I recently began reading Virginia Woolf’s “Flush,” a novel that portrays the life and inner world of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. “Flush” was written in third person, but for most of the novel, the third person is close enough to Flush that he, a dog, is narrating his own story. “Flush” has inspired me to consider what role animal narrators and narrations have in literature, what world and personal themes an animal narrator allows an author or reader to explore, and overall, how animal narrators appeal to readers.
In literature for adults, the choice of an animal narrator is unusual, and often signifies that the author is trying to discuss a larger theme beyond the animal. As animals are often treated as sub-human in this world, they can serve as metaphors in literature for various sorts of inequality between humans. In “Flush,” Woolf touches upon forms of inequality during the time of Barrett Browning (the Victorian era), especially that of women’s status in society. In a way, Flush represents both Barrett Browning and Woolf. Until “Flush” was written, the real Flush was not known to society at large; I think Woolf uses Flush’s underrepresentation in Barrett Browning’s previous biographies to explore female artists’ underrepresentation and under-appreciation in society. Flush and other animal narrators can be effective in metaphors for certain kinds of human inequality; they allow the author to introduce the subject in a more indirect way, thereby more gently asking to reader to consider the issue that the novel addresses.
In regard to literary techniques, animal narrators offer a fresh point of view and can change the tone of a novel. They allow the author to describe the world with a different view and sense of detail than one would hear from a human narrator. Similar to magical realism, books from an animal perspective allow the ordinary to be extraordinary. By looking at the world through an animal’s perspective, humans have the chance to reconsider what we take for granted in the world: what has become normal in a human existence but is really quite remarkable.
Another small but important appeal of animal narratives and narrators is that they remind us of childhood, in which many stories and/or lessons were taught to us by friendly animal characters. Animal narrators bring us back mentally to a wonderful discovery period of our lives through their often uncomplicated and honest portrayals of the world, and by reminding us of the stories we read during our childhood. For this reason, no matter the theme, animal narrations and narrators can be warming and comforting.
Finally, animal narrators are appealing simply because we can connect with them. Though animal narrators clearly use words, we know that in general, humans connect with animals nonverbally. For this reason, I find myself connecting with animal narrators in a more emotional and less analytical way than I do with human narrators.
In life, humans develop friendships with animals, and just as human friends attempt to understand one another, humans attempt to understand the inner lives and emotions of their animal friends. At this point, there is no way science nor philosophy can answer for certain how animals experience the world, but we can offer our interpretations through literature. Literature cannot definitively answer any question, but I believe that animal narrators allow the writer to connect with readers in a unique way, and that animal narrations can inspire readers to consider how they connect with the animals in their lives.