- The Emotional Extravagance of Victorian Pet-Keeping
The household pet poses boundary problems. If little Bandit, Buster, Patches, or Shadow are, no question about it, biologically animal, the positioning within cultural categories of these creatures who share our homes—and sometimes our beds and dinner plates—is less simple. Are pets animals, humans, or things—or some combination of these categories? Claude Lévi-Strauss, in The Savage Mind, influentially defined pet dogs as instances of “metonymical human beings,” possessing a partial or incomplete personhood. “Having no social life of their own, [dogs] form part of ours” (207). The pet’s location in the family circle, subsumed in our “life,” can seem to offer proof of its falsity to its wild nature, its shift from a natural state to a human culture, where it does not belong. Pets are often associated with sentimentality precisely because they can appear pre-eminent figures of excessive, or otherwise improper, sentiment. In A Thousand Plateaus, for instance, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari denigrate pets as sentimentalized possessions, describing “the family animal or pet” as “the Oedipalized [End Page 71] animal as psychoanalysis sees it, as the image of the father, etc.” They prefer to see animals as embodiments of wildness, vitality, and “becoming,” all qualities antithetical to those associated with pets: “Ahab’s Moby-Dick is not like the little cat or dog owned by an elderly woman who honors and cherishes it. Lawrence’s becoming-tortoise has nothing to do with a sentimental or domestic relation” (244). But “there is always a possibility that a given animal, a louse, a cheetah or an elephant, will be treated as a pet” (241); after all, they imply, there are a lot of sentimental old ladies out there. Deleuze and Guattari’s scorn is directed at those who would domesticate animals and transform them into pets: domestic, feminized, Oedipalized, “cherishe[d],” and confined to the home. If the proper destiny of the animal lies in a dynamic “becoming” within a state of wildness, in this view, it finds a lifeless stasis and enclosure in front of the family hearth.
In its celebration of the laws of packs and swarms, A Thousand Plateaus elevates the modern or postmodern wild animal, satisfyingly “other” to human culture, at the expense of what clearly seems the sentimental, pre-modern or nineteenth-century domestic pet. And, indeed, Victorian British culture did, in fact, raise pet-loving to new heights and played a fundamental role in the construction of the modern family pet—along with Christmas, the Angel in the House, and the realist novel, among other inventions—as a cherished object of sentiment. As Harriet Ritvo points out, “By the middle of the nineteenth century what has been called the Victorian cult of pets was firmly established. Punch frequently satirized the foolishness of dog lovers who fed their pets from the table, dressed them in elaborate outfits, and allowed them to inconvenience human members of the household” (86).
For Deleuze and Guattari, and others who follow their lead in theorizing animals and animality as offering possibilities of otherness beyond the human, the Victorian cult of pets is problematic precisely because it so foundationally emblematizes the link between pets and a sentimentalized home. What we might call the post-humanist critique of the sentimentality of pet-keeping is not, however, so much wrong as it is too limited in the conclusions it draws. The anti-sentimentalist position on pets accurately recognizes the link between pets and a highly affective vision of the home, but it fails to recognize a deeper point: that this very way of understanding domesticity, one invented or at least mass-produced in the Victorian period, relied in the first place on the existence of pets in the home and on the page. That is, the Victorian cult of domesticity and family life does not retroactively sentimentalize the animal as pet; that very vision of domestic space and domestic writing is partially constituted by the pet, which operates as a defining supplement of extravagant affect to the home. That a home permits the luxury of love for an animal proves its domesticity. In some...