- Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes: Humans and Other Animals in the Modern Literary Imagination
Laura Brown's Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes is short but wide-ranging; it addresses works by authors as diverse as Cervantes and Paul Auster. Her focus, however, is on the eighteenth century, when, as she argues, "a novel engagement with animal-kind" emerged (x). For Brown, the discovery of the humanoid ape and the concurrent rise of widespread bourgeois pet keeping created new ways of thinking about animals and therefore also new ways of thinking about humans. The book emerged out of an undergraduate course she taught on pets, in which she and her students found that the dominant paradigms for thinking about human-animal relationships were inadequate to explain the complex representations of animals in literary texts. Her first chapter thus addresses the scholarship that presents these paradigms—"the contrasting positions of anthropomorphism or alterity" (2)—and explains why she sees them as insufficient. Instead of this simple binary, she says, "the representations of animal-kind in the literary culture of this period offer a diverse range of formal, thematic, rhetorical, and generic innovations that resemble each other not in their adherence to either a human-alienating or human-associated perspective, but in their dissonance—in their tendency to surprise, to invert, to challenge, or to experiment with expected modes of order and stable structures of meaning" (16–17). This idea of dissonance is central to the readings she presents in the rest of the work.
Each of the remaining four chapters focuses on a significant motif in the creation of the modern literary representation of animals: the humanoid ape, the lady's lapdog, the pet monkey, and the dog narrator. The themes of the chapters [End Page 553] overlap, with particular attention given to the presence of disruption, surprise, and inversion. In each chapter, Brown focuses on a few key texts in order to explore the ways in which representations of animals complicate ideas about human nature. The impossibility of clearly defining boundaries between human and nonhuman animals, and, conversely, the possibility of affection and communication between species, form recurring themes in her study, which she develops through the close reading of both canonical and lesser-known works of the eighteenth century and beyond.
Chapter 2, on the humanoid ape, examines the ways in which the ape forms a "mirror" for humans. Here Brown focuses in particular on Edward Tyson's enormously influential Anatomy of a Pygmie and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels: "for the English eighteenth century, Tyson's pygmy is the empirical record, and Swift's Yahoo the canonical literary representation, of the discovery of the great ape" (47). Through this mirror, people's sense of human distinctiveness was challenged. For some, the ape could offer a reassuring sense of the achievement of humans in reaching the heights of civilization, whereas for others it was a disturbing reminder of the beast lurking beneath the surface of humanity.
The third chapter, "Immoderate Love," examines the image of "the lady and the lapdog," the distinctive eighteenth-century representation of pet keeping. The "immoderate love" at issue is thus the love of a woman for her pet, which raises the possibility of other forms of excessive or transgressive affection. According to Brown, this image fostered "a literary form that expresses the encounter with difference through a rhetoric of sudden inversion—in which ideas of alterity are instantly transformed into experiences of intimacy" (65). The characteristic literary move represented by the figure of the lady and the lapdog, Brown argues, is the forcible association of disparate concepts: human and animal, male and female, superior and subordinate. In early eighteenth-century satire, lapdogs are presented as both sexual partners and symbols of female sexual excess. By the mid-nineteenth century, Brown suggests, this image had lost its sexualized connotations. Yet the notion of interspecies love continued to call into question the boundaries of species, gender, and class.
The central questions developed in chapters 2 and...