- Victorian Dogs, Victorian Men: Affect and Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture by Keridiana W. Chez
Our relationship with animals, Keridiana W. Chez suggests, poses "the ethical problem of our age" (153), invested as we are in pets as emotional tools for human wellbeing. Modern anxieties around animal sentience, their experience of pain, and the rights they should have are traced back to the nineteenth century in this compelling study of human-dog relations in the Victorian period. Chez draws on the central concerns of Animal Studies (the difficulty of representing animals as more than symbolic, or mirrors of our own humanity, rather than as fully realized individuals – and what exactly recognizing that individuality means, when we can only ever convey animality in human terms) in arguing that the Victorian dog acted [End Page 164] as an emotional "prosthesis." Through a series of chapters tightly focused on English and American novels of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, she traces a shift in human-dog relations in the Victorian period that laid the groundwork for many of today's anxieties around man's best friend.
At the beginning of the Victorian period dogs were agents of the working-class, used to draw carts and run on treadmills. By the end of the century, they "posed for portraits, wore boots, rode on carriages, and left cartes de visite at their neighbor's homes" (1). This movement from working-class to bourgeoisie, from useful to useless, from physical labor to emotional, is central to Chez's work. This positing of the dog as emotional prosthesis emphasizes the intimacy with the Other at play in the various representations explored in this study. The chapters chart a movement from pets as connecting family members together, to the dog as a specifically masculine tool used to demonstrate its owner's humanity. Fears around dogs' capacity for rebellion then arose, culminating in the belief that the "ideal" pet was one who was wild, tamed only by a "worthy" owner. Chez's argument is based on a close reading of Victorian novels chosen to illustrate the role dogs play in the lives of families. Her thesis challenges the understanding of Victorians as repressing and restraining emotion, instead suggesting that the concern was how best to deal with a lack of emotion in a changing, anxiety-inducing world. This concern was partly addressed through human relationships with canine companions.
The first chapter focuses on family relationships in David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, using the common Victorian image of "happy families" (animals trained to cohabit peacefully rather than act as predator and prey) as a framework. These happy families, seen in zoos and circuses, often included dogs who kept the peace in such unnatural groupings through their playfulness. Chez argues that dogs in Dickens serve a similar function: David Copperfield's Jip and Oliver Twist's Bulls-Eye both belong to unhappy families but work to create affective bonds between family members. In David Copperfield, Jip's bad behavior is a sign that things are fundamentally wrong within the family. David's problematic treatment of Dora is mirrored in her treatment of Jip: David buys his wife a cookery book to train her to be a better homemaker, and she in turn uses it to train Jip to perform tricks. In Oliver Twist, Bulls-Eye is aligned with Sikes, but also with Nancy: the dog is a victim of Sikes's abuse, just as she is. Bulls-Eye's death mirrors his master's, but in leading the mob to the guilty man Bulls-Eye is also an extension of the accusatory eyes of the dead woman, pursuing Sikes through the London streets.
Chapter 2 charts a shift to dogs as personal prosthesis rather than family-oriented, exploring George Eliot's Adam Bede and Middlemarch. Chez suggests that Adam's dog Gyp is key to his moral development, centering on [End Page 165] interactions between Adam, his mother Lisbeth and the dog. In Middlemarch, by contrast, it is Dorothea...