Revenges of the Animals

There’s a showy funeral in chapter 19 of Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, expressive of the selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy which drive the plot of that gloomy book. The centre-piece, naturally enough, is the hearse itself and its fine team of horses, and here for a most surprising moment Dickens takes a view past the individual human vices on parade, towards a great collective wrong:

The four hearse-horses especially, reared and pranced, and showed their highest action, as if they knew a man was dead, and triumphed in it. “They break us, drive us, ride us; ill-treat, abuse and maim us for their pleasure – But they die: Hurrah, they die!”

It’s an astonishingly eloquent passage, readable as poetry in the way many of Dickens’s most passionate utterances are. The moral challenge in it was of course far more immediate at the time of writing (1840s), when horses were essential to the nation’s daily life, and accordingly ubiquitous. But even now, who could read it without a shock or thrill?

Of course it’s only fantasy: a rhetorician would call it personification, a scientist anthropomorphism. Still, it’s a way of telling the truth. And that charge of anthropomorphism, belittling our native capacity to understand the world beyond humans, is anyway a dangerous and suspect taboo. For, as the historian Jason Hribal has said, if we have to distrust our reading of animal minds, then sympathy is a delusion, and science and industry will be able to “continue their exploitation of other animals in a completely unquestioned and unmolested fashion.” The quotation comes from his book Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch, 2010), which is exactly an attempt upon that taboo. It’s a collection of evidences – mainly from zoos and circuses – to the effect that animals do feel rational resentment, of the sort imputed by Dickens to the hearse-horses, and that they do act upon it. For instance, he tells the story of the elephant Sue, a performer for the Jordan Circus in North America, who turned upon her two handlers in 1994 (both of whom survived the experience). Having “beaten up” one of them, she “turned her attention to the other employee. Sue ran down the woman and kicked the crap out of her.”

The impassioned language there recalls the “Hurrah” of the hearse-horses: equally the writer’s rather than the animal’s – of course, since the language is ours. But Hribal reports the incident in enough detail to justify insisting that the attack was not an irrational frenzy (Jordan Circus claimed that Sue had simply been “spooked” by a nearby horse) but a targeted resentment such as humans might feel. And this he does likewise for any number of escapes and retaliations, whose circumstances show them to have been (so he believes) not the unmeaning struggles of instinct, as habitually characterised afterwards by their ‘owners’, but purposeful efforts at freedom and redress. As the introduction (by Jeffrey St. Clair) says, this is “the story of liberation from the animals’ points-of-view … history written from the end of the chain, from inside the cage, from the depths of the tank.”

Hribal cites an African proverb: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero.” And Hribal himself has wished to be such a historian. But history of that kind is hard to research and authenticate; the lion keeps no records of the hunt, and most or all of the people who do keep them are partisans of the hunter. We should therefore be especially grateful for those more speculative or notional forms of history which artists and writers practise, and in which, like Dickens in the passage above, they have long been honouring the lion and the lion’s maltreated kind, and reprobating the hunter and all his kind. So much so, that it really constitutes a genre of its own, a genre which I would entitle ‘Man’s Come-Uppance’. Perhaps there is already a proper anthology of the genre; if not, there ought to be. I shall mention five or six instances chosen more or less at random, but I would be very glad to be reminded of or introduced to others, and to talk further about them all later.

Tipu’s Tiger: This life-size model was made on the instructions of Tipu, Sultan of Mysore, in the late 18th century. Although it primarily expressed Tipu’s hatred of the British East India Company, it probably records more particularly the unfortunate death in the manner shown of a member of the Company who had been out hunting. An organ within the model makes roaring and groaning sounds appropriate to the shocking incident. Tipu’s Tiger is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Struwwelpeter: Heinrich Hoffmann’s picture of the hare getting her (note that it is a female) own back on the hunter comes from his remarkable book for children which was first published under the title Lustige Geschichten (= Merry Stories) in 1844, the year after Martin Chuzzlewit. In this particular story, the hunter takes a nap, during which the hare steals his gun. The man’s spectacles, worn in mockery by the hare, show up his reliance on prosthetics – gun and glasses – to assert his mastery. Without these, he ceases to be a hero even to himself. The hare’s aim is inaccurate, and the chase ends with the hunter falling down a well. The picture will stand as an image for this whole subject. 

The Terror: The novelist Arthur Machen wrote this story during the First World War, when humanity seemed to be turning upon and disgracing its own species. It’s a mystery-cum-horror story, in which a succession of strange and violent deaths across Britain, at first attributed to some secret weaponry or fifth column of the German enemy, is finally seen to be the work of insurrectionary animals, including even moths (there! I’ve given away the mystery, but the story is rather wearisomely told, I’m afraid, and is really more interesting without it). At the end, the narrator suggests that humanity was nearly deposed (the insurrection comes to nothing in the end) because, no longer respecting itself, it had forfeited the respect of its fellow-creatures. Accordingly his last words are “They have risen once – they may rise again.”

The Birds: Daphne du Maurier’s famous story of bird turning upon man, published in 1952, is set just after the Second World War, and it may likewise have been partly the product of unease and diffidence about the human species prompted by that second lapse into mass self-destruction. But I would suggest that both these stories have their effect because, knowing as we do the long history of wrong done by humans to other animals, we must feel that such a retaliation, whether possible or not, is our due.

I’ll end for now with a writer who gave the subject much more sustained and coherent attention than either Arthur Machen or Daphne du Maurier did: that is, C. S. Lewis. His poem ‘Pan’s Purge’  imagines a time when “peremptory humanity” seems to have defeated the natural world; then gradually the animals (C. S. Lewis enjoys listing them) realise their remaining strength and turn upon their oppressor:  Towering and cloven-hoofed, the power of Pan came over us, / Stamped, bit, tore, broke. It was the end of Man. (But note that “saints and savages” are exempted from retribution, and optimistically allowed to make a new and better start.) It’s a short poem only, but there’s space in it for a gathering tragic relish in the spectacle of right being vindicated. That same sentiment gathers strength likewise in the novels of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, and culminates, towards the end of That Hideous Strength, in a similar catastrophic revenge of the animals. This time it’s a mass break-out from a large-scale vivisection laboratory, and the animals burst in upon a showy and hubristic dinner intended to celebrate the achievements of a science institution. Certainly there’s plenty of “Hurrah, they die!” again here. (For more about this element in the trilogy, see )

As I said, I’d be glad to hear of any other such ‘come-uppance’ stories, episodes, pictures, poetry, etc.



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