Animal Worlds in the Novel

Animal Worlds in the Novel

My teaching and research currently focus on how to bring ideas from narrative studies into dialogue with work on animals and human-animal relationships. In this vein, I recently had the opportunity to teach a year-long undergraduate seminar on "Animal Narratives after Darwin." This two-hour seminar met twice monthly over the course of the 2014-15 academic year; students were required to participate actively in class meetings, post two or more paragraph-long discussion questions on a web-based discussion forum in advance of each seminar, and complete two 3000-word research essays.

The students read a number of late-nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century novels (along with other primary texts), ranging from Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877), to D. H. Lawrence's St. Mawr (1925), to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's dystopian science fiction graphic novel We3 (2004), to postmodern and post-postmodern novels including Paul Auster's Timbuktu (1999), J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals (1999), and Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013). In this contribution I discuss how ideas from narratology can be leveraged for classroom discussions of novels in which animal agents figure more or less centrally. I concentrate on three narratological concepts that, pointing to patterns that cut across novels of different periods and kinds, allow for a focused exploration of animal worlds in a range of relevant texts. The three concepts—narration, focalization, and narrative embedding (and the formally subversive variant of embedding known as metalepsis)—help foster a teaching environment in which discussion of the novel's engagement with animal worlds can be collaboratively pursued.

Narration: Is the narrating agent human or nonhuman? If the narrator is human, what attitudes toward animals and human-animal relationships does he or she project, and is there any change or development of those attitudes over the course of the novel? If the narrator is nonhuman, what kinds of experiences does the animal teller focus on and from what temporal, spatial, and evaluative stance?

Aspects of nonhuman narration have been discussed under the headings of animal autobiography and animalography (see Marge DeMello's Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing, Routledge, 2013), and narratological nomenclatures can productively supplement this work. Thus, types of narrators can be distinguished along dimensions that include diegetic level (main narrator, or teller of a story-within-the-story), sex, gender, species, age, and relationship to the overall ethos projected by the author of a novel. A useful classroom exercise is to have students rewrite an episode by switching from a human to a nonhuman narrator, or vice versa. What kinds of adjustments would need to be made in Paul Auster's Timbuktu, for example, if in lieu of an unpersonified, heterodiegetic narrator Auster had made the dog, Mr. Bones, the narrator from the start, and how would this narratorial change have affected the presentation of human-animal relationships in the novel? Conversely, would the impact of Black Beauty been diminished if Sewell had used a human narrator? Or could the experiential and ethical consequences of the inhumane treatment of horses still have been captured even with the shift to a human teller?   

Focalization: William Nelles's pathbreaking study of animal focalization in "Beyond the Bird's Eye" (Narrative 9.2, 2001, pp.188-94), which distinguishes among several types of nonhuman focalizers, provides an ideal starting point for discussing animal perspectives in novels. These discussions can then be extended by exploring interconnections between methods of animal focalization and the idea of the Umwelt proposed by Jakob von Uexküll (see A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, 1934, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010).

For Uexküll, the Umwelt is the phenomenally experienced world, or the world as it presents itself to an animal given its specific organismic structure and corresponding sensorimotor capabilities. Classroom discussions can focus on how changing patterns of focalization across periods reveal emerging trends in the use of the novel for Umwelt modeling. Thus, as suggested by Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter and Virginia Woolf's Flush, the modernist privileging of internal focalization, in which situations and events are refracted through one or more centers of consciousness within the storyworld, provides an invaluable resource for modeling nonhuman subjectivity. Williamson's text critically defamiliarizes cars and roads, and also human-caused pollution, by presenting them from Tarka's perspective, as the otter desperately seeks to evade the hounds who are pursuing him. Such modernist methods of nonhuman focalization can be contrasted with Sewell's earlier use of an animal narrator to present animal worlds. Students can also be encouraged to compare changes in the use of nonhuman focalizers with contemporaneous understandings of animal minds, not only in scientific contexts but also within the broader culture or across novelistic media.

Narrative embedding and metalepsis: Diegetic levels and the use of narrative embedding offer another point of entry into animal worlds in the novel. In some instances, the use of embedded narratives can be considered routine or unexceptional, as when Black Beauty broadens the scope of his account of inhumane institutions and practices by relaying other horses' hypodiegetic narratives (or stories-within-the-story) about mistreatment. In other cases, however, narrative embedding—particularly the strategic entanglement of diegetic levels known as metalepsis—enables novelists to engage in a critical and reflexive way with the very discourse they are using to project nonhuman worlds, thereby destabilizing more or less dominant frameworks for understanding animals and human-animal relationships.

Thus, metalepsis comes to the fore in The Lives of Animals when Coetzee uses a fictional novelist, Elizabeth Costello, as his stand-in for the Tanner Lectures he delivered at Princeton University in 1997-98, and Costello in turn compares her position with that of Red Peter, the speaking ape, in Kafka's 1917 short story "Report for an Academy." This conflation of narrative levels or frames suggests the pertinence of Kafka's anti-anthropocentric approach to animal worlds for interpreting Costello's claims—and also for interpreting the place of those claims within Coetzee's larger narrative design. But metalepsis functions differently in Auster's Timbuktu. In a crucial early episode (18-22), the initial human companion of Mr. Bones, William Gurevitch, adopts the moniker of Willy G. Christmas after hearing himself being directly hailed by an actor dressed up as Santa Claus in a television commercial and preaching what Willy takes to be an ethic of "goodness, generosity, and self-sacrifice" (21). Here students can be asked to compare how Auster's use of metalepsis, his conflation of Willy's storyworld and the embedded Santa storyworld, differs from Coetzee's employment of the technique. Rather than merging author and character, Auster uses such boundary crossing to suggest the far-reaching consequences of listening to voices that might otherwise remain unheard, bracketed as unreal or relegated to the domain of the imaginary. Over the course of Auster's novel, the reader is made privy to just such a voice, that is, the nonhuman voice of Mr. Bones, through a blend of narration, summary or indirect presentation of the dog's perceptions, memories, and emotions, and free indirect discourse, in which the narrative reports by Auster's heterodiegetic narrator take on the subjective coloration of the dog's experiences. Thus, this third narratological concept again allows students to trace changes in novelists' methods for presenting animal worlds over time and also to compare the techniques used by authors working in the same period, with both Auster and Coetzee relying on metaleptic play to engage in different ways with larger assumptions about humans' relationships and interactions with other animals.

In this contribution, I have touched on a few teaching strategies that can be developed when concepts from narratology are incorporated into a class exploring animal worlds in the novel. Other issues that might be discussed include the techniques used to make mental-state attributions to nonhuman agents in novels versus nonfictional narratives, and how such attributions relate to those used for human characters across genres. More generally, a class of this sort underscores how novels concerned with animals and their experiences can both inform and be informed by work in a range of fields, including not just narratology but also anthropology, the philosophy of mind, and the history and sociology of science. 


David Herman, Durham University

Thursday, 06/02/2022 - 17:06

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