Friday, March 27, 2009

The Literary Dog

I have never been a great fan of stories about dogs. The storylines inevitably involve a dog's endangerment or death, which makes me cry copious tears. I was traumatized by Sounder in the seventh grade. All I remember is the image of the kid sleeping with a leathery fragment of a dog's ear under his pillow. Years later, I tried The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst, about a linguist who teaches his Rhodesian Ridgeback to speak so that she can tell him how his wife died. I finished reading it, but I don't remember anything after the dog disappears under mysterious circumstances. So stressful! So forget about Marlee and Me.

Exceptions include Gary Paulsen's Wood-Song, a nonfiction account of Paulsen's experience raising and training sled dogs in Minnesota. I found his descriptions of his dogs' personalities and their impact on his life to be moving. The book is considered young adult material, but the writing is engaging, almost Hemingway-esque. Jack London's Call of the Wild is another exception—all of his dog stories are. Even though there is dog endangerment, London gets inside his dog characters' minds, treating them with much more respect than he does his human characters, making the stories worth the stress. 

With all that in mind, I thought it might be fun to regularly share excerpts from stories, novels, poems, and nonfiction that describe or involve dogs. This scene from Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd stopped me cold when I read the novel for the first time a couple of summers ago. The unnamed character is a poor servant girl (pregnant, but readers don't know that yet) who has walked miles in search of her lover, a rakish soldier who has abandoned her. She has fallen at the roadside from exhaustion. 

She became conscious of something touching her hand; it was softness and it was warmth. She opened her eyes, and the substance touched her face. A dog was licking her cheek. 
He was a huge, heavy, and quiet creature, standing darkly against the low horizon, and at least two feet higher than the present position of her eyes. Whether Newfoundland, mastiff, bloodhound, or what not, it was impossible to say. He seemed to be of too strange and mysterious a nature to belong to any variety among those of popular nomenclature. Being thus assignable to no breed, he was the ideal embodiment of canine greatness—a generalization from what was common to all. Night, in its sad, solemn, and benevolent aspect, apart from its stealthy and cruel side, was personified in this form. Darkness endows the small and ordinary ones among mankind with poetical power, and even the suffering woman threw her idea into the figure.
In her reclining position, she looked up to him just as in earlier times she had, when standing, looked up to a man. The animal, who was as homeless as she, respectfully withdrew a step or two when the woman moved, and, seeing that she did not repulse him, he licked her hand again. 
A thought moved through her like lightning. "Perhaps I can make use of him—I might do it then!"
She pointed in the direction of Casterbridge, and the dog seemed to misunderstand: he trotted on. Then, finding she could not follow, he came back and whined.
The ultimate and saddest singularity of woman's effort and invention was reached when, with a quickened breathing, she rose to a stooping posture, and, resting her two little arms upon the shoulders of the dog, leant firmly thereon, and murmured stimulating words. . . . Her friend moved forward slowly, and she with small mincing steps moved forward beside him, half her weight being thrown upon the animal. . . . The dog, who now thoroughly understood her desire and her incapacity, was frantic in his distress on these occasions; he would tug at her dress and run forward. She always called him back and it was now to be observed that the woman listened for human sounds only to avoid them. It was evident that she had an object in keeping her presence on the road and her forlorn state unknown.
Their progress was necessarily very slow. . . .   [The dog and the woman crawl through the town and reach a building on its outskirts.] 
It was getting on towards six o'clock, and sounds of movement were to be heard inside the building which was the haven of rest to the wearied soul. A little door by the large one was opened, and a man appeared inside. He discerned the panting heap of clothes, went back for a light, and came again. He entered a second time, and returned with two women.
These lifted the prostrate figure and assisted her in through the doorway. The man then closed the door. 
"How did she get here?" said one of the women.
"The Lord knows," said the other.
"There is a dog outside," murmured the overcome traveller. "Where is he gone? He helped me."
"I stoned him away," said the man.
The little procession then moved forward—the man in front bearing the light, the two bony women next, supporting between them the small and supple one. Thus they entered the house and disappeared.

As in most Victorian literature, the dog is the noblest creature in the book. That part about the man throwing stones at the dog nearly killed me. So sad! 

1 comment:

  1. On a road trip with my very first dog I rented Call of the Wild on tape; I thought he would like it.

    I cannot abide any book or movie where things turn out badly for the dog. My two favorite books about dogs are My Dog Skip by Willie Morris, and A Dog Year by Jon Katz. Finishing up the second one I was laughing and had tears streaming down my face at the same time.


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