This Dog Essay is Writing Itself

This essay by Rosa Lyster was originally published in Volume 1, Issue 2 of South African literary magazine, Prufrock.

Earlier this year, a book called Here and Now was published. It is a collection of letters between JM Coetzee and Paul Auster. Even the idea of this seems to get on people’s nerves. Both Auster and Coetzee are a bit precious and besotted with themselves at the best of times, and this quality is only magnified in their correspondence. They talk about all sorts of ordinary and boring things in the letters, but we are supposed to take it desperately seriously because it is Coetzee and Auster talking about cycling and boiled cabbage and how much they like sport. Reviewers did not love this book. But there is one good bit, where Coetzee speaks about the cellphone and fiction:

“The presence/absence of mobile phones in one’s fictional world is going to be, I suspect, no trivial matter. Why? Because so much of the mechanics of novel writing, past and present, is taken up with making information available to characters or keeping it from them. One used to be able to get pages and pages out of the non-existence of the telegraph/telephone and the the consequent need for messages to be borne by hand or even memorised.”

If you can tolerate the high-handed tone, the point he’s making is a smart one. Cellphones mess up plot in all kinds of ways: missed connections no longer seem plausible; notes forgotten in coat pockets can no longer ruin a character’s life. Novelists relied on these sorts of difficulties in order to move the narrative along, and now they can’t anymore. They’ll always have dogs, though. Novelists will always be able to rely on a fictional dog to get them out of a jam. You’ll see what I mean.     

            Dogs in books do a lot of heavy lifting – they are pressed into service.  Readers aren’t meant to care whether or not they like a character or not. Nabokov says that we aren’t meant to identify with characters; we’re meant to identify with the author, if anyone. We sneer at the reviews on Amazon where someone says that they didn’t like Moby Dick because they didn’t understand the whale’s motivation.


            But of course it matters whether or not we like and understand a given character. And an easy way to make a reader like a character is to give the character a dog. If, for instance, you want a small girl alone in this world to seem plucky and brave and Her Own Person, give her a big dog. Make it a wolfhound. Make it a Great Dane, and make it go everywhere with her, and have it be called Richard, or The Bear, or Jackson Pollock. Dogs have high symbolic value. So do cats. Cats are wicked and spiteful. All places are alike to them. They were perfectly cast in that movie called The Aristocats. They are superior, smarter than us, they are responsible for the worst of all the musicals[1], and we should never forgive them. Cats mean a lot, but dogs mean even more. They are meant to be loyal and good at rescuing. They’re supposed to be kind, until they are supposed to be vicious. No one ever wants to be compared to a dog, but we recognise that they are useful, both practically and symbolically.

            Novelists, most of all, recognise the ways a dog can be used. At the beginning of Lolita, Humbert Humbert repeatedly reminds the reader how completely handsome and dreamy he is (remember, his looks have “a ‘sending’ quality”). He apologises and says, “every once in a while I have to remind the reader of my appearance much as a professional novelist, who has given a character of his some mannerism or a dog, has to go on producing that dog or that mannerism every time the character crops up in the course of the book.”

            Humbert Humbert knows what he is talking about. Dogs round out a character: they contribute to the reality effect. They’re easy to write, as well. A dog doesn’t have to say anything. The noises a dog can make are limited. It barks, it whines, it growls, it howls. It wags its little tail. Rosecrans Baldwin says that novelists are united by “the distant dog impulse”, that the phrase “somewhere a dog barked” appears in all sorts of novels, highbrow to low. “Ripe chinaberries drummed on the roof when the wind stirred, and the darkness was desolate with the barking of distant dogs” (To Kill a Mockingbird); “There is a dog barking outside. The dog is going nuts” (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius); “It was too hot to walk. A dog barked, barked, barked down in the hollow. The liquid shadows went over the plain” (Jacob’s Room); “Keith closed his eyes and searched for troubled dreams. The dogs in the valley barked. And the dogs in the village, not to be outdone, barked back” (The Pregnant Widow). And so on.

            Baldwin’s theory is that barking dogs here are a sort of literary tic, a stall, the equivalent to saying “um” at the beginning of a sentence. He argues for a ban on all future representation of distant barking dogs. He says that they add nothing. I think he’s wrong.

            Here, for instance,  is the narrator of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all isolated and thoughtful, looking down on the city:

“I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

See what the dogs do here? They contribute to the reality effect, of course: their running after the car add the necessary details to an image of a busy city. But they do something else, too. I would argue that the presence of a dog in a book is one of the most enduring symbols of domesticity and normality, of Nothing To See Here. The narrator here looks down at the city, sees the dogs, sees them looking all small and normal, and vows that he will never be small like that. What he’s doing is saying he will never be ordinary like that, will not participate in an ordinary domestic life in which dogs and housewives play a significant role. If the dogs stand for the domestic here, then the narrator stands for the I Will Do What I Effing Please side of things. If the dogs are barking and chasing cars, then most people are having a normal time, which only serves to show interesting and unusual and isolated the narrator is. Some brutal and illuminating truth about what it means to be a person alone in this terrible world is revealed.


            That said, to say that you don’t like really like dogs is to come right out and admit that you are a monster. All right-thinking people are agreed on this. Dogs are meant to be the best, and we all know that. Still though, I cannot love a dog. Some people feel awkward around babies; I feel awkward around a dog. I don’t know what it wants from me. I recognize this as a moral deficiency, but there is nothing I can do about it. However, I do understand, I think, what a dog in a book is for.

Here, then, are The Four Kinds of Dogs You Meet In Books: 

  • Dogs to tell you something about a character
  1. a) Dogs that are there to show the reader that a given character is actually not so bad.

If a character cares about a dog, they can’t be all that boring or terrible. Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, for instance, spends the first two episodes of the novel driving the reader completely up the wall, so serious and affected and supercilious, and then he sees the dog on Sandymount Strand in “Proteus”, and all is forgiven. “Proteus” begins impossibly: ”Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.” The reader loses hope. Stephen is walking up the beach, thinking about the form and the essence of things, and it is very difficult to care: “You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the Nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No.”

            You consider abandoning ship. But then the dog appears: “A point, live dog, grew into sight running across the sweep of sand. Lord, is he going to attack me? Respect his liberty. You will not be master of others or their slave. I have my stick. Sit tight.”.  This is the most present Stephen has been in 50 pages. The dog hauls him out of his head and into the world, onto the beach:

“Their dog ambled about a bank of dwindling sand, trotting, sniffing on all sides. Looking for something lost in a past life. Suddenly he made off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a lowskimming gull. The man’s shrieked whistle struck his limp ears. He turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks. On a field tenney a buck, trippant, proper, unattired. At the lacefringe of the tide he halted with stiff forehoofs, seawardpointed ears. His snout lifted barked at the wavenoise, herds of seamorse. They serpented towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests, every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves.”

These are some of the most beautiful lines in the novel. Stephen suddenly inhabits the present; he is plausibly human instead of this ascetic, etiolated creep. And it is all thanks to the dog.

  1. b) Dogs that are there to show the reader that a given character is even more awful than you thought

It’s clear early on in Blood Meridian that  Judge Holden is the embodiment of war and of chaos and evil. The judge is very possibly the devil. He says that he will never die, and we have no choice but to believe him.[1] But in case there was any doubt about what kind of a person he is, the part where he buys two puppies from a small kid and then goes on to kill them, should put that to rest: “The judge had set forth, dogs dangling. He crossed upon the stone bridge and he looked down into the swollen waters and raised the dogs and pitched them in”. He does this for no reason, except to be terrible, and remind us that things, and people, can always get worse.

  • Dogs as props

These are the ones that only enhance what is there already. They add a sort of depth; they amplify a given character’s qualities to make them louder and clearer and more. Dickens loves these sorts of dogs. In Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes has a dog, Bullseye, who looks exactly like him and who acts exactly like him, and they just walk around being bastards together.

            But the best dog-as-extension-of-character’s-qualities is the dog in Martin Amis’s London Fields. The dog is called Clive, this heaving, huffing, rank Alsatian, the apple of Keith Talent’s eye. [2]His first appearance comes when it’s revealed that Keith’s defeated Irish wife is pregnant: “He had decided that the baby, when it came, would be called Keith – Keith Jr. Kath, remarkably, had other ideas. Yet Keith was inflexible, wavering only once, when he entertained the idea of calling the baby Clive, after his dog, a large, elderly and unpredictable Alsation.” HALLO CLIVE.

            Rereading London Fields, I was surprised to find that the entire novel wasn’t about this animal, even though every page is pungent with the hot wet dog aroma of Clive. Keith talks him to the pub every day, and drops cigarette ash on his head, and Clive tolerates it, grimly. “The smoke was hot, the air was hot (hot Clive lay like a doorstop)” Where would Keith be without Clive? Nowhere.


  • Dogs that are there to show the reader what a quirky little sprite a character is/Dogs that are merely a vehicle for a sassy name

A little while ago, Katie Hopkins[3] caused a “stir” by saying that she wouldn’t let her awful old children play with kids who were called Tyler, or Chardonnay, or similar. Because they are The Wrong Sort, she said, and you can that tell from the name. It is clear to everyone that she is a terrible person. However, she is right in that names do tell you something sometimes. And the names of dogs in books tell you a lot.

            In Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog”, a lot of the characters don’t have names. There is Anna and Gurov, and then “Gurov’s wife”, “Anna’s husband”, like that. Here is the opening line: “It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.” Like Gurov’s wife and Anna’s husband, the dog (a Pomeranian) never gets a name. The writer and critic Elif Batuman has pointed out that “No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog.” The italics are hers. She’s right.

            A small dog like that, the beloved companion of a tormented lady, would be the ideal vehicle for some sort of laboriously quirky name (Primrose, Zorro), or something all sad and austere (John). Batuman is talking specifically about the American short-story, but we can extend what she is saying to the novel, and it’s not only in America that this is the case. For instance, the dog in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a pinkish-whiteish bull terrier, is called Heloise. The purpose of this is twofold. First of all, we get to see that although she is conventionally unschooled, she knows something about literature (the cat, naturally, is called Abelard, after Heloise’s real-life lover). Heloise is shortened to Hell, which leads us to the second purpose, whereby we get to see that Cassandra Mortmain (the dog’s owner) is unconventional with a towering, flaming U.

            She stands on the terrace of the dilapidated castle where she and her picturesque family live, and bellows out “Hell”, over and over and over, into the floral-scented night air. The reader, and the surrounding villagers, begin to get the picture: here is a woman ahead of her time of the early 1930s. Here is a woman unafraid to call damnation and the disapproval of her neighbours onto her neat blonde head.

            Smith herself had a thing about dogs and names. This is the author of The 101 Dalmations, the woman who gave us Pomgo and Missis Pongo, Perdita, and Cadpig. The possibilities are unfortunately endless.

            In Madame Bovary, Emma Bovary has a greyhound. Of course The nerviest and slitheriest of all the dogs, with the thinnest of all the skins. Greyhounds are skittery and anxious and not too smart, all leaping about on their small thin legs, all ribcage and tiny pointy head. The heart of a greyhound has been known to explode. They are all leaping spirit and no substance. As a metaphor, this is almost too overt. Emma Bovary is the Human Greyhound. You have only to look at Emma’s choice of dog to accurately predict what sort of terrible things are coming down the chute at her in the course of the novel.


  • Dog in the machine

Dog runs across the road, car swerves, someone dies, everything changes. The narrative show gets on the road. I would like to make a case, here, for someone to undertake a serious, scholarly study called “The Dog as Agent of Change in the Novel”, an exploration of the way the presence of a dog can alter the course of the narrative. It seems so obvious, but I’ve googled it, and it doesn’t exist.  This has a lot of potential, and if someone was going to do it, I would suggest the following: Lolita, and Far From the Madding Crowd, just to start.

            In Lolita, Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother) is hit by a car that has swerved to miss a dog, “the junk setter next door”.  Without the dog, the car would have passed serenely on, Charlotte Haze would have posted the letters, Lolita would have been torn from the claws of Humbert Humbert, and everything would be different. Nabokov needed that dog, it is the crucial part of the narrative mechanism: “(hurrying housewife, slippery pavement, a pest of a dog, steep grade, big car, baboon at its wheel)”.

            The dog here is disguised as fate. Whether or not Humbert hates dogs (he does, he tells us that he loathes them), he should be grateful to this one, who bears responsibility for everything that happens next: “Had I not been such a fool – or such an intuitive genius – to preserve that journal, fluids produced by vindictive anger and hot shame would not have blinded Charlotte in her dash to the mailbox. But even had they blinded her, still nothing might have happened, had not precise fate, that synchronizing phantom, mixed within its alembic the car and the dog and the sun and the shade and the wet and the weak and the strong and the stone.” If not for the dog, Lolita the girl would be saved, and Lolita the novel would be nothing at all

            In Far from the Madding Crowd, an “inexperienced sheepdog” drives the protagonist’s sheep off a cliff. He is ruined. Ruined! He can no longer marry who he wants to marry, obstacles are set up, the plot thickens. If not for the dog, the sheep would be saved, Gabriel would marry Bathsheba, and it wouldn’t be much of a story.

Henry James, incidentally, hated the novel, and said that it was written in a “verbose and redundant style […] Everything human in the book strikes us as factious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.”

            I rest my case. When there is nothing else to trust in a novel, believe in the dogs.


[1] If you love Cats, stop reading now. There’s nothing here for you.

[2] Keith Talent, by the way, is the best baddie in modern fiction, but that is not important now. Again, you aren’t supposed to love characters, you are supposed to admire the mind that created them. But I don’t care. I love Keith Talent helplessly. I think about Clive and Keith Talent probably once a day.

[3] Made up British celebrity. Famous for, variously, being on the British version of The Apprentice, looking like a young horse, and saying controversial things for money.

Illustrations by Rose Mudge

Rosa Lyster is a writer living in Cape Town. Her first book of poems, Modern Rasputin, will be published later this year.

Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every Wednesday.

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