Dogs in literature

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The dog’s main role in literature mirrors the dog’s role in everyday life – that of guardian angel and loyal companion. Many literary works use dogs as a metaphor for humans.

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Faithful friend, confidant and protector

The dog’s role of confidant and protector is well represented in children’s literature, especially where the dog comes to the rescue of a child. Eric Knight’s novel Lassie Come Home features a loyal Collie and its young master Joe. The book and subsequent films were so popular that people still commonly refer to Collies as Lassie dogs. In James Matthew Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Nana is a Newfoundland, although a Saint Bernard plays the role in the Disney adaptation (Peter Pan). Wendy, John and Michael are unable to escape from the house because the dog has been stationed in the garden.

Dogs are mentioned in various plays by Shakespeare, most memorably Crab, the companion of facetious Launce, in the comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”

The question of humanity

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In his Jacques the Fatalist, Diderot explains “that any man would like to command another; and that the position of the animal in society is immediately under the class of the lowest citizens commanded by all other classes, they would also take an animal in order to command someone too (…) everyone has his dog. The minister is the king’s dog, the chief clerk is the minister’s dog, the wife is her husband’s dog, or the husband his wife’s”

Some science fiction authors have even given dogs the power. In Clifford Simack’s novel City, there are no more humans, only dogs and robots. The question is whether they can build a cleaner, less violent society.

Between wolf and dog: incarnation of wild freedom

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The dog’s ancestor the wolf is the wild animal incarnate. While the dog represents servitude and loyalty, the wolf epitomises freedom and the rejection of all constraint. As in Jean de la Fontaine’s fable The Wolf and the Dog, wolves would rather live free than be confined.

This is illustrative of a question for which there is not always an answer: is it preferable to live as a slave or die free? This question is addressed by a fervent humanist who lived during the 1891 Gold Rush in Alaska. While Jack London defends animals against man’s brutality, he does not give a definite answer to the question of which path to choose: that of White Fang, a wolf-dog who chooses to live among humans, or that of Buck in Call of the Wild, a companion dog who goes to live among wolves. Perhaps this means that in character each of us is part dog and part wolf, depending on the circumstances.

Wild beast

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Deified by some (the Egyptian god Anubis), demonised by others (Cerberus, the Roman dog that guarded the gates of Hades), the worrying aspect of the dog – or is that the wolf – has inspired many writers. Poets and novelists describe the prowling beast, a frantic, demonic creature who devours dead bodies or small children. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even uses a dog in the title of one of Sherlock Holmes’ best-known adventures The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which a huge dog kills the inhabitants of bleak Dartmoor.

Around the rocks a restless bitch was eyeing
Us with a look of one forsaken
As if from the living skeleton she were spying
The flesh that from it had been taken

(Baudelaire, Prose and Poetry. Translated by Arthur Symons. Albert and Charles Boni, New York, 1926.)

These lines from Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil) also evoke this darker side of dogs. But here again, isn’t the dog simply an expression of its thinking alter ego, humans?

Whether as friend or foe, our canine companion continues to appear in literature as an innocent reflection of human shame, misery and loneliness.

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