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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2018

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Keywords for Victorian Literature and Culture
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

How did the Victorians define and conceptualize the “animal”? The term allowed—as it still does today—a strictly scientific definition, along with a more loosely colloquial one. Richards Owens wrote in 1860 that “When an organism receives nutritive matter by a mouth, inhales oxygen and exhales carbonic acid, and developes [sic] tissues, the proximate principles of which are quaternary compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, it is called an ‘animal.’” But in his 1873 Talk of Animals and Their Masters, Cambridge Apostle Arthur Helps specified, “When I use the word ‘animals’ I mean all living creatures except men and women.”Footnote 1

More than a simple slippage between scientific precision and idiomatic flexibility, though, this difference points to a fundamental instability and multifariousness in the term. “Animal” is at once a biological category that includes the human, and an ethico-political category that not only excludes the human, but that defines the human through that exclusion. Jacques Derrida argues that that the very term “animal” is at once a conceptual error, in its excessive generality—“They have given themselves the word in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept: ‘the Animal,’ they say”—but which is also foundational to the human: “Power over the animal is the essence of the ‘I’ or the ‘person,’ the essence of the human.”Footnote 2 Beyond its strictly biological/scientific meaning, the term “animal” performs at least two different notable rhetorical acts, arguably violent ones: it groups together all creatures that are not “human” into one single category; and it defines the human by virtue of its own exclusion from a category that otherwise would seem to have to include it. To be human, then, is to claim for oneself both the power to remove oneself from biological reality—to not be an animal, even when one actually is one—and the power to rule over and to oversee the realm of the non-human.

The domestication, care, and breeding of animals thus become charged with a special power—as practices that define and prove humanness by asserting control over animals. As Charles Darwin writes in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, “[I]t is not surprising that … our highly-bred pigeons have undergone an astonishing amount of change; for in regard to them there is no defined limit to the wish of the fancier, and there is no known limit to the variability of their characters. What is there to stop the fancier desiring to give to his Carrier a longer and longer beak, or to his Tumbler a shorter and shorter beak?”Footnote 3 Darwin compares animal domestication to high fashion in its tendency to operate as a zone for unlimited “extremes” of creative whim. In breeding and domestication, man shapes nature with all the unnatural artifice of a clothes designer:

It is an important principle that in the process of selection man almost invariably wishes to go to an extreme point. Thus, there is no limit to his desire to breed certain kinds of horses and dogs as fleet as possible, and others as strong as possible; certain kinds of sheep for extreme fineness, and others for extreme length of wool; and he wishes to produce fruit, grain, tubers, and other useful parts of plants, as large and excellent as possible. With animals bred for amusement, the same principle is even more powerful; for fashion, as we see in our dress, always runs to extremes.Footnote 4

The pigeon fancier will always have an urge to give his birds longer or shorter beaks—in part simply because in doing so, he proves that he himself is “human,” non-animal, the animal who defies the category, inhabiting and controlling a zone of the non-natural “artificial”.

But when thinking about the Victorians and animals, questions of control and domination are only part of the story. Victorian personhood also relies importantly on care and love for the animal—or for some animals. Deidre Lynch argues that in the late eighteenth century, literature, “something to be taken personally by definition,” began to “deman[d] love,” that a newly “subjectivity-saturated language of involvement and affection” began to inflect readers’ relationship to literature.Footnote 5 I suggest that the love of literature and the love of pet animals become mutually defining in this period. Victorian persons, and Victorian protagonists, must prove their ability to sort out animals properly: to cast out most living creatures as mere animals, as undeserving of any special care or notice, as available for consumption as meat, hide, or other products; but also to select certain special animals as “pets,” as animals who are to be brought close to the human. Such favored animals gain some of the perquisites of personhood: a given name; love; access to domestic space, and to novelistic “character-space”;Footnote 6 some limited hold on our memories.

In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, one of Heathcliff's first utterances is to advise a visitor to his home, Lockwood, to take care: “You'd better let the dog alone … She's not accustomed to be spoiled—not kept for a pet.”Footnote 7 Wuthering Heights is, in a manner that is characteristically Victorian, preoccupied with the dividing of creatures into animal and non-animal, pet and non-pet. When Heathcliff's visitor Lockwood, attempting to flirt with Cathy Linton, points to “an obscure cushion full of something like cats” and asks if “your favorites are among these?”Footnote 8 he seems to be posing a reasonable question: every proper Victorian home has its “favorite” animals, those “pets” granted love and care and even a degree of partial personhood. But he makes an unpleasant and embarrassing discovery: what he thought was a pile of living cats was in fact “a heap of dead rabbits.”Footnote 9 Brontë makes a mordant joke here, suggesting that the Victorian love or care for animals is only slightly removed from violence towards them; that to select a “favorite” animal is always also implicitly to designate an indefinite larger category (here a “heap”) of those considered utterly disposable.Footnote 10



1. “animal,” OED Online, Oxford University Press,, (accessed October 9, 2017).

2. Derrida, Jacques, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Mallet, Marie-Louise, trans. Wills, David (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 32Google Scholar, 93.

3. Darwin, Charles, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1875), 233Google Scholar,

4. Darwin, Variation, 226.

5. Lynch, Deidre Shauna, Loving Literature: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 8Google Scholar, 10.

6. Woloch, Alex, The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 24Google Scholar.

7. Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights, ed. Jack, Ian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 5Google Scholar.

8. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 135, 8.

9. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 9.

10. This essay draws on arguments I make at greater length in the introduction to my book, Minor Creatures: Persons, Animals, and the Victorian Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018)Google Scholar.