Animals in Disgrace and the Familiar: Symbol or Character?

Both Danielewski’s The Familiar and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace deal with anthrozoogenesis as is more fully discussed by another post on this blog.  That is not to say, however, that these two texts are identical in their treatment of animals. In Disgrace, the animals – snakes and dogs in particular – function as both symbols and tools. They have no identity or real purpose outside of those functions. The snakes are seen throughout the text (often in conjunction with a garden) and are meant to make the reader think of Satan as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, representing temptation and “falls from grace.” The dogs can also been seen as symbols. For the non-white Africans, the dogs were symbols of white oppression of violence. That is part of the reason why Lucy’s attackers killed almost all of her dogs in the kennel. Now we have the dogs in relation to Lurie. They are used to change Lurie; they foster empathy. Outside of that, they have little to no purpose or identity. They function more as plot elements than characters.

Animals in The Familiar are treated a little differently. The main animals are Luther’s dogs and the mysterious white cat. The dogs, in my opinion, are similar to the dogs in Disgrace. They don’t have an identity outside of being Luther’s dogs. The cat, however, is a different story. The cat is a character in and of itself; it has its identity, its own story, and – as far as I can tell – does not represent anything symbolically. Let’s start with identity. The cat isn’t tied to one of the human characters as far as narrative goes. It starts with Tian Li and then switches over to Xanther, assuming that the cats are the same. The cat jumps between narratives. It couldn’t do this if its identity was tied to Tian Li. This jump also shows how the cat has its own story. We don’t know why it jumped or what it wants with Xanther. The cat’s actions and motives – and it does have motives – are unknown to us. We don’t even know what the cat really is. Is it magical? Is it evil? Is it even a cat? Its story is still a mystery waiting to unfold in the coming books – hopefully. And because the cat is so mysterious, it doesn’t really act as a symbol for anything.

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