Psychoanalytic Ramifications of Animal Cruelty in Literature Essay

Psychoanalytic Ramifications of Animal Cruelty in Literature

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Animal cruelty as a theme is one not widely chosen in literature.  With it comes the direct refusal of society’s mores and ideals, and the writer who chooses this path does so with the knowledge that his or her work might not only be shunned, but criticized endlessly for its controversial topic.  There are, however, four main works in literature that demonstrate the usage and cruelty of animals in their presentation of various themes.  With that said, a close analysis will be taken of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” by H.G. Wells, “The Life of Pi,” by Yann Martel, “The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield, and “Strider: the Story of a Horse” by Count Leo Tolstoy.  From these target works, an analysis will follow as to the psychoanalytic ramifications of animal cruelty as a theme in literature, and its affect on modern society and culture.

            To begin with, a look will now be taken into the four target works to analyze and contrast their representations of direct animal cruelty.  In the first work, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” by H.G. Wells, a man named Edward Pendrick finds himself shipwrecked and saved by a doctor named Montgomery and his very-odd and horribly bestial manservant, M’ling.  Pendrick finds himself the guest of Doctor Moreau and is endlessly curious about his locked paddocks and enclosures, remembering, too, that he has heard of Doctor Moreau for his insidious and gruesome experiments.  The next day, Doctor Moreau works upon a puma, and the animal makes such cries as to send Pendrick investigating.  Believing that Doctor Moreau has been torturing humans (as the puma resembles a human by this stage in its evolution), Pendrick flees for his life.  Events transpire and Pendrick is eventually led back into the compound, and begins to accept life among the creations of Doctor Moreau which he aptly calls his Beast Folk.

            But, the society created by Doctor Moreau is a tenuous one, with animals acting as humans, but without fear or the ability to feel pain, and, as the story ends and both Doctor Moreau and Montgomery have since been killed, the animal creations begin to revert back to their original predatory states, walking on all fours and hunting.

Doctor Moreau, as with most fanatics, believed that he was acting upon the will of a higher calling and did not believe himself, in any manner, a vicious or evil man.  As Doctor Moreau explained his research to Pendrick, “it all lay in the surface of practical anatomy years ago, but no one had the temerity to touch it.  It is not simply the outward form of an animal I can change…it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth, to modify the articulations of its limbs, and, indeed, to change its most intimate structure” (Wells, 76).  Doctor Moreau, of course, believes himself the fist scientist to create his manifestations with a sane mind.  He does his surgical manipulation with science in mind, and not cruelty to the animal, with his “antiseptic surgery, and with a really scientific knowledge of growth” (76).  Further, he cites that he is a religious man though he has “never been troubled with the ethics of the matter…the study of nature makes a man at last as remorseless as nature” (79).  He is, indeed, the worst kind of villain.  To believe that he is creating something viable, to help a creature into a life of pain-free and pleasure-free living, to be super-human, is his ultimate, and terrifying fatal flaw.

But, more than simply surgical altering, Doctor Moreau’s animals have the ability for speech and somewhat reasoned thinking.  He calls it a “moral education…an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion” (Wells, 77).  However, the true darkness of Doctor Moreau’s work is exemplified by his choice of emulation: the human.  His creations are an attempt at manifesting a better man, a human who does not feel pain, sin, or sexual desires—a human who isn’t an animal.  Out of this desire, Doctor Moreau first chose a sheep for his experiment, but the sheep was an animal “without courage, [a] fear-driven, pain-driven [thing], without a spark of pugnacious energy to face torment—[sheep] are no good for man-making” (80).  Then he finds a gorilla to work upon and manages to shape it into his courageous, pain-free, man who he could shape into a clever, thinking being.  And thus began his society of Beast Folk.

In the story “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, a young boy named Piscine (or Pi) Patel finds himself shipwrecked in a lifeboat with a dying zebra and a hyena for companions.  Shortly after, he fishes a Bengal tiger and an orangutan out of the sea, but over the next few days, the hyena has eaten the zebra and orangutan, and the hyena has been eaten by the tiger.  The tiger, known as Richard Parker, becomes his companion and Pi works to tame and befriend the beast over a total period of 227 days at sea.  Pi and the tiger eventually land in Mexico, where the tiger runs off, never to be seen again, and Pi is taken to a hospital for recovery.

In this story, Pi does not engage in acts of animal cruelty, however, there is a deeper symbolism to be drawn from his relationship to the Bengal tiger.  Indeed, Richard Parker is a direct parallel to the savage nature that overcomes a desperate man at sea.  More, even though Pi became close to the tiger, even considering it his only friend, when he is rescued in Mexico, he gives no further thought to the tiger’s well-being or whereabouts.  In this moment, in his return to civilization, Pi’s desperate savage nature is gone and he returns with expedience to being human.  As quickly as the tiger flees, so too does the savage resolve that Pi required to survive.

In this, Martel’s story is significant in its symbolism.  While neither Pi nor the animals he spends his time with while at sea are in any way genetically or surgically altered, Pi is the ultimate example of a surviving animal.  When faced with the proposition of spending his time aboard a boat with two predators (the hyena and the tiger), Pi separates himself and lets the animals finish each other off.  Then, when left with the strongest of the bunch, the tiger, Pi understands that his survival is dependent on befriending and taming the animal.  From his actions, Pi, then, can be seen as a symbolic animal in his own right: he finds the path to survival and makes it to the end.

More, Pi is a character who is deeply religious, citing in the first chapter (where he reflects upon the events that have transpired) that the “mindful practice of religion slowly brought [him] back to life” (Martel, 3).  He cites that he “never had a problem with [his] fellow scientists.  Scientists are a friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose minds are preoccupied with sex, chess, and baseball when they are not preoccupied with science” (3).  It is from this first-person perspective dialogue that a reader can easily parallel the reasoning of Doctor Moreau to the ideals of Pi.  Indeed, where Doctor Moreau founded his animal manipulation to free his creatures from a life of pleasure and pain, so too, does Pi realize that the life of the scientist is one in the same—without, even, religion to give them faith.

And of his beloved Bengal tiger, Pi cites that “Richard Parker has stayed with me.  I’ve never forgotten him…I still see him in my dreams.  They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love.  Such is the strangeness of the human heart.  I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once” (Martel, 7).  While Pi is reflective about his loss, when the tiger fled, Pi had no presumptions about either their relationship or in keeping his companion of more than two hundred days close.  However, it is in this revelation that the animal nature parallels the animal nature of the predators of the Beast Folk.  Indeed, they were slightly human and lived in harmony while Doctor Moreau was their leader.  But, mere days after his death they began to revert back to their natural predatory states.  One could refer, from the Beast Folk, and even Richard Parker, that while a predator can be tamed, or altered into having some other form or attitude, it will always retain that which it was born with—the instinct of a savage predator.

More, in the story “The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield, a reader is taken into the middle of a conversation between a man known as Mr. Woodifield and the narrator, his boss (who is never named).  The two share a bit of whiskey and begin to recollect upon the deaths of their sons in World War I.  The story follows that Mr. Woodifield leaves the office; the boss feels a measure of anger at having his son’s memory put upon him, when he notices a fly struggling in his ink pot.  He frees the fly with a flick of his pen, and then has a serene moment watching the fly shake and clean the ink free.  Here, however, is where the boss’ cruelty begins.  In an attempt to satisfy himself with a bit of humor, he plays a game with the fly, splattering it with ink and watching it dry until it finally dies from the trauma.  At its death, he throws the fly away, then instantly forgets his prior conversation with Mr. Woodifield.

The boss reflects that “we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves” (Mansfield, 344).  His entire life was dedicated to the future of his dead son and “ever since his birth the boss had worked at building up the business for him; it had no other meaning if not for the boy.  Life itself had come to have no other meaning” (347).  In this, the boss represents a nearly soulless creature, eking out his existence with the rare, yet expensive, whiskey, while finding pleasure in the torment of others (which includes Mr. Woodifield, as the boss found great pleasure in the moments where Mr. Woodifield’s memory seemed to lag).  To the boss, life is no longer worth living—and it is this rationale that leads to his cruel and horrible treatment of the fly.

Indeed, as he watches the fly clean itself from the ink, the boss notes that, after cleaning it’s wings, “it succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face.  Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other lightly, joyfully.  The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again” (Mansfield, 347-348).  But, after reminiscing about the death of his son, the story turns immediately to the life and death struggle of the fly.

Normally, flies invoke feelings of disgust and disease, known for their ways of hovering around decaying food and, even, bodies.  However, what Mansfield does is to give the fly the status of the main character within this short work.  Her story is not about the conversation between the two men, or about the lavish office, or the death of both men’s sons in the war.  Indeed, her story is about the struggle for survival that the fly faces, against the insidious predator of the boss who, in deciding to play a little game, demonstrated his power over life and death by his cruel torment of the fly.

The story is short and seemingly insignificant in context; however, in looking at the boss and his treatment of the fly, one can consider the psychoanalytical subtext within the story.  The boss, during the game, considered the fly a “plucky little devil…and he felt a real admiration for the fly’s courage.  That was the way to tackle things; that was the right spirit.  Never say die” (Mansfield, 348).  Then he blots the fly again, watching as its fervor and success at cleaning itself begins to wane.  The boss thinks to himself that there will only be one more time, and indeed, he kills the fly with a fatal and final ink drop.  Disgusted, he throws the fly’s body away and “such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened” (348).  Despite his moment of genuine dismay for his actions, the boss cannot be redeemed from his predatory actions and brutal and slow torture of the fly.

In his game, the boss felt pride for the fly, he even felt a deep measure of sympathy for the fly when he saw its strength and desire to survive begin to wane, but he never ceased his torture, even knowing the moment when his ink drop would be the last.  In this, out of all the other short stories, the boss’ treatment of the fly is perhaps the cruelest example of the maltreatment of another creature.

Finally, in the story “Strider: the Story of a Horse” by Count Leo Tolstoy, a horse known as Strider, essentially, becomes part of the circle of life.  He is treated terribly by his owner, but the true story comes in his death when he becomes the life-giving food for a mother wolf and her cubs.  Strider’s story, told in a first-person horse perspective “is really a satire…against the evils of modern society, especially the institution of property” (Simmons).  Tolstoy created a work of imagination in which his tragic horse became the hero, and the humans who cared for him became the evil overlords responsible for his cruel maltreatment and death.

Further, the idea for Tolstoy’s satire may have been suggested by an incident that took place in 1856, when Tolstoy visited Turgenev’s estate.  On one of their walks together the two writers passed before an old broken-down horse and Tolstoy, patting it affectionately, began to describe what he imagined the horse was thinking and feeling at that moment” (Simmons).  While the story’s literal conception may not have been formed during Tolstoy’s meaningful moment with a tragic horse, there is documented evidence that “his equine hero is modeled on a real horse, Kholstomer, quite celebrated in Russia for his enormous stride and speed.  Tolstoy may have refused to publish the story…because it could easily have been construed as a contribution to the literature of social significance which he so much deplored” (Simmons).  Tolstoy, as he was well known, found the mores and idealism of the aristocracy something worth a satire.  And, while he favored a decent parody, Tolstoy would never have wanted to become part of the gossip and media surrounding anything of true value.  True value, for Tolstoy, wasn’t something to play around with.

The brutal destruction and consumption of Strider’s corpse after his death can be considered a peaceful event compared to his treatment in life.  Indeed, in his death, “the whole burden of his life was eased” (Tolstoy, 73).  For Strider, the life of maltreatment was a normal one.  He didn’t fear his masters so much as he felt surprise at them, and in times of terror, he pretended not to notice.  More, “the gelding did not laugh, nor grow angry, nor frown, but his whole body heaved with a profound sigh and he turned away” (2).  And, “though he knew it would do no good he considered it necessary to show that it was disagreeable to him and he would always express his dissatisfaction with it” (3).  In this, Strider is a powerful example of an animal who takes what it can out of life, intending to live it to its fullest, even if that means little more than basic survival in the face of cruel masters.

To compare Strider to the other animals within the four target works shows that animals, even living lives of cruel treatment, have no understanding of their own value and take what comes to them because they have no other option but to comply.  With the Beast Folk, they were chosen by Doctor Moreau to become tragic experiments, and they suffered the consequences as he played out his macabre ventures.  Pi serves as the tragic animal, seeing a way to survive and doing as he must to make it so.  Richard Parker, for his part, served merely as the parallel to Pi’s savage inner nature and desire to survive.  And finally, the fly, while brave and courageous, was nothing more than a curious game to the boss and had no chance for survival, despite how hard it fought to retain life.

Within the four works, the use of animal cruelty as a theme is a greater parallel to the necessity of the human mind and body to feel pain and pleasure—that, the emotions that make such feelings are what separates man from animal.  Based upon this ideal, a look will now be taken into these representations based upon a psychoanalytic perspective to best illustrate how such portrayals may affect not only a reader, but a culture as well.  Indeed, there are implications in modern society that may have either been affected by these works, or, in the worst possible case, acted outside of their representations without influence.

More than ten years ago, a real-life Doctor Moreau was caught and convicted near Lava Hot Springs,  Idaho for creating what became known as Ligertown—a “zoo” of mysterious cross-bred animals.  On that fateful night in 1995, animals began escaping.  The media was soon involved, fueling a story that still lives on in Idaho history today.  The facts of the case involved more than eighty total animals, both large cats and wolves.  And later it was discovered that the owner of this macabre zoo had been cross-breeding the large cats and wolves, turning tigers and lions into a breed later dubbed the “liger” and wolves into hybrid nightmares (McDevitt).  While many may have sided on the zoo owner’s side, even more people protested out against the cruelty to animals that Ligertown should be facing.

 As the events of Ligertown developed, “it was quickly discovered that many of [the animals] were wandering free and the county came in and shut the place down as deputies (and a few local rednecks) shot 19 of the cats prowling the vicinity” (Camoe).  Within the days that followed, “several more were captured and taken away before the couple running the place was convicted of animal cruelty and the property was condemned as a public health hazard…and burned” (Camoe).  Burning to the ground was the only method to purify the horrors that had transpired in Ligertown.

Practicing the manipulation of creatures in such a manner suggests that ethics and morality are no longer an essential part of the scientist.  Culturally, Ligertown destroyed the population outside of Lava Hot Springs for many years, leaving them to come to terms with the cruelty and gruesome acts that had occurred right in their backyards.

Further, in a recent article, two lifeguards duct-taped a rabbit to an explosive device and hurled it into Lake Don Castro in the San Francisco Bay Area (DeMello).  However, their act of animal cruelty, while seemingly a remote incident, demonstrates that “their behavior may signal that something is wrong…which could very easily escalate into something much worse” (DeMello).  More, their cavalier attitudes after the fact demonstrate something even more insidious than teenage boys fighting off boredom with the tragic murder of a defenseless rabbit.

Violence towards animals is the psychologist’s indicator of a violent adult.  More, “the evidence is not just anecdotal; numerous studies, including the 1998 work of Randall Lockwood and Frank R. Ascione…have shown that children who engage in animal cruelty are more likely to commit more violent acts as adults. There is also a strong link between abuse of animals and domestic violence, with animal abusers much more likely to batter their wives or girlfriends as well” (DeMello).  For years, random incidents such as this have been showing up in newspapers.  Mostly, they are ignored as the youthful indiscretions of boys who have nothing better to do on a summer day.  However, they should serve as a larger indicator of a streak of cruelty that will persist throughout life.  And, if humans in reality have the ability for such tragic cruelty, what then, separates man from animal?  Even more, if cases such as this are reviewed in comparison to literature, an observer might begin to understand the true psychoanalytical ramifications of animal cruelty.

The basic tenet of human nature implies that there will be curiosity to the life and things surrounding everyone.  This, as the scientists know, is the “study of biophilia—the idea that we humans are genetically inclined to take an interest in living things” (Myers, 45).  It is this curiosity and reasoned thinking based upon conceptions of one’s surroundings that marks the largest distinction between man and animal.  However, it is in this innocent curiosity for other living things that the greatest bestial tendencies can be formed.

Most psychologists begin with the child when describing the mores and ideals involved in animal cruelty.  Essentially, “throughout Freud’s various formulations, the id was an anachronistic, animalistic part of the psyche.  It primarily sought gratification of its strong consummatory, sexual, or libidinous, and destructive impulses.  The brutish nature of the five-year-old is shown by the propensity towards cruelty and violence which is a constituent of human nature” (Myers, 23).  What Freud found was that, especially in the five-year-old child, sadistic and bestial tendencies were more apt to emerge than in later stages of human development.

The reasoning behind this theory marks the foundation of a disease known as “conduct disorder…and there is evidence that [cruelty to animals is] a particularly pernicious symptom. Frick’s meta-analysis of 60 studies found that cruelty to animals was useful in discriminating between children with severe conduct problems (destructive subtype) and mild conduct problems (nondestructive subtype)” (Dadds, par 1).  From this study, among others, psychologists found that children who exhibited signs of cruelty to animals would later exhibit signs of cruelty towards other children, and, as they grew older, would be more likely to become violent adults.

In literature and in life, “animals have been used symbolically (and without good ethological basis) to represent the innateness of antisocial tendencies in the child. The imposition of a civilized state is necessary, even though the animal within remains unmodified and frustrated” (Myers, 23-24).  Much like Pi in “The Life of Pi,” children are apt to exhibit signs that many would consider animalistic as they grow.  Some may have a propensity for violence towards animals (even something as mild as an unknowing two-year old hitting a kitten instead of petting is suspect), while others may exhibit survival tendencies that may seem savage and antisocial in nature.

But, “how does infantile selfishness end up being repressed? The child seeks to gratify its wishes through others but to succeed must conform to their desires. Thus, the ‘reality principle’ gradually supplants the ‘pleasure principle.’  Rational thought and ‘civilized’ life are thereby possible, but the pleasures of civilization are dubious. Coexistence of animal-like id wishes with obedience to the dictates of civil conduct means a divided person” (Myers, 23).  Much like Doctor Moreau sought to destroy; it is the pleasure and pain principles that form the foundation for human development and thought.

And, it is because of these principles that humans have the greatest capacity for remorseless torture and violence.  For, without such reasoned thought as pain and pleasure bring (knowing the difference between right and wrong, essentially), a human would, like an animal predator, seek food for hunger and defend its territory—an animal would not seek out a victim to destroy.  An animal would not hold another hostage, peppering it with ink until it died, just for the sake of a moment’s amusement.  And, it is this difference that the authors have chosen to highlight in using animal cruelty as a theme.

Overall, the use of animal cruelty as a theme suggests something deeper within the works of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” by H.G. Wells, “The Life of Pi,” by Yann Martel, “The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield, and “Strider: the Story of a Horse” by Count Leo Tolstoy.  In each work, animals are subjected to torment against their will and, even more, their fate is held in the hands of the humans that guide them.  Indeed, Doctor Moreau is the worst of the group, believing in the sanctity of religion to guide him on his path to create a perfect human, but it is the boss in the fly that demonstrates the remorseless predator that has returned in modern society in the form of teenage boys tormenting rabbits and children who take pleasure in the maltreatment of animals. Further, based upon a close analysis of the works themselves in combination with a psychoanalytic perspective, one can understand the ramifications of cruelty towards animals and its affect on modern society and culture.

Works Cited.

Camoe, Eto.  “I Don’t Mind Stalkers.”  22 February 2005.  BYU News Net.  5 July 2009


Dadds, Mark R, Claire Whiting, et al.  “Measurement of Cruelty in Children: The Cruelty to

Animals Inventory.”  Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 32.3 (2004): 321+.

DeMello, Margo.  “Cruelty to Animals: Warning of Possible Violence to Come.”  San Francisco

Chronicle.  2 August 2004: B-7.

Mansfield, Katherine.  The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield.  London: Wordsworth

Editions, 2006.

Martel, Yann.  Life of Pi.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

McDevitt, Thomas J.  Ligertown.  Idaho: Little Red Hen, 2002.

Myers, Gene.  Children and Animals: Social Development and Our Connections to Other

Species.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Simmons, Ernest.  “Literary Beginnings: Introduction to Tolstoy’s Life.” No publish date given.

5 July 2009 <


Tolstoy, Leo.  Strider: The Story of a Horse.  New York: Read How You Want Editions, 2009.

Wells, H. G.  The Island of Doctor Moreau.  New York: Bibliolife, 2008.