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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 V: Bulgakov's Creation


 

In early 1925, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote Heart of a Dog, the story of Sharik, a homeless, injured and hungry dog taken in by an upper-class gentleman, Professor Preobrazhenski. After nursing it back to health, Preobrazhenski transplants human testes and human pituitary glands onto the dog. Sharik then transforms into Sharikov, a creature with a human body structure, doglike tendencies, and a nasty disposition stemming from the origin of his human parts taken from the body of a criminal.  Sharikov is issued documents, joins the workers’ movement and turns on his creator. Bulgakov was told by his editors that the work was unpublishable for its political content, [92] and the secret police confiscated it in May 1926. [93] While the textual history of the work supports the common interpretation of the work as political satire, Diana L. Burgin argues for its tragic significance, writing that “to interpret Heart of a Dog solely as a political parable is to oversimplify the novel.” [94] In addition, focusing exclusively on the political aspect of Heart of a Dog also obscures its distinctive narratological features. Heart of a Dog transforms the narrative mood and voice in parallel with the transformations in the dog. Each chapter is slightly different than the last, as the narration shifts voice from an intradiagetic oral narrative to an extradiagetic narration, even as the mood shifts from internal focalization through Sharik to external focalization on Preobrazhenski. There are traces of these techniques in “The Fatal Eggs,” which briefly features a talking frog, and an even richer narrative apparatus in The Master and Margarita and its talking cat.

Burgin describes the omniscient narrator in Heart of a Dog as “the outer, frame narrative into which the two personal accounts [of Sharik and Bormental] and are interpolated in sequential order.” [95] Yet Heart of a Dog does not have a clearly demarcated frame story as with Cervantes’ The Deceitful Marriage or Gogol’s use of the dogs’ letters in “Diary of a Madman.” Furthermore, in each chapter, the narrator observes varying distances to its human and canine subjects. We can examine the narration at a greater level of precision by revisiting these effects while making a clearer distinction between “mood” and “voice,” which Genette differentiates as “the question who is the character whose point of view orients the narrative perspective? and the very different question who is the narrator?—or, more simply, the question who sees? and the question who speaks? [96]

In the first chapter, the narrative mood has an internal focalization through Sharik interspersed with the narrator’s comments externally focalized; and the narrative voice alternates between homodiegetic, where the dog narrator is present in the story he tells, and heterodiegetic, with a narrator standing outside of the story. [97]

Sharik as a narrator has more knowledge than the dog’s perspective would reasonably explain, such as the pay scale of a typist [98] or the fact that Preobrazhenski’s name and patronymic is Philip Philippovich (6). Susanne Fusso describes the blending of voices, where the dog’s “seemingly first-person narrative is contaminated by the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator” [99] such that “the opening narration is actually in one voice, but a voice that shifts between an objective presentation and an imitation of a dog’s-eye view—a kind of ventriloquism.” [100] Alternatively, we might instead treat the knowledgeable dog as an indicator of the extent to which dogs in the story know the world of humans. Whether for comic effect or as an illustration of the possibility of transformation between sentient beings, Bulgakov’s dogs possess depth of knowledge of human affairs, with the ability to know your secrets with a single sniff. We might interpret this ability as part of the story itself rather than as a feature of the narrative structure, i.e. a metadiegetic metalepsis interrupting a character’s consciousness with a narrator’s omniscience.

At the start of the second chapter of Heart of a Dog, the narrative voice uses the second-person pronoun while taking a dog’s-eye view: “There is absolutely no necessity to learn how to read; meat smells a mile off, anyway. Nevertheless, if you live in Moscow and have a brain in your head, you’ll pick up reading willy-nilly, and without attending any courses” (11). With these doggish indicators, the narrator here seems to be a dog instructing the reader on survival skills as a dog, and yet it is not Sharik, whose story the narrator then relates: “Sharik first began to learn by color” (11). Compared to the internal focalization of the dog’s thoughts in the first chapter, in the second chapter the narrator interposes greater distance between the reader and the dog, using phrases such as with “Sharik wondered with astonishment” (12) and “That’s something, that’s really something, thought the dog” (13). The narrator still provides glimpses of the dog’s psychology, continuing to present him in the act of responding to and thinking about external stimuli, but the narrative distance has increased from the first chapter, with the narrator taking over the story. The narrator still provides more information about the dog than the humans, as we are limited to observation of human actions and speech rather than insight into their inner thoughts, as we are permitted with Sharik. At this point, it is only the dog into which we gain an omniscient perspective.

The third chapter continues with the dog’s-eye view, for example, with the identification of Bormental as “the stunningly handsome bitten one” (31), and the encyclopedic descriptions of the food and smells in the house. The narrator identifies with the dog without being Sharik himself, and the dog’s-eye view penetrates even unto dreams:

His words fell upon the sleepy dog like a dull subterranean hum. The owl with stupid yellow eyes leaped out at him in his dream; then the vile physiognomy of the cook in the dirty white cap; then Philip Philippovich’s dashing mustache; then a sleepy sled creaked and vanished, while the ravaged piece of roast beef, swimming in juice, was being digested in the canine stomach.

He could earn lots of money at meetings, the dog dreamed mistily. A first-rate business mind (37).

This passage aptly illustrates the variation of narrative mood within the chapter. The omniscient narrator peers even into the dog’s subconscious and stomach, and within the focalization of the dog, Sharik has the ability, even prior to the transformation, to assess the commercial potential of Preobrazhenski’s speech, much as he was able to determine his social standing in the first chapter. We are still focalized through the dog, which demonstrates knowledge not only of a person’s present social standing as in the first chapter, but also of their future prospects in future human endeavors.

Chapter four extends this narrative approach until the point at which the dog goes dreaming into sedation (50), which marks the end of Sharik’s doggish voice until the end of the novel. Yet even in the midst of the operation, the narrator vacillates between Bormental’s human name and the dog’s descriptive label for him (italics mine): “The instrument flashed in the bitten one’s hands as if he were a sleight-of-hand artist” (52). Once the operation is complete, the narrator uses “Bormental” thenceforth, the dog’s perspective no longer visible. The focalization on the dog has ended until the epilogue.

Bormental’s annotated notes form the content of chapter five, and in a fashion reminiscent of Gogol, are provided in diary form that moves from pedestrian entries into frenzied emotional outbursts. Bulgakov was not the first to use the literary device of the laboratory report, but “before Bulgakov the report was rarely, if ever, used to produce comic effects.” [101] The notes include indications of blots, inserted sheets, cross-outs, and other editorial comments such as: “evidently written by mistake in excitement” (58). Burgin likens the inkblots to the marred nature of Preobrazhenski’s creation: “Just as inkblots mar the written report of Sharikov’s coming to life, so does some kind of existential blot darken the genesis of this creator, putting the flawlessness of his creation in doubt.” [102]

Yet we are not in a Hoffmann story, where the reader is given some kind of explanation as to how the narrator was able to discover the written document at hand, as with the “Kreisleriana” and similar works. Instead, we are reading the case notes of Sharik’s operation which we can infer are burnt by Bormental in the last chapter: “Ivan Arnoldovich, she said, was squatting on his haunches before the fireplace in the office and feeding a blue copybook into the fire with his own hands – one of those books that were used for keeping records of case histories of the professor’s patients!” (118) Thus, the reader stands outside of the frame of the story, with the ability not only to peer into the mind of a dreaming dog, but also to read burnt documents. The variety of narrative approaches display a heterogeneity and fragmentariness reminiscent of the arabesque, and Bulgakov employs this artistic effect without drawing explicit attention to it by making it visible through a frame story.

Following the laboratory notes, chapter six briefly continues the theme of storytelling through written documents by recounting a series of notes on the door, and then a news item written by Shvonder. With the introduction of the transformed Sharikov, we no longer have access to the inner thoughts of the dog, who is now able to vocalize as well as any human character. Instead, it is now Preobrazhenski whose thoughts are revealed. The narrator indicates that Sharikov’s balalaika song and the news item are “creating a loathsome hodgepodge in Philip Philippovich’s head” (67); we can now see what the professor sees when he closes his eyes, and we perceive his inner thoughts about Sharikov’s galoshes (68). The shift is noteworthy in that previously, it was only Sharik’s thoughts that were echoed by the narrator. Now, we have a narrator that tells a story focalized through Preobrazhenski, using back-and-forth dialogue to portray Sharikov from his words and actions. The voice has shifted to a heterodiegetic narrator speaking at an extradiegetic level.

Most of chapter seven resembles the dialogue and stage directions of a play, with scarce interior monologue. However, the narrative does signal that we are still in the realm of the human by providing an omniscient view into Preobrazhenski’s thoughts with regard to Sharikov’s recommended reading:

A picture suddenly flashed through his mind: an uninhabited island, a palm tree, a man in an animal skin and cap. “I’ll have to get him Robinson …” (89)

In chapter eight, Sharikov receives his papers and insists on being called by his full name and patronymic Polygraph Polygraphovich, “with complete justice,” the narrator adds (95). The legal equality between the humans and the dog-man is emphasized by the narrator’s choice of words to describe how the characters speak. Both Sharikov (96) and Preobrazhenski are described as having “barked” speech, and throughout the chapter, the professor and his assistant thunder and exclaim with great passion and emotion. Not only is the dog equal before the law to the human figures, but they exhibit equally animalistic tendencies.

The final chapter depicts rage and violence from all sides. Bormental has a violent quarrel with Shvonder (108), while Philip Phillipovich growls and shakes his fists (109). When Sharikov returns having slaughtered many of Moscow’s stray cats (109), Bormental grabs him by the throat to demand an apology. Then, Sharikov threatens to purge the woman who spurns him, which precipitates Bormental’s threat of gun violence (114). Sharikov returns with a gun, and is overpowered in the struggle. The narrator remains at an extradiegetic level within the apartment, and at the end of the chapter, the focalization shifts away from Preobrazhenski to the view from the neighbors across the yard and the testimony of the housekeeper Zina (118).

In the epilogue, following the Professor’s presentation of the reverted Sharik to the investigating police to clear his name, the narration reprises the dog’s voice of chapters three and four, returning to the mind of the dog even as Preobrazhenski plunges his hands into a jar of brains (122-123). From this analysis, Bulgakov has taken us far beyond a simple talking-dog story where the voice of the dog is maintained throughout the work.

Rather than limit his palette to a single approach to narrative, Bulgakov combined his talents as a dramatist and novelist; he provides glimpses into the minds of both Sharik and Preobrazhenski through interior monologue, recounts the observations of Bormental through the notebooks, presents the opinions of the housing committee through dialogue, and uses external narration to comment on the entire scene, including the view of the house from the neighbors. The close association between character and narrative style opens up the possibility for a range of interpretations that incorporate the narrative structure into the reading.

Heart of a Dog has been interpreted as representing the Russian people under Bolshevism, [103] the rejection of Russia’s historical literary inheritance, [104] the Russian populace beset by hunger, [105] the range of points of view on a scientific debate, [106] or the disorder stemming from uprooting the paternalist hierarchy. [107] Whatever Bulgakov’s intention in writing the novella, the question remains as to why he used for these purposes a talking dog. We can suggest an answer for that question through a brief review of dog imagery in other Bulgakov works.

In Heart of a Dog, the homeless, hungry dog Sharik struggles with life-threatening injury in the Moscow winter, paralleling Bulgakov’s own struggle to find food and shelter in 1921 Moscow. Bulgakov described the peril of these difficult times: “It was very clear and simple, a lottery-ticket was lying in front of me with the inscription: death.” [108] Much of the same language is echoed by the narrator of Heart of a Dog when Sharik is taken into the care of Professor Preobrazhenski: “It was quite clear. The dog had pulled out the best dog-ticket” (40).

The image of the mangy dog also appears in one of Bulgakov’s early feuilletons, “Inflammation of the Brain,” in which the overworked and underpaid autobiographical narrator, a writer, asks his editor for money: “’You promised to give me some money today,’ I said, and suddenly I saw in the mirror that I looked like a dog under a tram.” [109] Another autobiographical story from Notes on the Cuff casts the narrator as a dog: “I’m no longer head of the literary section. I’m no longer head of the theater section. I’m a homeless dog in an attic.” [110] (Or, in another translation:  “I am a bastard cur in a garret.” [111] )

Heart of a Dog was written immediately following “The Fatal Eggs,” featuring a scientist-hero experimenting on animals using proprietary techniques. Professor Persikov, an expert on amphibious or scaleless reptiles, discovers a “red ray” that has an excitation effect upon cellular matter, for example, by spawning monstrous frogs. After word gets out about the results of these tests, the red ray is commandeered by a government official, Faight, to use upon chicken eggs to rebuild the poultry industry after a mysterious pestilence outbreak. Due to a shipping mix-up compounded by Faight’s scientific ignorance, the ray is used not upon chicken eggs, but upon snake and ostrich eggs that had been intended for Persikov. The resulting monstrosities ravage the countryside and head toward Moscow, unstoppable by armed forces but ultimately thwarted by a snap of cold weather.

At the point of discovery of the red ray, “The Fatal Eggs” briefly features a frog that talks with its eyes:

… a frog, half-strangled and stricken with terror and pain, was crucified on a cork base, while its transparent, micaceous entrails had been drawn out of its bloodied stomach into a microscope.

[…]

The frog shifted its head ponderously, and its dimming eyes said clearly: ‘Bastards, that’s what you are…’ [112]

Heart of a Dog takes the frog’s comment as a starting point for a narrative that moves from inside the mind of a dog to inside the mind of a human scientist, reflecting the post-Darwinian “end of separation of man from beast” [113] that had by this time occurred in the scientific world. Drawing upon an image Bulgakov had used in his autobiographical works, Heart of a Dog was the culmination of his Diaboliad-era aesthetic, only to be surpassed by The Master and Margarita, his unquestioned magnum opus and the product of over 13 years of revisions. Heart of a Dog beautifully renders the permeability between species with brilliant comic timing and sharp political commentary. Sharik makes the work accessible through the classical device of the animal who is allowed (in Sharik’s case, begrudgingly so) to observe humanity both from the street and the apartment, and Sharik’s transformation to Sharikov is paralleled and amplified by transformations in the narrative voice and mood, achieving an artistic effect unique within Bulgakov’s body of work.

 

 

NOTES


 

[92] Mikhail Bulgakov, Diaboliad and Other Stories, Trans. Hugh Aplin (Richmond, Surrey: London House, 2010) 140.

[93] Bulgakov, Diaboliad 118.

[94] Diana L. Burgin, "Bulgakov's Early Tragedy of the Scientist-Creator: An Interpretation of The Heart of a Dog," Slavic and East European Journal 22.4 (1978): 494.

[95] Burgin 495.

[96] Gennette 186.

[97] Genette 245.

[98] Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog 3. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the chapter.

[99] Susanne Fusso, "Failures of Transformation in Sobač'e Serdce," Slavic and East European Journal 33.3 (1989): 389.

[100] Fusso 390.

[101] Ellendea Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984) 128.

[102] Burgin 500.

[103] Fusso 386-7.

[104] Fusso 387.

[105] Ronald D. LeBlanc, “Feeding a Poor Dog a Bone: The Quest for Nourishment in Bulgakov’s Sobach’e serdtseThe Russian Review 52 (Jan. 1993): 67.

[106] Yvonne Howell, "Eugenics, Rejuvenation, and Bulgakov's Journey into the Heart of Dogness," Slavic Review 65.3 (2006): 550.

[107] Erica Fudge, “At the Heart of the Home: An Animal Reading of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog,” Humanimalia 1.1 (Sept., 2009): 16.

[108] Proffer 52.

[109] Proffer 91-92.

[110] Proffer 43.

[111] Mikhail Bulgakov, Notes on the Cuff & Other Stories (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1991) 18.

[112] Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs (London: Hesperus Press, 2003) 9.

[113] Erica Fudge, Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2002) 19.