Philip Armstrong, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity

Philip Armstrong, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (London: Routledge, 2007). 256 pp. £ 60 hb, £18.99 pb. ISBN 978-0415358385 (hb)/978-0415358392 (pb)

A book using the terms ‘animal’ and ‘modernity’ in its title almost intrinsically assumes the burden of evolution. In What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity, Philip Armstrong suggests that the book pursues a new ‘species’ of animal-human analysis by examining in some detail representative texts from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and by their minute criticism may attempt to ‘go beyond reading animals as screens for the projection of human interests’. It is difficult to gauge Armstrong’s text as a new theoretical ‘species’.

Someone coming to the critical tradition of interpreting the meaning of animals in literature will find in the book an excellent starting point for close readings of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, among others.  Both novels rely upon central themes of modernity, in Armstrong’s view, including travel or mobility, and the ‘formative role played by human-animal relations’. Animals have little or no apparent agency in the processes of agriculture or biological science, but both Swift and Defoe attempt to examine human agency in the animal economy by having their main characters, Gulliver and Crusoe, move back and forth across the boundary of human and animal existence. Crusoe becomes the model of modern economic development by adopting contemporary animal farming techniques on his lonely island, yet he himself morphs into an animal as he fears becoming prey for imagined human invaders who might violate his ostensibly natural, if not idyllic, island existence.  Gulliver experiences the same vacillations, perhaps to a greater degree, as each of his four voyages expose him to the role of human and animal in various theatres:  Swift’s satirically flags human shortcomings, both rational and moral, by subjecting Gulliver to the roles of pet, breeding animal and beast of burden, in order to experience what might be the emotions experienced by non-humans in the same, modern roles. 

If the sympathies shared between man and animal in those stories blur the lines of human and animal, the subsequent discussions of nineteenth-century quasi-medico thrillers Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau provide a basis for differentiating man from other animals. Reason is a trait shared by man and animal in the more sympathetic settings described by Swift and Defoe, but it is, ironically, the irrational inhumanity of man, brutal where there is no defense, cruel where there is no warrant, that seems to differentiate man from beast on Dr. Moreau’s island as well as in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Dr. Moreau’s man-animal amalgamations cry out for an explanation of why they aren’t human, when they feel and look, to some extent, much like men. Armstrong finds their answer in Frankenstein’s monster’s vegetarian diet, a sign of his desire for a pacifist lifestyle whereby other animals need not be killed and of his native unwillingness to cause suffering. The monster becomes enraged and homicidal only after Frankenstein aborts his work to create a mate for the beast, denying him sympathy and love. In modernity’s narrative of progress, then, Shelley’s and similar tales draw into question whether man is moving ahead or not in his differentiation from simpler, uncivilized beasts.

These brief glimpses of Armstrong’s discussion do not do justice to his thorough and often ingenious examination of seemingly every way in which the role of the animal in these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts can be interpreted, given his goal of describing the fall of modernity. In some instances, the social and cultural mirrors of the texts are not particularly new: Swift’s satirical commentary on modernity, after all, is a well-examined topic, and even the role of animals in that analysis is approached by prior scholarship such as Milton Voigt’s Swift and the twentieth century (1964), where Voigt notes the engine of theriophily in Swift’s biting commentary, or Edward Stone’s work on Swift. Armstrong’s failure to note such earlier scholarship in the mode of literary criticism is more troubling than, but may in part explain, the absence of marked advances in analytical models. 

In claiming to work solely in the ‘animal’ realm, he appears free to start anew considerations which in other disciplines are somewhat old hat. For example, at the beginning of his discussion of twentieth-century literature, Armstrong lays claim to the creation of a ‘useful, if ungainly’ term, therio-primitivism, which he defines as the alignment of animality with savagery, and the reflection of human progress, both intellectual and moral, from the animal as a starting point. How Armstrong’s new therio-primitivism differs from George Boas’ theory of theriophily, expounded in his classic examination of the animal in French renaissance literature, The Happy Beast (1933), is not at all clear. Boas breaks down the various tropes by which animals provide a canvas for commentary on society, in most instances couching such criticism in irony and paradox. These are the narrative tools of Armstrong as well, but Armstrong does not mention Boas’ work, nor indeed other intellectual historians’ work in theriophilic analysis, much before 1980; the lion’s share of secondary literature referenced by Armstrong is from 2000 or after. In this respect Armstrong’s effort provides a good compendium of the avenues of thought being pursued in the nascent ‘Animal Studies’ discipline. On the other hand, where the discussion abandons the past in hopes of making something new, in so doing cannot move past the analysis intellectual historians such as Boas constructed 75 years before. If the problem posed by such authors lies in their failure to move beyond seeing animals as mirrors of the human condition, then doing more than that would seem to entail at least a recognition of their efforts.

Where the discussions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature benefit from Armstrong’s eye for detail and deep consideration of theriophilic themes, the discussion as it winds down in the second half of the twentieth century is deprived of that virtue by spreading themes thinly across a wide range of texts. In this respect, Armstrong’s theme of ‘modernity in ruins’ seems to overpower any underlying proof of same; the argument comes across as ‘how can the role of animals in these texts support the assertion that modernity is in ruins?’ Armstrong’s initial conclusion seems premature—it is in effect an historical argument built upon unhistorical events. Surely the use of animals in the texts should suggest their own narrative about where modernity stands. If in fact the goal is for us to think ‘outside of ourselves’ as Erica Fudge puts it, then imposing the larger historical narrative onto the animal stories in this way keeps us from examining the more authentic role of animals, or at least the role of animals suggested by each literary work on their own merits. That may not be possible, as Armstrong admits, for knowing what animals themselves think and do as they patrol environments with and around us is a difficult task, and perhaps not really one for the humanities. Still, the book encourages the reader to take a meticulous look at the role of animals in the work of modern novelists, and perhaps those new textual sources and examinations so inspired will ‘go beyond’ where Armstrong has got to in What Animals Mean.

David Allan Feller, Cambridge University