Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

31. Animal stories

 

Simon Flynn

 

Boundaries

 

But if the case for animism needs to be viewed with some scepticism, it is still important to recognise that animal stories are vitally concerned with the relationship between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’. Indeed, they can be seen as the space in which we think through our relationship with/to ‘animals’. As Levi-Strauss famously declared, ‘Animals are good to think with’ (Levi-Strauss 1962: 89). Animal stories are particularly concerned with the border between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’. If much human cultural activity has been expended trying to define what it is to be ‘properly human’, then such ‘uniqueness’ can only be defined in relation to the ‘natural’ or the ‘animal’ (Kenyon-Jones 2001: 1). Traditionally it is argued, however, that in beast-fables like Reynard the Fox we are not really concerned with ‘animals’ at all. In linguistic terms we could say that in such a fable, if the ‘animal’ is the signifier, the ‘human’ is the signified. The problem with such a predictable model is that it fails to account for the slipperiness of many animal stories. The genre unsettles rather than reinforces the boundaries between the ‘human’ and the ‘nonhuman animal’. Much of its energy can be seen to come from the intermingling of human and ‘animal’ levels of meaning. Beatrix Potter’s stories provide excellent examples of this combination. In The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, as Roger Sale has noted, Jemima’s character does not clearly fit into the human or the animal worlds. Sale describes her as ‘not quite natural, not part of the farmhouse or barnyard life’ (Sale 1978: 153).

But such ambiguity is not just a feature of Potter’s skilful ironic play, it is, as Steve Baker suggests, potentially a feature of all talking-animal stories:

 

The animal story’s invitation to pleasure is invariably an invitation to a subversive pleasure. It is the simple fact that everyone, including quite young children, knows that animals don’t really talk which prompts such genuine delight in the anomalous convention of the talking animal ... it is the very instability of the anthropomorphized animal’s identity which can make contact or even proximity with it so hazardous.

(Baker 1993: 159)

 

Baker illustrates this assertion in his reading of ‘Rupert the Bear’. In one particular story, Rupert travels back to the time of Noah and, finding himself on the Ark, is mistaken for one of the Ark’s bears. As he is about to be put with the other animals, Rupert ‘has little choice but to make an uncharacteristically clear declaration of his ambiguous identity: “But - but I’m not that sort of bear!”’ (Baker 1993: 128). There are several ways of reading this statement. Does it mean that he is not a ‘real bear’ but merely a teddy bear (Baker 1993: 129)? Or, perhaps, he is a boy rather than a bear? These possibilities draw attention to the undecidability of his identity, a feature that is emphasised further in stories in which he encounters non-talking animals that threaten him by their very animality.

If Rupert’s story was just a prose narrative, Baker believes that a reader, familiar with the conventions of anthropomorphic narratives, would quite possibly miss these inconsistencies. What cannot fail to emphasise his difference are the text’s visual images. In these stories, Rupert and also his parents and friends are marked out by their ‘whiteness’. This lack of colour contrasts with both the human characters and the ‘proper’ animals in the Ark. ‘Whiteness’, apart from its racial connotations, signifies the ‘inbetweenness’ of Rupert and his kin. For Baker, this colourlessness also marks a ‘blankness’, a refusal on the part of the writers to commit themselves to the precise form of Rupert’s identity (Baker 1993: 134). Although this could be seen as fixing a category on to the talking-animal story, Baker’s reading is important because it draws our attention to the way that ‘figures’ like Rupert seem to occupy a potentially subversive, interstitial state between ‘animal’ and ‘human’. They are unstable, hybrid figures who are threatened by other figures in the text that signify a different sort of animality. Baker’s reading is also useful because it makes us re-evaluate the talking-animal story as not simply one in which animals are substituted for humans, but as an often complex meditation on boundaries and difference. It is also a diverse genre in which, if some writers use animal stories as a mode of reassurance and ‘identification’ for children, others seem aware of what we might call the uncanniness of the animal/human figures with which they populate their children’s stories.