Dogs as Companions in Novels
- Katharine Munzer Rogers
- October 27, 2011
A meditation upon man's best friend in fiction.
Dogs are our oldest and closest animal friends, and they occupy a corresponding place in our literature. One of our oldest literary works, The Odyssey, features an unforgettable scene in which the hero reunites with his old hound, Argus. But it is only after feelings toward pets became increasingly warm during the eighteenth century that dogs became prominent as personalized, individual characters. The long-suffering heroine of Frances Burney d’Arblay’s The Wanderer (1814) saves herself from rape by a couple of louts by making friends with their dog – thus demonstrating her resourcefulness and knowledge of canine psychology as well as the dog’s innocence and benevolent propensity. In the final reckoning at the end of the novel, d’Arblay makes a point of including the dog among the deserving characters to be rewarded.
Dogs really came into their own later in the nineteenth century, when several of the great novelists were dog lovers. They sometimes used dogs to heighten social criticism, drawing on the dog’s innocence of human class distinctions, helplessness vis-a-vis people, and assumed inferiority to humans. Fangs, the herd-dog of the swineherd Gurth in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), touchingly illustrates medieval class oppression. He could hardly do his job because he had been lamed to conform to the savage Norman law that forbade any but the dogs of privileged rich men to run in the forest without being expeditated; that is, having three claws struck off their right forefoot. Later, when Gurth had been unjustly arrested by his master, Cedric, Fangs followed him, howling piteously, until Cedric threw a javelin at him. This angered Gurth more than the wrongs to himself; he could never forgive his master for trying to kill one of the only two living creatures that had ever shown him kindness. The poor man and his constant helper and companion loved each other regardless of the fact that one was a thrall and the other a lame mongrel.
A dog adds a pathetic touch to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s indictment of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), where the murder of George’s dog stands out among many harrowing examples of cruelty. George, the gifted slave of a mean-minded master, found a bit of consolation with the dog given him by his wife, Eliza. Noting this, his master ordered him to drown his dog and flogged him when he refused. Then George had to watch his master throw the dog in the pond and join his son in stoning the animal until he sank: “the poor drowning creature … looked at me so mournful, as if he wondered why I didn’t save him.” The decent, natural dog had no comprehension of evil social distinctions that deprived a man of the right to save his friend. Both man and dog were sentient creatures who could be tormented at will because they were regarded as property.
In Bleak House (1852-3) Charles Dickens used a contrast between human and dog to drive home his indictment of a society that degraded Jo, the pathetically ignorant, unneeded, unwanted crossing sweeper. Jo was sitting on a curb near a sheepdog who had just helped his master deliver a flock of sheep into the city, and they were listening to the music of a street band with about equal capacity to appreciate it. Unlike Jo, however, the dog had been educated to perform a valuable job. He had reason to be happy and self- respecting, because he had a secure place in a family and a useful function in society. It sounds shocking, but is true, that in many ways the brute was “far above the human listener.”
Often Dickens enlivened his characterization by pairing dogs with their owners, using the dog to bring out and reflect its owner’s characteristics. In Oliver Twist (1837-38), Bill Sikes’s pit bull, Bull’s-eye, was as surly and ferocious as his master. When Sikes relieved his fears of arrest by kicking the dog, Bull’s-eye sank his teeth into his leg. Bull’s-eye did, however, reluctantly wag his tail in response to a rare bit of praise, when his master approved his readiness to sink his teeth into Oliver’s throat. He showed conventional canine devotion when he insisted on following Sikes in his final flight from justice, even though this ironically led to both their deaths. The mutual attachment of man and dog adds a tiny softening touch to both their characters. This is more true of a more sympathetic pair in Barnaby Rudge (1841), the rough ostler Hugh of the Maypole and his ill-conditioned mongrel. In this case the tie between man and dog draws our sympathy to a social outcast who is more sinned against than sinning. Just before he was to be hanged for participating in the Gordon Riots, Hugh tried to find a new home for his dog: “You wonder that I think about a dog just now…. If any man deserved it of me half as well, I’d think of him.” A totally different pair illuminate each other in David Copperfield (1849-50). Gyp, Dora’s toy spaniel, displayed the inadequacy that David so slowly came to recognize in Dora herself. Dog and woman were equally pretty, spoiled, and useless. Neither could do anything but parlor tricks, and they could not even do these competently. When Dora learned that they had become poor, she could no more conceive that Gyp could be deprived of his daily mutton chop than he could conceive it himself.
Such pairings are less common in twentieth-century literature, perhaps because modern authors are more apt to focus on canine characters depicted for themselves. However, in Graham Greene’s The Human Factor (1978), the boxer Buller reflects his owner’s shabby failings and sad end. Maurice Castle, a seedy British secret service agent who spied for the Russians from a sense of obligation, was effectual neither as a British agent nor a Communist spy. He bought Buller to make his wife feel safe, but the dog fawned on every person who approached. It was typical of Buller to lick “with undiscriminating affection” the trouser bottoms of the South African policeman who had persecuted Castle and his wife. Far from giving pleasure, as we expect a dog to do, he was a burden and irritation to everyone, especially to Castle, whom he loved best of all. In the end, Castle had to flee to Russia, at the cost of leaving his wife and child forever. Before he went he had to shoot Buller, lest he howl and alert the neighbors when the family abandoned him. But Castle failed to kill him outright, as he failed in everything else, leaving the dog to whine in agony for hours. Annoying as he was, Buller did not deserve to suffer. Like his master, the dog meant well and did the best he could, but his best was not good enough; he, too, ended in meaningless defeat. The dreary world of failure and disappointment presented in Greene’s novel is vividly typified by Buller, whose slobbering enthusiasm and mindless universal friendliness make him a travesty of what a dog should be.
Katharine Rogers has written First Friend: A History of Dogs and Humans, as well as two books on cats. Her current project is Meet the Invertebrates.