greek philosopher Aristotle. Born in 384 BC, Aristotle

had a substantial impact on Western cultural attitudes regarding the social and moral status of

nonhuman animals. He devised the Scala Naturae, or The Great Chain of Being, which is a

scale that ranks animals and plants according to their apparent intellectual aptitude. On the

scale, human beings are situated at the pinnacle above other mammals, below which in

descending order come birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and so forth, concluding with inanimate

matter at the base. Thus, in contrast to Baasar in “State of Dogs”, Enzo’s desire to end his life

as a dog and reincarnate as a human aligns more with dominant Western anthropocentric

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standpoints through the suggestion that there is a system of promotion and demotion at play

in matters of interspecies reincarnation.

Enzo venerates the soul and values his sense of inner-humanness over his canine

exterior. He states, “I’m stuffed into a dog’s body, but that’s just the shell. It’s what’s inside

that’s important. The soul. And my soul is very human” (Stein 3). The soul is a pivotal

feature of Judeo-Christian doctrine – and remained an important feature of Descartes’

philosophy – and is usually understood to be a gift from God that only humans possess. Once

the soul exits the body, it transits to either Heaven or Hell for all eternity.


The soul’s

destination is determined by how an individual lives his or her life: Heaven is a reward and

Hell is a punishment. In Christianity the human soul does not transmigrate because

reincarnation is not a concept adopted by this religion. Reincarnation would not apply to

nonhuman animals anyhow since according to orthodox Christianity, and Descartes, they do

not possess souls.


Christian and Cartesian doctrines support the assumption that nonhuman

animals are physically and spiritually less significant than human beings, which reflects

Enzo’s beliefs about himself in Stein’s novel. Like Descartes, Enzo believes that the soul and

the ability to produce speech is what makes the human animal exceptional (along with the

opposable thumb). Thus the Christian belief in the ‘exclusive’ human soul posited alongside

Cartesian doctrine and echoes of Aristotelian hierarchy all contribute to the idea that it is

better to be a human than a dog: in Stein’s novel, ironically, this anthropocentric assumption

is made even more difficult to dispute because it is a dog himself who declares it.

On the one hand, Enzo’s expressions of inadequacy might lend verisimilitude to his

claim of inferiority; however, his self-deprecation can also be read as structural irony. This is

because Enzo can be considered a naïve and unreliable as a narrator. Consider the opening


However, the Roman Catholic tradition allows for an interim period in Purgatory to do penance for sins.


Although nowadays, an increasing number of non-mainstream theologians and Christians do believe that

nonhuman animals do in fact have souls (Camosy 76).

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passage in which Denny arrives home to find Enzo lying in urine and apologises to him for

being delayed and arriving home late. Enzo responds to this by thinking:

I realize that he thinks my accident was because he was late. Oh, no. That’s not how it

was meant. It’s so hard to communicate because there are so many moving parts.

There’s presentation and there’s interpretation and they’re so dependent on each other

it makes things very difficult. I didn’t want him to feel bad about this. (Stein 5)

Enzo’s concern that his inability to speak words will leave Denny feeling guilty about the

indoor urination lacks logic because Denny, and presumably the reader, recognises that

incontinence is involuntary and therefore uncontrollable. The reader knows that there is no

theory under which an aged and incontinent dog locked alone inside a house could reasonably

be expected to make it outdoors to urinate, which is an insight that Enzo lacks but that Denny

and the reader share. The reader, therefore, is encouraged to respond emotionally and

empathetically to Enzo’s desire to do the ‘right’ thing despite being physically incapable.

Another incident that exposes Enzo’s naïveté occurs when Denny’s partner, Eve,

leans down near the dog’s muzzle to place a food bowl on the floor. Enzo explains: “I had

detected a bad odour, like rotting wood, mushrooms, decay. Wet, soggy, decay. It came from

her ears and sinuses. There was something in Eve’s head that didn’t belong” (Stein 36).

Despite having identified Eve’s undiagnosed brain tumour with his remarkable sense of

smell, Enzo feels that his early detection is pointless if he cannot tell of his discovery. In

Enzo’s view, the fact that he cannot tell Eve her life is in danger means, as ‘the family’s

protector’, he has failed. Once again, he laments his perceived physical limitations, saying,

“Given a facile tongue, I could have warned them. I could have alerted them to her condition

long before they discovered it with their machines, their computers and super-vision scopes

that can see inside the human head” (36). Irony once again transpires as a result of Enzo’s

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sense of inadequacy because he overlooks the incredible skills he possesses that enables him

to detect the cancer long before humanity’s sophisticated and expensive machines. Readers

are reminded of dogs’ powerful and acute sense of smell, which in reality can and does detect

cancer in the human body.

Stein’s characterisation of Enzo as a naïve narrator continues when the dog is

accidently abandoned. The progression of Eve’s tumour causes her symptoms including

nausea, pain and debilitating headaches and, with Denny away in France, she leaves the

house with her daughter, Zoe, to stay with her parents. Since she forgets to take Enzo, he is

left locked in the house alone for three days during which time he survives by drinking from

the toilet bowl. However, when his hunger becomes unbearable on the second night, he

claims to suffer hallucinations involving a stuffed zebra toy belonging to Zoe. Enzo describes

watching the zebra come to life, abuse and humiliate the other stuffed toys in Zoe’s bedroom,

then, he says, “I could take no more and I moved in, teeth bared for attack…” (Stein 53). But

before he can attack the toy, he claims the zebra rips open its own stitching and pulls the

stuffing out. When Denny returns home the following day, he is initially furious at Eve for

leaving Enzo alone. However, his anger shifts to Enzo with the discovery of the destroyed

toys in Zoe’s bedroom. Enzo explains that Denny, consumed with rage, “reared up and

roared, and with his great hand, he struck me on the side of the head. I toppled over with a

yelp, hunkering as close to the ground as possible. ‘Bad dog!’ he bellowed and he raised his

hand to hit me again” (57). Denny never gets to hear about Enzo’s experience with the

‘depraved zebra’; meanwhile, readers recognise that the zebra story is fabricated to

counteract the shame Enzo feels about his ‘bad’ behaviour. Readers also recognise that Enzo

is a victim here, in the first instance, as a result of being left alone without food, water or

company for three days and secondly because he is then corporally punished for venting his

frustrations in a way many dogs would, and do, in a similar situation. Stein’s use of structural

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irony, via the naïve narrator, enables him to deliver insights to the reader by way of using

complex point of view, narrative structure and by complicating ideas about human/animal

distinctions based on assumptions about human uniqueness and language.

Clearly, we are meant to see that it is humans, not dogs, who are limited in their

understanding in Stein’s novel. Stein reflects the social reality whereby dogs who do not

behave in a manner consistent with humans’ expectations are widely pathologised as being

‘bad’, ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘destructive’. Two useful literary examples of this are memoirs

about dogs: John Grogan’s Marley & MeLife and Love with the World’s Worst Dog (2005)

and Milk Teeth: A Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog by Robbie Pfeufer Kahn (2008). Like

Stein’s fictional Enzo, whom Denny explicitly calls a bad dog, the central canines in these

non-fiction dog narratives are corporeally punished when normal canine behaviours are

pathologised as being ‘bad’. Unlike Grogan’s ‘perfect’ childhood dog, Shaun, whom he

recalls never stole food, was easily trained, obeyed all commands, returned when called,

never broke or destroyed objects and sat quietly in the car, Marley, a golden Labrador, pulls

on his lead, chews on foreign objects, barges into people, defecates in the ocean, chews door

frames and resists training. He is castrated in order to diminish his energetic disposition, but

to no avail. After John and his wife Jenny begin a family and their second child is born, Jenny

grows intolerant of Marley’s behaviour. With a toddler and a new born to care for Jenny’s

postpartum stress worsens and Marley’s ‘bad’ behaviour becomes a target of her frustration.

John recounts arriving home on one occasion to find Jenny “beating Marley with her

fists…crying uncontrollably and flailing wildly at him, more like she was pounding a

kettledrum than imposing a beating, landing glancing blows on his back and shoulders and

neck” (Grogan 162). Jenny demands that Marley be re-homed but reconsiders after a period

of time.

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Another rambunctious Labrador features in a journal-style memoir penned by

sociologist Robbie Pfeufer Khan. It is immediately clear that Khan has an idealised

expectation of how her dog Laska should behave and how their relationship together should

be; but Laska seems determined to undermine that expectation at every turn. Laska can do

little right as she eats cat faeces, defecates indoors, misses the newspaper when defecating

indoors, issues bites instead of gentle licks, licks Khan after eating faeces, nips at Khan’s

heels, chews on shoes, jumps up and tears stockings, dislikes sitting still to be petted and

bites and snarls when roughly handled or struck on the head. When Khan seeks ‘professional’

help from Laska’s breeder, she is told that she should stop Laska jumping up using “an

approach based on the old-fashioned style of correction” which, Khan explains, involves

waiting for Laska to jump and then “punch[ing] her on top of the head or kick[ing] her in the

chest with my knee” (126). Khan’s frustration at Laska’s ‘bad’ behaviour and ‘disrespect for

authority’ leads her to conclude that her puppy has a genetic predisposition for disobedience.

Khan’s initial issues with Laska clearly stem from her ignorance of dog behaviour and lack of

understanding that dogs are not human and do not instinctively know what humans expect of

them. In most of Khan’s examples, Laska appears to be using bites and jumping to seek

attention, while chewing interesting objects and eating faeces are typical behaviours for most

dogs. Like the factual experiences of Marley and Laska, recounted by their frustrated, and at

times intolerant and abusive guardians, in Stein’s novel, Enzo is punished by his human

guardian who displays frustration and intolerance at the dog’s behaviour. In Marley and Me,

Milk Teeth and The Art of Racing in the Rain, normal dog behaviour is labelled ‘bad’ and

incites physical violence. From the canine-centric perspective enabled by Stein’s

‘ventriloquism’ of Enzo’s naïve point of view, however, it becomes clear that in each of these

cases, the dogs are not bad but rather these miscommunications stem from humans’

insufficient expertise in interpreting ‘doglish’ – a term used here to refer to the language of

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dogs, and lack of insight into the nature and experience of ‘dogdom’, meaning the experience

and condition of being a dog.

While Denny and Enzo’s relationship is at times marred by misunderstandings, for the

most part the two have a strong and untroubled relationship. An example of this can be seen

in the passage when after being struck, Enzo cautiously approaches Denny who apologises

for hitting Enzo. In response, the dog places his head on Denny’s lap and gazes upwards.

Denny says, “Sometimes I think you actually understand me” (Stein 61). This is another

example of structural irony, only on this occasion the naïveté is Denny’s. Enzo and the

readers know that this particular dog indeed understands Denny since Enzo confirms this at

the outset when he says, “I might not be able to form words, but I understand them” (7).

Denny may think that Enzo cannot comprehend him but he still talks to him. When Denny

speaks out loud, Stein has Enzo reply in gestures (or for the reader’s benefit, in thoughts).

The proficiency of this kind of non-verbal interspecies communication is demonstrated in the

passage when Denny helps Enzo up and gently guides the dog until he can stand unassisted.

To this, Enzo says, “To show him [that I can stand], I rub my muzzle against his thigh” (7).

This representation of non-verbal interspecies interaction will resonate with many, if not most

dog ‘owners’, who will have observed similarly subtle gestures being used by dogs as a

means to communicate with the humans in their lives.

Human-canine communication occurs most successfully without words at another

point in Stein’s novel involving an interaction between Enzo and Zoe, who is pre-lingual.

Having destroyed Zoe’s toys, and being smacked for it, Enzo explains the intricacies of his

relationship with the toddler, saying, “she trusted me but was afraid when I made faces at her

that were too expressive and defied what she’d learned from the adult-driven World Order

that denies animals the process of thought” (Stein 58). While he may not know the specifics

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of the teachings of the ‘adult-driven World Order’, Enzo is referring to the way in which

Western religion, philosophy and science have combined over many thousands of years to

influence the way in which humans view themselves as intelligent and exceptional, and other

animals as stupid and subsidiary. Enzo knows that humans deny him the capacity to

understand their world and seems aware that children raised in anthropocentric culture are

indoctrinated into believing nonhuman animals are ‘dumb’. This assumption is challenged in

the novel, however, when by way of offering an apology for tearing up her toys, Enzo crawls

forward on his elbows and positions his muzzle aside Zoe’s leg. He explains, “She waited a

long time to give me her answer, but she finally gave it. She placed her hand on my head and

let it rest there…she did touch me, which meant she forgave me for what happened” (58). In

this instance Enzo’s request for forgiveness and Zoe’s answer are unspoken. Human language

is redundant as gestures powerfully and proficiently communicate the characters’ emotions.

This more immediate and mutual communication is, perhaps, only made possible because as

a child, Zoe is not yet fully integrated into the adult-driven World Order of human language.

The complex intimate exchange that takes place between Zoe and Enzo demonstrates

that a dog’s life is not simple or insignificant because of his lack of capacity to produce

spoken words. While Enzo wants to escape from his dog body and inhabit the human form,

he is still depicted as a sensitive social being whose experience of being a dog is in various

ways rich and rewarding. It is significant that after a lifetime of dreaming about reincarnation

as a man, as he lies dying in Denny’s arms it is not the human world that Enzo’s mind

wanders to but the “rolling hills covered with the golden grasses” of his birth town (Stein

315). He suddenly realises that this could be his last chance to embrace the experience of

being a dog, and he asks rhetorically, “Have I squandered my dogness? Have I forsaken my

nature for my desires? Have I made a mistake by anticipating my future and shunning my

present?” (315). However, Enzo’s recognition that being a dog is just as valuable as being a

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human being, while pleasing, is short-lived and, as a result, Stein’s novel concludes in a

manner more consistent with dominant anthropocentric Western ideologies. Enzo achieves

his life-long dream of being reincarnated as a human being and of speaking directly with

Denny and in the process his regrets over squandering his dogness are promptly forgotten.

The novel closes many years after Enzo’s death when Denny is introduced to a young speed

car racing fan. When the boy reveals his name is Enzo, Denny is stuck by a sense of

familiarity. The long-running ‘problematic’ language barrier as expressed by Enzo the

narrator throughout the novel is finally overcome as the reader suspects that the human Enzo

is the canine Enzo reincarnated. To this end, the reader is left believing Enzo and Denny are

reunited and, even better, they are able to communicate effortlessly as both are now human.

This idea is further reinforced by the fact that the boy is speaking Italian, which Denny just

happens to understand. This ending ultimately devalues the experience of dogdom and

despite the many ways that Stein challenges anthropocentric assumptions of human

superiority based on language, The Art of Racing in the Rain reinforces in the end the idea

that being a dog is an inferior experience to being a human.

Until he is reincarnated as a human and acquires a human voice, Enzo feels stymied

by his inability to produce human language and thinks that given the appropriate ‘equipment’,

he could break down the perceived communication barrier between himself and the humans

in his life. Reincarnation as a human being is a convenient device for novelists to give a dog

the capacity to breach the species barrier, produce and comprehend human language (Lord

Dunsany’s 1936 novel My Talks with Dean Spanley is one example) but the mechanism for

creating talking dogs in Carolyn Parkhurst’s novel The Dogs of Babel is the spiritual’s arch-

enemy, science. Like the scientists of Banodyne Laboratory in Koontz’s Watchers,

Parkhurst’s protagonist, linguistics professor Paul Iverson, desires to have a dog produce

human language. Paul sets about teaching his Rhodesian ridgeback, Lorelei, to speak using

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words after his wife Lexy commits suicide and Lorelei is the only witness. Paul hopes that

Lorelei will provide him her eyewitness testimony. Unlike Koontz, but more consistently

than Stein, Parkhurst challenges notions of human exceptionalism and does not privilege

human language; rather, she portrays human language as being profoundly flawed. In doing

so, she exposes the unreasonable expectations that humans pose on dogs kept as companion

animals in regards to the ways in which they are expected to communicate.

In a manner reminiscent of Enzo’s lament in The Art of Racing in the Rain, in

Parkhurst’s novel, once again the tongue is considered a failure if it cannot produce words.

But here, it is a human tongue at fault. Paul’s problems with language began the moment he

was born: “I became a linguist in part because words have failed me all my life. I was born

tongue-tied in the most literal sense…I was born with a tongue not meant for speaking”

(Parkhurst 38). Fortunately for Paul, his tongue-tie is easily remedied with minor surgery;

however, it is the psychological barriers to communication that go on to cause Paul the most

grief. The first glimpse into his struggles with language comes when he explains his marriage

breakdown with ex-wife, Maura. He recounts, “[Maura] spoke so much while saying so little

that I sometimes felt as if I were drowning in the heavy paste of her words” (21). While

Maura apparently speaks many words of little consequence, he says of himself, “I had to

choose my words carefully, because I knew that any one of them, innocuous though they

seemed to me, might mire me in a nightlong conversation about my motives in uttering them”

(21-2). Their relationship ends when Paul ceases to engage in conversations with Maura and,

as a result, he becomes the recipient of her increasingly hostile notes. It is with an impersonal

note reading, “Fuck you. I’m sick of your fucking notes” that Paul ends the marriage (22).

Written words substitute for spoken words but neither are sufficient to save this union.

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Just as Paul’s marriage to Maura is negatively affected by poor communication, so too

is his marriage to Lexy one year later. The primary source of conflict between them involves

having children, as Lexy feels that she is not suited to motherhood. When pressed on the

subject, Lexy responds, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, okay?” (Parkhurst 104).

Lexy’s unwillingness or inability to articulate her aversion to having children leads Paul to

experience confusion, which fuels tension and resentment between them. After Lexy’s death,

Paul is watching television and recognises Lexy’s voice on a pre-recorded call to a Psychic

Helpline hosted by Lady Arabelle. He calls the Helpline hoping Lady Arabelle will recall

speaking with Lexy and might be able to answer some questions and shed some light on her

unexpected death. Even after Paul is told that the woman he is speaking to is not the same

woman that Lexy spoke to (rather she is one of hundreds of psychics who work on the

Helpline) he calls her regularly to talk about Lexy’s death anyway. This demonstrates that for

Paul, any words spoken about Lexy are better than silence, and he indulges in the words

knowing that they are purely conjecture.

While the false words of the psychic bring Paul some solace, it is the eyewitness

testimony of Lorelei that he believes will truly help him solve the mystery of Lexy’s death.

Teaching a dog to speak human words might seem futile to a reader who knows this has

never been done in reality; thus, to lend credibility to the endeavour, Parkhurst has Paul draw

on three instances where dogs have supposedly been taught to talk. The first case is drawn

from the sixteenth-century and involves a story about a dog who was surrogated by a woman

and learnt to speak from her. As the tale goes, the dog was with the woman as she lay dying

and the dog’s final words to her were, “Without your ear, I have no tongue” (Parkhurst 10).

This story lends little credibility to Paul’s research because it seems more like a fable or

myth. It does, however, reinforce the anthropocentric idea that language only matters if it is

heard and understood by humans.

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The second example Paul offers to lend credibility to his research involves a

nineteenth-century Hungarian named Vasil, whose experiments on a litter of Hungarian

vizsla puppies involved massaging their throats to produce the capacity for human speech. As

the story goes, Vasil’s experiment resulted in one puppy gaining the ability to speak one word

and another to gain fluency in a dialect that sounded like French. However, the final and most

disturbing precedent to Paul’s research involves a vivisectionist named Wendell Hollis,

whose experiment is outlined in the novel as follows: “Over a period of years, Hollis

performed surgery on more than a hundred dogs, changing the shape of their palates to make

them more conducive to the forming of words” (Parkhurst 12). Hollis’ experiments go further

than merely surgically reconstructing palates. Paul explains that when Hollis’ home

laboratory was uncovered many of the dogs kept there had incurred horrific facial

mutilations. A dog named Dog J was Hollis’ only ‘success’ and subsequently, having being

enabled the capacity to produce words, testified at Hollis’ animal cruelty trial. The dog’s

testimony resulted in Hollis being convicted and sentenced to prison. Hollis’ experiments to

make dogs productive participants in human language were not only deemed cruel, but

backfired on him as in the process of creating a linguistic dog, he provided a witness to attest

to his crime.

Paul believes that Hollis’ experiment to make a dog speak human words is a success.

Indeed, he feels “a sort of kinship” with Hollis, and says, “Whatever the differences in our

methodologies, we are both driven by the same desire. We both want, more than anything, to

coax words from the canine throat” (Parkhurst 83). Since Paul has no intention of subjecting

Lorelei to vivisection, he devises a more humane methodology:

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It is my proposal to work with Lorelei on a series of experiments designed to help her

acquire language in whatever ways are possible, given her physical and mental

capacities. It is my proposal to teach Lorelei to speak. (13)

Paul’s experiments involve training exercises to teach Lorelei tricks and to play certain

games. While his project fails to achieve its aim, the process does inadvertently lead Paul to

discover Lorelei’s capacity as a receptive participant of human language and, more

importantly, to recognise that she is already a highly skilled, communicative individual.

In order to determine Lorelei’s potential for human language acquisition Paul begins

with recording what he knows. Lorelei already engages with human language as a receptive

participant and readily understands the meaning of many words spoken to her. Until he

compiles a list, however, Paul does not realise that Lorelei knows around fifty words,

including her name, certain commands and specific objects, which Paul points out matches

the vocabulary understood by a thirteen-month-old child. The problem he faces is replicating

in dogs the point whereby infants progress from being receptive participants to productive

participants. Again, like the scientists from Banodyne Laboratory in Koontz’s Watchers, Paul

is interested in the progression from understanding words to comprehension, then the “leap

from comprehension to speech” (Parkhurst 18). But where Koontz’s novel, by emphasising

Einstein’s exceptionalism, reinforces assumptions about the ‘dumbness’ of ordinary dogs,

something different happens in Parkhurst’s text. Although he never does succeed in

progressing Lorelei to the point of human speech, through the process of researching, Paul

discovers the unique and complex language that is her own.

In addition to understanding many words, Paul discovers that Lorelei has a second

vocabulary. Just as she was once unaware of the existence of human words, it seems Paul has

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been ignorant of the existence of canine language: or doglish. He makes a remarkable


I’ve isolated and catalogued six distinct kinds of bark, four different yelps, three

whines, and two growls. There is, for example, a certain sharp, staccato burst of noise

she makes only when she has been trying to get my attention when it’s past her

feeding time, say, or time to go for a walk, and she utters it only when a sustained

period of sitting at my feet and staring pointedly up at me has failed to elicit a

response. There is a soft, low growl, almost leisurely in its cadences, that rises from

deep in her throat when she hears that slam of a car door outside the house, which is

entirely different from the angry warning growl that precedes a bout of barking in the

event that the owner of said car has the nerve to walk up the front steps and knock on

the door. (Parkhurst 82)

Observing Lorelei reveals the complex ways she communicates and Paul realises that her

vocabulary is extensive and purposeful. After much practice, he says, “I have reached the

point where, when Lorelei makes a sound, I know exactly what she means” (82). To this end,

Paul gets much closer than Travis Cornell or Denny Swift in realising the innate

communicative capacity of animals. His recognition of Lorelei’s unique capacity for

language and communication, however, does not prevent him from pursuing his research into

canine language acquisition.

Paul’s discovery that Lorelei is a proficient receptor of human language and that she

has her own unique, complex language does not help him obtain the dog’s testimony.

Moreover, having come to appreciate Lorelei in a new way, Paul learns that Hollis was not as

successful in achieving human language acquisition for dogs as he thought. Paul’s research

leads him to attend a clandestine suburban meeting of Hollis’ disciples, called the Cerberus

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Society. He is told that Dog J, Hollis’ famous speaking canine, will address the members at

the event. When Dog J is led out before the crowd, Paul is shocked by the degree of facial

mutilation the dog has endured. He explains, “His head has been completely reconstructed.

His snout has been shortened so much that his face looks almost caved in. His jaw has been

squared and broadened to resemble the shape of a human jaw” (Parkhurst 179). Then when

Dog J begins to speak, Paul’s hopes of teaching Lorelei to speak words fade. He observes,

The sound that comes out is unearthly. A cross between a howl and a yelp, the noise

shapes itself into a string of random vowels and consonants. I’ve never heard a living

creature make a noise like this before. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. But it

isn’t speech. (179-80)

Paul does not consider the sounds that Dog J produces to be speech but others in the room

disagree. They listen enraptured as to Dog J makes vocalisations such as “Ayayay”,

Kafofwayo”, “Woganowoo” and “Jukaluk” (180). Now confused, Paul narrates, “Everyone

in that room heard the same garbled noise I heard, and everyone but me interpreted that noise

as speech. What did they think he was saying, that poor mutilated dog?” (199). His shocked

reaction to Dog J’s facial mutilation highlights the horrific consequences that befall

nonhuman animals as a result of our failure to recognise that there are more kinds of

communication, and different kinds of intelligence other than those privileged by the human


Human and canine vocabularies differ in Parkhurst’s novel just as they do in reality,

but there are also times when humans and dogs share one language. The first instance of this

occurs in a passage where Lorelei sleeps in her designated place on the floor beside Paul’s

bed. Feeling sad and anxious about spending the night alone after Lexy’s death, Paul invites

Lorelei to join him on the bed. Paul describes this moment:

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‘Come one up, girl. Up. Up.’ I pat the bed.

This is an unusual request on my part, and I have to repeat it a second time before she

obeys. She yawns, then stands and stretches, and finally jumps on the bed and settles

herself next to me. I stroke her fur…She sighs deeply – one of her most human sounds

– and closes her eyes. (Parkhurst 88)

Notably, Lorelei does not obey Paul’s first command to break from protocol and climb onto

the bed because this has not been allowed in the past. Indeed, this passage is a depiction of

two individuals whose lives had been forever changed as a result of Lexy’s suicide and who

are both expressing anxiety. Sighing – Lorelei’s most human sound – is often an expression

of contentment in dogs as well as humans (Coren 71) and Lorelei sighs only once she is close

to Paul and feeling content. Hence, Parkhurst writes a passage where the greatest degree of

information about these characters’ states of mind, and the way they are communicating their

feelings to each other, is achieved in gestures and sounds, not words. Thus, Paul moves

beyond the anthropocentric assumption that what matters most in interspecies encounters is

one or both parties’ ability to produce human language.

There are further examples of overlap between human and canine language in

Parkhurst’s novel; however, it is not always the dog who is seen to replicate human-

associated gestures and sounds. During the crucial passage in which Paul sits watching the

telephone psychic infomercial on television, as he realises that the voice on the end of Lady

Arabelle’s call is his late wife, he says “I lose my legs beneath me…and I make a sound like

an animal struck” (Parkhurst 112). In this instance, Paul’s shock defies expression in words

and instead his anguish is represented by a sound. In another example, Paul recalls an

incident before Lexy’s death when after a serious argument Lexy shuts herself in the

bathroom. Paul enters to find her sitting naked on the floor. At first she resists his embrace

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but then submits. Paul narrates, “Her skin was hot to the touch. She let out a guttural sound,

an animal noise of frustration and resistance. And still I held her fast” (147). In these

examples, words prove insufficient to express the profound emotions being felt by the human

characters. In place of words, ‘animalistic’ or non-species-specific vocalisations emerge.

The same dominant Western cultural attitudes that cast dogs as inferior because they

cannot produce human language are shown to produce the kind of species prejudice that

results in the victimisation of Lorelei in Parkhurst’s novel. Paul explains that Lexy found

Lorelei on her doorstep as a five-month-old puppy. At this time, Lorelei had a neck wound

that Paul would later come to discover was inflicted by The Cerberus Society before Lorelei

escaped from their suburban vivisection laboratory. Lorelei, having avoided being the victim

of vivisection once already as a puppy, attracts the Society’s attention as an adult through

Paul’s involvement with them. Key members of the group steal her from Paul’s backyard in

order to enact revenge on him for exposing their illegal activities to the authorities. Paul

recovers Lorelei but while in the hands of the Cerberus Society, her larynx is surgically

removed. Paul is devastated because his hopes of teaching Lorelei to speak words are ended

but also because he has only just discovered her own unique voice. His hopes of obtaining

her testimony are lost but so too is her ability to vocally communicate with him.

Jill Morstad keenly observes that The Dogs of Babel “is the story of a silent man and a

talking dog, and the space they must travel together in an effort to reach understanding”

(195). While the loss of a unique voice is a tragedy in Parkhurst’s novel, ‘voicelessness’

provides the opportunity for David Wroblewski to challenge assumptions regarding who does

and does not possess a ‘voice’ in his novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar Sawtelle is a

boy born mute who lives on farm in Wisconsin where the family business is breeding dogs.

Wroblewski’s novel suggests that interspecies communication is not necessarily hindered by

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the lack of linguistic ability and the author does this by employing a human protagonist who

lacks the capacity for speech. Yet, it is this character with whom the dogs most effectively


The primary human-canine relationship depicted in the novel is that of Edgar and

Almondine. Edgar is an only child who bonds instantly with Almondine, a Sawtelle dog who

lives in the family home. Their bond is established in the passage describing Edgar’s first

memory of Almondine. Edgar is in his crib when a “muzzle comes hunting” and “tunnels

beneath his blanket” and Edgar playfully squeezes “the crinkled black nose” (Wroblewski

46). Wroblewski describes how Almondine’s tail switches side to side as Edgar “tugs the

blackest whisker on her chin”; she licks his hand gently and he blows air in her face softly

(46). She then “bows and woofs” before “she smears her tongue across his nose and

forehead”; Edgar “claps a hand to his face but it’s too late – she’s away, spinning, biting her

tail” (46). No words are exchanged throughout this interaction and yet Wroblewski describes

a complex and intricate interspecies encounter that establishes the nature of Edgar and

Almondine’s speech-free relationship.

Almondine is one of the few in Edgar’s life to accept him as he is, and local psychic

Ida Paine is another. Edgar’s parents, Trudy and Gar, are so desperate to find the cause of

their son’s muteness – a process that sees them consult multiple physicians and subject Edgar

to many diagnostic tests – that Trudy takes Edgar to Ida’s store and places her baby on the

counter. Ida answers Trudy’s unspoken question (which one assumes is related to whether

Edgar will ever speak) with the word, “No” (Wroblewski 38). “Not ever?” Trudy asks, to

which Ida replies, “He can use his hands” (38). Like Almondine, Ida does not assume that

Edgar’s communicative capacity is in any way diminished by his inability to speak words.

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It is because Almondine has no expectations of Edgar that she is able to immediately

and efficiently communicate with him. After describing Edgar’s first memory of Almondine

from the human perspective, Wroblewski balances this by having Almondine describe the

moment she met Edgar. Their introduction occurs when Edgar is brought home from the

hospital after his birth. Wroblewski writes:

Faint huffing sounds emanated from the fabric and a delicate pink hand jerked out.

Five fingers splayed and relaxed and so managed to express a yawn. That would have

be the first time Almondine saw Edgar’s hands. In a way, that would have been the

first time Almondine saw him make a sign. (38)

In this passage, Almondine is attentive to the motion of Edgar’s hands and translates the

human hand gesture as a yawn rather than await sounds that might, under other

circumstances, emit from his mouth. For Almondine, Edgar’s vocal silence does not diminish

his capacity to communicate with her. It merely changes the basis upon which

communication between them takes place.

Wroblewski presents Edgar’s bond with Almondine as being more than an

interspecies relationship: it is a kinship. The basis of this kinship becomes known when

Edgar is six months old and a stranger named Louisa Wilkes arrives unexpectedly at the

Sawtelle’s house, having been directed to the property by Ida Paine. It transpires that Louisa

is the child of deaf parents and a teacher of sign language, and so she initiates a discussion

with Trudy about Edgar’s muteness. During the conversation she notices Almondine, whose

expressions Louise says, reminds her of her nephew’s dog, Benny, who, it turns out, is also

Sawtelle bred. Regarding Benny, Louisa says, “I’ve never seen a dog quite so aware of

conversation. I could swear he turns towards me when he thinks it is my turn to speak”

(Wroblewski 46). When Louisa signs to Edgar – who she recognises is mute but not deaf or

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unintelligent – the nature of Edgar and Almondine’s kinship materialises. Literary reviewer

Mike Peed identifies it when he writes Edgar is “a boy who, like the family’s dogs, can hear

but cannot speak” (“The Dog Whisperer” 2008). Until he is taught to sign, Edgar partakes in

human language as a receptive participant, in precisely the same way as dogs, and thus


Just as dogs use species-specific gestures, Edgar creates a distinctive vocabulary of

his own, although his vocabulary, which is distinct from conventional sign language, makes

him prone to being misunderstood and, as a consequence, feel alienated. Unlike dogs, he does

develop to be a productive participant in conversations involving human language;

nonetheless, his version of sign language is unique. Edgar’s manner of signing is not

inefficient but it does need to be learned in order to be understood. This is clear in the

passages involving Edgar and his uncle Claude, who makes little effort to learn Edgar’s signs.

Edgar does not know Claude prior to his arrival at the farm for a short stay; hence, Claude

does not know Edgar, or anything about sign language. Edgar teaches his uncle a “couple of

signs”, which the reader is told, “Claude promptly forgot” (Wroblewski 61). This reveals

Claude’s disinterest in learning Edgar’s language, which is demonstrated again during a

discussion in which Claude tells Edgar that one of the stairs in the barn squeaks. When Edgar

responds by signing that he already knows about the squeaky stair, Claude is not looking at

him so does not see his sign. These examples show that – like Enzo and pre-lingual Zoe in

Stein’s novel – Edgar’s difference, that is being mute, positions him outside of the so-called

‘adult-driven World Order’ as are the Sawtelle (and all other) dogs. In other words, he too is

the possessor and user of a nonverbal, gesture based communication system that adults, with

the exception of his mother and father, do not understand. It does not matter that Edgar and

Claude are members of the same species, or what vocabulary they use, because their attempt

to communicate fails. Almondine, on the other hand, who is not a human and does not have

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the capacity to produce human language, understands Edgar better than Claude. She actively

seeks ways to communicate with Edgar, observes and respects him.

While Edgar is perceived to be deficient in human spoken language the Sawtelle dogs,

on the other hand, are perceived to be more proficient than typical dogs in engaging with

human modes of communication. Sawtelle dogs have supposedly been selectively bred with a

greater ability to interact with humans on an intellectual level. When talking with Edgar

about the business of breeding Sawtelle dogs, Trudy asks her son whether he thinks they are

selling dogs or something more. Edgar does not know the answer until later in the novel, after

he has run away from home and is observing an interaction between Henry, a Samaritan who

takes him in, and one of the Sawtelle dogs named Tinder. Edgar attempts to teach Henry how

to command Tinder to perform guided fetches. At first, Henry’s flawed attempts to use

command using hand gestures confuses Tinder. When Henry finally masters the skill of

commanding the dog, Edgar, who is observing, realises the answer to Trudy’s question. The

Sawtelles are not selling ordinary dogs, but are rather selling dogs with enhanced abilities to

communicate with humans.

One example of successful non-verbal communication between human and dog

occurs in the passage where Edgar patiently instructs Almondine how to descend the stairs in

the barn without making a sound. Wroblewski writes:

[Edgar] stepped quickly down to the sixth and fifth and turned back and picked up

Almondine’s foot and stroked it.

He tapped the owl-eye.



She stepped down.

5 ‘Owl eye’ refers to the knot in the wood.

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Yes. Good girl. (55)

Teaching Almondine where to step by utilising her power of observation and memory is no

extraordinary feat and is within the capability of most dogs. Many dog trainers would likely

agree that patience, repetition and praise are all that is required to teach a dog most things,

including the sequence of steps that allow one to silently descend stairs. Human language is

made redundant here and the assumption that effective and complex communication relies on

human language is challenged. In this passage, the boy and his dog are able to communicate

using only gestures at an advanced level without the need for either to produce or

comprehend human language.

Since Edgar’s mode of communication is unconventional and, as outlined previously,

signing is not always recognised to be as sophisticated as spoken word, he represents dogs

who like him, are marginalised because they have ‘trivialised’ vocabularies. Ron Charles,

writing for the The Washington Post, chooses the phrase “Terrible Silence” to head his

review of Wroblewski’s novel, but silence is far from terrible in this novel. As Marion

Copeland observes, “Edgar’s muteness…allows him to attend to voices other than his own”

(357-8). Indeed, Wroblewski’s novel, like Parkhurst’s, demonstrates that there is more than

one kind of voice and the voice is not human specific.

Authors of dog narratives often incorporate into their novels issues relating to

language and its effect on interspecies communication. Watchers is a narrative that reflects

many of the Western cultural prejudices that see nonhuman animals cast as inferior to

humans. Koontz brands dogs as ‘dopey’ and ‘dumb’ by comparing them to Einstein, who is

able to produce human language. This diminishes the value of dogs’ unique and exceptional

species-specific skills and qualities. Stein’s decision to have a dog narrate The Art of Racing

in the Rain lends verisimilitude to the canine protagonist’s feelings of inferiority, which

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stems from his inability to speak using words. Read as structural irony, it can be argued that

Stein effectively undermines notions of human exceptionalism based on the privileging of

human language. In the end, nevertheless, Western anthropocentric ideologies proposing that

humans are superior to other animals are ultimately reinforced when Enzo is reincarnated as a

human and finally achieves his life-long dream of shaking hands with and speaking to Denny.

In different ways and to various degrees Koontz and Stein reinforce notions of human

exceptionalism stemming from humans’ ability to communicate using human language.

Parkhurst and Wroblewski, on the other hand, explicitly challenge human exceptionalism and

the assumption that dogs are unintelligent in their narratives by highlighting the canine

species’ ability to communicate successfully with humans using non-linguistic methods. In

The Dogs of Babel, Parkhurst suggests that human language is flawed, and the efficacy of

human language is destabilised though the juxtaposition of the plot and subplot. While Paul

strives to teach Lorelei to speak words, in order to obtain the truth about Lexy’s suicide,

flashbacks to Paul and Lexy’s marriage show words to be deceptive and unreliable. In a

horrible irony, Paul’s quest to obtain words from Lorelei results in her larynx being surgically

removed, which strips her of her own unique voice and the ability to vocalise at all.

Wroblewski also challenges the veneration of human language in The Story of Edgar

Sawtelle by employing a protagonist who, like dogs, is perceived to be ‘voiceless’.

Wroblewski further disrupts assumptions about the importance of spoken words by having

Edgar – despite his ‘disability’ – emerge as the one who communicates the most successfully

with dogs in the novel.

Performing a canine-centric critique of dog narratives can expose some of the key

dominant discourses that underlie reductive attitudes towards dogs in contemporary Western

culture. Species prejudice stemming from Western religious and philosophical perspectives

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often rests upon assumptions that animals other than humans lack an immortal soul, the

capacity for reason, the capability to produce human language, and a voice with which to

speak. Dogs’ limitations as participants in human language results in their marginalisation

and often fuels misunderstandings that can lead to their victimisation and exposes them to

violence. Each of these novels raises important questions about the narrow definition of

‘language’ and they offer us the opportunity to question the prevailing prejudices that humans

impose on dogs and other nonhuman animal species who do not communicate using spoken

or written words. Importantly, novels incorporating dogs as characters can help us recognise

that there are voices other than those of humanity.

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Chapter Two

Dogs as Objects or Subjects-of-a-Life

As outlined in Chapter One, a perceived division exists between humans and other animals

that has been created and fortified by influential ideas stemming from Classical Western

philosophy and reinforced by subsequent discourses such as Christianity and Cartesianism.

Dogs – along with all other nonhuman animal species – have been denied souls, sensibility

and intelligence, attributes that are uniquely associated with humans and notions of



Nonhuman animals are not typically considered to be persons and are

positioned instead under antonymic categories like ‘things’, ‘property’ and ‘objects’.


Or to

borrow a phrase from author J. M Coetzee’s pro-animal protagonist Elizabeth Costello: “man

is godlike, animals thinglike” (23). Contrary to common belief, the word ‘person’ does not

mean human, and actually derives from persona and means “a mask” or character (Midgley

53). Mary Midgley summarises German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s definition of what

constitutes a ‘person’: “It is the idea of a rational being, capable of choice and therefore

endowed with dignity, worthy of respect, having rights; one that must be regarded always as

an end in itself, not only as a means to the ends of others” (54).


While Kant does not exclude

nonhuman animals from this definition, the fact they are still deemed to lack valued forms of

intelligence such as rationality implicitly excludes them from being granted personhood.

Midgley, however, argues that certain species of nonhuman animals should not be

denied personhood simply because of any particular feature they lack; rather they should be


For further discussion of nonhuman animals as nonpersons, see Mary Midgley’s essay “Persons and Non-

Persons” in Singer, Peter, ed. In Defense of Animals. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985. 52-62.


Midgley also explains that historically, women and slaves were denied personhood (52), which was crucial in

the oppression, and social and legal disenfranchisement of these individuals who like nonhuman animals, are

classed as ‘others’.


Ethologist Marc Bekoff points out that while many nonhuman animals meet the definition of ‘person’ but are

nevertheless denied personhood, many humans (such as those who suffer “major losses of locomotor, cognitive

and physiological functions”) remain classified as persons even after they no longer fit the definition (14).

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viewed as persons because “they are highly sensitive social beings” (62).9

To counter the

view that nonhuman animals are objects, American animal rights philosopher Tom Regan

argues that nonhuman animals of many species fulfil the definition of what he terms ‘the

subject-of-a-life’. In his 1983 book, The Case for Animal Rights, Regan explains that the

subject-of-a-life category applies to any animal who has

beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future,


including their

own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference

and welfare interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals;

a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their

experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for

others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests.


Animals who fulfil these criteria have, he states, “a distinctive kind of value – inherent value

– and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles” (Regan 243). It is because of their

inherent value that such animals are worthy of moral consideration and consequently humans

have a moral duty not to act cruelly towards them (Regan 195). When referring throughout

this chapter to the way novelists represent dogs as ‘persons’, I am therefore using the term in

accordance both with Midgley’s assertion that nonhuman animals are highly sensitive social

beings, and with Regan’s definition of the subject-of-a-life.

Many would agree that dogs are social, sensitive beings with rich emotional lives,

desires, goals and interests independent of their usefulness to others (Bekoff; Dawkins;

Horowitz; Coren; Garber). Yet despite occupying a privileged position in human hearts and


I would argue that even sensitive solitary animals can fulfil the criteria of personhood.


Or had these capacities at one time in the case of long-term or permanent memory loss resulting from disease

or injury, one might presume.

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homes, dogs remain, to varying degrees, outcasts of human society. While they are

sometimes thought to possess traits typically associated with humans, such as feelings,

intelligence and agency, dogs are often adopted then abandoned, welcomed then rejected,

cherished and mistreated en masse (Palmer 570). Susan McHugh explains, “The dangers for

contemporary dogs are real: destroyed by the millions every year as unwanted pets, strays

and research subjects, domesticated dogs bear the double-bind of sharing many of the

maladies as well as the joys of living the so-called good life…” (9). McHugh suggests that it

is through these “lived contradictions” that Western humanity’s “conflicting attitudes towards

dogs” becomes visible (9). The double-bind that produces this paradoxical treatment of dogs

in Western society is both reflected and interrogated in many works of popular fiction,

especially the genre I have been calling ‘dog narratives’. Such novels often represent the

most negative aspect of the double bind by incorporating depictions of animal abuse.

Various forms of animal abuse ranging from violence through to neglect are central

motifs in four of the narratives examined in this thesis: Jack Ketchum’s Red (1995), Gerard

Donovan’s Julius Winsome (2006), Nancy Kress’ Dogs (2008) and Dan Rhodes’ Timoleon

Vieta Come HomeA Sentimental Journey (2003). Via their inclusion of depictions of animal

abuse, these novels raise questions regarding the paradoxical way dogs are categorised in

Western culture. In raising these questions, these narratives challenge the view that dogs are

‘things’ or ‘objects’ by finding literary ways of presenting accounts of dogdom, and thereby

allowing the reader to visit the grim social realities of many dogs living in contemporary

Western culture. These texts offer representations of the negative aspects of being a dog bred

for the purposes of providing humans with companionship and, as a result, they expose the

consequences of the conflict between dualistic views of dogs; that is, when dogs are

considered objects or property by some and sensitive social beings by others.

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The canine companion at the centre of Ketchum’s novel, an elderly crossbreed named

Red, is fatally shot in an apparently random act of violence. Red’s human companion is 67-

year-old Avery Allan Ludlow, a retired war veteran and widower, who is approached by three

youths while river-fishing. After a failed attempt to rob Avery, one of the boys shoots Red

with a shotgun. Ketchum presents Red’s murder and events surrounding it in ways that reveal

tensions stemming from conflicting attitudes towards dogs as they exist in Western culture,

such as the ways dogs are considered to be unique, valuable and significant individuals by

some, and replaceable possessions by others.

Ketchum exposes the causes and consequences of paradoxical attitudes towards dogs

in his novel by focussing explicitly on the social reality linking domestic abuse and animal

cruelty, and he takes this approach to critique the abuse of power. He begins by revealing

Red’s killer to be 18-year-old Daniel McCormack, whose temperament and upbringing are

shown to be contributing factors to his cruel and violent behaviour, not only towards

nonhuman animals, but also fellow humans. On the day of the shooting, Avery is fishing as

Red lies in the sun on the riverbank nearby. While Avery is hunting fish, it is clarified that he

no longer partakes in “blood sports” (Ketchum 16); that is, he is no longer a recreational

hunter but a subsistence hunter who takes only what is legally allowed and is sufficient to

feed him and his dog.


The approach of the amateur hunters is signalled when Avery hears

them disturbing the peace and detects the smell of gun oil, indicating a poorly swabbed

firearm. When the boys appear, Avery notices that one, later revealed to be Daniel, is wearing

a t-shirt brandishing a sexist image and the slogan “STOLEN FROM MABEL’S


Of course fishing cannot in reality be isolated from other forms of hunting as this recreational pastime is just

as brutal as hunting with guns (Gadenne 67-8). Furthermore, fish feel pain and can suffer (Braithwaite).

Ketchum deliberately distinguishes Avery’s hunting practice from Daniel’s when he clarifies that Avery is

subsistence hunting whereas hunting for fun or entertainment is particularly cruel. He equates recognition of this

distinction with maturity and wisdom and most importantly, with respect for nonhuman animal life.

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WHOREHOUSE”, and has a shotgun recklessly “slung over his shoulder like it was a stick or

a bat, not a firearm” (17-18). This passage clearly hints that Daniel has no respect for either

women or weapons.

Ketchum develops Daniel’s characterisation as a social deviant and it becomes clear

that Daniel also lacks respect for his elders and nonhuman animals. After a brief, seemingly

polite conversation about Avery’s daily catch, Daniel asks about Red. Avery tells the boys

that Red is about thirteen or fourteen years old and friendly. One of the boys, named Pete,

then rudely remarks, “Raggedy old fella” (Ketchum 19). Ketchum writes: Avery “had

nothing to say to that. He didn’t much like the boy’s tone, though. He gathered that the boy

didn’t have much use for animals” (19). Although friendly, Red growls when Daniel orders

Avery to hand over his wallet and flicks off the gun’s safety catch. Since Avery’s wallet is in

his car, the boys take his keys, but before they leave, Daniel asks for the dog’s name. Avery

says “Red” and Ketchum writes:

The boy took a deep breath and blew it out and seemed calmer and the old man

thought it was possible that the storm in the boy was passing though he didn’t

understand why that should be with just the knowing of a name and then the boy

whirled and the dog was getting up out of his crouch, so much slower that he would

have just a year ago when he was only that much younger, sensing something beyond

the old man’s staying hand or his power over events and the boy took one step

towards him and the shotgun tore deep through the peace of the river…there wasn’t

even a yelp or a cry because the top of the dog’s head wasn’t there anymore nor the

quick brown eyes nor the cat-scarred nose, all of them blasted into the bush behind

the dog like a sudden rain of familiar flesh, the very look of the dog a sudden

memory. (23)

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Having shot Red for no apparent reason, the boys cruelly laugh and shout, “Red!”, “He’s red

now!” (23). Ketchum writes: “The old man stood there stunned. Why? He thought. Dear god

[sic], why?” (23).

As the novel progresses the circumstances leading up to this incident are unravelled

and the paradoxical reactions of the town citizens to the crime are exposed. Ketchum reveals

that Daniel McCormack’s ability to perpetrate such a violent act of animal cruelty is a

symptom of the socio-cultural conditions in which he was raised and now lives. His lack of

compassion towards others is presented as a consequence of his home life and the attitudes of

the culture within which he belongs. Avery discovers that Daniel is the teenage son of

Michael D. McCormack, a local wealthy property developer and that Daniel’s domestic

situation is one defined by power relations. This is first implied when after the shooting,

Avery visits the McCormack family home and is met at the door by a maid described as “a

small young black woman with a withered left hand that was discoloured white from her

wrist to the knuckles” – a detail that will become significant a little later in the novel

(Ketchum 38). Daniel’s father summons his sons to face Avery, who recognises the second

younger sibling, Harold, as having been present at Red’s shooting. In their father’s presence,

the boys deny their involvement in the crime but through observing Harold’s body language,

Avery detects the boy’s fear. Hoping to gain a confession, Avery later follows Harold to talk

with him alone. During their conversation, Harold is anxious that Daniel might observe them

talking and says Daniel would be “pretty damn mad if he knew I was talking to you” (110).

Avery then asks, “He get mad a lot, your brother?” When Harold does not reply, Avery asks,

“Who are you afraid of, Harold? Your brother? Your father?” to which Harold replies, “Mr

Ludlow, believe me, you haven’t got a clue” (111). Crucially, before walking away, Harold

says, “I want you to consider why my father would hire a maid with a crippled hand…Out of

all the help available around here, my father chooses her” (112). Harold’s comment leads

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Avery to ponder the values of the people he is dealing with. Ketchum makes it clear that

Michael McCormack did not hire the woman out of compassion for her disability; rather,

“[Avery]wondered how often McCormack found some way to remind the woman of her

withered hand or even how he might choose to go about it. If with regard to McCormack he

was dealing with the ordinary smug superiority of the rich or whether it was cruelty” (112).

Avery links the McCormacks’ wealth to their sense of superiority, visible in their abuse of

others whom they perceive as weak or inferior. Daniel and his father equate wealth with

dominance and dominance involves the exertion of power. They abuse their power to

victimise those they consider less valuable and significant than themselves, such as Carla the

maid, Avery, and Avery’s gentle, elderly canine companion, Red.

The social link between domestic violence and animal cruelty is reflected in

Ketchum’s novel through his attention to the ways in which abuse of power is learned and


12 Ketchum’s novel is structured around a victim hierarchy whereby Michael

McCormack exploits Carla and then Daniel mirrors this behaviour through the intimidation

and bullying of his brother, Harold, his disregard and disrespect for Avery and the murder of

Avery’s dog. Perhaps inadvertently on Ketchum’s part, the way that abuse is produced and

replicated in the McCormack family reflects the generational inheritability of reductive

attitudes about nonhuman animals in Western culture stemming from religious, philosophical

and scientific discourses that largely centre on distancing nonhuman animals from humans

and categorising them as property or objects rather than as subjects or persons.

Companion animals are not considered to be persons in Western legal discourse

because they are viewed as objects; bred to be sold, purchased traded and ‘owned’. Joan

Dunayer explains: “Under the law, ‘persons’ are rights-holders whereas ‘animals’ are not”


For comprehensive studies on the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty see Gullone (2012).

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(171). Of course, Homo sapiens are taxonomically classified as animals but legal discourse,

as well as the numerous cultural discourses discussed in Chapter One, reinforces the

assumption that humans are superior to, and distinct from, nonhuman animal species. So

instead of being granted individual rights, dogs are legally declared human property; thus,

despite being adopted into human families and treated as family members, dogs are not

afforded legal rights as ‘persons’. This means they are often insufficiently protected when

they are abused (Dunayer 170). It is a crime to shoot and kill a dog for pleasure in Ketchum’s

fictional world just as it is in many societies with animal welfare legislation; nevertheless,

Avery feels legally unsupported. He does receive moral support from some members of the

community, including his employee, Bill Prine, Clarence, an elderly clerk employed by the

store who sold Daniel ammunition, Sheriff Tom Bridgewater, his friend Emma Siddons and

journalist Carrie Donnel; nevertheless, the law does not support him. In the novel, Avery’s

lawyer Sam Berry explains the status quo to his client:

“First let’s assume your boy is eighteen or over. If not, it’s a matter of juvenile court

and all they’re going to give him is a slap on the fanny…But let’s assume he is [over

eighteen years old]. A crime like this would go before a judge in district court under

title 17, section 1031, cruelty to animals. That carries a mandatory fine of a hundred

dollars, though, theoretically, a prosecutor could go for more. I say theoretically

because most prosecutors would be happy with the hundred and some jail time. Under

the law the most you could ask for in jail and on animal cruelty is three hundred and

sixty-four days. And practically speaking, no prosecutor in his right mind would

shoot for more than thirty. Fact is, he’d be hoping like hell to get ten.” (49-50)

Sam’s explanation shows how the legal devaluation of animal lives is structurally related to,

and complicit with, the kind of callousness that Daniel shows when he shoots Red. He goes

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on to say why this is the case: “I’m talking property here, Av. Under the law, an animal’s just

property. Not only here in Maine but in damn near every state in the Union” (50). Sam

Berry’s summary of the way that the law fails to take animal cruelty seriously and

successfully prosecute perpetrators is not limited to the fictional world as Ketchum’s

summary of the animal cruelty laws in Maine, United States is drawn from the actual


13 The legal system’s failure to enact justice for Red’s death is a source of

frustration for Avery. He puts his faith in the law but is disappointed to learn that the

Assistant District Attorney has declined to prosecute.

Avery is left unsupported by the law and he also encounters insensitive attitudes

among acquaintances. Emma Siddons, for example, suggests Avery should go straight out

and buy himself a puppy to deal with his loss. Suggesting a person replace a human loved one

immediately following such a tragic loss would surely be construed as insensitive and yet, it

is “almost commonplace” to suggest pets are replaced soon after their deaths to accelerate

emotional healing (Podrazik et al 376), which is clearly a point Ketchum wants to emphasise.

Emma’s comment reinforces the idea that however much they may be loved, dogs are liable

to be seen as replaceable objects rather than irreplaceable subjects. Another example is Sam

Berry who discourages Avery from pursuing a law suit, saying, “All this time, all this work

and all this expense for an old mongrel dog you already buried” (Ketchum 51). However,

Avery clearly does not consider Red to be a worthless mongrel dog.

Although Red is killed in the novel’s opening pages he has a presence throughout the

narrative via Avery’s memories of him. Red is remembered as a dog who once slept on a

floor rug but then decided to sleep on the bed beside Avery after his wife Mary and son Tim’s

deaths. Avery remembers how Red would pass wind in his sleep and how he seemed to be



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dreaming, perhaps “running, chasing, cats or rabbits” or “running next to Mary or Tim”

(Ketchum 147). Red clearly displays autonomy and shows preference in his choice to sleep in

one particular location over another. The focus on Red’s dreams suggests that he has an inner

life, which expresses his subjectivity. Red even maintains a literal presence after his death

when Avery exhumes the dog’s body to show to the McCormacks. Avery’s determination not

to allow Red to be disregarded after his death is apparent when, despite having been shot in

the ear, run off the road into a ditch, bludgeoned and left for dead in the forest by the

McCormacks, Avery regains consciousness only to stagger back to the McCormacks’ cabin –

where he had visited earlier to confront the family – to retrieve Red’s body, which he left on

their porch. Red’s presence in this novel through Avery’s refusal to let his dog’s death pass as

insignificant contrasts with the many dismissive and reductive attitudes of those people he

encounters and is testament to depth of his attachment to his canine companion. He rejects

Red’s categorisation as a disposable, replaceable commodity.

Avery’s father is one of the few in the novel to believe that Red’s life matters and that

a dog has intrinsic worth outside of his or her value to humans. Feeling frustrated with the

dismissive attitudes of those around him and the lack of legal support, Avery visits his father

in an aged-care facility for advice. When Avery tells his father that his anger and frustration

has driven him to contemplate taking drastic, unlawful action to avenge Red’s death, his

father understands. He says, “Hell, blood’s blood. You ever taste an animal’s? It tastes

exactly like your own does. You tell me why a man’s blood is any better or more precious

than a dog’s blood” (Ketchum 107). Even though Avery’s father was not Red’s human

companion, he is able to recognise that Red was not just an object, but a feeling living being

whose life had meaning and value. More than just being a unique individual who Avery cared

for, Red is, in Avery’s and his father’s opinions, as worthy of justice as any victim of a

violent crime.

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In Ketchum’s novel, therefore, dogdom is depicted as being a state of limbo; that is,

dogs are situated somewhere between person and property in the eyes of society and this

leads to conflict between people. In this way, Ketchum’s narrative is comparable with the

storyline of Gerard Donovan’s novel, Julius Winsome. In Donovan’s narrative, a friendly pit-

bull terrier named Hobbes is shot dead at point blank range by an unidentified hunter. Just as

Ketchum explores ideas relating to power and abuse in Red, so too does Donovan in Julius

Winsome; however, whereas Ketchum approaches the topic through the link between the

abuse of power and animal cruelty, Donovan addresses violence perpetrated against

nonhuman animals through the lens of hunting culture. Of course, hunting is also the situation

that brings Avery and Daniel McCormack together in Red – since Daniel is out hunting with

a shotgun when he comes across Avery fishing. However, issues relating to hunting do not

dominate the narrative in Red to the degree that they do in Julius Winsome. Hobbes’ human

guardian, Julius Winsome, lives in a secluded cabin in the woods, in an area in Maine popular

for hunting bears and deer. Almost forty minutes after hearing a gunshot unusually close by,

he finds Hobbes “lying in the flowers, bleeding, breathing, but barely” with a fatal shotgun

wound (Donovan 12). Julius rushes Hobbes to the veterinarian who informs him that the

gunshot was administered at close range, just inches away. When the veterinarian says, “You

have to be mighty cruel and then some to pull the trigger on a dog like that” (13), Julius

realises that Hobbes’ fatal injury was intentionally and maliciously inflicted.

Like Avery Ludlow in Red, Julius Winsome cannot comprehend why anyone would

murder a friendly domesticated dog, and like Avery, Julius draws conclusions about the

character and values of the type of person who would commit such an act. Owing to the

remote location of his cabin, and the frequency with which hunters use the surrounding

woods, Julius concludes that the person who murdered Hobbes is a hunter. He determines the

person to be what reviewer Diane Evans craftily summarises as a “roaming hunter – probably

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a man, a rifle-carrier, enthuser of Remington slide action and Rifle Association badges, killer

of bears, deer, birds – and dogs” (52). Therefore, Hobbes’ killer is a person for whom

violence is commonplace, for whom killing is a hobby and a way of life; a person who has

the capacity to view nonhuman animals as objects rather than subjects and who enjoys

dominating nonhuman animals and seeks to kill them for pleasure.


The motive for Hobbes’ murder is never revealed but there is the hint of a possible

motive in the novel: Hobbes is a pit-bull terrier. As discussed earlier in this chapter,

domesticated dogs under the law are property, and not persons, and the novels of Ketchum

and Donovan reflect societal attitudes that diminish the value of dogs as subjects-of-a-life.

The pit bull is one breed, however, whose object status is compounded not only as a result of

being a dog, but because this particular breed is often despised and demonised. A common

reaction amongst Western middle-class people to this maligned breed is described by Judy

Cohen and John Richardson as “Pit Pull Panic”. In their article by the same name, they

reiterate how pit-bulls are “the archetype of canine evil, predators of the defenseless.

Unpredictable companions that kill and maim without discretion. Walking horror shows bred

with an appetite for violence” (citing Verzemnieks 285).15

In order to maintain this negative

perception of pit bulls, dogs of this breed are often denied personal identities and succumb to

the demonisation of the entire breed. They become seen as dangerous weapons; as objects,

rather than as sensitive individuals.


It is necessary to note that in contrast, some hunters believe that their hunting practices are a way of showing

respect for nature and state that they view their prey as subjects rather than objects. Eco -feminist Marti Kheel

discusses this category of hunter, calling one who engages in this form of hunting a “Holistic Hunter” (35-6).

15 According to Twining et al, negative perception of pit bulls is quite a recent phenomenon, for between 1890

to 1948 “pit bulls were very popular dogs to own because they were seen as ‘a good-natured watchdog and

family pet’” (26).

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Read in this way, Donovan’s novel is a response to the widespread stigmatisation and

demonisation of this particular breed. This author subverts the stereotypic notion of the

menacing pit bull who makes victims of others by positioning Hobbes as the victim of social

stigma. Donovan’s intentions are revealed in an interview with Dermott Bolger, where he


I lived with a pit bull terrier for five years. A much-maligned breed that does not

deserve its reputation because the conditions where you hear about them attacking

people are based on them being chained up or kept in small spaces and made to fight

with each other. I lived with this dog for five years and it took me five years to learn

the language of dogs, how dogs relate to you, how they speak to you, and all of that

went into the novel. (14)

Firstly, it is significant that Donovan places emphasis on learning the dog’s language in order

to ensure harmony and efficient interspecies communication. As discussed in Chapter One, a

lack of understanding of another species’ mechanisms of communication is often the cause of

problematic interspecies relations, which can lead to violence. Donovan not only advocates

that humans have a responsibility to learn doglish and relate to dogs in a way that recognises

and respects the experience of dogdom, but he specifically utilises the socio-cultural anxiety

arising from a fear of certain dog breeds to challenge assumptions that lead to the

depersonalisation and persecution of pit bulls in his novel.

Donovan begins his critique of breed stigmatisation by revealing reductive attitudes

towards dogs generally before focussing specifically on breed prejudice. Julius uncovers the

dismissive attitudes aimed at domesticated dogs that permeate his community when he posts

a public notice to gather information about the shooting. Clearly, not everybody considers the

wanton killing of a dog worthy of seeking justice because shortly after pinning the notice up,

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it is defaced with insensitive comments such as “Bye-bye dog” and “So what, one less dog.

Get over it” (Donovan 22). Such dismissive responses reflect the same indifferent and

insensitive attitudes that Avery Ludlow experiences in response to the shooting death of his

dog Red in Ketchum’s novel. Thus, both authors depict a gentle-natured, much-loved and

well socialised dog who is shot in a random act of violence and, based on those attitudes

expressed in the novel by members of the respective societies, there is surprisingly little

sympathy for the dogs or the dogs’ human companions.

Donovan’s critique of breed prejudice appears to begin in the passage where he

reveals how Hobbes was acquired as a puppy from the Fort Kent animal shelter for the

purpose of providing Julius with companionship. It is not surprising that Julius immediately

identifies with this particular puppy considering that the two – man and dog – share the

experience of being social outcasts. When Julius sees Hobbes as a puppy in a cage, his female

companion at the time, Claire, points out “That’s a dangerous breed” (Donovan 89). Julius

adopts the puppy anyway and Claire, who first suggested Julius acquire a canine companion,

says, “I’m sorry I suggested anything…Now when I come [to visit] I will be facing a pit bull”

(89). Julius is also made privy to the stigma associated with this particular dog breed during

an encounter with a shelter worker. Donovan writes:

The boy who worked there nodded sadly as if he knew this fellow’s time was up; the

breed and his size would win no one’s heart or a home to him. He would be put to

sleep. The boy said he was brought in by a couple who had baby twins and couldn’t

have him around the house, they were afraid. (52)

While certain dog breeds, such as the golden retriever, are idealised as the ‘perfect pet’, pit

bulls exist at the other end of the spectrum. Hillary Twining, Arnold Arluke and Gary

Patronek, who performed an ethnographic study on this theme, explain that

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pit bulls have come to be seen as an abomination or disturbance in the natural order –

an unacceptable threat to the perceived security and stability of the entire community

and a violation of the almost sacred image of the dog as an amiable cultural hero. (26)

Donovan builds this prejudice into the structure of his novel by implying that, although

Hobbes displays no aggressive tendencies and does no harm, he is shot and killed simply

because he is identifiable as a member of this socially reviled dog breed.

Just as Ketchum does in Red, Donovan gives his canine character Hobbes personality

and character even after his death via Julius’ memories of him. Hobbes is remembered as a

“friendly but punchy little pit-bull terrier” who, Julius says, “always greeted me when I

returned home” (Donovan 58, 69). He elaborates:

[H]e ran from his spot in the hot wood-pile, from his walks in the woods, where he

went for solitude or whatever drives them there, ran to see me after my landscaping

work, ran to greet me when I was happy, ran to greet me when I was unhappy, ran to

greet me when I was distracted, vague, thoughtful. (69)

Furthermore, Julius describes the small pleasures that existed in Hobbes’ life, such as “the

sound of the truck’s keys…[which] brought him bounding from the woods or scratching to get

out the door” (57). Julius recalls: “With his head out the window and a breeze in his face as

we drove along the countryside, he was a dog run through with happiness…” (57). As Julius

buries his companion’s body, he struggles to “throw that first shovel of clay over his face, to

see a hole gouged around the body that had so often ran [sic] after toys I’d thrown or shivered

in dreams on the floor as he ran and barked” (15). Notably, the reference to a dog’s capacity

to dream is, similarly to Ketchum in Red, used by Donovan to imply the existence of an inner

life and therefore subjectivity.

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It is such poignant memories that go some way towards explaining Julius’ extreme

reaction to Hobbes’ wrongful death. Julius Winsome, like Avery Ludlow in Red, does not

condone recreational hunting or the wanton killing of socially ‘protected’ companion

animals, but unlike Avery, who places his faith in the law, Julius bypasses the legal system

and decides to personally enact revenge for Hobbes’ murder. However, because he does not

know the identity of Hobbes’ killer, Julius chooses to undertake a sniper-styled assassination

of random hunters in the woods proximate to his cabin. On the first morning of his revenge

expedition he waits two hours before a truck brandishing deer antlers on the grille appears.

He observes a man in his thirties, wearing camouflage, carrying a rifle while drinking a beer.

Julius wounds the hunter with a shot to the neck before showing the dying man a drawing of

Hobbes and saying, “Did you shoot this dog” (Donovan 33). Significantly, Donovan omits

the question mark here indicating that this is not a question, but rather a statement. Despite

the hunter’s denial, Julius watches him die. He then removes a magazine entitled Hunt from

the man’s vehicle, returns to his cabin and calmly drinks tea. He stands in the spot where

Hobbes used to sleep and simply states, “I missed my friend” (35).

In Chapter One, I discussed the way language functions to divide humans from other

animals, as this trope is common in fiction exploring human-dog relationships and I argued

that humans often use the ‘language barrier’ to justify the objectification of nonhuman

animals. Language is also used as a device to create distance between human and victim in

Donovan’s novel. After Hobbes’ murder, Julius randomly stalks and kills hunters who stray

into the vicinity of the cabin. On each occasion after shooting a hunter, he approaches the

dying man and speaks to him using obscure words that his father tells him were invented by

Shakespeare. “You are blood-bolted…You are besmoiled,” he tells his first victim (Donovan

33). To another he says, “Amort, bow hunter” (48), and he tells another “your convoy is a

cullion”; finally, he says, “Prithee…I took you, harvested you” (49). Julius explains:

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As part of my education [my father] had me write out lists with Shakespeare’s words

in them, a few new words every day, using his fountain pen, and soon those words

and the smell of ink entered my mind, and when I began to speak them in daily use

my father was quietly pleased… (20)

The effect of using Shakespeare is two-fold in this novel. In the first instance, it relates to the

connection between Shakespeare’s words and Julius’ memory of his father, who encouraged

his son to read Shakespeare. More importantly, Julius’ use of Shakespearian vocabulary

alienates his victims because they cannot understand this language. In the same way as

humans disenfranchise nonhuman animals because they ‘cannot’ use human language, as

discussed in Chapter One, Julius can rationalise that his victims are not akin to him for this

same reason. Moreover, his use of a ‘foreign’ vocabulary makes it easier for him to distance

himself from his victims and view them as ‘other’; as objects rather than as people.

Donovan cites an actual instance of animal cruelty as the inspiration for his narrative

and this revelation goes a long way towards answering some of the questions that arise from

his novel, such as: How should the reader react to Julius Winsome’s unlawful vigilantism as

he sets about seeking justice for his murdered dog? Donovan states:

I knew the story because someone actually shot my neighbour’s dog in real life and

the dog had gone 500 yards and collapsed in the flowers, although the dog in real life

survived. I was talking to myself afterwards and wondering what would I do if

someone shot my dog, and the answer was that I would have killed them. (Bolger 14)

Donovan has Julius Winsome challenge the anthropocentric status quo when his character

decides to avenge his dog’s death and in a manner inconsistent with anthropocentric social

expectations. Julius does not identify with the individual who writes “People are more

important than dogs!!!” on the public notice he posts up to gather information about the

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shooting (Donovan 68). He explicitly rejects anthropocentrism in this way and is presenting a

countercultural understanding and experience of human-animal relations. Indeed, Julius has a

history of showing concern for the welfare of animals, evident through a childhood memory

when he single-handedly fought a group of boys who were torturing a domesticated cat.

Thus, it seems, he recognises nonhuman animals are valuable individuals, sensitive social

beings who have an interest in living a pleasurable, pain free life. Julius states this explicitly

when he says, “Hobbes [was] taken from me, taken from his own life, his joy” (203). “He

was my friend” he says, “and I loved him” (213). In his view, this is justification for seeking

justice and enacting revenge.

Donovan shows how an intense human-canine bond centred on love and loyalty can

inspire violence. The socially trivialised act of animal cruelty perpetrated against Hobbes

incites a larger, more socially recognised form of violence against humans. The link between

violence against animals and violence against humans is a crucial aspect of research into

human-animal relationships because it shows that there is no such thing as trivial violence, or

an unimportant victim of violence. Julius Winsome, which is clearly meant to be an

uncomfortable novel to read, reflects the relationship between animal abuse and human

violence which is now widely recognised (Gullone). Yet, Donovan achieves more than that

and he highlights society’s paradoxical view of nonhuman animals by depicting the

victimisation of a much maligned and socially stigmatised dog breed. In his interview with

Bolger, Donovan states that the novelist’s task is “to admit things in public… [to] say what

other people won’t say” (14). As he reflects on Julius’ reaction to Hobbes’ murder, and

discusses how this character comes to rationalise taking human life as recompense for a dog’s

life, Donovan explains, “It was an uncomfortable truth. Have I ever shot anyone? No. But in

my mind I said if I could get away with it and I knew who had done it, I would probably kill

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them” (Bolger 14). Of course, the most disconcerting aspect of Donovan’s novel is that Julius

does not know who killed his dog and murders multiple hunters anyway.

The issue of breed stigmatisation and conflict over the social status of domesticated

dogs also features in Nancy Kress’ novel, Dogs. The story is set in the fictional town of

Tyler, wherein dogs kept as companions begin to attack – and in 36 instances – kill the

humans with whom they live. Pit-bull terriers are just one of many dog breeds in Kress’ novel

who transform from being benevolent to aggressive when they become infected with a

pathogen as a result of an act of bioterrorism. While the plot of Kress’ novel seems extreme

and unlikely, the premise is rooted in contemporary social anxieties. Whereas Donovan

concentrates on the social stigma associated with one particular dog breed, Kress utilises the

fear of domestic dog attacks in order to critique Western humanity’s paradoxical attitudes

towards dogs more broadly.

The response of Tyler’s citizens to the dogs’ atypically aggressively behaviour

provides insight into how dogs are valued by some and devalued by others in human society.

Kress raises the stakes when instead of depicting these attacks as being committed by a

particular or socially stigmatised breed, the first attack to appear in her novel is perpetrated

by a sweet-natured eleven year-old golden retriever named Princess. More surprising than the

attack being at odds with Princess’ characterisation as a gentle, elderly dog of a typically

highly benevolent breed, is the revelation that the victim is a child called Jenny who is a

member of Princess’ human family. The attack on Jenny is followed in quick succession by

further reports of suburban domestic dog attacks in Tyler. It is clear that this is unprecedented

when Animal Control Officer (ACO) Jess Langstrom states that he has never encountered

“six bites within twelve hours in his own small jurisdiction” (Kress 8). What follows is a

systematic division between the residents of Tyler; approximately half of whom think dogs

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showing symptoms of infection should be killed and the other half who want the town’s dogs

to be protected and saved.

Princess’ attack on Jenny is the first instance in which attitudes towards domesticated

dogs are shown to move rapidly between dogs being viewed as subject or object, person or

property. Although once a cherished and trusted companion to the Kingwell family, Princess’

seemingly unprovoked attack on Jenny changes the family’s attitudes towards her. Evidence

of her change in status moving from subject to object arises when she is no longer called by

her name. When Jess and his fellow ACO Billy Davis attend the Kingwell property to seize

Princess after the attack, Daniel, the dog’s human guardian, tells them, “You’re too late…I

shot the bitch” (Kress 9). When she was a benevolent family pet, Princess was called by her

name; however, once she acts in an uncivilised, savage or ‘animalistic’ manner, she is

stripped of her personal identity and becomes a detested object, denoted by the impersonal

and pejorative term ‘bitch’.

Language continues to feature as a mechanism by which the human characters in the

novel depersonalise ‘deviant’ dogs. Despite the fact that his job requires him to work closely

with animals, ACO Billy considers dogs to be little more than ‘items’ he must catch, deal

with or dispose of. Billy rarely addresses a dog using his or her given name. For example,

when a report comes in that a pet pit-bull named Duke has attacked two children, and one

child remains trapped in the house with the dog, Billy and Jess attend the property. When

Billy looks through the kitchen window, he sees Duke and says, “That bastard got blood on

his jaws already” (Kress 21). After Billy shoots Duke in the head, he tells Jess to go home,

saying “I can deal with Fang here alone – ain’t like the son-of-a-bitch’s going to attack

anybody else. Right between the eyes. Damn, I’m good” (22). Clearly, Billy dislikes dogs,

which enables him to detach himself from the fact this dog was named Duke, not ‘bastard’ or

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‘Fang’ or ‘son-of-a bitch’, and at one time, Duke was a beloved canine companion who lived

with a human family, as one of them.

The intersectionality of oppression arises in Kress’ novel through one character’s

reductive comparison between certain dog breeds and human ethnicities. Cora Dormund and

her husband Ed, guardians to three Siberian huskies, are neighbours to Del Lassiter who has a

Chihuahua named Folly. When Del contacts the Dormunds to warn them about the dog

plague, Cora, who is sceptical that such a thing exists, later says, “Some people will believe

anything. Probably afraid that little Spic mutt of his will bite his finger” (Kress 49). The use

of non-human animal associations as racial epithets and the association of certain kinds of

nonhuman animals with people of certain ethnicity is a historically ubiquitous occurrence

(Dunayer 161). In this passage, however, Cora projects her racist attitudes onto Folly by

pejoratively calling the dog a ‘Spic mutt’, because, of course, the Chihuahua breed derives

from Mexico. So Cora reduces Folly to a tool to insult Latin Americans which demonstrates

how contempt for certain breeds of dog is often linked to racism towards humans. The aim of

these epithets is to depersonalise a particular person or culture through the association to the

already depersonalised nonhuman animal. Thus, as a result of Cora’s comment, Folly is

viewed though a racist and speciesist lens to be doubly depersonalised.

Daniel Kingwell, Billy Davis and Cora Dormund are all characters in Kress’ novel

who view domesticated dogs as objects rather than persons. There are, however, characters in

the novel who oppose this view of dogs. Ex-FBI domestic counter-terrorism agent, Tessa

Sanderson, guardian to toy poodle Minette, is one example. Another is young Allen Levy,

whose family canine companion is a cocker spaniel named Susie. In contrast to the other dogs

in the narrative who are treated like objects, Minette and Susie are portrayed as being unique,

cherished individuals. Unlike the many depersonalised dogs, Minette and Susie are given

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embellished descriptions; for example, Minette is described as an “elegant little bundle of

silvery fur and huge black eyes” (Kress 23) and Susie is said to have “long silky ears” and a

wagging tail (68). While depersonalised dogs feature in the narrative only when attacking

someone, Minette is described as going about her daily activities, sleeping on Tessa’s bed,

toileting, play fighting with Tessa and walking on a leash. Minette is considered worth saving

when she is seized by the authorities and placed in a quarantine facility where vivisection to

research the ‘dog plague’ occurs. ACO Jess, who is Tessa’s friend, swaps the labelling on

Minette’s cage, preventing her from being earmarked as a “sacrifice for dissection” (127).

Allen Levy maintains that his dog Susie is “not an ‘it’!” (221). When Allen learns that dogs

are being seized by the authorities, he sedates Susie with Phenobarbital and hides her in the

bottom draw of a filing cabinet in his home, which prevents her being seized by the

authorities. Minette and Susie survive Tyler’s uncompromising response to the dog plague as

a result of Tessa and Allen’s actions and attitudes: they love them and view them as persons,

not property. Furthermore, as a result of their more personalised characterisation, readers are

encouraged to identify with them as individuals and thus are more likely to care about their


Ellie Caine, guardian to four rescued ex-racetrack Greyhounds named Song, Chimes,

Music and Butterfly also views her dogs as persons. Ellie is already sympathetic to the

objectification of dogs before the plague strikes because prior to adopting the dogs, they

endured a severe form of exploitation as tools of the commercial Greyhound racing industry.

Kress writes: “Dogs were trained to run by starving them and then forcing them to chase a

piece of meat on a mechanical arm that moved faster and faster” (40). Dogs who do not

perform are simply killed. Despite not supporting Greyhound racing herself, Ellie feels guilty

for the way that humans have commercially objectified greyhounds for financial gain. Thus,

upon hearing news of the dog plague, and realising that her dogs will be seized, destroyed or

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vivisected, Ellie chooses to set them free. When Song and Butterfly later return to the house

infected with the viral agent, they attempt to maul Ellie. Even then, she cannot suppress her

perception of the dogs as precious individuals, “her pets, her babies” (161). When Butterfly

is shot and killed, rather than feel relief or resentment towards her once beloved companion,

she sobs hysterically, soon stops eating and sleeping, and suffers from depression.

Daniel, Billy and Cora view dogs as objects and Tessa, Allen and Ellie consider their

companion animals to be subjects-of-a-life. These polarised attitudes towards dogs are

represented more broadly in the novel because approximately half of the town demands that

their dogs be preserved and protected while the remainder agree that they should be seized or

captured and killed. The divide between those who want to protect dogs as if they are persons

and those who consider dogs to be replaceable property is represented by two groups that

form in response to the plague. After the authorities order that all dogs, whether infected or

not, are to be caught and quarantined, a vigilante group led by Ed Dormund forms to oppose

the seizure of asymptomatic dogs. They bomb a Stop’n’Shop store owned by the mayor’s

son; an act which is met with accusations that they are irrational pet owners (Kress 177).

Meanwhile, an antithetical vigilante group forms who threaten to kill all the town’s dogs

themselves if the government does not do so. Thus, while the pro-dog faction says, “Return

all uninfected dogs to their owners within the next twenty-four hours, or this [bombing] will

happen again”, the anti-dog faction says, “If you and the whole damn federal government

can’t kill these vicious dogs, we’ll do it for you” (223). These opposing factions aptly and

succinctly reflect polarised attitudes relating to dogs who are viewed as subjects by some in

Western culture and as objects by others.

Another dog who moves from being seen as a unique and valued individual to a

disposable object features in Dan Rhodes’ novel, Timoleon Vieta Come HomeA Sentimental

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Journey. Timoleon Vieta is the name given to a crossbreed dog who one rainy night, aged

approximately two years, wanders into Carthusians Cockcroft’s kitchen in Umbria, Italy. A

retired man in his 60’s, Cockcroft has a poor history of caring for canine companions across

fifteen years. His first dog, a red setter, died of a drug reaction and he accidently killed the

second when, during an argument with an Austrian lover, he threw an ashtray which hit the

Dalmatian’s head fracturing the skull. The third dog, a Samoyed, unexplainably vanished

four years prior to Timoleon Vieta’s arrival. So when Timoleon Vieta wanders in he becomes

“the centre of Cockcroft’s world” (Rhodes 5) because Cockcroft is depicted as a lonely man

who lives in social isolation and the presence of a canine companion makes his loneliness

more bearable.

As a stray, Timoleon Vieta is a victim of societal abuse in the form of neglect before

Cockcroft begins to care for him. In addition to those who are rescued, an untold number of

domesticated dogs are born, live and die as strays in the Western world, without the sanctuary

of human homes or shelters. Timoleon Vieta’s origins are unknown. It is possible that he was

either born a stray dog, or more likely, considering his affable and sociable disposition, he

was abandoned by someone else prior to finding a home with Cockcroft. Either way, he is

without a guardian. Timoleon Vieta’s fate echoes the fates of many strays, who are

abandoned and neglected in vast numbers for numerous reasons such as they become

troublesome, too expensive, inconvenient or simply come to be viewed as tiresome.

For five years Timoleon Vieta resides with Cockcroft in the villa and is shown

affection, given food and comfortable, safe lodgings. He is “unshakably loyal” to Cockcroft

(Rhodes 5) and remains so even after Simon, a stranger in his mid-twenties pretending to be a

Bosnian refugee, arrives unannounced at Cockcroft’s home. Despite Timoleon Vieta’s instant

dislike of Simon, evident by a rumbling growl, Cockcroft welcomes Simon in. As Simon

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moves to sit down, Rhodes writes that Timoleon Vieta “exploded with rage, his hackles

raised and his barks piercing the still night air” (11). Timoleon Vieta’s intense aversion to

Simon foreshadows a series of severe physical assaults perpetrated by ‘the Bosnian’ against

this already once victimised animal.

Prior to Simon’s arrival, Timoleon Vieta is treated well by Cockcroft who cares for

him and considers him a cherished companion. After Simon’s arrival, however, and over a

number of weeks, the dog is increasingly treated like a thing. Cockcroft ignores Timoleon

Vieta’s aversion to the stranger because Cockcroft finds Simon sexually attractive. The

polarised feelings that the dog and his guardian have for Simon becomes clear in the passage

where Rhodes explains how Timoleon Vieta sits with his “half-closed eyes” fixed on “the

newcomer’s face” while Cockcroft inspects Simon’s “young, firm body” and fantasises

about giving him “a lot of very close attention” (12). Simon is aware of Timoleon Vieta’s

hostility towards him; nevertheless, he accepts Cockcroft’s offer of lodging. Rhodes writes:

“The only things he didn’t like about the new home were the growling dog and the way of

paying his rent”, which involves providing Cockcroft with sexual favours despite not being

homosexual. It is Cockcroft’s obsession with keeping Simon at his home and in his life that

leads to Timoleon Vieta’s subjection to severe physical abuse, rejection, abandonment and

ultimately murder.

Simon exploits Cockcroft’s loneliness, his need to be needed and his desire to be

desired, when he plots Timoleon Vieta’s disposal. Although he has lived with the dog as a

companion, Cockcroft craves emotional and physical connection with another human being

and Simon presents him with this opportunity. This situation exemplifies Yi-Fu Tuan’s

argument that “pets exist for human pleasure and convenience. Fond as owners are of their

animals, they do not hesitate to get rid of them when they prove inconvenient” (88).

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Timoleon Vieta becomes inconvenient for Cockcroft because Simon does not want the dog

around. Although Simon’s physical abuse of the dog is upsetting for Cockcroft, the promise

of a human relationship involving sexual intimacy changes the way he views and values his

dog. As Cockcroft’s desire for Simon’s companionship increases, so does Simon’s power

over Cockcroft which extends to him having greater power over Timoleon Vieta. The men’s

sexual relationship is crucial in the narrative because sexual intimacy is something Cockcroft

craves and which Simon can provide, so in this case, the ability to fulfil this role defines the

difference between the value of the companionship offered by man and by dog.

Simon’s vendetta against Timoleon Vieta takes shape as he slowly begins to drive a

wedge between man and dog. The first time Simon abuses his power over Cockcroft and his

dog arises during a dispute over who should take the front seat in Cockcroft’s car. When

Cockcroft offers to take Simon into town to acquire some new clothes, Cockcroft assumes

Timoleon Vieta will accompany them because “he loves his trips into town” (Rhodes 26).

Cockcroft says, “We go everywhere together, don’t we Timoleon Vieta?” as his canine

companion scratches at the car’s passenger door. Since the vehicle is a pick-up, and there are

only two seats in the front cab, Simon suggests that the dog travel on the tray back. When

Cockcroft explains that back of the vehicle is not a comfortable place for Timoleon Vieta to

ride, and suggests Simon ride in the back instead, Simon remarks, “He is dog, right? He is

animal?” (26). Simon uses species as a way to disenfranchise and depreciate the dog. He is

explicitly suggesting that the front seat is the superior position in the vehicle and as a human

being he should be assigned the seat. Despite Timoleon Vieta’s usually claiming the front

seat, which he has sat in for many years, Simon argues that the rightful place for a dog is in

the back of the pick-up and not the front seat because a dog is not a person. Timoleon Vieta

retains the front seat on this occasion but his victory is temporary because Cockcroft

promises Simon the dog will travel in the back in the future.

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The consequences of being caught between subject and object worsens for Timoleon

Vieta when the three next take a car trip and Simon claims the passenger seat. Timoleon

Vieta is displeased with being supplanted and tied in the back. Rhodes writes, “Timoleon

Vieta peered into the cab through the dirty back window, his whines escalating into snarls”

(Rhodes 54). After a stroll around town, they all return to the car and Timoleon Vieta, likely

out of habit, heads to the passenger door. As Cockcroft drags the dog to the back of the car,

Simon, annoyed with the dog’s ‘complaining’, kicks him in the abdomen. Cockcroft is

shocked and upset when his dog is harmed, but Simon explains, “I’m sick of his fucking crap.

You treat him like a fucking baby. You should teach him to shut the fuck up” (57).

Simon’s power over Cockcroft escalates and the rift between Cockcroft and his dog

deepens when the two men start taking car rides together leaving Timoleon Vieta home

alone. The second major incident occurs one day when Cockcroft walks out of the house to

inspect some maintenance work Simon has done. Timoleon Vieta follows his human

companion and when Simon decides to pat the dog on the head, Timoleon Vieta bites him.

Simon, once again, uses physical violence to demean and dominate Timoleon Vieta and kicks

the dog in the head with his booted foot. This incident distresses Cockcroft who starts to

contemplate life without Timoleon Vieta around. Meanwhile, Simon fantasises about killing

the dog but reconsiders because “if he killed it and dumped it in the woods”, Cockcroft would

be bereft (Rhodes 77 emphasis added). To illustrate the degree to which Simon

depersonalises the dog, Timoleon Vieta is stripped of the personal pronoun ‘him’ – a

common way in which human language delegitimizes nonhuman animals (Dunayer 149-56).

Faced with the prospect of being left bereft of human company, Cockcroft agrees to consider

Simon’s suggestion that they return Timoleon Vieta to live in the ‘wild’ (in this case an urban

wilderness) and begin a “fresh start in life” (Rhodes 83), which is simply a euphemism for

abandoning him. The two men drive Timoleon Vieta to Rome and dump him outside the

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Coliseum. Through his cruel abandonment, Rhodes has Timoleon Vieta exemplify the

‘disposability’ of dogs kept as companions in Western culture. Indeed, he is a prototypical

victim of what Clare Palmer terms an “attitude of instrumentalisation” (575); an attitude that

makes it possible for people who feel inconvenienced by their pets’ presence to simply

abandon and dispose of them.

After Timoleon Vieta is abandoned, Rhodes’ novel employs a series of vignettes in

which the dog enters and exits the lives of numerous people. This technique draws on a

common trope seen in dog narratives, which Laura Brown terms “itinerancy” (133). The

itinerancy trope can be traced back to Eric Knight’s novel Lassie Come-Home in which Sam

Carraclough sells his prized Collie dog Lassie to a wealthy Duke but the dog repeatedly

escapes to return to the Carraclough home. The Duke relocates Lassie from England to

Scotland but Lassie escapes from the Scottish property and embarks on an arduous journey

through moors, flatlands, farming districts, industrial centres and across rivers in order to

return to her human companion, young Joe Carraclough. She is witnessed at different stages

of her journey; first by two men sitting outside a cottage, by a weasel from who Lassie

snatches a rabbit carcass, a landscape artist, two men hunting feral dogs, brutal animal control

officers, a kind and compassionate elderly couple and finally a travelling potter. Similarly to

Lassie, and despite his rejection and abandonment, Timoleon Vieta chooses to return home.

Along this journey he encounters an Italian police-officer named Cosimo who pities

Timoleon Vieta having witnessed him being dumped; an English girl visiting Italy who

shares a chocolate bar with Timoleon Vieta; a father dealing with his daughter’s progressive

decline towards death, as well as others. Just as Lassie is renamed ‘Herself’ and ‘Your

Majesty’ as she encounters different people, Timoleon Vieta is given various names

including ‘Abbondio’; Teg’; ‘Dusty’; ‘Giuseppe’ and ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’. The itinerancy

trope extends to these dogs individuality and agency and shows how humans often treat dogs

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like ‘blank canvases’ upon which we can write, erase, and rewrite upon. It also shows that

through all their adversity, these canine characters maintain their history of experiences and a

simple name change does not change who they are or erase what they have been through.

Furthermore, they do not have to be witnessed or valued by humanity to be significant or to

rightfully exist.

Hence, after many months and an arduous journey, Timoleon Vieta’s journey

concludes on the track leading to Cockcroft’s house. Having followed Timoleon Vieta’s

travels from the time he was dumped outside the Coliseum, and observed his interaction with

the various people he met along the way, readers are invested in the dog’s success, which for

Timoleon Vieta involves reunion with Cockroft. Following the dog through this part of the

story encourages readers to care about Timoleon Vieta and builds anticipation as the weary,

loyal dog finally arrives at the laneway leading to his one-time loving home. Rhodes,

however, shocks the reader with an unexpected ending to this promised ‘sentimental journey’

when Simon, who is leaving Cockcroft’s home at the time, meets Timoleon Vieta on his way

out, lifts the dog up by the scruff and then slits his throat. Rhodes writes:

The dog made a choking sound, twitched, and fell still. The Bosnian dropped

Timoleon Vieta on the ground. ‘I am from Bosnia,’ he said, kicking and stamping on

the dog’s head and neck. ‘I kill the dogs.’…The dog lay dead on its side, one of its

eyes facing upwards as though it could see the sky. Noticing this, the Bosnian jabbed

his knife into the eyeball over and over again, until it was a mess and no longer

looked as though it could see the sky. (212)

Erica Fudge states Rhodes’ narrative “mocks our desire for Lassien endings” (37). However,

while credited as being the most sentimental of all dog narratives, Lassie is, in reality, also a

story about an animal regarded as disposable property. The catalyst for her journey home is

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the fact she is sold by the Carracloughs so that the money she fetches can pay some bills.

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