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  • Dogs and Women’s Contemporary Fiction in French—Abjection vs. Compassion: Marie-Hélène Lafon’s Le Soir du chien and Catherine Guillebaud’s Dernière caresse
  • Lucile Desblache

ONE OF THE OLDEST DOMESTICATED SPECIES, dogs have been valued as faithful companions of humans in most societies and mythologies, protecting their lives and often guiding their souls beyond death.1 Both men and women have had privileged relationships with dogs, but cultural differences have evolved into traditions over the centuries. In the western world, dogs have been bred into controllable instruments of supremacy, living extensions of human power, and devoted creatures responding unconditionally to their master’s voice. From Ulysses’ Argos to Jack London’s White Fang, they have often been associated with strong virile heroes, be they male or bitches. They have also been constructed into agents of violence and persecution, as the mastiffs of colonial history, trained to track down fugitive slaves, have proved. As dogs allow men to consolidate an image of power, we are justified in asking, following Marjorie Garber, “Is canophila an erotics of dominance?”2

Dogs’ relationships with women seem more complex. Whereas dogs tend to be perceived as controlled beings in relation to men, they are more often seen as fellow dominated creatures when associated with women, both being considered within the home environment. Dogs and women can also be relegated to silence and exclusion, as Alice Kuzniar reminds us in her book, inspired by the title of an engraving by Dürer, where the feminine figure of melancholy is consoled by an old, skeletal dog lying at her feet.3 However, women’s subjugation to men did not prevent them from exercising power over the animals in their care. As pets, dogs have often been treated as objects of domination by them. The tradition of the ‘lap-dog’ as a fashion accessory, which started in the later Middle Ages,4 testifies to this less brutal but no less real form of dominance. Stereotyped by many Christian leaders throughout Western history as morally depraved and incapable of self-control, particularly as regards their sexual behavior, dogs have also often been equated to women in this respect. Traces of this derogatory association of women with dogs, and with other animals, are still visible today and have [End Page 73] been outlined by feminists since the middle of the last century, particularly in France, where feminist criticism established early, through philosophers such as de Beauvoir, Irigaray and Françoise d’Eaubonne, that women had been naturalised and nature feminised within a domineering patriarchal framework.5

Le mot femelle fait lever chez [l’homme] une sarabande d’images; […] monstrueuse et gavée, la reine des termites règne sur les mâles asservis; la mante religieuse, l’araignée repues d’amour broient leur partenaire et le dévorent ; la chienne en rut court les ruelles, traînant après elle un sillage d’odeurs perverses […]. Inerte, impatiente, rusée, stupide, insensible, lubrique, féroce, humiliée, l’homme projette dans la femme toutes les femelles à la fois.6

This reductionist attitude, still visible today,7 not only makes women wary of any relationship with non-human creatures, it objectifies animals as cultural clichés. Traditional tales have also alerted women to the dangers of a boundaries melt-down between women and animals, staging non-human creatures which are, more often than not, female human beings trapped in animal bodies: Leda’s myth, Mary d’Aulnoy’s tales, the White Cat and White Doe, Andersen’s Little Mermaid, to take a few famous examples, all stage animalised women stripped of their power.8 This staging can still be traced in contemporary fiction.9 Marie Darrieussecq’s sow in Pig Tales claims to take part in the liberation of her human heroine, but also conveys ambivalent pictures of hybrid femininity and animality.10 This contemporary fable shows clearly how strongly the ‘truismes’ of our societies are linked to negative associations between animality and femininity.

Perhaps because dogs are close to humans, they play a relatively small role in traditional western fairy tales (where enigmatic beasts play a larger role) but appear frequently in fiction. Useful creatures...


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pp. 73-85
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