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London’s wolf howls true and Woolf gets it right, too

White Fang doesn't sound too human.

Stories featuring animals have always been popular and not just with kids. One of my favorites is Robert Olen Butler’s “Jealous Man Returns in Form of Parrot,” a short story that wonderfully dodges the criticism of being anthropomorphic. Butler need not be concerned with the A-word since his tale involves a man reincarnated as a parrot, a bird inhabited by a human mind.

In truth, fiction told from an animal’s point of view can’t help but be anthropomorphic. The writer uses human symbols – words – to convey characters’ thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether they be those of a person or animal. Words, by their nature, infuse non-human characters with human traits and qualities.

The writer should be a kind of translator or interpreter, conveying an animal’s point of view in a manner that honors the uniqueness of a different species. For example, the writer can show how the animal perceives the world through its own senses, rather than making it sound so human one wouldn’t know the difference except for descriptions of fur walking on all fours.

And yet, the growing consensus among animal experts for the last 15 years has been that animals show human-like emotions. Jeffrey Masson in his classic, “When Elephants Weep,” speculates that, based on behavioral observations, even spiders may love their babies − and one day scientists may prove it.

At the same time, animals may have emotions that humans find alien. No doubt their sensory experiences are different from those of people. Animals “think in pictures” according to Temple Grandin. She draws comparisons to autism (she’s autistic herself), characterizing animal consciousness and thought as a highly visual experience, with heightened auditory and olfactory sensitivity. Animals do not display “abstract” thinking to the same extent as humans, even while sharing many similar emotions. This is where, I think, writers can get into trouble with anthropomorphism, when animal characters “think” too much and end up sounding too human.

Jack London’s “White Fang” brilliantly avoids such an error. How? For the most part London objectively describes White Fang’s raw feelings – his personality – without lots of detail about the wolf dog’s observations about his thoughts and emotions:

“If ever a creature was the enemy of its kind, White Fang was that creature. He asked no quarter, gave none. He was continually marred and scarred by the teeth of the pack, and as continually he left his own marks upon the pack. Unlike most leaders, who, when camp was made and the dogs were unhitched, huddled near to the gods for protection, White Fang disdained such protection. He walked boldly about the camp, inflicting punishment in the night for what he had suffered in the day.”

With simple and consistent objectivity, London shows us the wildness of a non-human protagonist who gains the reader’s respect and admiration.

Virginia Woolf’s “Flush: A Biography,” the story of Elizabeth’s Barrett Browning pet spaniel, is another example, I think, of getting it right. Her approach pays special attention to the dog’s senses, especially that of smell. Flush’s nose rules him, over and above his love for the mistress who takes him for a walk:

“The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any — a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories — the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind.”

Here, the action of Woolf’s character is guided not by his thoughts but by his experience in the moment. Flush knows only his nose.

Whereas Butler’s delightful story of a man-parrot is a first person account that raises no issue about anthropomorphism, those of White Fang and Flush are told by omniscient, third person narrators that succeed by not being too anthropomorphic.

The challenge, I think, becomes more difficult when an animal which is not a reincarnated human narrates the story. The best the writer can do is to create, through interpretation and translation, impressions of the uniqueness of a different species, using words so humans might understand.