Here's a riddle: what invention of eighteenth-century England develops, in the course of the nineteenth century, into a major instance of and vehicle for the culture's high valuation of sympathy and domestic life, and becomes known, worldwide, as a quintessential embodiment of English identity and a national self-image founded on an idealized vision of home? If the genre of the novel probably comes to mind, the modern domestic pet also fits the bill. If England became known as a nation of shop-keepers, it was also preeminently associated with long novels and beloved pet animals, two cultural forms which, I argue, developed not just in parallel but in tandem. Indeed, although the link has been little remarked, it seems fair to say that the history of English domestic fiction is deeply bound up with that of the domestic animal.1 In this essay I develop an argument about one aspect of that relationship through an analysis of the meanings of pethood, animality, and cruelty in the early novels of the Brontë sisters—Wuthering Heights in particular.
The governess narrator of Anne Brontë's Agnes Gray discovers, to her dismay, that the favorite "amusement" of her young charge, Tom, is to mutilate and torture baby birds:
"And what do you do with them, when you catch them?"
Agnes tries to convince Tom, on the basis of the claims of inter-species sympathy and compassion, of the evil of such behavior: "But don't you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?" Tom, however, rebuts her moral argument by denying that sympathy can occur beyond the boundary of species: "Oh, that's nothing! I'm not a bird, and I can't feel what I do to them."3
Driven by Tom's continued sadism toward animals, and his parents' toleration of his cruelty, Agnes finally performs her own act of violence against the set of baby birds she knows will be tortured if they live: [End Page 87]
I got a large flat stone, that had been reared up for a mouse-trap by the gardener, then, having once more vainly endeavored to persuade the little tyrant to let the birds be carried back, I asked what he intended to do with them. With fiendish glee he commenced a list of torments, and while he was busied in the relation, I dropped the stone upon his intended victims, and crushed them flat beneath it.4
Anne Brontë here raises a set of ethical and representational questions concerning the limits and requirements of sympathy with animals, cruelty or violence to animals, and the depiction of such violence. We learn of Agnes' character, her compassion, through her objection to, at once, the sadism of Tom Bloomfield—whose "face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight" as he plans his tortures—and to the cruel indifference and lack of compassion on his mother's part: she views Agnes's intervention with disapproval, concluding that "a child's amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute."5 That the very rock Agnes uses for her mission of mercy was to be used by the gardener as a mouse-trap suggests how thoroughly this society is suffused by violence to animals: this is not simply the quirk of a single family. The scene of animal cruelty becomes an ethical theater in which at least three roles stand out: the cruel sadist, who enjoys inflicting pain; the cruelly indifferent observer, who can witness the sadistic act and the animal's pain without feeling; and the feeling observer who takes action in response to the abuse, or responds to it with strong compassion and sympathy. Yet the sheer power of the image of the stone crushing the baby birds produces an additional unresolved tension in this passage. If we respond with horror, at least we respond; it is difficult to cordon off a reader's proper dismay at such a scene from an undercurrent of voyeuristic fascination.
Agnes Gray, along with its...