Between fear and fascination of animals: the case of the animal in Victorian literature
“You cannot have it both ways, you need to choose one and leave the other.” We are confronted with dilemmas on a daily basis. For instance, should we obey our sense of reason or our instincts? In other words, trust our “animal” side. What if animals could behave like humans and the other way around? Could we be both and not be compelled to choose? The topic that I would have liked to tackle for my Master’s dissertation deals with this quandary. I had to leave behind the wayside subversive messages in children’s literature.
Are humans and animals intrinsically different from each other? If a single undeniable distinction were to be made, it could be that humans speak and animals do not. In literature, however, some authors have given animals human voices. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, all the animals speak, the Cheshire cat for example. The fascination for speaking animals results from a fear of the evasive: as animals do not speak, there is no way for us to know their thoughts. Strategies are put into place to rationalise fear. For example, The Little White Bird, a novel written by J.M. Barrie in 1902, as a prequel to Peter Pan (1904), tells the story of Peter Pan’s birth, originally as a bird to eventually transform into a boy who will never grow old. Prior to the Victorian era, children were not considered as humans, thought to have no awareness and were compared to animals. We notice an evolution of mentality, as the little bird is given a soul, to become a living boy. Pinnochio (1881) by Carlo Collodi could be read in a similar light, the tale of an animated wooden puppet turning into flesh-and-bone child as a reward for his good deeds.
The Victorians dealt with their fear by establishing boundaries to distinguish the human world from the animal one. Humans have a soul; they are reasonable beings while animals are wild, without the capacity to think and are driven by their instincts. Is it that simple though? In The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886) by R.L. Stevenson for instance, the entire plot focuses on the definition of humanity. It suggests that we all have inside of us a Mister Hyde who has been repressing his instincts by society but who is ready to burst out and reveal his true nature. If the Victorians used metaphors or hid behind fictitious characters to deal with the fear of that which cannot be tamed, was it not to distance themselves from the truth, to avoid it? Often, that which is the most feared is that which is not seen.
Now consider this: what if we were deprived of our ability to speak, would it turn us into animals? My point was to show that we are not one-sided beings and we were allowed a wide range of traits: would it be a crime to accept them all, or would it allow us to realise our full potential?
Barrie, J.M., Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up or Peter and Wendy (1904)
Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Collodi, Carlo, Pinnochio (1881)
Stevenson, R.L., The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hide (1886)