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Kill the Dog: The Cruel Burden of Man’s Best Friend on Single Women in Literature

BRUNA GOMES | FEATURES




In pop culture, the dog is man’s best friend. The dog provides undoubted loyalty, devoted companionship, and its intuitive sixth sense to the lone man. More often than not, the relationship between the lone man and the dog is much stronger and enduring than any relationship the same man can maintain with a woman. As man’s best friend, the dog is anthropomorphised, beloved for its human-like friendship, symbolising a greater sympathy for its male companion, no matter how estranged or emotionless he may be. But if the dog is the lone man’s best friend, then it is also the single woman’s worst enemy and biggest burden.


Under the ownership of a woman, the dog fails to be some mute form of judgemental love – it fails to be the very thing that traditionally characterises the domestic woman. Instead, the dog is an undomesticated beast who refuses obedience. This corruption of the dog’s devotion to man is represented in the novels of Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison, Elena Ferrante and Rachel Cusk, subverting the “man’s best friend” trope to explore female experiences and perspectives. In the writing of these female authors from wide-ranging diverse contexts, a common thread is woman-owned dogs which are used as devices to probe spheres of domesticity, trauma, motherhood, and marriage, hating the dog for all it represents, all it implies, and all it devours.



Barrabás in Allende’s The House of The Spirits


Barrabás arrives by sea with the rest of Uncle Marcos’ belongings, becoming a companion for young, innocent Clara. The dog, once owned by a man, now belongs to a girl. Allende begins and ends the book with the same line: “Barrabás came to us by sea,” as if the dog is a protective force, a mythical parenthesis that frames the multigenerational narrative. In conservative Chile, the mythical quality of the dog transports Clara into her own realms of spiritual power. The fantastic animal, with “crocodile claws…sharp little teeth” and “a seemingly unlimited capacity growth” invades the domestic world Clara is familiar with, a domestic world that exists directly within a right-winged class comfort.


Initially, Barrabás is a much-needed distraction for Clara, a beloved friend who plays and whimpers with “no indication of ferocity.” He is a great marker of wonder, magic, and endless possibilities, the family “[expecting] him to sprout wings and horns and acquire the sulfuric breath of a dragon,” providing hope for little Clara. Allende crafts Barrabás with magical realism, for often in literary dog friendships, “‘pet love’ is not simply a replacement for human companionship, but offers the opportunity for a reconsideration of the limits of kinship, guardianship, and belonging.” Barrabás therefore suggests a means of freedom from Clara’s domestic and patriarchy-oriented fate.


But when Clara marries Esteban, an abusive, compulsive tyrant of a man, Barrabás staggers into the ceremony “blacker and larger than ever with a butcher's knife stuck in his back clear to the hilt, bleeding to death like an ox, his long colt legs trembling, his muzzle dripping with threads of blood, his eyes clouded in agony; dragging one paw after the other, he traced the zigzag path of a wounded dinosaur.” The death of Barrabás signals an end to Clara’s innocence. What hope was constructed by Barrabás’ gentle demeanour and otherworldly magic is immediately mangled and killed by the Clara’s marriage to a controlling, overwhelming, deadly man, a man who symbolises a greater political terror for Chile. It is the “dinosaur” of the dog that landscapes Clara’s home as retrograde.


In an attempt to please his new wife, Esteban transforms dead Barrabás into a rug, the dog “split down the middle… His head was still intact and his two glass eyes stared up at [Clara] with the helpless look that is the specialty of taxidermists.” Clara faints; her innocence is marred by the fur carpet, her purity splayed before her as something that simply cannot exist in such a tumultuous moment of Latin American history. The butchered dog is Clara’s butchered freedom. At the death of the dog, Clara’s fight for agency becomes much greater, more sacrificial, and above all, more brutal. It is this struggle for female agency that Allende symbolises so effectively through the character of the dog. In shaping Clara’s girlhood alongside Barrabás, Allende comments on the greater danger of Chile’s conservative government: loyalty to the party, like loyalty to the dog, is destined to end in horror.



Here Boy in Morrison’s Beloved


While Here Boy doesn’t play a large role in Morrison’s novel, his presence, and lack thereof, is important. Here Boy primarily exists as a dog who is sensitive to the spirit world, as most dogs are said to be. Initially, Here Boy is a marker of memory for Sethe, “Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes,” a mere companion to Sethe’s trauma. He is a physical object that is present when Sethe transitions from the present to memory, and thus symbolises a presence of history, a conscious acceptance of the present past.


But inside house 124, Here Boy becomes violently affected by the spirit of Beloved, Sethe’s dead baby, who “picked up Here Boy and slammed him into the wall hard enough to break two of his legs and dislocate his eye, so hard he went into convulsions and chewed up his tongue.” Here Boy is grotesquely deformed, corrupted from any notion of the family’s loyal protection, physical proof of America’s horrific past. Morrison uses Here Boy as a manifestation of external deformity to reveal the internal evilness of white supremacy that hides behind the guise of the “gentleman.” Sethe, still loaded with the responsibility of protecting her family from her history, “knocked the dog unconscious, wiped away the blood and saliva, pushed his eye back in his head and set his leg bones.” Sethe’s duty is violence. To save Here Boy, to make sure he is not overcome by the haunting of Beloved, Sethe must rupture the facade of soft, nurturing motherhood and become an animal along with the dog, brutally beating him back to health. Morrison thus puts the dehumanisation of enslaved women under the microscope, suggesting a fundamental urge for survival, an urge which defines Sethe’s motherhood.


After this event, Here Boy does not enter the house again until after Paul D expels Beloved from the house: “Here Boy, feeble and shedding his coat in patches, is asleep by the pump, so Paul D knows Beloved is truly gone.” The dog’s absence during Beloved’s ghostly and poltergeist-like presence in 124 indicates the past’s haunting of the present, its unpleasantness, its horror.


In ancient Greek mythology, “the symbolic overlap between dog and woman provided the conceptual tools to maintain feminine subordination,” and so derogatory terms for women like “bitch” derive from the dog’s servitude to man. This ancient connection between women and dogs is thoroughly mapped out in the book Shameless: The Canine and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. In Beloved, Morrison reclaims the bitchiness and hardiness of Sethe’s character, inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, subverting enslaved servitude and savage violence into a mother’s fight for freedom. As an outcast dog, Here Boy serves Sethe not as a loyal companion or dear friend, but as a conduit for rememory, relentless in his confrontation with, and avoidance of, the truth. To be loved by Sethe, Here Boy must embody the corruption of white supremacy, sacrificing his body to the bitchy ghost. Morrison reclaims man’s best friend, bashing him to a pulp before abandoning him.



Otto in Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment


Otto is a dog who, along with Olga, was abandoned by the man of the house. Immediately, his presence weighs Olga down with new responsibilities of walking and feeding the dog, something Mario always looked after. Otto exaggerates Mario’s absence, Olga observing of Otto that “now he was wild, he had his needs to take care of. And I did, too. I was a sack of living flesh, packed with waste, bladder bursting, stomach aching.” Otto seems like a side-effect of abandonment, and as Olga spirals further and further into desperation, the side-effect of the dog lurks and grows into an unavoidable problem.


In Mario’s absence, Otto becomes a mirror for Olga to analyse her own mind. She was “pushed by his needs, the dog obliged me to run behind him…He ran away like pure life, a dark mass charged with urgencies. He watered trees, shit in the grass, chased butterflies, lost himself in the pine grove. When was it that I had lost that stubborn charge of animal energy, with adolescence, perhaps. Now I was wild again, I looked at my ankles, my armpits, when had I last waxed them, when had I shaved?” The very fact that she must tend to the dog forces her to recognise the presence of an abandoned animal, one that was domesticated but now has an unruliness that might never be reigned in. Olga sees herself in Otto, and this, above all, shames her.


In the eye of the book’s storm, Otto becomes sick. Olga follows a foul smell to her husband’s office, where “Otto was lying on his side, under his master's desk. When I approached him, he shuddered through his whole body. Saliva dripped from his jaws but his eyes were those of a good dog, even though they looked white, as if bleached. A blackish stain was spreading next to him, dark mud veined with blood.” Otto, in his sickness, seeks the comfort of Mario’s belongings, ungrateful to Olga’s hard work, abandoning her now, too. Olga describes the dog as “the untrustable, the traitor, the deserter,” seemingly expressing her contempt for her husband as well. Otto, as a symbol of betrayal, as a dog who loves his abandoned master more than the woman who has taken his place, cannot be loved by Olga. Otto is no loyal companion or best friend, but a foul image of a failed marriage, a smelly burden which distracts Olga from her own ill son. Ferrante depicts Otto as a manifestation of Olga’s poisoned body and thoughts, of her deteriorating headspace, of the unhappiness she fears she will give to her children.


In her own answer to interview questions, Ferrante says of Otto, “I don’t want nor do I know how to tell you anything, except that he is the character, if I can put it like this, who caused me the most suffering.” Ferrante’s experience of writing Otto seems to ring true to what Otto represents. As the dog dies in the office, Olga feels the house return to a state of normal and realises that she no longer loves Mario. In the weeks after the day of the poisoned dog, sometimes Olga “was certain that it was Otto, returning from the isle of the dead, and thought that again something was crumbling inside me, and was afraid.” In The Days of Abandonment, there is something irredeemable about Otto; he is an external symbol of what Olga dislikes most within herself, representing her regressive potential to succumb to the abyss of abandonment. Once he is buried, so is the woman’s torment, and it is Olga’s departure from the tortured abandonment which Otto nagged her with that sets her free.



Mimi in Cusk’s Outline


In Outline, various writing students engage with a prompt to write “a story involving an animal.” by describing scenes with dogs, but Penelope’s is especially elaborate. She begins by explaining that her neighbour recently offered her children a pet puppy. “The thought of relenting,” says Penelope “and of the love I would receive if I did, was almost irresistible. Yet my knowledge of Stavros's bitch, who is a fat and disagreeable animal, was stronger.” Put off by the sudden mothering that the puppy performed on her children, its ability to turn them into angels, Penelope feels urged to retain her own motherly authority. In Mark Twain's short story “A Dog’s Tale,” “Instead of assuming a strictly anthropocentric premise [about a man’s best friend], Twain expresses the inequities of such relationships, the abuse inflicted on those without a voice.” As man’s best friend, the dog is anthropomorphised, superior for its human-like friendship. But under the ownership of a woman, as displayed by Cusk, the dog is once again a wild animal, foreign from the woman’s body and mind, extremely exterior and voiceless, constantly observing her in a primitive, passionate rivalry.


Penelope is against buying the puppy, too, because she once owned Mimi, and knows the burden and exteriority of dogs to be excruciating. Mimi was initially “tiny and charming… who made the most foul-smelling messes all over the house.” The children adored the dog but left their mother to clean up after it; Penelope describes the domestic scene as one that is ruled by the nucleus of the children and the dog, excluding the mother, exasperating her. In the New York Times, Cusk herself controversially says that “Entering a house, I often feel that I am entering a woman’s body.” If, for Cusk, a house is inherently a domestic female entity, then the dog is a wild, masculine beast that enters and destroys all order, all respect for the female figure. Perhaps Cusk herself feels the burden of domestic household activities to be solely her own, and if so, that only implies the absence of a supporting partner: her isolation as an adult – Penelope’s isolation – is what a dog takes advantage of. As Mimi becomes more energetic and destructive, the kids begin abandoning any care for her. Penelope says, “Eventually I realised I would have to keep her tied to me forever while we were out, and that in the house I was similarly bound to her, and it began to dawn on me that in getting Mimi for my children I had, without much thought, entirely given away my freedom.” Any authority that Penelope thought she had as the mother of the household is diminished by the dog, Mimi testing the boundaries of motherhood by ripping a tear in the trust between mother and child.


This tear becomes widest when Peneople “started to become curiously resentful and jealous of her beauty and of all the attention [Mimi] got.” The dog comes to take Penelope’s place, to replace her beauty and womanhood, to erase it entirely from the household. After finding Mimi ripping a cushion to shreds, Penelope hits the dog, scaring her children, becoming more animal in the eyes of her kids than the animal itself. “But if I had become a monster,” says Penelope, “it was Mimi, I believed, who had made me one.” The rivalry between Penelope and Mimi is one with high stakes for the mother – the mother is at risk of losing the children’s respect for her, at risk of losing her own selfhood, her own voice. Without a man in the house, Penelope must contend with the man’s best friend. She must fight for her own family even without a man there to take it from her.



In Conclusion


It is an unwritten rule in film and literature that the dog must never die. On the rare occasion the dog does die, it is either heroic, sacrificial, or deeply moving. But in these books written by women, the dogs are either killed, lost, or maliciously injured. Whether suffering is caused by the dog or symbolised by the dog, it is nevertheless the animal which tries to prove itself more human than the woman. Throughout pop culture, the dog has become an extension of the man, exterior proof that its male owner is not as rough and tough as he seems to be, but instead has a tender, loving heart. The character of the dog is one that implicitly sympathises with men, regardless of the presence or absence of that man. The books of Allende, Morrison, Ferrante, and Cusk, however, purge that sympathy from the narrative of their female characters. To kill, injure, or lose the dog is to return centrality to the single woman’s life.



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