Catherine Brown

Book chapter on ‘Modernism’ for ‘The Edinburgh Companion to Vegan Literary Studies’

October 2021


The following is a pre-edited version of my chapter on ‘Modernism’ for The Edinburgh Companion to Vegan Literary Studies, Edinburgh University Press, 2022. This chapter fits into a section of the book that is arranged chronologically by period-specific chapters.





“‘Where hast thou been, sister?’ ‘Killing swine’”


Jude Fawley’s imagining of his future as a Bishop is shattered first by derision: “Ha, ha, ha! Hoity-toity!”, and then by the impact of a pig’s penis – both flung by the woman who will shortly afterwards draw him away from theology and into sensuous experience (Jude 43). From this point onwards Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure enters vigorously into that exploration of humans’ ontological status in the universe which may at least in part be traced historically in the changing connotations of the species name. The Roman “humanitas” connoted the “civilised” behaviour of those humans considered least to resemble non-human animals (thus “animality” was and has long been pinned onto “marginalised [human] others”) (Rohman 30). When the term surfaced in fifteenth-century English it asserted rather a contrast with divinity (human, all too human), yet the concomitant redirection of human thought to the “proper study” of itself in the “humanities” lent itself to a concern for human good that was to be found in various forms of “humanism”, in “humane” behaviour, and in what from the 1830s onwards was known as “humanitarianism”.

But Jude lived in the age of Darwin, whose 1859 Origin of Species had “collapsed the cardinal distinctions between animal and human, arguing that they exhibit intellectual, moral, and cultural differences in degree only, not in kind” (Norris 3). At the same time Nature, previously envisaged variously as a neo-Classical machine, a constitutional lawyer, and a Romantic goddess became “red in tooth and claw”, and for some displaced gods of all kinds (Williams 219-24). Yet it was apparent at the level of lived experience that individual humans had a choice as to how red their teeth and claws were; indeed, their species had an apparently exceptional degree of choice over what or indeed whether to eat, just as they did over whether to reproduce. Social Darwinists were divided between advocacy of competition, and of cooperation, both within their species and beyond (Williams 224). Vegetarians of various motivations (from orthorexic to pacifist, utilitarian to utopian, Christian to spiritualist to socialist) represented a vocal if small minority of British society (Gregory 1-2).

Starting with Hardy, who stands at the beginning of the period of modernism as broadly conceived,[1] this chapter will consider how a sample of writers – almost none of them vegetarians, but all manifesting elements of a vegan consciousness as equally broadly conceived – explored the category of the human in relation to its treatment of non-human animals. Veganism is, after all, a human and ethical phenomenon, and with this focus the chapter aims to complement the considerable body of work that has already been done on modernist literary representations of animals per se (notably by critics including Margot Norris and Carrie Rohman).

The owner of the pig’s penis, Arabella Donn, is the daughter of a pig farmer (Jude’s aunt, by symbolic contrast, is a baker). On the one hand she is presented as animal: she not only has “the rich complexion of a Cochin hen’s egg” but hatches just such an egg in her cleavage, where it excites Jude to lust in “commonplace obedience to conjunctive orders from headquarters” (44, 61, 45). These headquarters are what Freud was shortly to theorise as the “Unbewusstsein” which itself, as Rohman points out, was strongly allied with the concept of animality (23). On the other hand, this arousal of lust is significantly calculated towards achieving the financial advantage of Jude as a husband, and Arabella brings the same economic acumen to her exploitation of animals. During her first encounter with Jude she retrieves the hurled penis because it can be used for making dubbin (43).

Their marital cottage is chosen such that “he might have the profits of a vegetable garden, and utilize her past experiences by letting her keep a pig” (64). This gendered division of labour between vegetables and animals is complicated when “The time arrived for killing the pig” which they have spent the few months of their marriage fattening (69). The professional pig-killer having been delayed by snow, Arabella announces: “you must do the sticking … I’ll show you how. Or I’ll do it myself – I think I could”. Jude insists that he do it, but, having tied the screaming pig up, declares: “Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!” (70). To this statement of a preference that many vegetarian campaigners assumed to be the default for all humans who had not been morally anaesthetised, Arabella responds: “Don’t be such a tender-hearted fool! There’s the sticking-knife – the one with the point” (Gregory 91; Jude 70). Her words recall Lady Macbeth’s injunction to her husband to ‘screw” his “courage to the sticking-place” when handing him the knives with which to kill Duncan, and subsequent declaration that it is “A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight” (Macbeth 2.2). The Macbeths, like the Fawleys, contest the nature of “manhood”; to Macbeth’s assertion: “I dare do all that may become a man;/ Who dares do more is none” his wife responds: “What beast was’t then/ That made you break this enterprise to me?… When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7). At the end of this play, in which it is witches who kill swine, Malcolm associates butchers with devils in his reference to “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen” (5.11). Jude, however, repudiates the role of butcher. After killing the pig he “felt dissatisfied with himself as a man at what he had done, though aware … that the deed would have amounted to the same thing if carried out by deputy. The white snow, stained with the blood of his fellow-mortal, wore an illogical look to him as a lover of justice, not to say a Christian; but he could not see how the matter was to be mended” (73).

The narrative goes no further in seeing how it could be mended than does Jude, and it no more than Jude perceives that the deed amounting “to the same thing if carried out by deputy” more consistently condemns than exculpates pig-killers both professional and amateur. Hardy had lived in the London of the 1860s and 70s, which contained multiple vegetarian restaurants; Jude moves to Christminster in the 1860s, by which point provincial English towns already contained them also (they were typically connected with temperance) (Gregory 134). But then, it is not a novel of solutions. Of the manifold motivations for contemporary vegetarianism one was the Christianity which informs Jude’s revulsion from killing; another was the desire for “pure” food in order to avoid degeneracy; in the novel’s tragic universe degeneracy has freer rein than does a Christian God. Nonetheless, the nature of its tragedy rests on a conception of humanity which forbids the slaughter of a “fellow-mortal”. Moreover, for all Arabella’s sensuality, the aspect of her which is ready to kill pigs, or to throw Jude’s humane books on the floor to create the space on which to make pig lard, is calculating and mechanical rather than animal; against this principle pig and human are united in protest (73). The next day the marriage ends.

Thirty years later Hardy published “Bags of Meat” (1925), a poem which condemns the cattle market it describes through the ironic distance between its eponymous discourse and the living animals denoted by it. The tetrametric couplets enforce the briskness of the auctioneering, whilst the unsettled stresses honour the “quivering” and “bewildered jump” of the animals driven in. Similarly the focalisation veers between the economic imagination of the auctioneers (“Here’s a fine bag of meat”) and the sympathetic imagination of the poet, who continues the tradition of trans-special poetic sympathy instigated a century before by the vegetarian Shelley:


Each beast, when driven in,
Looks round at the ring of bidders there
With a much-amazed reproachful stare,

As at unnatural kin,

For bringing him to a sinister scene”

(Collected Poems 769)


In the oxymoronic “unnatural kin” the noun asserts the commonality of sellers and sold, whilst the adjective presents as denatured, and therefore monstrous, the refusal to recognise this kinship. Insofar as the poem is crude in its diction it ventriloquises its humans; animal consciousness lifts it to a more sophisticated aesthetic plane, on which cattle and humans are kin.

The beasts’ ‘much-amazed reproachful stare” echoes that of Jude’s pig, whose “glazing eyes rivet[ed] themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends” (71). Hardy’s choice of the pig as the animal which ends Jude and Arabella’s marriage is not only socio-economically plausible (pigs predominating in working-class meat) but related to the particular guilt felt at the killing of long-term companion animals (pigs lived close to humans for ease of fattening and of the hygienic disposal of waste food). Soper hypothesises that the human propensity to project negative characteristics such as greed, overweening state force and male chauvinism onto pigs may in part be done to allay the guilt that attached to the killing of these family members, along with an awareness of their anthropoid characteristics: intelligence, hairlessness, and anatomical proximity (87-88). It is awareness of this kinship, combined with the negative projections that may have arisen in order to mask it, that informs the choice of pigs as replacing humans in Orwell’s 1945 Animal Farm.


*               *           *


A decade later still, and we are a full six decades from Jude the Obscure. We have over-leapt modernism’s core period to a work of late modernism which also makes the killing of pigs central to its meditation on humanity in the context of a failed Christianity. Indeed, in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) it is the choir boys who are fastest transformed into hunters, the tatters of their vestments flying behind them as they pursue the island’s pigs. Significantly, the most rational and least violent of boys on the island is called “Piggy”; in his name his superior intelligence, plumpness, status as a mammal vulnerable to being killed (when fatally wounded “Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed”) and status as a pacific near-total vegetarian, meet (223). He opposes neither hunting nor meat-eating on principle, but understands these practices to be in practice incompatible with the maintenance of a sustainable society on the island: with the systematic provision of shelter, or (through the maintenance of a fire) with the possibility of the boys’ reintegration into a society that could in time allow their propagation.

The novel’s vegan sensibility is, it should be acknowledged, focused entirely on these complex mammals. The “odd fish or crab” with which the boys supplement their otherwise fruitarian diet have no attention paid to their killing (92). Essentially, the novel’s thought experiment places its humans in the conditions of the period prior to agriculture, when – as the boys have doubtless been taught at school – humans were “hunter-gatherers”. The narrative, however, breaks this hyphenisation apart. This breaking had begun analytically with the Victorians, of whom some presented the “palaeolithic” diet as one that heavily emphasised meat, and of whom others argued that the fruitarian diet was the original diet of humanity. Lord of the Flies presents the division psychologically and practically. Whatever the medium-term nutritional implications of fruitarianism the hunters do not give its adherents the freedom to discover.

Just as the boys’ choir robes start out intact, the boys are initially placed in an Eden. Within it, the forbidden fruit is the pigs. On their first exploration, Jack and Ralph come across a piglet tangled in creepers. Jack “drew his knife again with a flourish … The pause was only long enough for them to understand what an enormity the downward stroke would be” (40). Committing this enormity produces, as in Eden, “knowledge”; after his first kill Jack’s ‘mind was crowded with … the knowledge that had come to them when they closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink” (88). Against the humanitas which senses the enormity of pig-killing is posed blood-lust; the boundary between the predatory and the sexual is frequently lost in the hunting scenes, especially when the victim is female (the kill described in greatest detail is that of a sow, and the age of the hunting “bigguns”, in relation to puberty, is important). Roger impales her anus with his spear, and when “The sow collapsed under them … they were heavy and fulfilled upon her” (168). The narrator, Ralph and Piggy at various times describe this lust in animal terms. When Simon is killed “There were no words, and no movements but the tearing of teeth and claws” (188). Ralph tells Piggy: “If I blow the conch and they don’t come back; then …We’ll be like animals” (115). The condemnation resembles that of Mr Scott to the organiser of dog fights in Jack London’s 1906 White Fang: “you’re not a man. You’re a beast” (247). However, the identification is in both cases deeply anthropomorphic; it projects onto animal predators the sexual sadism, delight in transgression, and masculine pride and competitiveness in violence that the boys feel; on the island, in contrast to London’s Canadian wilderness, there are no animal predators with which to compare them. Something similar applies to the discourse of ‘savagery”; Piggy asks “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages? What’s grown-ups going to think? Going off – hunting pigs” (113); his racist implicit conflation of ‘savages” with children is followed up by his later question to Jack’s “tribe”: “Which is better – to be a pack of painted niggers like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is? … to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” (222) Again unlike London’s Canada the island lacks a native population, and Jack’s tribe, performatively reaching towards a transgressively-imagined “other”, resemble any such as there might have been in nothing more than the quintessentially-superficial aspect of face paint.

Meanwhile the “Beast” is multiply determined, including as ‘mankind’s essential illness”, or what Ralph apprehends as “the darkness of man’s heart”, made flesh once humans kill animals (111, 248). Moreover, as pacifist vegetarians argued to be the case, the killing of an animal is a gateway to the killing of humans (Gregory 113, 118). Ralph is finally forced to run along pig-tracks and think like a pig: “Hide, then. He wondered if a pig would agree” (141, 242). To assist with the hunting the entire island is set on fire; the novel’s ending scales this up from the local to the global (the modern reader thinks, in metonymic terms, of global warming, just as she is ever less likely to read the pig-killing as mere metaphor, as the threats from meat-eating to human as well as other species’ survival become increasingly clear). When Ralph first proposes to Jack that he “keep his choir”, he suggests that they be “an army orhunters” (43, emphasis added). Jack initially adopts the second proposal, but ends up combining both, before the boys’ rescue by the military re-absorbs them into a world war which could destroy the planet as effectually as the boys destroy the island. This juxtaposition of scales was repeated by the circumstances of the first film of the novel, shot in 1961 on the island of Vieques near Puerto Rico. There the boys acted alongside US boat handlers and amphibious landers who were training for the Bay of Pigs invasion at a time of high nuclear tension (a threat to humanity and other species that persists, less-recognised, in new forms today). The name of the targeted Cuban inlet, Bahía de los Cochinos, reflects back the novel’s concerns.

Jude the Obscure was concerned with slaughter; Lord of the Flies with hunting. For the rest of this chapter I would like to consider a few texts which lie temporally between them and which offer examples of either; the first relating to human practice since the agricultural revolution; the second pre-dating it. By considering both we gain a binocular vision of how modernist writers considered humanity through the lens of the most violent aspects of its relationships with animals.



“But I’m glad I’m not a hog!”


Three years before Hardy published Jude the Obscure, Leo Tolstoy described his witnessing of a real farmstead pig killing in very similar terms to Jude’s. When the human-like squeals finally end, a fellow observer “sighed heavily. ‘Do men really not have to answer for such things?’ he said. So strong is man’s aversion to all killing”. Tolstoy had converted to vegetarianism in 1888 soon after finishing Kholstomer, a novella focalised on a horse who constitutes, like Swift’s Houyhnhnms, a noble contrast to a corrupt humanity. But the main purpose of his 1892 essay “The First Step” (written as a preface to Howard Williams’s 1883 historical anthology of vegetarianism The Ethics of Diet) is to describe Tolstoy’s visit to his local slaughterhouse in Tula. He observes that “It is built on the new and improved system practised in large towns, with a view to causing the animals as little suffering as possible”. Nonetheless, many of the slaughters that he observes there are chaotic, botched and prolongedly painful. Tolstoy’s particular objection is that “man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity – that of sympathy and pity toward living creatures like himself – and by violating his own feelings becomes cruel. And how deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life!” “But by example, by encouraging greediness, by the assertion that God has allowed it, and, above all, by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling”.

Just over a decade later Upton Sinclair spent seven weeks undercover in the meat-processing district of Chicago; his novel about this experience, The Jungle, was published in 1905. The Chicago stockyards (opened 1865 and fully mechanised by the 1880s) represented the cutting edge of the industrial modernity which Tula sought to imitate; at Tula a hundred cattle were killed per day; at Chicago, ten thousand (Sinclair 42; Pacyga 153, 155). However, as the practice of slaughter had evolved from the solitary skilled work of Kholstomer’s knackerer and Jude’s local pig killer to Chicago’s production line, the skill, pay and autonomy of the slaughterers diminished sharply (Pacyga 153, 156). Several things follow from this, within the novel’s socialist perception.

One is that, just as slaughter-house mechanisation proved paradigmatic for the development of other production lines such that of as car manufacture, as Adams argues (52-53), and that of First World War slaughter, as Tromanhauser argues, the stockyard worker is presented as paradigmatic of exploited labour, and meat production of Darwinian exploitative capitalism (“it was especially true in Packingtown; there seemed to be something about the work of slaughtering that tended to ruthlessness and ferocity”) (376). Scarcely any other legal mode of urban employment is represented in the novel, and those that do exist are represented as controlled by it (“With the millions of dollars a week that poured in upon it, it was reaching out for the control of other interests”) (377). As in Lord of the Flies, the “jungle” represents a society in which humans and animals are alike preyed upon by human “beasts of prey” (376). But the fact that in this case the latter are “the Beef Trust” enforces the irony that in this jungle there is scarcely any possibility of flight; the workers are herded by economic necessity into the slums which surround the stockyards, as the animals are brought (equally by train) to their pens. A strike pushes this metaphor to literalism when the strike-breakers camp in the yards, “an army of fifteen or twenty thousand human beasts” (328). Whereas Arabella’s complexion resembles a cochin’s egg, the men and women who worked in Elzbieta’s department were precisely the colour of the “fresh country sausage” they made”, and are only a slip of the knife away from their own flesh entering the production line (156).

The “animality” of the novel’s humans therefore focuses not, as in Lord of the Flies, on the predators but on the predated; not on the desire to kill but the endurance of living standards which would be experienced by certain animals with less discomfort and detriment to their health (“the men ate as much raw blood as food at dinner-time”) (123); the import of the comic title of Gerald Durrell’s 1956 memoir My Family and Other Animals therefore assumes a tragic key. The workers are only described as resembling predators when they become criminals; when the protagonist Jurgis’s criminal career is thwarted “he was as literally crippled as any wild animal which has lost its claws”; “he must take his chances with the common herd” (335). As in Lord of the Flies, however, the analogy is anthropocentrically denotative of human, rather than actual animal, behaviours.

Moreover the emphasis on the stockyards’ mechanisation complicates the analogy, meaning that the novel engages with the full range of what since WWII has been denoted by the Janus-faced term “posthuman”: the natural or animal on the one hand, the technological on the other. The stockyard machines render the workers nearly as vulnerable as the non-human animals they kill precisely by making them adjuncts to machines. This mechanisation of humanity was to be deplored a few decades later by D.H. Lawrence, who in 1930 observed: “The dark, satanic mills of Blake/ how much darker and more satanic they are now!”, and asked “What is a man to do? … When the vast vast masses of men have been caught by the machine/ into the industrial dance of the living death, the jigging of wage-paid work,/ and fed on condition they dance this dance of corpses driven by steam” – lines that apply with particular literalism to the Chicago stockyards (Poems 543; 545). Animal-like in relation to machines, machine-like in relation to animals, the workers are alienated not just from their labour but from the animals.

Over the course of the novel the protagonist only gradually reaches alignment with the narrator and reader in his understanding of his likeness to the animals; when Jurgis and his family first tour the killing beds, “the sight suggested to them no metaphors of human destiny” (42). He somewhat more clearly apprehends, however, the workers’ likeness to the killing machines. In a passage coloured by free indirect speech the narrator comments:


It was porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests – and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it; and it was adding insult to injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way … Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.


One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to … hear the hog squeal of the universe … Each one of these hogs was a separate creature … And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway … Perhaps some glimpse of all this was in the thoughts of our humble-minded Jurgis, as he turned to go on with the rest of the party, and muttered: “Dieve—but I’m glad I’m not a hog!”  (44-5)


Fernihough notes that the modernist belief that texts should be chewed (just as followers of Horace Fletcher believed that food should be lengthily masticated for maximum benefit) considered literary realism to be either pre-digested food or – especially if didactic – indigestible (238). On such an analogy the descriptions of the killing beds offer an alternative kind of moral orthorexia: the emetic.

Yet Jurgis is less shocked by the slaughter of the cattle which he witnesses thereafter than by that of the pigs, and he quickly becomes fascinated by the mechanisation per se (slaughterhouse tours were run, and visitors” galleries built for them, because “it is a good advertisement”, even though slaughterhouse tours were also a vegetarian campaign tactic) (43; Gregory 91).[2] Thereafter he is absorbed by his own struggle for survival; as he becomes animal-like he loses Tolstoy’s “highest spiritual capacity” which the slaughterhouse visitor, like the reader, may have greater power to exercise –  and the narrative’s vegan consciousness accordingly disappears for much of the novel. Neither Jurgis nor narrator make a connection between the killing beds and the meat served at Jurgis’s wedding a few weeks later. As J.M. Coetzee’s vegetarian avatar Elizabeth Costello points out, the observation that the victims of the Holocaust were herded like cattle leaves unimplied the wrongness of treating cattle like cattle (20), and the human-animal analogy operates for much of the novel with a similar asymmetry; the scandal of adulterating meat for human consumption is more insisted on than that of the slaughter that even hygienic meat production would necessitate. Meanwhile the passage quoted above could be considered to remain in the novel’s unconscious, making itself briefly felt when Jurgis obtains blissful employment with a maker of arable “harvesting and mowing machines”, and the narrator euphemistically observes that “the work was free from many of the elements of filth and repulsiveness that prevailed at the stockyards” (237). Even when Jurgis comes to socialist consciousness under Ostrinski’s tutelage at the end of the novel, he learns that the Beef Trust “had forced the price of cattle so low as to destroy the stock-raising industry, an occupation upon which whole states existed; it had ruined thousands of butchers who had refused to handle its products”, and he joyfully envisages “taking possession of the Union Stockyards!” (377). Another socialist teacher of Jurgis, Dr. Schliemann, envisages collectivised farming and electronic milking machines (407). In Tolstoyan terms, “habit” prevails.

But Schliemann adds: “then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean.” “How would Socialism change that?” asks a student. Schliemann responds that free labour would not choose the unpleasant work of slaughter, so “year by year the cost of slaughterhouse products will increase; until eventually those who want to eat meat will have to do their own killing ­– and how long do you think the custom would survive then? –” (408). Like Hardy and Tolstoy, Schliemann, in a late resurgence of the novel’s vegan consciousness after it has found its way through to an optimistic path for a humanity, points to a contradiction between humanity and a willingness to slaughter.

Mother Earth’s review of the novel historicised this assumption, asserting that: “This author uses the squeal, or, rather, the wild death shrieks of agony of the ten millions of living creatures tortured to death every year in Chicago … to pander to the old brutal, inhuman thirst for a diet of blood … this cry of anguish from the ‘killing-beds’ shall sound on until man, whose ancestors were once cannibals, shall cease to devour even the corpses of their murdered animal relatives” (quoted in Fernihough 224) That is, the reviewer presents humanity as evolving away from a willingness to kill first nearer and then more distant kin (overlooking the co-temporality of cultural cannibalism and cultural vegetarianism, and the historical preponderance of the latter). Yet the novel so stresses the kinship of oppressed humans and animals that the consumption of meat itself has the aspect of cannibalism. James Joyce’s Ulysses makes a similar conflation, with its stress on metempsychosis, and its presentation of humans as animals whenever meat is concerned: “The ferreteyed porkbutcher folded the sausages he had snipped off with blotchy fingers, sausagepink” (61).[3] But in The Jungle the sausagepinkness of fingers is caused by abusive working conditions, making what the narrator calls the “horrible crime” doubly cannibalistic.

There is a version of this perversity in many non-vegetarian works of literature that are focalised on animals. Published two years after The Jungle, Kenneth Grahame’s profoundly species-queer The Wind in the Willows is in several respects an inversion of The Jungle. Set in a rural idyll rather than an urban hellhole, in mild English countryside rather than a jungle, its animal protagonists are strongly anthropomorphic. They wear clothes and drive cars; their housing conflates their respective species’ natural dwellings, such as rat holes, with such human conveniences as foot-scrapers, doormats and furniture (as opposed to such conveniences being removed from humans). Yet its protagonists also eat the meat of other animals; individual rabbits are positive characters, but are also found without comment in a “stew” of which Mr. Toad partakes (206-7). In its fairy tale universe, the realism of The Junglefinds its mirror.



Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!


When, in Chapter 7 of The Wind in the Willows, the otter child Portly temporarily disappears, his father is concerned that he might have been caught in a trap. It turns out that he is protected by the god Pan. Hunting and trapping, like slaughtering, are part of the novel’s implied reality, but repressed from its view. Two decades later, in 1927, another novel came out which was to become a children’s classic of animal life in the South of England, but with no such protections for either protagonists or readers: Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers. Like Lord of the Flies it meditates on hunting in poetically-concentrated prose. Like The Wind in the Willows it displaces humanity to the margins of its concern (otters are more individualised than domesticated species dogs, who are more individualised than people), until such time as the latter suddenly exert overwhelming control (Toad imprisoned, Tarka killed). No ontological frisson attaches to them, and they are as matter-of-factly described as any other animal, decentring them still further (as Bell notes, a ‘melodramatic, all-too-human, insistence on the inhuman” can itself open literature to the charge of “naïve anthropomorphism”) (224). Human language consisting mainly of sallies such as Tally ho! Yaa-aa-ee-io! Leu-in on ‘m! Yaa-ee-oo!” (185), and otter vocabulary consisting of equally non-denotative “yikkering” and “tissing”, levels them still further.

That said, the novel makes a greater attempt than any other modernist work to imagine (to adapt Thomas Nagel’s famous question about bats) “What It Is Like to Be an Animal”. As in The Wind in the Willows, Richard Adams’s 1972 rabbit saga Watership Down, and many of the more realistic narratives centred on wild animals, there is a sense of arbitrariness in the choice of focalising species (for Grahame otters are marginal if benign figures; for Grahame and Adams the otters’ near relatives, weasels, are life-threatening antagonists). Evidently Henry Williamson admired otters; his depiction of them recalls the assertion of the protagonist of Saki’s 1914 story “Laura”, who wishes to be reincarnated as one because “I haven’t been a bad sort in my way, so I think I may count on being a nice animal, something elegant and lively, with a love of fun. An otter, perhaps”. Nonetheless, there is a sense that the narrative’s attentive eye might equally well have focused on owls, or harvest mice, or even fish (the animal which Lawrence’s 1921 poem “Fish” considers paradigmatic of animal otherness) (Poems 289-94; Rohman 97). Therefore Tarka, though as inevitably anthropomorphic as any human construct, exists at the non-anthropomorphic end of the scale of representation of animals in literature of the period. Moving towards the other end, and making allowance for the human traits of dogs by definition, one passes through London’s Buck and White Fang, Lawrence’s St Mawr, Virginia Woolf’s Flush, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Sharik, Adams’s Hazel and friends, Tolstoy’s Kholstomer, the narrator of Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog”, and Grahame’s Badger, Mole, Ratty and Toad.

As in London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) the narrative is focalised on apex predators, but unlike in London’s Yukon Territory the humans do not hunt in order to survive. Those who trap and hunt the otters neither eat nor wear them, nor are they shown as animated by a desire to protect their fish or poultry (in Saki’s “Laura” the eponymous otter is hunted in reprisal for killing – with Saki’s typical amused endorsement of the wild’s revenge on the human and domesticated – Egbert’s “speckled Sussex” hens) (243). Both “Laura” and Tarka were written during the late-Victorian to inter-war heyday of otter-hunting as a sport that was pursued principally – as on Golding’s island – for fun.

Amongst blood sports it was peculiarly vulnerable to campaigns to ban it (led by the generically anti-pain Humanitarian League, founded in 1891, and two organisations specifically opposing “Cruel Sports”, founded between the wars) (Allen). This was partly for reasons centring on the otters (their courage, loyalty, lack of threat to human interests, and the hunting season’s coincidence with their breeding season), but also because the length and visibility of the kill excited a blood-lust that was considered by some (as by Hardy and Tolstoy) to be incompatible with “humanity”; in 1905 the Reverend Joseph Stratton argued that a “true man” would kill fierce animals “with as little pain as possible”, while those “he destroys for food, or raiment, he will destroy mercifully”; but ‘model men” would “find pleasure neither in torturing, nor annihilating any of them” (Allen). Moreover the accessibility of the pedestrian otter hunt to women and children meant that blood-lust was excited even in categories of humans in whom this was thought of as particularly inappropriate; campaigner George Greenwood observed in the 1914 publication Killing for Sport: ‘men – and, good heavens! women too – seem frenzied with the desire to kill” (Allen).

Williamson did not present his novel as part of this campaign. On the contrary, it is dedicated “To William Henry Rogers”, the master of the Devon otter hunt which Williamson followed by way of research (Tarka Introduction xi). Yet in numerous respects the novel is hostile to the hunt, and despite exposing child readers to the kill was not denounced by anti-hunting campaigners. The focalisation is sensuously close to the hunted animal (“From far away there came a deep rolling sound, and a screaming cheer”) (22), and the narration of the final, nine-hour hunt is exhaustingly and disturbingly prolonged (twenty-five pages, compared to twelve for Lord of the Flies’ climactic hunt). The plot accords Tarka the dignity of killing his antagonist Deadlock even as he is killed himself, and his underwater death spares him the indignity of being ripped apart infront of the hunters and readers (186). The novel twice creates welcome moments of pacific respite from the hunting with which nearly all the novel’s animals – human and non-human – are otherwise overwhelmingly engaged: a man enters a cave, leaves alone an elderly otter seeking shelter there, and calms a temporarily-abandoned baby seal by playing “soft tunes” on his wooden pipe, thus playing a similar role as Pan for Portly (76). During the final hunt a girl who is described as “seeing a Spirit everywhere, gentle in thought to all her eyes beheld” notices Tarka in hiding: “For two minutes the maid sat silent, hardly daring to look at the river”, but when Tarka sneezes her accompanying “old man heard it: ‘Tally Ho!’” (184). One anomalously meditative and conflicted passage presents humans as having achieved victory over animals, and the aristocracy as sentimentally preserving carnivores from extinction, before questioning hunting’s naturalness, and associating instinct rather with imaginative pity. Finally it questions this instinct’s relevance to survival.


Once hunted himself, then hunting for necessity, man now hunts in the leisure of his time; but in nearly all those who through necessity of life till fields, herd beasts, and keep fowls, these remaining wildlings of the moor have enemies who care nothing for their survival. The farmers would exterminate nearly every wild bird and animal of prey, were it not for the landowners, among whom are some who care for the wildlings because they are sprung from the same land of England, and who would be unhappy if they thought the country would know them no more. For the animal they hunt to kill in its season, or those other animals or birds they cause to be destroyed for the continuance of their pleasure in sport – which they believe to be natural – they have no pity; and since they lack this incipient human instinct, they misunderstand and deride it in others. Pity acts through the imagination, the higher light of the world, and imagination arises from the world of things, as a rainbow from the sun. A rainbow may be beautiful and heavenly, but it will not grow corn for bread. (126-7)


The final sentence’s turn functions as though reprimanding the passage, and by implication the imaginative novel of which it is part, for the anti-hunting implications of this human-exceptionalist position by means of reaching for but missing a Darwinian imperative (since neither hunting nor annihilation of otters grows corn for bread).

The novel nowhere presents hunting as re-engaging with an atavistic survival instinct (as The Call of the Wild’s dog protagonist Buck, suddenly placed in the far North, “remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down”) (26). Nor does the novel describe anything that corresponds to the justifications which Lawrence posited for hunting a few years before: “The tiger was a terrible problem to Shelley, who wanted life in terms of the lamb […] The full eye of the deer or the rabbit or the horse would stagnate and lose its lustre, save for the keen, strange eye of the wolf and the weasel, and of man”; the novel affords no suggestion that Tarka’s eyes would be any the less lustrous were he an unchallenged predator (1923, Studies 214). Admittedly, Lawrence’s justifications principally concern hunting for food. In Tarka the dispassionate descriptions of the hunting for survival in which the otters and other animals engage contrast with its evocations of the ceremonial culture, and enjoyment, of the human hunters. The killing of Tarka’s son Tarquol resembles the killing of the sow in The Lord of the Flies, which takes place in a glade of dancing butterflies:


Among the brilliant hawkbits – little sunflowers of the meadow – he was picked up and dropped again, trodden on and wrenched and broken, while the screaming cheers and whoops of sportsmen mingled with the growing rumble of hounds at worry. Tarquol fought them until he was blinded, and his jaws were smashed. (178)


The idea that the hunters are in fact distorted versions of humans is pictorialized from the visual perspective of Tarka in hiding: “From underwater he saw men and women, pointing with hand and pole, as palsied and distorted shapes on the bank”; “He saw the huntsman’s legs before him joined to the image of legs, and above the inverted image a flattened and uncertain head and shoulders” (the “head” which putatively harbours both “imagination” and “pity”) (181-2, 184). Gavron hypothesises that the novel’s vegan semi-consciousness is inflected by Williams’s experiences of the front in World War I, citing the passage when the ground above Tarka’s refuge is beaten by an iron bar: “On and on went the pounding” until they “could bear it no longer”, and the contrast between the hunt’s inaugural festive spirit and its bloody development (Tarka Introduction xi, xx). He also argues that Williamson’s later philo-German politics were influenced by his experience of the Christmas truce of 1914. The latter point, translated from the inter-national to the inter-special plain, would also help explain the novel’s sotto voce questioning of why humans – and the dogs whom they command – kill otters.



We did not make creation, we are not the authors of the universe”


Thus writes Lawrence in his 1925 essay “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine”, which in one of its sections retrospectively purports to justify his crime passionel of killing of a porcupine in retribution for injuring a dog by presenting the universe in Darwinian terms. The above quotation has the force of an excuse in response to an unvoiced accusation; “all creatures devour, and must devour the lower forms of life” is a dictat of which humans are not the authors. Yet in his 1921 poem “Man and Bat” Lawrence’s denial of having created the universe functions oppositely. After a bat has long resisting Lawrence’s efforts to chase him out of a bedroom into Florence’s sunlight, he finally collapses with exhaustion:


What then?

Hit him and kill him and throw him away?



I didn’t create him.

Let the God that created him be responsible for his death

(Poems 299)


Indeed, the “Porcupine” essay in fact adumbrates a bimodal vision of the universe: in what it calls the “fourth dimension”, each individual “that attains to its own fullness of being” is “a nonpareil, a non-such” (Reflections 258). The quality of attention which Lawrence’s artistry frequently pays to animals presents them in this dimension, and that apprehension is emotionally inconsistent with killing them, which is why Lawrence’s characters and narrators are so frequently revolted by killing. Williamson’s traditional account, and practical enactment, of the relationship of imagination to pity has the same outcome, which is why the artistry of Tarka the Otter condemns the hunt; a similar dynamic may be found at certain moments in all of the works described in this chapter.

Whenever the concept of “humanity” is invoked in them – as is also true of much of the vegetarian and anti-hunting literature of the period – it is connected with this revulsion; and though the form of this position is exceptionalist (and indeed what Rohman calls ‘neohumanist’), its content relies on an ontologically-levelling recognition of kinship (160). Human exceptionalism operates nowhere in the opposite direction – granting humans the right to use animals as they choose (as apparently divinely granted in Genesis 1.28, 9.3 and culturally entrenched as the speciesist discourse which Derrida describes as “carnophallogocentrism”) except, negatively, in Lord of the Flies’ representation of “the darkness of man’s heart” (248). Rather, wherever Christianity manifests itself (as it does in Jude’s early faith, in Tolstoy’s, and in much of the Victorian and early twentieth-century zoophile movement) it does so in a form that accords with the Lawrence’s perception of the “fourth dimension” – which he also calls “the heaven of existence” (358).

We see the island sow with her eleven piglets lying ‘sunk in deep maternal bliss” (166), and Tarka “in love with White-tip” playing “hide-and-seek” with her (64), alike in this “heaven” of “fullness of being”. The fact that we never see the animals of the Tula or Chicago slaughterhouses in this condition forces Sinclair to the question: “was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog personality was precious, to whom these hog squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice?” (45) Insofar as humans exercise a godlike role in relation to animals (in Lord of the Flies it is pointed that the eponymous deity is man, and London’s dog protagonists call men “gods”) then Sinclair, in the very writing of this passage, exercises such a role. Saki compensates his hunted otter by granting her reincarnation. Tolstoy resurrects Kholstomer by turning his flesh into food for a brood of five “joyfully whimpering” “large-headed wolf cubs” (as contrasted with the useless corpse of his former master) (106). Williamson’s imagination hosts an otter afterlife when it observes that Tarka’s son Tarquol, killed earlier in the hunt, “had gone home before Tarka”, perhaps to the “Spirit that made it” (178, 61); and the world of The Wind in the Willows is guarded by Pan. These are all imaginative compensations to animals for the suffering inflicted on them by “the gods” that humans are to them. Yet as Tolstoy, and other vegetarians of the period, knew, the dichotomy between Lawrence’s Darwinian and “fourth dimension” worlds was not inevitable; most humans could choose to step at least a degree into the latter. Jude “could not see how the matter could be mended”, but Lawrence himself seems to see it in his “Autobiographical Fragment” of 1927, which presents a Lawrencianly-utopian England of 2927 in which all men walk about naked, and which is vegetarian (65-6). The literature discussed in this chapter, albeit frequently morally-conflicted, may through its effects on readers practically conduce to, as well as imaginatively construct, this world; we may be authors of the universe. We are a tenth of the way to 2927. Though otter-hunting was abolished in the UK in 1981, the factory farming of animals, which was just taking off in the modernist period, has risen steeply since and continues to do so. Its effects on the environment, the climate, and the generation of viruses, threaten multiple species including the human. We have, therefore, more need than ever of Williamson’s “imagination”.




Works Cited



Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Faber, 1964.

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. Methuen, 1980.

Hardy, Thomas. Collected Poems. Wordsworth Editions, 1994.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. St Martin’s Press, 1966.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Minerva, 1992.

Lawrence, D.H. “Autobiographical Fragment.” Late Essays and Articles, edited by James

  1. Boulton, Cambridge UP, 2014, pp. 49-68.

—.       The Poems, Volumes I and II, edited by Christopher Pollnitz, Cambridge UP, 2013.

—.       Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, edited by Michael Herbert, Cambridge UP, 1988.

—.       Studies in Classic American Literature, edited by Ezra Greenspan et al, Cambridge  UP, 2003.

London, Jack. The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Paul Hamlyn, 1967.

Saki. The Complete Saki. Penguin, 1982.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Penguin, 1986.

Tolstoy, Leo. “The First Step,” translated by Aylmer Maude, Essays and Letters, H.

Frowde, 1909, pp. 82-91.

Williamson, Henry. Tarka the Otter, introduced by Jeremy Gavron, Penguin, 2009.



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Adkins, Peter. “The Eyes of That Cow: Eating Animals and Theorizing Vegetarianism in

James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Humanities (Basel), vol. 6, no. 3, 2017, p. 46.

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Britain, 1900–39”. Rural History, 27 (1), 2016, pp. 79-101.

Bell, Michael. Open Secrets: Literature, Education, and Authority from J-J Rousseau to

J.M. Coetzee. Oxford UP, 2007.

Coetzee, J.M., et al. The Lives of Animals. Princeton UP, 1999.

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Modernism. Oxford UP, 2013.

Geier, Ted, “Kafka’s Meat: Beautiful Processes and Perfect Victims.” Literature and Meat

Since 1900, edited by Seán McCorry and John Miller, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp.


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Rise of the Slaughterhouse, edited by Paula Young Lee, UP of New England, 2008, pp. 153-66

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[1] Fernihough points out that some “high” modernist writers considered realism as “indigestible on the one hand and as pre-digested on the other, and neither way amenable to interpretative chewing” (with reference to the orthorexic vogue for protracted mastication). This chapter, like Fernihough, “challenge[s] a simplistic realist/modernist divide” (228).

[2] Geier points out the parallels between Jurgis’s willing surrender of himself to machine of industrial meat production, and the behaviour of various of Kafka’s protagonists, who calmly yield themselves to slaughter (40).

[3] Adkins persuasively argues that Ulysses shows a strong vegetarian consciousness, by pointing at this and other passages taken insufficiently seriously by Fernihough, who argues that the novel celebrates meat-eating (though the novel and Joyce certainly distrusted the orthorexia associated with parts of the Irish nationalist movement).

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Catherine Brown