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Dickens's Talking Dogs: Allegories of Animal Voice in the Victorian Novel

  • Elisha Cohn


How does the category of the “animal” contribute to the Victorian novel? In the 1840s and 1850s, magazines offered endless short tales of “animal sagacity” that most commonly featured dogs, demonstrating the virtues of the species. An 1858 article in Household Words, “Old Dog Tray,” observes, “Alas! not a day will pass but we can descry human qualities in the brute, and brute qualities in the human being; and, alas again, how often we find a balance of love, fidelity, truth, generosity, on the side of the brute!” In the 1850s and 1860s, the analogies between human and animal behavior upon which these tales depended became a resource to the growing fields of comparative ethology and evolutionary theory—Frances Power Cobbe would suggest in 1877 that dogs had “reflex morality.” Meanwhile, novels from this period increasingly raised questions of the scientific, political, and aesthetic value of claims of resemblance among species. For Charles Dickens, whose work offered a capacious image of the London population, the question of who belongs in a family, a community, or a nation persistently turned to the status of animals. In his work, animal figures mark meditations on the conditions and limits of social inclusion.



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I am grateful to have had the opportunity to present and discuss selections from this piece to audiences at Dickens Universe, NAVSA, MLA, and the University of Sussex Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Speaker Series. The support of a Cornell Society for the Humanities Faculty Research Grant allowed me to complete this essay.



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