Ask the Animals, and They Will Teach You

By Karen Swallow Prior

Flourish magazine, Spring 2011


“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.

We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

-  Immanuel Kant

Literature—from the simplest of children’s stories to the greatest classics—is filled with animals. But just as our relationship with animals in real life is complex, the roles animals play in literature are likewise varied and inconsistent. And like our relationships with our fellow man, our relationship with animals is anything but simple. This complexity is reflected in the many works of literature that feature animals prominently in one way or another. Animals fall along the entire gamut in literature, from vehicles for communicating human interests to beings in their own right, worthy of care and compassion.

In some works of literature, animals function only in service to humankind: They stand in for their human

Just as inhumanity to animals parallels inhumanity to man, so too can our compassion toward animals unleash compassion toward all.

counterparts, symbolically or satirically, in order to teach lessons or correct human vices and foibles. Aesop’s Fables and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are two well-known examples of animals used in literature in this way. In such didactic works, animals don’t reflect the animals in our world. Rather they function to illustrate some aspect of humanity that it might be politically or socially imprudent for the author to address directly. Animals in this sort of literature, serving only allegorically for their human counterparts, do little to elicit the reader’s compassion for real animals.

More likely to cultivate ethical treatment of animals are works of literature in which animals are still animals but are presented in a way that allows the reader to identify with the animals’ experiences. Many children’s books are peopled with animal characters with whom the reader identifies in much the same way one would with any fictional character. One thinks, for example, of Beatrix Potter’s tales of Peter Rabbit and friends. Here are animals depicted as animals in the human world, but the adventures that unfold are told from the animals’ perspectives. Children easily identify with animals, themselves being “lesser than,” in so many respects, the adult humans that dominate their world, and therefore learn many moral lessons from animal characters.

The beauty of kindness
The cultivation of compassion toward animals, particularly horses, was the specific moral lesson Anna Sewell sought to impart when she wrote Black Beauty (1877) in the latter half of the highly fashionable, and sometimes cruel, Victorian age. The success of her endeavor is evidenced in the work’s status as one of the bestselling books of all times, but more importantly in the increase of public support for the cause of animal welfare that followed its publication. I loved this book so much as a child that its opening line is seared in my memory: “The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.” This line captures the technique Sewell uses so effectively: a first-person narration that presents Black Beauty’s experiences—good and bad, kind and cruel—through the direct viewpoint of the horse, such as in the description of his first, gentle, owner: “Our master was a good, kind man. He gave us good food, good lodging, and kind words; he spoke as kindly to us as he did to his little children. We were all fond of him, and my mother loved him very much.”

In whole and in part, the book teaches quite directly, but engagingly, how much animals can suffer from human cruelty. In one scene, for example, Black Beauty and his owner John come across a boy whipping a pony who is refusing to jump a high gate. The reluctant pony eventually throws off the boy and trots home, and John later learns that the boy has a history of bullying and animal cruelty. Using this story within a story, Sewell retells a lecture the boy had received from his schoolmaster for pulling the wings off flies:

Then [the school master] talked to all the boys very seriously about cruelty, and said how hard-hearted and cowardly it was to hurt the weak and the helpless; but what stuck in my mind was this, he said that cruelty was the devil’s own trade-mark, and if we saw any one who took pleasure in cruelty we might know who he belonged to, for the devil was a murderer from the beginning, and a tormentor to the end. On the other hand, where we saw people who loved their neighbors, and were kind to man and beast, we might know that was God’s mark.

Of course, Sewell means the lecture for her readers, but the narrative device allows the medicine to go down rather easily.

Suffering with the animals who suffer
While identifying with animals is helpful in developing a moral framework that includes kindness toward them, identification is not the highest rung on the ethical ladder. Higher even than this is compassion, which is not quite the same thing as identification. Compassion (derived from the root word meaning “to suffer” and combined with the prefix for “together” or “with”) is the suffering one feels for another not by identifying with the other, but by coming alongside that other. It is one thing to feel the pain of another through identification, but a higher ethic altogether to suffer with, to feel for, someone who is not oneself, but is rather wholly other. Hence the most powerful and poignant place of animals in literature is, I think, when their role reflects the one they have in the real world: simply being the animals with whom we inhabit this earth.

So while Black Beauty cultivates empathy through identification of the reader with the animal, another horse story illustrates true compassion for animals as other: The Black Stallion (1941) by Walter Farley. This story is told from the perspective of a boy, Alec, who after a shipwreck is stranded on an island with the ship’s cargo, a black stallion, whom the book describes as “the wildest of all wild creatures.” The powerful bond that Alec eventually creates with the horse, only with much time and much persistence, is built not on identification but on a profound respect for the horse as other.

It makes sense that horses are so commonly featured in literature. Horses are admired universally for their beauty,

While identifying with animals is helpful in developing a moral framework that includes kindness toward them, identification is not the highest rung on the ethical ladder. Higher even than this is compassion.

strength, and intelligence and yet, despite all these, have come to be one of man’s most valuable servants and companions. Within the entire animal kingdom, however, we find layers and variations of otherness. Horses, like dogs, while other, hold a place seemingly closer to the human family than some other creatures, say, the pig and the spider.

And it is the pig and the spider—perhaps two of the most reviled creatures in the animal kingdom—that we are treated to, in all their otherness, in one of the most-beloved works of all times, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952). The book begins with eight-year-old Fern Arable (what a beautifully symbolic name!) intervening on behalf of a runt piglet destined for her father’s ax; it ends with the pig’s life saved once again, this time by wondrous words woven by Charlotte the spider in her web.

Literary classics and their creatures
Animals aren’t just children’s fare, however. One might have to look a little harder but can certainly find important lessons in compassion from animals in the pages of the world’s literary masterpieces.

The patriarch of England’s Augustan age, the poet Alexander Pope, is most known for his rigidly neoclassical style and his mastery of the heroic couplet. Yet Pope demonstrated great compassion for animals in both his life and his writings. In his most famous poem, Essay on Man (1734), the poet expresses remarkable empathy (in an unsentimental age) by depicting animals as participating with human beings in feelings of joy, love, pleasure, and pride; he then chastises humankind for a self-centeredness that assigns meaning to animal activity based purely on its significance to humanity:

Is it for thee the lark ascends and sings?
Joy tunes his voice, joy elevates his wings.
Is it for thee the linnet pours his throat?
Loves of his own and raptures swell the note.
The bounding steed you pompously bestride,
Shares with his lord the pleasure and the pride.

Almost a century later—and on the other side of the aesthetic and literary spectrum—the Romantic poet Samuel T. Coleridge depicts in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) the mariner’s wanton cruelty in shooting an albatross for no reason as causing a great curse upon a ship, and his spontaneous blessing of the animals as the sudden breaking of that curse. As the mariner laments the great curse he has brought upon himself and his ship and its crew, he looks out onto the waters and sees water snakes moving beautifully in the water. Then he later retells,

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

And with that act, his unconscious blessing of the animals, the mariner says,

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

Lessons in being human
Understandably, animals appear, generally, as participants in and emblems of the larger natural world, as in the two poems above. But as we move into the literature of the modern age, animals often appear in a world bereft of nature and of natural law. In such a world, animals serve as reminders of the things that have been lost; they beckon us back to a more human, humane world, for when compassion toward animals is lost, so too is humanity toward fellow man. Two great works of modern literature illustrate this well.

Crime and Punishment (1866), by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, contains probably one of the most harrowing descriptions of animal cruelty in classic literature. Yet this haunting scene within one of the world’s most haunting novels is central to the work’s powerful depiction of the reality of sin, guilt, and our need for redemption.

What is true in great literature is true also in life.

The protagonist, a young Russian intellectual, Raskolnikov, has determined to murder an elderly woman for no other reason than that (like the Ancient Mariner) he can. After he has made the plan, but before executing it, he has a dream, one which Dostoevsky paints in excruciating detail. In the dream, Raskolnikov is a young boy who witnesses the brutal bludgeoning and beating death of a carriage horse by a drunken crowd. Despite realizing upon waking the direct symbolism of the dream in relation to his murderous plan, Raskolnikov goes through with the killing anyway (murdering the woman’s sister, too). Among the various literary implications of this dream in the novel is a straightforward, literal one: In their senselessness and depravity, the killing of the horse and that of the women are parallel acts.

Just as inhumanity to animals parallels inhumanity to man, so too can our compassion toward animals unleash compassion toward all. This truth is poignantly depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a dark novel depicting the inhumanity of man in the context of war. In a crazy, chaotic world of time travel, aliens, and World War II atrocities, it is an animal who reminds Billy Pilgrim how to be human. The scene occurs after the bombing of Dresden, just days before the end of the war. A German couple approaches Billy and a few fellow prisoners who are resting in a horse-drawn wagon they have found:

Billy opened his eyes. A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed—that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. The Americans had treated their form of transportation as though it were no more sensitive than a six-cylinder Chevrolet. …. Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scolded him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.

What is true in great literature is true also in life. Compassion toward animals is a good in and of itself. But that is not all. In showing compassion toward animals, we maintain, or sometimes recover, our humanity.


Karen Swallow PriorKaren Swallow Prior, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and chair of the English and modern languages department at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She and her husband, Roy, serve as deacons in their church and keepers of their 100-year-old homestead where they live with their horses and dogs. Karen has a forthcoming book on literature and life to be published by T. S. Poetry Press next year.


  1. Ben DeVries says:

    This is a wonderful reflection, Karen, thank you (and Flourish) for sharing it. A great preview to your forthcoming book as well! I adored the Black Stallion books growing up, and read 19 in the series of 20. I think ‘Watership Down’ has served a similar function of broadening one’s perspective on empathy and compassion for many readers as well. I’ll definitely share a link to this through Not One Sparrow sometime – Ben

  2. Marian Hussenbux says:

    Thank you for mentioning Black Beauty, Karen. Anna Sewell was of a Quaker family and we are proud to have this connection to the author of a book which was so important in raising awareness of the issue of cruelty to animals.
    In fact, a coincidental grouping of circumstances earlier this year led our group to begin work on a campaign against the whipping of horses in racing – the only animal it is legal to beat in Britain.


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