Victorian Dogs, Victorian Men: Affect and Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (2017) by Keridiana W. Chez

The belief that humans and animals shared a capacity for emotions and pain was highly debated in the years following Darwin’s theory of evolution. How humans regarded and treated animals was bound up in the construction of the category of the ‘human’, and debates on human uniqueness became increasingly of interest to the Victorian public. As a variety of writers during this period were engaged in defining and redefining the category of the human, the novel was one of the many cultural forms that reinforced the notion that humans and domesticated animals were connected intimately.

Integrating animal, gender and affect studies, Keridiana Chez’s book provides an original reading of several familiar British and American novels within this historical context. In Victorian Dogs, Victorian Men, she emphasizes how the nineteenth century increasingly saw the ‘human’ as defined by the ability to feel sympathy and affection. Those who lacked these emotions were considered inhumane, and were often compared to the ‘brute’ or ‘beast’. In animal studies, nonhuman animals have typically been understood in relation to their differences to humans. The practice of ‘othering’ has traditionally resulted in a clear demarcation of the boundary between the human and the animal other. Chez presents a compelling alternative: focusing on the affective capacity of dogs, she maintains that the definition of the human has been produced by “inclusion as well as exclusion” (15). Relying on the explanation of othering alone, she argues, ignores the relevance of interspecies intimacy. Drawing on the work of Donna Haraway, Chez expands on the idea of the coevolution of humans and dogs, and their co-constitutive relationship with each other.[i] Chez asserts that the boundary between humans and dogs was “purposefully smudged to form interspecies alliances” (15). Her alternative is therefore that othering can be “accompanied by a joining, an attachment, an assimilation – a togethering” (16). In the process of ‘togethering’, humans must first dissociate themselves from supposedly undesirable ‘animal’ traits so that they can then “reincorporate the Other, transforming the relationship from antagonistic, dominant, and exclusionary to prosthetic” (59).

Chez’s main aim in the volume is to examine how authors worked to regulate and reshape interspecies relationships in the Victorian novel. As her title implies, she pays particular attention to the ways in which these narratives are gendered. Each thoroughly researched chapter indicates the evolving relationship between humans and dogs, shedding light on the authors’ reactions to contemporary cultural and scientific debates. Chez weaves a valuable narrative on the history of dogs during this period, tracing how as the century advanced “the dog became less the prosthesis of the family and more of individual men, to the exclusion of women, who were assumed abundantly emotional” (3).

Introducing the dog as prosthesis of the early nineteenth century family, in the first chapter Chez scrutinizes the use of the dog by Charles Dickens in his Oliver Twist (1837) and David Copperfield (1850). She argues that the pet dog came to represent harmonious middle-class domesticity, and acted to mediate domestic conflict by creating a “chain of sympathy” between quarrelling couples (23). In chapter two Chez examines George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) and Middlemarch (1872). In the early Victorian period, dogs in England and America were typically used for labour by the working classes. However, as the nineteenth century progressed, Chez demonstrates how, through the medium of the novel, the nature of the human-dog relationship shifted. Tracing the cultural evolution of the animal through fiction, Chez explains how dogs “were removed from the hands of the working classes and remade into objects of love and leisure for the bourgeoisie” (1-2). She argues that the English and American middle-classes during this period used dogs as “emotional prostheses” (2). Chez regards these animals as tools to create and channel positive emotions to other humans. By attaching dogs to themselves they were able to enhance their own affective capacities towards fellow humans, such as sympathy and affection, thus allowing them to “complete their humanity” (2). In the third chapter Chez’s consideration of Margaret Marshall Saunders’s Beautiful Joe (1893) and its sequel Beautiful Joe’s Paradise (1902), emphasizes how dogs increasingly became a way for men in particular to develop emotional or “humane” faculties. Intimate relations between young boys and their dogs could therefore foster the production of “humane masters” (151).

A growing public sympathy towards animal suffering and the rise of animal welfare movements in Britain and America, as well as increasing scientific developments throughout the nineteenth century, resulted in the emergence of cultural anxieties about pet-ownership. These anxieties stemmed from mounting sentiments that the affective capacities of animals and their increasing intimacy with humans worked to diminish the boundary between humans and animals. The latter half of the century therefore saw some authors, such as Bram Stoker and Jack London, voice concern over the intimacy between some humans and their pets. In chapter four Chez demonstrates how these cultural anxieties were portrayed in Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In response to debates surrounding rabies, Chez claims that the novel was “a fear-ridden response” indicating the dangers of an “inversion” in the power dynamics between humans and animals, which was a potential threat from the use of dogs as emotional prostheses (20, 104). Whereas in the novels of Jack London, those who became overly attached to their dogs, typically wealthy women, were regarded as sentimental, and inspiring “dangerous notions of egalitarianism that were corrosive to anthropocentric notions of gender, race, class, and species” (130).  In chapter five, Chez’s examination of Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) ultimately demonstrates how dogs became popularly known as “man’s best friend,” evolving alongside the increasing imperial and masculinist discourse of the century.

One aspect of Chez’s argument that might have been further developed is the complex relationship between Christianity and the boundary between humans and nonhuman animals. Many Christians during the nineteenth century were the driving force of the humane movement, using the traditional tenets in Christianity of sympathy and compassion to increase its support and promote its causes. Chez describes how references to Christianity in literature often reinforced the species hierarchy, with man as master over the lower animals (32). She also explains how traditionally Christianity has predominantly used an “ongoing demarcation of the irrational, instinct-driven animal Other to define the rational and soulful human” (53). Her consideration of the intimate relationship between humans and dogs in the nineteenth century challenges this traditional view. However, a closer examination of the religious and moral intricacies that surrounded human-animal relations during this period would unearth further complexities associated with the construction and reconstruction of the category ‘human’.

Chez’s study might also have benefited from engaging with a wider variety of media in order to further investigate the wider cultural responses to changing human-dog intimacies. Chez demonstrates in chapter four for example how the scientific discussions on rabies and the ‘rabid dog’ informed Stoker’s rejection of the use of dogs as emotional prostheses (24). Here, other cultural and scientific controversies might have been considered, such as the antivivisection debates of the 1870s and 1880s. Antivivisectionist messages were often incorporated in literature during this period, such as the well-known work of Wilkie Collins and Florence Marryat. These debates saw the use of dogs as experimental animals hotly contested. Concerns of whether dogs should be sacrificed for the benefit of humanity, or excluded due to their kinship with humans might have been used to further Chez’s argument on the anxieties emerging from increasing human-dog intimacies. Overall however, Chez provides a persuasive account of the changing relationship between humans and dogs throughout the Victorian period.

[i] See Donna J. Haraway (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.