Grad Conference April 2018

Today’s theme centered around the rethinking of narrative in Lit is perfectly embodied by the recent change of lifestyle that has grown by over 600% in the last two years, veganism.  This rise in vegans has also changed the way people understand the non-human animals that cohabitate in this world with us.  Animal studies is beginning to infiltrate the Humanities and this presentation will be an introduction into the ways animal studies can be used to create a better understanding of Modernist texts.  This argument will rethink the way animals were used in 3 of the most influential works of the Modernist era to emphasize the traumas of World War I.  By looking at how Hemingway, Eliot, and Woolf used society’s predetermined notions of animals to reveal the mental effects of war on survivors, modern readers can come to a better understanding of trauma in the early 20th century.

Animal rights suffers from Agricultural Gag laws that try to keep the public ignorant of the horrors of animal agriculture; whereas animal studies in Literature suffers from Anthropocene and Allegory which minimize the impact animals have on stories.  While researching for valid and scholarly articles on animals in literature, it is very difficult to find anything of substance for works that are not overtly about animals, such as Moby-Dick.  Even in that example, the great White Whale is minimized to an allegorical figure of Ahab’s madness.  Instead, an animal rights study would point out that Moby-Dick should be examined as a mammal who must battle for its survival, because society has deemed him to be a commodity rather than a sentient being who desires to live.

Even today, animals are misunderstood because they have been defined by society as something they are not, and animal analysis in literature suffers as a result.  Soldiers in World War I endured much of the same commodification during the Modernist era.  Frederick Henry’s anecdote about the ants on a burning log defined his wartime experience, Eliot’s animal imagery in The Waste Land cuts deeper into trauma than most readers notice, and Septimius was so disturbing to his doctors and the public, that he was treated like an animal in a factory farm.  By understanding why these animals are used in these modernist texts, readers can better understand the traumas that inspired these works.

The first example comes from the only author in this group that served during World War I, Ernest Hemingway.  In his pseudo-autobiographical novel, A Farewell to Arms, Frederick Henry witnesses some true horrors of war.  Animals are virtually nonexistent throughout the novel, save for some cavalry horses and a dog sniffing a coffee can.  Yet in the very last pages of the novel after Henry must accept that Catherine Barkley is going to die, he cannot think of any better analogy to life than the memory of ants burning on a log:

Once in camp I put a log on a fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first toward the center where the fire was; then turned back and ran toward the end. When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire. Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.

I have come across many journals and books that analyze this quote to be a metaphor for Henry and Barkley’s journey to this depressing moment in the novel.  And all those peer-reviewed breakdowns fit well with Hemingway’s messages about futility and divine intervention (or lack-thereof).  But what is lacking from these in-depth looks are why did Hemingway choose ants?

What needs to be analyzed is not the metaphor, but what is it about ants that makes this metaphor possible.  When beginning research for this presentation, I had to look up if ants were technically animals, and I found that they are indeed part of the animal kingdom.  Maybe the answer seems obvious to some of you, but I was not sure and I’m a vegan who refuses honey.  This realization opens a Pandora’s box of issues regarding society’s view of these arthropods.

The common view of ants is that they are mindless workers that build dirt hills in the cracks of driveways and annoyingly find their way into our kitchens and basements.  In short, ants are a nuisance to mankind.  Ants are also misunderstood by the general public, killed with extreme prejudice, and generate almost zero sympathy for their struggles.  Even through Hemingway’s beautiful and poignant prose, the ants gather little sympathy or recognition, which is evident by all the research out there on this quote.  That is why they are perfect metaphors for the soldiers of World War I.

Yes, soldiers are like ants caught between flames with no hope of survival; but it is the facelessness of the ants that resonates with the victims of World War I.  Hemingway saw Henry and Barkley and Aymo this way.  People will hear their story, say something along the lines of “what a tragedy” and then move on with their lives glad to be done with the story.  Ants are recognized as part of life that people want nothing to do with.  Soldiers during the great war, were not treated much better. Nobody wanted to risk the burn of the log to save them from their torment, because that would be a nuisance.

The ants burning on a log is a perfect introduction into this topic, because like soldiers of war, they are a universally known entity that lacks the proper empathy just like the shell-shocked soldiers of World War I.  Had Hemingway used a more sympathetic animal such as a dog or a horse, the analogy would fall apart.  It is the lack of empathy that society has for ants which drives home the point of the willingly forgotten soldiers of World War I.

People did not want to be bothered with the Septimus’ of the world.  Therefore, it was better to just let them burn on the log and not risk the chance of being burned.  If people worried about such a “minute” thing in their life as an unknown soldier, they would have a mental breakdown like T.S. Eliot, whom also had misunderstood animal references in his works about World War I.

In part I of The Waste Land “The Burial of the Dead,” the final lines state: “‘O Keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men, / Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” (74-75).  Eliot’s notes reference Webster’s White Devil for line 74 about the dog.  In the Webster quote Eliot is referencing, there are many animals that are friends to the buried dead except for the wolf who is seen as a menace: “But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, /For with his nails he’ll dig them up agen.”  Webster’s choice for a wolf to dig up the buried dead in search of food, is well within the nature of a wild canine.  Mankind’s fear of wolves would be worth exploring in that text, but the fascinating aspect of this quote is not why Webster chose a wolf, but why Eliot changed it to a dog.

In “Burial of the Dead” dogs are an interesting choice for Eliot to depict fear and anxiety about death, especially when you consider that he changed the line from wolf to dog.  The speaker even states that dogs are friends to men.  Some author’s claim that Eliot made the change from dog to wolf as an amusing alteration.  Virginia Woolf even claims that Eliot told her that he “was having a joke about Webster” with these lines.  These explanations are quite convenient to disregard the change and once again ignore an animal in a literary text.  But that is not what the change really symbolizes.  This change symbolizes fear of war.

By changing the wolf to a dog that is a friend to men, Eliot is removing the comfort of the familiar (dog) and giving the readers the fear of the savage (wolf).  The quote “with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” does not paint the amusing picture of a dog finding an old rawhide bone in a flower bed.

This ending in a section about burying the dead, pits mankind’s friend against mankind.  The dog will not show mercy or respect to the dead bones of its friend.  By domesticating the desecration of the dead, Eliot is familiarizing this action.  Eliot is portraying desecration as something that is normal in this war-torn society that desecrated cities, governments, traditions, and the dead.  War was normal during Eliot’s lifetime, and therefore the domestic dog was more apropos than the wild wolf to portray desecration of the buried dead.

This was just one of the troubled musing of T.S. Eliot in the time following the Great War.  Eliot, who was a friend to Virginia Woolf had more influence on her writing than he understood.  In one introduction to a collection of Eliot poems that included The Waste Land the editor claims that “Critics have speculated that Virginia Woolf’s Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked poet in Mrs. Dalloway, was at least loosely inspired by her erstwhile friend Tom.”  That is where this presentation will conclude, the penultimate example of a shell-shocked soldier in Modernist literature, Septimus.

Animals are used quite often in Mrs. Dalloway.  Rezia is described as a delicate bird on multiple occasions, Clarissa compares the guests at her party to wild animals, and Septimus hallucinates about sparrows speaking Greek and terriers turning into humans.  These are all valid points of analysis to delve deeper into this great novel.  However, in fitting with the theme of this paper, it is the way in which Septimus is treated by his doctors and society that lowers him to the level of a commodified animal.

Like many soldiers who suffered from shell-shock, Septimus felt weak and used irrational visions to ease his fear and guilt.  Septimus believed that he could not hide from anyone, including himself.  He tried to reason with himself about his hallucinations, but he failed and felt as helpless as an exposed nerve.  There was no hiding from his torturers or his own mind.  Both the doctors and Septimus’ unstable mind attacked him at all times throughout the day.  His suffering was absolute.

Septimus is perhaps the most honest character in the novel, but that does not make him understandable.  Readers can sympathize with Septimus, but their failure to fully understand him is due to what one author describes as an insane truth:

By making Septimus’ madness visible to the reader while keeping it invisible to other characters, Woolf suggests both that class functions as a way for other characters to categorize Septimus in the conventional terms of their social world and that Septimus exceeds such determinations.[1]

The readers are more in-tune to Septimus’ madness because they get a look inside of his consciousness, but it is still a struggle to understand him.  Animal studies helps look at Septimus from a new angle and makes a connection to this author’s point about Septimus’ class and how it is comparable to that of a farmed animal.

The characters of Mrs. Dalloway, particularly Bradshaw and Holmes, disregard Septimus’ madness because he is of a lower class and therefore “lacks proportion,” similar to arguments made by farmers that farmed animals lack sentience.  If Holmes and Bradshaw cannot explain Septimus’ madness, then they just claim that there is nothing wrong with him and that he is just being hysterical.  Septimus may or may not have lacked proportion, but his doctors certainly lacked empathy.

The lack of empathy from the characters in Mrs. Dalloway is related to a modern ecological crisis.  An ecocritical essay centered around slaughterhouses discusses the similar mindset of Holmes and Bradshaw and much of the upper-class in the novel.  The authors use slaughterhouses to enhance their message about the willfully ignorant consumer and how people can maintain a distance from horrors they do not want to face:

What must not be seen or acknowledged by the modern consumer is the death, the spilled blood, of the animal…In subsuming violence into industrial process, the slaughterhouse performs the cultural work of absolution. (28)

The importance of the slaughterhouse is the creation of a barrier between the consumer and the animals that are murdered.  The consumer can remain blissfully unaware about the animal life that is brutally ended so that they can enjoy a meal.

The modern consumers’ mentality about slaughtering animals for food is analogous to the survivors of World War I in Mrs. Dalloway who never saw the horrors of war.  Holmes, Bradshaw, and even Peter Walsh will never understand a man like Septimus because they are ignorant of his traumas.  Septimus’ class certainly plays a role in his treatment, which in terms of this animal studies approach, he is comparable to a pig sent to slaughter.  The men and women who did not serve their country during World War I reap the benefits of peace-time without losing anything during the war.  The sight of Septimus and other shell-shocked individuals was bothersome and depressing.  Hence, society tried to create separation between them and the victims of the war.  Holmes and Bradshaw constantly reassuring Rezia that Septimus is fine is the same as the modern consumer justifying their consumption of meat products.

Septimus is clearly psychologically disturbed, yet he is treated like a farmed animal.  Septimus’ treatments consisted of brief sessions with doctors who wanted the simplest and least intrusive explanation possible to send Septimus down the assembly line and out of their lives.  Bradshaw and Holmes decide to send Septimus to a “home” until he gets well, which is the exact moment Septimus realizes that “once you fall…human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.”  The human nature that is tormenting Septimus is the nature presented by the doctors.  These men of science do not understand Septimus, therefore they feel it is better to just get rid of him, rather than treat him.  They ignore his pain and suffering because it is unpleasant for them, and once they send him away, they will never have to deal with Septimus Warren Smith ever again.  Septimus’ suffering, like the suffering of farmed animals, will be out-of-sight and out-of-mind and will no longer bother the blissfully ignorant survivors of the war.

The sooner Septimus was out of the doctors’ lives the sooner they could ignore the horrors of war.  Like the ants on Hemingway’s log, Septimus was not worth the effort to save.  Saving Septimus would have been too much trouble and could have resulted in becoming burned.  Men and women walking the streets of London in a shell-shocked stupor was a domesticated war in the aftermath of World War I.  The wolves came home to be dogs in society’s backyard.  The status-quo did not want these bones dug up by Septimus Smiths.  By understanding the origins of animals in literature, readers can better understand why ants represent soldiers, and why the change from a wolf to a dog is far more valuable than just a joke.  These representations answer some questions as to why humans like Septimus are lowered to nothing more than an unpleasant commodity that was a necessity for a bloody history of war and trauma.


[1] Bonikowski, Wyatt. Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination: The Death Drive in Post-World War I British Fiction.Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub. Company, 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2016