Ep. 20. When Mice Are Men: Animal allegories in literature

It is a special book when the story is not only what it appears to be about, but there is yet another story happening through the metaphors and symbolism used by the author. It might seem ironic, but allegories, when done well, make a point clearer by not addressing it directly. An allegory can specially resonate when it includes animals; since, as Donald L. Hicks said "those who teach the most about humanity aren't always human." We dedicate today's episode to books using animals allegorically, and you will see how powerful some of them can be.    
Photo from McGill Library

📗 Watership Down by Richard Adams

One of the attractive features of animal allegories is that many are written as stories for young readers. That is certainly the intended audience of Watership Down. Although I dare say that reading this book as an adult is even more entertaining, as it would allow us to appreciate the nuances and symbolism used by Adams to talk about community, the quest for a better society, and tyrannical governments. The story tells how, a group of brave bunnies, listening to the presentiment of one of their group, leave their warren and face the dangers of a vast world in search for hopes of a better home. If you find it hard to believe that you could be uplifted by the courage of a group of bunnies, a reading of Watership own will convince you otherwise. 

As evidence that the book has inspired adults, there is a cocktail named after the book created by bartender Jeremy Oertel. The cocktail contains gin, dry vermouth, lime juice, ginger syrup, soda water, and a celery stick for garnish; all of which reminded Oertel of rabbits on a summer field.  

📗 The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Speaking of books which have inspired cocktails (more on that in a minute), the Old Man and the Sea is one of the most powerful and synthesized allegories ever written. The book tells the story of Santiago, a Cuban fisherman, as he fights at sea to catch and then to keep a huge marlin. Many literary scholars have equated the struggles of Santiago to the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, pointing at symbols like the wounds  from the fishing line suffered by Santiago on his palms and hands, and Santiago carrying the boat mast in a similar fashion as Christ carried his cross. The book is ultimately about hope and the divinity found in humanity, immortalized in the famous quote: "But man is not made for defeat... man can be defeated but not destroyed." If you would like to hear Donald Sutherland read that line, he does a wonderful job narrating the audiobook for The Old Man and the Sea.

As mentioned before, the book has inspired no shortage of cocktails. One of them, named after the book, was created by B&B ButchersThe drink, made with Flor de Caña rum, Luxardo Maraschino, lime juice, and grapefruit juice, is a variation of a daiquiri, a drink Hemingway used to enjoy at El Floridita, in Havana. Another reinterpretation of the daiquiri has been created by Whitney Otawka for her book The Saltwater Table. It mixes white rum, coconut water, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and a pinch of salt. While in Cuba, Hemingway owned a colonial estate called Finca La Vigia, where he lived from 1939 to 1960 and where he wrote The Old Man and The Sea. The home is now a museum, preserving many of his belongings including a typewriter where he used to write standing up and often barefoot. The museum also contains Hemingway's extensive library, his pencil writing on the bathroom wall recording his weight, his fishing rods, and his beloved boat Pilar. 
Main living room of Finca La Vigia. Photo by InZweiZeiten

📗 Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

It might seem ironic that an animal allegory can teach us so much about human nature, but that is exactly what Flowers for Algernon does. The book is written as the diary entries of Charlie, a man with a mental disability who alongside Algernon, a lab mouse, undergoes an experimental operation to increase his IQ. In his diary, we see how Charlie's intelligence develops and how an unexpected development in Algernon may have potential implications for Charlie after his procedure. 

This heart-rending book is great bibliotherapy for those in the mood to reinvent themselves. 

In the book, Charlie is subjected to the inkblot or Rorschach test, which shows subjects an  inkblot shape for them to identify what they see with the intention they project their innermost emotions into their interpretation. The Etsy store A certain je ne sais quoi sells a necklace with an inkblot image that can be a great accessory for lovers of Flowers for Algernon. What could be seen in the shape of the inkblot, we leave for you to decide. 
Necklace companion for Flowers for Algernon from A certain je ne sais quoi

📗 Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is one of the best animal allegories ever written. In a political satire of the communist regime installed after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Orwell uses farm animals to represent different classes and to illustrate the hypocrisy, repression, and abuse of totalitarian dictatorships. In Orwell's book, what starts as a takeover of the farm by the animals from the human masters, with flaming slogans of justice and equality, soon turns into a much more horrible situation under the governance of cunning and demagogic pigs. 

For admirers of Animal Farm and Orwell who find themselves in London, maybe you would like to have a half-pint at the Wheatsheaf like Orwell used to do. The bar is close to the headquarters of the BBC, where Orwell's office used to be and where a statue of the writer can be found outside the building. The statue is accompanied by a quote from no other book than Animal Farm, which reads: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Photograph by Norman McBeath

📗 Maus by Art Spiegelman

If Animal Farm is one of the best animal allegories ever written, Maus is one of the best animal allegories ever being put into illustrations. Yes, Maus is a graphic novel, for many the greatest graphic novel ever created. Based the author's experience as a Holocaust survival, Maus draws a history lesson. It tells readers about tragedy and trauma, depicting Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, and equating Europe to a giant mousetrap.  

We have chosen Maus for our Six-Word Review this week: Vivid fable in black and white

📗 The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, wakes up one day and realizes he has turned into a giant beetle. As the book progresses, we get to see how Samsa is locked into the body of this insect, secluded to his room, and eventually even alienated from his family. Ultimately, turning Samsa into an insect, Kafka has allegorically told us about the isolation felt by many of his contemporaries in the years leading to World War I.  

The cover for the 2014 paperback edition by W. W. Norton and Company was designed by Jamie Keenan, a talented artist whose ideas for book covers take shape after he spend some time looking at the name of the book and its author scribbled in pencil. It is easy to see how his process works with his cover for Metamorphosis, where the letters in the title are arranged to form the shape of a beetle. It helps that the font for these letters is intricate and insect-like. For this reason, we have chosen this elegant design for our Cover Gallery his week.
2014 Paperback edition by W. W. Norton and Company

📗 Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

This is a book for dreamers, especially dreamers who like the 1970s, the decade in which the novella was published. Bach tells us about a seagull who would not conform to flying only for survival; this seagull wants to fly because it is its passion and its quest for Nirvana (to use some of the New Age terms that were in fashion in the 1970s). 

Even though using birds and flying as allegories of liberation and freedom is overdone, readers in the mood to soar (figuratively, of course) will be right at home with this inspirational book. There was a movie adaptation done in 1973 with soundtrack by Neil Diamond. It will be a great idea to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull listening to the movie soundtrack, which after all includes the song I'm A Believer, so how could you not be uplifted afterwards? 

For Book vs. Book this week we have chosen two novels by Yann Martel. Both novels use animals allegorically to illustrate a poignant situation, and they both have a twist at the end that would make readers reconsider the entire story they have just finished. 

📗 Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Pi, the young protagonist, is stranded in the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck alongside a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Without giving much away, since we would not like to spoil the surprise ending for you, the book relates Pi's adventures and spiritual journey after finding himself in this unusual situation.

It is usually the case that allegories are hard to translate successfully to the big screen. But if there is a director talented enough to do it, it is Ang Lee, who we have previously praised in Episode 14, and who superbly adapted Life of Pi in 2012 

📗 Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil is the story of a donkey and a monkey, and it is also a story about one of the most important events in history. As it is the case with Life of Pi, it is hard to introduce this book without spoiling its reading, because in a book teeming with symbolism, its interpretation is critical to the full enjoyment of the book. Readers beware, this book is one of those that is either absolutely loved or not liked at all. I put myself in the former category.


For GuessWork this week we have chosen a satiric novel where the human-like characters behave beastly while the animal characters are civilized and humane, ironically. Would you be able to guess the title from its first line?



To buy books covered in this episode, visit our TBR Bundles.

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