Fiction as a Message: Kingsolver’s “Animal Dreams”
In Mother Teresa’s poem “Do It Anyway,” the famous missionary reflects on the numerous misfortunes that occur in daily life and advises people coming face-to-face with these issues to continue acting benevolently. As she advises her readers: “Give your best, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.” In her novel Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver extends equally inspiring guidance about how one can make the most of every day, and how to live graciously despite challenges. This author meticulously crafts multiple characters to offer pieces of her own opinions concerning what it takes for one to fulfill the responsibilities of being a wholesome person.
Although Kingsolver’s character Doc Homer exhibits a variety of offbeat habits and displays his emotions in different ways, his mannerisms prove that it is essential for one to love those around oneself, even if it may be difficult to make these feelings apparent. At multiple points throughout the novel, this father figure seems quite distanced and apathetic. However, what appears as disassociation from the outside proves to be deep affection. Firstly, in one chapter that centers Doc Homer, Kingsolver describes him as a “spider, driven by different instincts. He lies mute, hearing only in the tactile way that a spider hears, touching the threads of the web with long extended fingertips and listening. Listening for trapped life,” (98). One will infer that if Doc Homer truly did not care for his family, he would not be as attentive. The “instincts” to which Kingsolver refers function as his fatherly, caring instincts. Also, the practicality that Doc Homer has developed after years of working as doctor is reflected within his relationship with his daughters. For example, when the daughters’ neighbor and caretaker gives the two sisters a set of cowboy boots, hats, toy guns, and holsters, Doc Homer decides to take “the guns away, for the preservation of their souls, and the boots on account of their arches. He let them keep the hats” (170). It is probably that the girls, because of their youth, did not understand their father’s reasoning behind taking control over what they considered toys. When supplied with this logic behind the decision, it is clear that he prohibited the use of the guns and and boots not as a limit of his affection, but as a measure of his deep care. Later, when Codi journeys to her house’s disorganized attic, she explains her surprise upon investigating. Codi describes that, to her astonishment, there are “[s]tacked boxes of Hallie’s and my old clothes, school papers. photo albums, and all kinds of other detritus stood in neat rows, labeled chronologically and by content. I felt overwhelmed by so much material evidence of our family’s past” (281). Although all of these relics remain out of sight and thus out of mind of the two sisters, this arrangement does not diminish the fact that they exist. Doc Homer keeps memorabilia from the girls even though is aware that this expression of love will not be evident to them. Kingsolver consistently demonstrates that the tools that Doc Homer utilizes to express his emotions are slightly eclectic, she also employs his existence in the novel to express to the reader that it is vital for him or her to outwardly show affection, even if his or her methods are not quite understood by others.
Hallie, the designated inspirational hero of Animal Dreams, acts as Kingsolver’s voice and apparatus for evoking powerful emotion in the readers of the novel concerning how to live benevolently. For example, in one of Codi’s first descriptions of her sister, she outlines her strong and fervent desire to help the greater good. She voices her admiration when she describes how “[f]ew people know so clearly what they want. Most people can’t even think what to hope for when they throw a penny in a fountain” (36). This idolization speaks volumes about Kingsolver’s message with Hallie’s presence in the novel; if one wants to be as celebrated as this global ambassador, he or she must identify his or her values and be grounded in them. Kingsolver addresses this virtue in another quote much later in the novel. In one of Hallie’s letters to Codi, which operate as the only direct pieces of contact that the readers maintain with the protagonist’s sister, she again writes about her core principle in which she roots herself. Hallie explains her perspective on life when she resolves that “the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope” (299). After considering that Hallie has, at this point, traveled to Nicaragua to teach people how to farm effectively, it is clear that Hallie has already established her own virtues. That being said, in addition to writing about her values, she also leads through example. Hallie again uses a quote in order to embody the interpretation shared by her and Kingsolver regarding how one should live to the farthest and most fulfilling extent possible. At the small ceremony that Cody holds in honor of Hallie, the protagonist reads several quotes written by the late sister and those that she admired. Codi reads a remark originally said by Father Fernando Cardenal in respect of her sister which states, “‘You learn to read so you can identify the reality in which you live, so that you can become a protagonist of history rather than a spectator,’” (326). Hallie, a voracious reader, surely applies this statement to her life throughout the portion of the novel where she is alive. Furthermore, by holding this quotation in high regard of one of her characters, Kingsolver manipulates it as a message to her readers to encourage them to get involved with issues that they value. Hallie, a global ambassador with seemingly endless sympathy for others, leads by example and through quotes in order function as the reader’s guide as to how he or she should exist.
Due to Loyd’s troubled teenage past, from which he recovers as he ascends into adulthood, he learns that it is necessary for one to constantly evaluate oneself and to be aware of the times when change becomes crucial. Both Codi and Loyd experienced considerable growth after graduating from high school. When they later catch up when Codi returns to Grace, it is visible that they have both significantly matured. For instance, Loyd shares a remarkable statement when he claims, “The spirits have been good enough to let us live here and use the utilities, and we’re saying: We know how nice you’re being… Sorry if we messed up anything. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble, and we’ll try to be good guests” (239). Loyd’s growth and maturity is evident throughout his insight. He is now aware of the importance of looking at full perspectives of situations. That being said, one must consider that Loyd developed this mindset through evaluating his own attitude, and Kingsolver uses this outstanding example of advancement to employ Loyd as a leader. Earlier in the novel, when Codi accompanies Loyd to one of his cockfights, they begin to discuss the ethics behind it, and Loyd demonstrates the process he uses to determine if his actions are moral. Loyd soon comes to the conclusion that he expects “‘that humans… have more heart than that. I can’t feel good about people making a spectator sport out of puncture wounds and internal hemorrhage… My brother Leander got killed by a drunk, about fifteen miles from here… I’m quitting right now” (191). With the help of Codi, Loyd is able to recognize his own disapproval of his actions. In order to correct this, he decides to adjust his behavior to again feel satisfied with his moral. Kingsolver utilizes this situation to demonstrate to her readers how they should act when faced with similar circumstances. Soon after this, the two begin to talk about the death of Loyd’s brother. Codi assures him that the conversation is not necessary if it makes him uncomfortable, and Loyd responds “‘I don’t ever talk about him. Sometimes I’ll go a day or two without even thinking about him, and then I get scared I might forget he ever was,’” (207). Loyd is resolute on speaking about his twin Leander because of his fear that his brother’s memory will slip from his mind. Loyd makes sure to hold himself to high standards so he will be content with his actions later in life. Loyd’s transition from an indifferent teenager to an ever-improving and judicious adult represents that his sense of reasoning has advanced and that there is no way to better oneself than analyzing a situation from a global perspective.
Barbara Kingsolver develops her key characters in order to indicate her opinions relating to the possibility of a lifetime of fulfillment. These individuals comply with what it means to the author to live thoroughly, and their inclusion in the novel is intended to inspire readers. Even though current events may seem dire and society may be faced with persistent problems, the reader comes to the shocking truth that he or she should most definitely consider Kingsolver’s advice.
Animal Dreams: The Female Western
In Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver reinvents the Western genre, riffing on a couple of common tropes and stock characters while simultaneously creating a female-centered story that rejects the violence and disconnected heroes of stereotypical Westerns. As in many Western tales, a small town is threatened by a villain, but in this case it’s a type of villain that makes more sense in a modern context — instead of a gun-slinging “bad guy,” we have a faceless corporation intent on pursuing its own financial interests at the expense of the environment. Instead of a staunch, infallible protagonist, we have an irresolute heroine whose disconnect from her emotions is not an asset, but a major source of weakness. While she does play a part in saving the town of Grace, her more important task is to overcome her resistance to intimacy. Naomi Jacobs calls this novel an anti-Western, a critique of the myths underlying popular Westerns that “unravels the Western’s conventional approach to heroism, to violence and death, and to community.”The first trope that Kingsolver uses is that of a lonely stranger arriving in a rough small town. Codi Nolene rides into Grace on a bus instead of a horse, but otherwise her arrival is reminiscent of the entrance of many Western protagonists. Wearing jeans and cowboy boots, she stands on deserted Main Street, taking stock of her surroundings. But she’s not a real stranger: within a few pages, she tells us that she’s not a “moral guardian” and has “no favors to return” (15). Her sister Hallie, is the selfless heroine, the woman fighting for a cause. Codi resembles a typical Western hero in her independence, her self-reliance, and her avoidance of close ties. But in Animal Dreams, these attributes aren’t presented as admirable. Codi feels like an outsider everywhere she goes and is clearly suffering, though she claims that “pain seemed to have anesthetized me” (91). She’s not heroic — she admits that when she reads about disaster, her instinct is to run away. She drifts through life unable to make any real commitments, whether to place, profession, or relationships. She sees love as a trap to be avoided because “nothing you love will stay” (240). Like a virile cowboy hero, she has a healthy sexual appetite and suffers no qualms about having a casual fling with the handsome Native American, Loyd. In a reversal of the usual roles, Loyd is the one who models what a connection to home and family should look like, thus bringing Codi’s own emotional disconnect into sharp relief.In a typical Western, the male protagonist must put aside his personal feelings and pursue justice at all costs. In The Virginian, for example, the hero hangs an old friend-turned-cattle thief because it’s the “right” thing to do. Codi is the opposite. She has buried her feelings for so long that it has left her emotionally crippled. Her mission is to get in touch with her feelings and stop suppressing her memories. She must conquer the fear of intimacy that keeps her isolated and unravel her connection to the community. Interestingly, Codi is also a schoolteacher, albeit only temporarily, and so she combines two familiar Western stock characters into one. However, unlike The Virginian’s schoolmarm, Molly, and others of her ilk, Codi doesn’t provide a love interest and softening influence for a rough-hewn hero. Instead, she is the one who needs to be softened and civilized; her male lover, Loyd, provides the wisdom and type of self-sacrificing love more typically associated with women. Every Western must have its villain, preferably one dressed in black. The antagonist in Animal Dreams is the Black Mountain Mining Company, a faceless entity that can’t be defeated with old-fashioned violence. Instead of the men riding out with guns to tackle it, the women of Grace invent a creative way to defeat their enemy. While dynamite and bulldozer-tampering are initially proposed as solutions to the threat, the women have no intention of resorting to violence. Instead, they join together in a communal effort to raise money and ultimately outwit the villain. Violence is not glorified in the novel, but actually disparaged. The cruelty of cock-fighting and of the attacks in Nicaragua stand in stark contrast to the solution dreamed up by the women: the creation and peaceful sale of beautiful piñatas. As Naomi Jacobs puts it: “the novel desacralizes violence and reauthorizes connection and nurturance as essential bases for heroism.”From Loyd’s matrilineal clan (in which women are the “center of things” (240)) to Doña Althea and the other matriarchs of Grace, in Animal Dreams, women wield all the power. The novel is ultimately about female strength, which is found in self-awareness, intimacy, community, and love. It stands in direct opposition to the male violence that seems unavoidable in traditional Westerns. The women of Grace save their town with creativity. Hallie fights for Nicaragua not with weapons but by helping the people grow food, and Codi finally reconnects with her feminine side, emerging whole and able to join her community. She is at last able to accept the love of her “fifty mothers.” Through the novel, Kingsolver demonstrates the importance of self-awareness and intimate connections while pointing out that peaceful resolutions to conflict are possible. She also shows us the unique and powerful ways in which women influence the world.WORKS CITEDJacobs, Naomi. “Barbara Kingsolver’s Anti-Western: ‘Unraveling the Myths’ in Animal Dreams.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 2 (Fall 2003). Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 216. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2010
Symbols of Death in Animal Dreams
Somewhere amongst the fallen pecans, the woolen afghan, and the clandestine photographs, we can find in Animal Dreams a consistent symbol of death. Codi is followed throughout the story by a seeming demise of those around her, from friends and family to earthly surroundings. She is faced even with the loss of her own perceptions of herself, her origins, and her instincts. The novel opens and closes on “The Night/Day of All Souls,” granting readers insight into Codi’s past and potential future, including their death of conventionality. Beliefs, motives, and traditions are greatly altered in these chapters, providing vast and changed perceptions of surroundings. Codi’s return to Grace in “Hallie’s Bones” employs the demise of a previous adventure, an avoidance, and a strange unwillingness to accept the security that she secretly longs for. “Bleeding Hearts,” and “A River on the Moon,” describe the death of natural beings in Codi’s own “personal ecosystem.” She is then confronted with the gradual but undeniable death of her father’s mental state in “Day of the Dead,” and “Human Remains.” From the initial loss of her mother and child throughout her development to the realization of her future and environment in adulthood, Codi is continuously challenged with the images and realities of death that surround her. Animal Dreams begins with Doc Homer’s memory of his daughters as young girls, in “The Night of All Souls.” He makes the decision that, after frequenting the tradition, “this will be [Codi and Hallie’s] last year for the cemetery and the Day of All Souls. There are too many skeletons down there.” (Kingsolver 4) The opening of the novel, beginning “from moments of departure,” is portrayed quite clearly in this obvious denial of a child’s holiday custom in attempts to conceal a dark family secret. (Stevenson 187) This behavior exemplifies Homer’s general attitude towards his children throughout the story, frequently substituting love and “the exhibition of affection” for practicality and protection, or “orthopedic shoes.” (Rubenstein 204) This absolute restraint of affection and honesty from father to daughters is a standard symbol for the death of tradition and communication. Quite differently, “The Day of All Souls,” upon which the novel closes, portrays “a sense of affirmation, emphasizing resolution, continuity, new life, and the next generation.” (Stevenson 187) In Codi’s acceptance of this fresh, alternative option, however, there can be found the death of a custom. Codi’s undying refusal to remain in Grace throughout the novel, as well as her avoidance of a stationary lifestyle to begin with, truly and visibly approaches its decline in this chapter. Including the announcement of her father’s eventual passing, this chapter also reveals that Codi had, in fact, been present at the death of her mother. “If you remember something, then it’s true,” Viola explains, finally smothering the painful insecurity of Codi’s continuously denied memories. (Kingsolver 342) “The Night of All Souls,” and “The Day of All Souls” are sincerely appropriate to the realizations and choices that are encompassed within each chapter. It is true that the decisions and outcomes of the primary characters in these chapters, whatever their intention, touch all souls, describing the clearly “all-inclusive” natures of these unquestionably significant dates. Codi’s transition into the momentous change she undergoes throughout the novel begins with her return to her hometown of Grace, New Mexico. Following an inferior position with 7-11 and a silently unsatisfying relationship, she makes her way back to the town, “of things that erode too slowly to be noticed” in “Hallie’s Bones.” (Kingsolver 8) While she originally applies this description to the town’s natural features, it soon becomes clear that this gradual wear is pertinent to its population as well. Literary critic Roberta Rubenstein argues that with Codi’s return to Grace comes also the “recovery of her own lost self.” (Rubenstein 204) However, her eventual outcome is one that absolutely marks the death of this original personification, creating an entirely new character out of Codi. Her homecoming is, in fact, a death in itself, of the empty and anchorless life that Codi previously claimed. She arrives “at that moment in my life, without knowing how to make the kind of choice that was called for here.” (Kingsolver 15) By the time of her final settlement in Grace, however, she maintains an entirely different perspective and ability to not only “make that choice,” but feel worth in doing so. The title of “Hallie’s Bones,” is a slightly ominous one, possibly providing insight into the completely altered future of Codi’s story, much like the chapter itself does altogether. The promising steps into Grace, along with the descriptive disappointment in her past “adventure” ultimately offer the clue that “the search for individual identity is by itself not enough to grant her the peace, security, and sense of belonging she craves.” (Aubrey 1) Reminiscing on the tremendously close relationship between the two sisters, “like keenly mismatched Siamese twins conjoined at the back of the mind,” and the past they had shared together, allows a slight anticipation of the events to come, as does the venture into an old, yet completely new, world of Grace. (Kingsolver 8) In addition to her sense of self, clarity of memory, and several loved ones, the loss/death that Codi experiences quickly extends to her natural surroundings as well. “Like Codi’s inner being, the land around Grace is at risk; a major stage in Codi’s eventual discovery of her true place as an ’insider’ in Grace is her political awakening to that fact.” (Rubenstein 206) “Bleeding Hearts” describes the oncoming of winter, in which the trees begin to die, shedding their leaves and fruits “…in thick, brittle handfuls like the hair of a cancer patient.” (Kingsolver 173) Plagued also by the poison ground and inability to reproduce, the “fruit drop” takes place all throughout the town, inspiring an extraordinary and lifeless image. (Kingsolver 63) The very fact that the trees are unable to reproduce simply because of their location in relation to each other is, in itself, a profound symbol of the distance that Codi places between herself and others in order to evade the constant feeling of loss and death around her. Similarly, with her biology class, Codi discovers that the town’s river is being harshly polluted by a nearby mining establishment in “A River on the Moon.” “Our water was dead. It might as well have come from a river on the moon,” Codi explains, giving palpable meaning to the chapter’s title . (Kingsolver 110) The river’s lifeless state holds great similarity to Codi’s own personal ecosystem, as “[the land’s memory] bears on the idea of home.” (Rubenstein 206) The few frogs and fish in the river, bearing unexplainable life, represent the citizens of Grace, continuing slowly and unknowingly through their days, despite their unchangeable and empty surroundings. The unbroken patterns of the blind life, chosen and accepted by many in the town, remain tragic symbols of the absolute death of growth, in mind, body, and ultimately, culture. One of the most focal examples of the death that Codi experiences in Animal Dreams is that of her father. Despite their relationship’s lack of communication and affection, Doc Homer’s gradual slip into Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death is a painful one for Codi. Homer’s persistent efforts to conceal significant facts from his daughters in attempts to protect them from deemed-painful reality are unsympathetically equalized by the lack of love that he exhibits for them. “As urgently as Codi needs to delve into the past, Doc Homer has over the years felt compelled to cover it up.” (Aubrey 7) Despite this attempt, however, Homer, “the community’s respected doctor…is, ironically, unable to heal his own family,” creating detached and distant relationships throughout the process of this obstruction. (Rubenstein 204) In “Day of the Dead,” Codi comes to the full and heartrending realization that her father is stealing into the grip of Alzheimer’s Disease. His full acceptance and pleasure in solitude that “wasn’t a waiting period, it was life” feed the apparently impenetrable distance between the ailing Homer and his desperate daughter. (Kingsolver 153) The chapter’s appropriately dark title likely refers to the full recognition that Codi experiences of her father’s certain decline in addition to her own true isolation. “Human Remains” portrays a later, more developed stage in Doc Homer’s rapid demise, exhibiting a more accepting side of Codi towards her father’s illness. Confusing the bundle of Hallie’s memories that Codi attempts to bury with her long-deceased child, he argues and observes her confusing actions, noting “the fact that all these particles of dirt have now been rearranged.” (Kingsolver 333) The soil, however, remains just one of the drastically altered features in Codi and Doc Homer’s lives, symbolizing the distinctive new world that the two enter after all that they have endured. Homer’s confusion with Codi’s bundle is appropriate as well, for in burying the memories of Hallie, she too is essentially burying Doc Homer’s own detached baby. “There are no human remains,” Codi explains, generating a distanced, yet exceptionally appropriate answer from her father. “How true,” he replies, linking painful and overwhelming, shared scenes of death together into a singular and unworldly explanation. (Kingsolver 333) The chapter’s title designates a separation of body and soul which seemingly ensues prematurely for Doc Homer, setting into motion Codi’s coping process of loss and death once again. Efficiently weaved into the texture of love, self-realization, and acceptance is the noticeable theme of death found in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams. Ranging from an unidentified emptiness to the absolute loss of a loved one, the symbols and scenes of death by fear, self-misunderstanding, industrial carelessness, or disease are evidently portrayed in the lives of Codi and her father. The silent inabilities of Kingsolver’s characters to accept change and adaptation often pave trails of painfully similar futures, either in the creation of their own personal loss or in the failure of properly managing their grief. Doc Homer’s persistent stage of mourning produces a cold and sorrowful relationship with his daughters, enabling lifetimes of unawareness and self-speculation. In turn, Codi’s unwillingness to accept the settlement of a permanent home creates equally difficult attempts in the establishment of meaningful relationships. Meanwhile, effects beyond average control, such as pollution and disease, generate willful neglect and inefficient methods in coping processes. Kingsolver’s novel is a detailed cross section of a character pursued and enveloped by death. Her emotional accounts of tangible events create an inspiringly convincing narrative of Codi’s quest to escape death’s omnipresence in her life.Works CitedAubrey, Bryan. “Animal Dreams (Criticism): Information from Answers.com.” Answers.com – Online Dictionary, Encyclopedia and much more. 2001. 12 Apr. 2009