Distance and ‘identification’ - Animal stories - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn


Distance and ‘identification’


If anthropomorphic stories ‘delight and entertain ... [and] afford useful Reflections’, how are readers thought to respond to such texts? There are two main theories. The first stresses the distancing effect and the second the ‘identification’ between reader and animal protagonist. For Elliot Gose, reading about animals allows us a degree of psychological detachment. Gose writes:


Perhaps most important, an author who chooses to write about animals can project through them psychological concerns that his readers either cannot or do not wish to experience directly in human terms. Much heroic fantasy is still written about human beings, of course. But a literary fantasy that chooses non-human creations for its focus not only demands more of an imaginative leap; by that very fact it more easily ensures that many readers will be able to leave behind the internal moral censor that will otherwise cause some readers not to begin a similar tale with human characters.

(Gose 1988: 5)


If we accept Gose’s psychoanalytic approach, it is possible to argue that distancing has particular relevance for child readers. Received wisdom has it that animals can be used to present children with difficult emotional issues in a displaced and indirect fashion. The death of the spider in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web could be read as using the distancing effect of anthropomorphism to circumvent a difficult experience.

The second major theory about the appeal of animal stories for readers and writers is that they offer the promise of vicariously experiencing animal consciousness. This mode, based on ‘identification’ and empathy, is evident in animal autobiographies such as Black Beauty, where the reader is asked at times to imagine inhabiting the horse’s position (Cosslett 2003: 6). For child readers such ‘identification’ may also be invited by the way that animals are often presented as ‘children’ in the text, for example in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. But this alignment of ‘animal’ and ‘child’ is problematic. It rests not, as I will discuss shortly, on some innate animistic affinity between children and animals, but on an extension of the way that children are taught to ‘identify’ with characters. Such a concept is, as John Stephens notes, ‘a product of our tendency to encourage children to situate themselves within the book by identifying with a principal character’ (Stephens 1992: 4). ‘Identificatory’ models of reading have, in recent years, been the subject of a number of critiques. Martin Barker notes that those that use this concept fail to appreciate that readers or viewers do not ‘identify’ passively with characters, because their relation with the character is always mediated by the point of view from which s/he is presented (Barker 1989: 106). Finally, Karin Lesnik-Oberstein summarises the limitations of this concept in children’s literature when she notes, ‘ “identification” cannot account for reading which is not a perpetual reading of the self’ (Lesnik-Oberstein in Hunt 1996: 28).

Animal stories are probably best seen, therefore, as encouraging a combination of distancing and empathy, frequently switching back and forth between the two modes. It is, however, impossible to say how individual readers engage with texts, given the volatile and unpredictable nature of the reading experience. In terms of ‘identification’, as Fred Inglis notes, ‘we do not “identify” with the characters, we respond in complex ways with, to, and for them out of the framework of all our prior experiences, literary or not’ (Inglis 1981: 185).