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"Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka"

Barking Humans (c) 2010 Taelyen LLC


A Thesis in the Field of Foreign Literature, Language, and Culture for the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies

Harvard University, March 2012



Chapter I: Introduction


Theodore Ziolkowski reacts to the presence of a talking dog in Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” by conducting a masterful historical summary of the motif, describing examples from classical antiquity, from the European literary tradition, and in modern fiction of Europe and the Americas. In doing so, he identifies a diverse set of talking dogs that he categorizes as following the motif and conventional example of the “philosophical dog,” the “outside observer … making cynical observations on the foibles of human nature.” [1] Ziolkowski concludes that the “philosophical dog is still being used for the purposes of cynical social comment that has been conventional since Lucian,” even if the original form has been transformed through “inversions” and “deformations.” [2] Alice Kuzniar acknowledges Ziolkowski’s “philosophical” label, making the further observation that “it is most often about language and communication that the canine philosopher broods.” [3]

Yet considering that the definition of “philosophy” has changed significantly over the range of examples considered from antiquity to the present, the designation of “philosophical” is too imprecise to be sufficiently productive in explaining the talking-dog motif. In some cases, such as with Gogol’s gossiping little dogs, the “philosophical” label applies not at all. Even when the dog has a philosophical bent, as in Kafka’s dog story, the element of “cynical social comment” is absent for an animal that knows and speaks nothing of human affairs other than in an existential sense. While the dogs of Cervantes and Hoffmann do provide contemporary social commentary about humans, such commentary is hardly unique to the canine species within the context of the collections in which the respective stories appear; to wit, Cervantes’ Berganza is no less a picaresque figure than the young thieves in Rinconete and Cortadillo, and Hoffmann’s reprise of Berganza is no more of a philosopher or social commentator than Hoffmann’s Ritter Gluck or Johannes Kreisler. To the extent that a talking dog espouses a philosophy, it is often to the same extent as any human character invented by the author.

Similarly, any expectation based on the etymology of the Greek word “cynic,” or “dog-like,” that a talking canine will necessarily espouse a cynical outlook does not hold up in practice. William Desmond makes the distinction between modern cynicism, which is a pessimistic, nihilistic worldview in which “greedy, materialistic, manipulative and hypocritical” people “act only out of self-interest [with] no public good or universal standard of morality,” [4] and ancient Cynicism, which leavens pessimism about human motivation with optimism regarding human nature. Unlike modern cynicism, ancient Cynicism offers an answer in the virtues of “frugality, simplification [and] renunciation,” espousing a “philosophy of radical individual freedom… won at the cost of a hard, ascetic lifestyle and a shameless flouting of social conventions.” [5] With these more precise definitions in mind, we can question the presence of either modern cynicism or ancient Cynicism in the corpus of talking-dog literature. While some works in the talking-dog canon align with Desmond’s definitions – as with the cynical Sharik in Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog [6] or the Cynic-minded conclusion of Jean Dutourd’s A Dog’s Head – other examples are more problematic. For example, the dogs of Cervantes and Hoffmann both offer scathing criticism of human society, but these condemnations are qualified by the presence of exemplary characters held up as worthy of admiration and emulation. While this hint of optimism partially suggests a Cynical worldview, the Renaissance and Romantic-era dogs reacted to the opinions native to their own times rather than to the terms of an ancient debate. The ancient Cynics may have taken their name and symbol from the dog, but it does not follow that future authors were constrained in their representation of talking dogs by the philosophy that bears the dog’s name. Dogs may be accurately depicted as having privileged access to how other people live, thus giving their imagined utterances narrative interest; yet not all truth-tellers are cynical. These limitations circumscribe the usefulness of “cynical” as well as “philosophical” as descriptive of the talking dog.

Another possible explanatory label for the phenomenon of the talking dog is magic realism, including the marvelous and the fantastic. However, the term “magic realism,” coined in the mid-1920s, only marginally applies to Kafka, who sits at the cusp of the inception of the genre, and has less relevance to earlier authors. Maggie Ann Bowers observes: “[Kafka] is well known as a primary influence on magical realist writers, but he is not usually considered to be a magic realist writer himself.” [7] More generally, talking dogs are problematic examples of magical realism because they’re conventional, even staid, representations of magic. Bowers writes of the “inherent transgressive and subversive qualities” of magical realism; [8] its inclusion in a text “provokes the reader to reflect on what they are willing to believe and on their own assumptions about reality,” [9] which in turn “provides a means to attack the assumptions of the dominant culture and particularly the notion of scientifically and logically determined truth.” [10] Yet it is difficult to claim both that the works exist squarely within the historical tradition of the dominant culture, per Ziolkowski, and that they simultaneously shock the reader into questioning that dominant culture. Instead, the overwhelming familiarity of the device robs it of its inherent transgressive potential. While examples can be found of talking dogs that shock sensibilities and cross boundaries – such as the cohabitating canine in Rosalyn Drexler’s The Cosmopolitan Girl [11] – such transgression is by no means a defining trait of the genre.

Talking dogs have been considered obliquely at best by those investigating the role of the dog in literature. For example, Alice Kuzniar suggests that because dogs are unable to voice their thoughts, they are highly evocative of the melancholic condition, and so writers’ cynomorphic urges are therefore considered “compensatory for both the animal’s silence and human incomprehension.” Still, Kuzniar relegates most attempts at the talking-dog story to “banality and insipidness.” [12] Kuzniar writes: “The majority of works in the popular cynomorphic genre … banally reduce what could transpire in a dog’s mind to fixation on a bone, anticipation of the next walk, or preoccupation with scents on the roadside.” [13] She does allow for the distinction between Ziolkowski’s “philosophic tradition” and the “popular cynomorphic,” but her main focus remains on the realistic, non-speaking canines within fiction and art, including from the talking-dog corpus only Kafka’s “melancholic hound” [14] as an example supporting her broader argument. In doing so, she accepts the “philosophical” label for talking dogs without questioning its underpinnings.

Considering the definitional challenge involved with separating literary talking dogs from their simple-minded counterparts, the task then is to come up with a rule of thumb that can distinguish between the talking dogs of critical interest from the more banal variety. Ziolkowski has identified the best-of-breed among talking-dog works, with detailed analyses of stories by Lucian, Bonaventure des Périers, Cervantes, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nikolai Gogol, Jacinto Benavente y Martínez, Franz Kafka, Mikhail Bulgakov, Clifford Simak, Rosalyn Drexler, Elsa Morante and Carlo della Corte. To Ziolkowski’s list of talking dogs one might add S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, Jean Dutourd’s A Dog’s Head, Octave Mirbeau’s Dingo, Patrice Nganang’s Dog Days, Luis Rafael Sánchez’s Indiscretions of a Gringo Dog, and Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla. For the purpose of developing a workable theoretical construct, in this thesis I shall cite evidence primarily from the talking-dog works of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Kafka, and Bulgakov. The conclusions of the research should then be applicable in a broad sense to the other works mentioned.

The origin of the research question comes from the simple observation that of the five central talking-dog stories, three were originally published as part of collections: Cervantes’s Exemplary Stories, Hoffmann’s Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner, and Gogol’s Arabesques. In each case, the talking-dog story relates to other stories within the collection on a thematic, structural, and narrative level. Similarly, within the critical literature and in the publishing history of the story, Kafka’s posthumously-published “Investigations of a Dog” has been grouped with his other animal stories – “A Report to an Academy,” “The Burrow,” “Jackals and Arabs,” and “Josephine the Singer or The Mouse People.” Bulgakov’s short novel Heart of a Dog is an exception, as it was published independently of his other works. Nevertheless, it invites parallels to The Fatal Eggs and The Master and Margarita, both of which prominently feature animals transformed by science or magic.

While membership in a collection is not in itself a marker of specific interest, the coincidence hints at the importance of the relationship between talking-dog works and the contexts in which they are received by the reader. Works in a single collection share a single narrative frame, or in Gérard Genette’s terminology, they are metadiegetic narratives being told from the same baseline diegetic level, that of the author narrating a set of stories. With Genette’s framework in mind, we can seek out other narrative constructs present in the talking-dog works under consideration. Indeed, for the writers considered, each talking-dog story contains an innovative combination of techniques including frame stories, flashbacks, foreshadowing and extra-textual references to a level outstripping the complexity of the author’s other contemporary works. The presence of the talking dog correlates with a marked increase in narrative complexity, and it is this narrative complexity itself that defines a noteworthy talking-dog novel more than “philosophical,” “cynical,” or any other attribute derived from the actual content of what the dog says.

To be certain, the relationship between talking dogs and narrative complexity is neither exclusive nor causal, as there are numerous examples of talking dogs in texts with simple narrative structures, as well as novels having immense complexity in which there are no talking dogs. In addition, complex narrative structures can be found in talking animal stories from the same authors under consideration, ranging from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s talking cat Kater Murr [15] to the talking ape in Kafka’s “Report to an Academy.” [16] Nevertheless, the talking-dog stories under consideration stand apart for their unique combination of reliance on traditional precedent, experimentation in narrative technique, and innovation in transforming classical narrative structures into new forms.

This paper relies upon, but is not restricted to, a structuralist analysis of the selected works. Jonathan Culler explains the project of structuralism (via Barthes and Todorov) as “a poetics which would stand to literature as linguistics stands to language and which therefore would not seek to explain what individual works mean but would attempt to make explicit the system of figure and conventions that enable works to have the forms and meanings they do.” [17]

Therefore, structuralism per se would initially appear to have little to say about talking dogs. That a character in a novel is a dog rather than a human, or that a canine character has the power of speech, is invisible to any narratological analysis limited to describing structural phenomena such as temporal flashbacks or changes in perspective. When a character in a novel relates something that happened in that character’s past, or when the narrative shifts perspectives between external narrators and characters in the story, or when a character relates a story told by another character in the novel, these are all narrative devices that neither preclude nor demand the presence of a talking animal. There is no explicit narrative category restricted to focalization with animals. The barrier between story and narrative is a one-way mirror, the contents of the story shielded from analysis of structure even as the analysis of story pivots on that same structure.

Yet the presence of a talking animal practically demands the use of some kind of narrative device to explain the ability of the reader to peer inside of an animal consciousness. William Nelles identifies the most common approaches for introducing animal voices, “in which the animal’s narrating is explained by an outer frame featuring an unreliable narrator or naturalizing circumstances.” [18] Nelles also describes a useful “continuum of approaches developed for representing animal consciousness,” [19] with the continuum located between the poles of what we may call the “nominal” and the “rigorous”:

At one extreme the narrator’s subjectivity is nominally located within an animal filter, but skews incongruously from that premise through details inconsistent with cultural discourses about that animal. At the other extreme the narrating limits itself rigorously within the animal’s natural and/or conventional sphere of interest and reference. [20] (italics mine)

As we shall see in the following chapters, the works considered fall largely on the nominal end of the continuum. For example, although Cervantes’s dogs exhibit “stereotypically canine” [21] behaviors, those behaviors are incorporated as dog-like markers within a narrative that more closely follows the patterns of human consciousness. Bulgakov’s talking dog moves toward the rigorous end of the continuum, but does so only briefly prior to the dog’s transformation. The talking-dog stories of Cervantes and Bulgakov also illustrate, respectively, the “unreliable narrator” and “naturalizing circumstances” mentioned earlier. As such, Nelles adequately describes the narrative apparatus sufficient to convey the idea that an animal speaks. However, our concern is not mere sufficiency of narrative apparatus, but rather excess of narrative apparatus. The talking-dog stories under consideration are those that employ narrative devices above and beyond what would be necessary to explain why the animal speaks. Exploring and explaining this excess of narrative complexity coincident with talking dogs is the core intent of the thesis.

While Genette’s formulation of structuralism was neither the first nor the last word on the topic, it possesses an organic completeness and conceptual beauty that stems from its conception of narrative as being an extension of verbal forms. Genette writes:

Since any narrative, even one as extensive and complex as the Recherche du temps perdu, is a linguistic production undertaking to tell of one or several events, it is perhaps legitimate to treat it as the development—monstrous, if you will—given to a verbal form, in the grammatical sense of the term: the expansion of a verb. […] This perhaps authorizes us to organize, or at any rate to formulate, the problems of analyzing narrative discourse according to categories borrowed from the grammar of verbs […]” [22]

By contrast, Mieke Bal’s Narratology provides a theory of narrative that is, in many respects, more robust and complete than Genette’s theory, in that her method of parsing narrative is not constrained by any analogy to linguistic production. Bal’s approach, being more “normalized” (in the terminology of computer databases) with well-defined relationships between text, fabula and actor, [23] would be more appropriate were one to catalog the function of every sentence in a narrative text for programmatic analysis by a computer. For the purposes of our analysis, Bal’s framework would be adequate in assessing and describing the narrative features of the works considered. Yet Genette’s approach, while lacking the exactitude and precision of Bal’s, has the virtue of tripartite simplicity. With Genette, narrative effects can be classified in terms of narrative time, narrative mood, and narrative voice, and such concepts are familiar from a linguistic perspective. With an immediate aim of assessing the level of narrative complexity of the works considered relative to other contemporary works by the same author, having a limited number of measuring sticks becomes a virtue.

The thesis contains, for each of the five talking-dog stories considered: a summary of the work; a literature review including comments on narrative structure and the role of the dog(s) in the story; an enumeration of narrative devices of note within the story and where appropriate, within the collection in which the story appears; and finally, an exploration of the relationship between narrative complexity and the talking dog relative to the distinctive features of the work.

The conclusion reassesses the factors that set apart a talking-dog story of critical interest; summarizes the two-way relationship between narrative complexity and the presence of a talking animal; and uncovers the common themes within the respective works. Themes that persist throughout most or all of the stories considered include musical elements, the idea of “incompleteness,” and the representation of the writer’s creative art. The interplay between form and content reveals that neither the talking dogs nor the narrative devices exist in isolation within the text, as they are laden with implications that go far beyond the works’ formal characteristics.






[1] Theodore Ziolkowski, Varieties of Literary Thematics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983) 114.

[2] Ziolkowski 122.

[3] Alice A. Kuzniar, Melancholia's Dog (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) 57.

[4] William D. Desmond, Cynics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) 2.

[5] Desmond 3.

[6] Mikhail Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog (New York: Grove Press, 1968).


[7] Maggie Ann Bowers, Magic(al) Realism (New York: Routledge, 2004) 26.

[8] Bowers 67.

[9] Bowers 79.

[10] Bowers 69.

[11] Rosalyn Drexler, The Cosmopolitan Girl (New York: Lippincott, 1975).

[12] Kuzniar 29.

[13] Kuzniar 187n.

[14] Kuzniar 22.

[15] E. T. A. Hoffmann, Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr: Together with a Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (New York: Penguin, 1999).

[16] Franz Kafka, Kafka's Selected Stories (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).

[17] Jonathan Culler, Foreword, Narrative Discourse, by Gerard Genette, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980) 8.

[18] William Nelles, "Beyond the Bird's Eye: Animal Focalization," Narrative 9.2 (2001):193.

[19] Nelles 189.

[20] Nelles 192.

[21] Nelles 189.

[22] Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980) 30-31.

[23] Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 3rd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) 5.