Defamiliarising the Zoo : Representations of Nonhuman Animal Captivity in Five Contemporary Novels
Type of content
While human-animal relations have always been part of human cultures the public zoo is a relatively recent phenomenon that reflects very specific elements of Western cultures’ modern ideas about, and relationships with, nonhuman animals. By becoming such a familiar part of popular culture the zoo naturalises these ideas as well as certain modes of looking at and interacting with animals. In this thesis I argue that as literary works contemporary novels provide a valuable defamiliarisation of zoos which encourages the re-examination of the human attitudes and practices that inform our treatment of nonhuman animals. Through my analysis of J.M. Ledgard’s novel 'Giraffe', Diane Hammond’s 'Hannah’s Dream', Lydia Millet’s 'How The Dead Dream', Valerie Martin’s 'The Great Divorce' and Ben Dolnick’s 'Zoology' I explore the inherently anthropocentric social construction of nonhuman animals in human discourses and the way the novels conform to or subvert these processes. I demonstrate that nonhuman animal characters are constructed through a process of identification which involves naming, recognising the existence of their emotions and mediating their nonhuman forms of communication. Anthropocentric tendencies both aid and hinder this identification, for example the human valuing of sight over the other senses that sees eyes become important literary symbols and the gaze a crucial part of interaction and attributing meaning. Gaze and observation are also fundamental to the concept of the zoo where human treatment of nonhuman animals is represented in visual terms in the relationship between powerful spectator and disempowered object. Drawing on texts from multiple disciplines I argue that the anthropocentric nature of socially constructed nonhuman animals in human discourses means that any study of these animals is actually concerned with the human ideologies and processes that create them; as a site of captivity that markets wildness and freedom the paradoxical nature of the zoo provides the literary setting for an exploration of these themes.