Animal Anthropomorphism for Adults — How Black Beauty Changed History.

Using animal anthropomorphism as a literary device can have enormous influence on both individuals and society, with the power to change history.

Wendy Gill

Anthropomorphism = treating animals, gods, or objects as if they are human in appearance, character, and behaviour [Cambridge Dictionary].

Anthropomorphism as a literary device can be used to portray morals of society as well as to educate and entertain. One of the most successful books published in the 1870’s was Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell.

Successful in two ways:

  1. A bestseller of its time and of all time. For those in the US, it sold 1x million copies within two years of its first publication — 145 years ago! Sales now exceed 50x million books worldwide, in 50 languages.
  2. The use of animal anthropomorphism was both innovative for its target market (adults) and improved the welfare of animals in many countries. The author specifically wrote it for this purpose and succeeded in her goal.

 

For those that haven’t read it:

Original title: Black Beauty, his grooms and companions; the autobiography of a horse, ‘Translated from the original equine by Anna Sewell.’

Presented from the viewpoint of a horse, Black Beauty tells his own story. The book is written in first person with human thoughts, logic, and values being attributed to horses. E.g. [Black Beauty] “What right had they to make me suffer like that?”

It is set in mid-Victorian England when horses were the transport machinery of the time. Although he was born into a good home, Black Beauty suffers misfortune and he and his horse companions endure human cruelty and ignorance.

The author unashamedly inserts her own values and opinions into the story. For example, one of Black Beauty’s friends was a horse that took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade and the author’s opinion of the Crimean War is evident in the horse’s dialogue. Other topics include tail docking (of horses and dogs), drunkenness, and a wide range of social and moral themes.


Isn’t Black Beauty a children’s book? (60,000 words)

Yes, it is now.

At the time, the author hated the ill-treatment of horses and other animals. She deliberately targeted the story at adults in order to change that. In the 19th Century, writing an anthropomorphic fiction story written from an animal viewpoint was almost unique. It drew attention.


So what? Isn’t it just another animal story?

Yes and no. By using a technique that is common today, this story changed horse welfare in many countries across the globe.

For example, one of the author’s targets was to abolish the ‘bearing rein’. In order to make carriage and wagon horses look more elegant when working, horses wore a rein that fixed their necks into an arched shape. This impacted their breathing and ability to pull heavy loads.

Sewell allowed readers to ‘see’ the situation from an animal’s perspective. [Ginger] “it is dreadful… your neck aching until you did not know how to bear it… [bits] hurt my tongue and my jaw, and the blood from my tongue coloured the froth that kept flying from my lips…”

The power of the pen: by evoking emotion in its readers, Black Beauty led to the bearing rein being abolished in Victorian England, as well as other countries. Animal advocates would hand free copies of the book to those driving carriages and wagons and within just a few years of publication, it triggered anti-cruelty legislation in multiple countries across the world.

In addition, parallels have been drawn between Sewell’s work and commentary on slavery, the class system, society morals, and more. However, it's believed her primary goal was to improve animal welfare.


Does animal anthropomorphism in novels cause problems?

Absolutely. Used or interpreted wrongly, anthropomorphism can lead to immense cruelty (often unintentionally). Animals do not think like humans whatever their owners might wish or believe. Yes they feel pain and stress and positive and negative emotions. However, they cannot reason in the same way a human does.

To use a real-life example from decades ago: an owner left their dog at home when they went on holiday. They left it enough food overall, in bowls labelled Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. The dog ate all the food on day one because it could not a) read, or b) work out that it might need to save some for later.

Children in particular are at an impressionable age where lifelong lessons can be learnt, for good or bad. The ‘bad’ is heightened even further when factual information about an animal’s needs and innate nature is ignored or incorrectly presented when writing.

 

On the other hand, anthropomorphism can be an invaluable tool well beyond mere entertainment e.g. “morals and responsibilities, power vs. weakness, personal relationships, animal rights, race & social class, feminist issues, and gay rights…Anthropomorphism creates an ‘emotional distance’ which allows the readers to identify with the text, but with a safe distance…” [Burke and Copenhaver (2004), cited in Dhantal (2018)].


Anthropomorphism in future literature?

The use of anthropomorphism is not confined to animals. In science fiction, numerous topics are explored via artificial intelligence constructs (e.g. ranging from Wall-E, the last robot on Earth, through to androids indistinguishable from mankind). There has also long been anthropomorphism of objects in more general literature (e.g. cars). Will this trend increase as society changes for the future, or would the method itself become too overused and familiar?

Anna Sewell was an innovative writer who employed a new (at the time) technique to achieve her aim. Is it possible that other new techniques might evolve for future authors? And, in the modern era, could they make such a difference to so many lives (animal or human)?

What will be the next animal anthropomorphic story that has such a widespread effect on adults and children (including the successful sales) as Black Beauty? Maybe it will be written here on CC…

*****

Dhantal, S. (2018) Black Beauty Through the Aristotelian and the Anthropomorphic Lens.

Image of modern-day Standardbred stallion[cropped] courtesy of Jean, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

19+ Comments

Liynx

Thank you for this article, it brought back lovely memories. I think there was a TV show on, too, around the time I read the book, but the book made a stronger, more lasting impression on me.

I’m interested in non-human POVs and I (made the mistake of) look(ing)ed up if using these automatically turns non-fiction into fiction. Technically, I guess it does, but my thinking was… well, the facts are true, no matter who recounts them. I found quite a few voices that expressed some amount of dislike for the idea, a handful of opinions in favour (or indifferent to the humanity of the POV character), so… I continued to write the story and called it non-fiction. :grinning:

Sep-22 at 00:40

Never

Great food for thought in this blog post. I haven’t read Black Beauty but maybe I should. I’ve been interested in anthropomorphizing birds and plants in my own work in order to better illuminate the relationships they have with each other.

Sep-22 at 00:41

Leglessme

Thanks for the education in not only a misunderstood classic such as Black Beauty but the power behind making something new and impactful in our own writing. While reading, I can’t help be see in my mind the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Dave is shutting down the HAL9000 computer while the computer is objecting. As it loses “brain power” it sings the first thing it learned–the song Daisy Bell. This may be why when my laptop doesn’t perform as expected, I call it a b*tch. It also explains how the intelligence of dolphins were/are portrayed but not their gentle, freedom-loving nature making them targets for capture and display (and government experiments) since Flipper.

Sep-22 at 00:44

Timark

I m guessing a crossdressing crocodile passes for an animorph.

Sep-22 at 01:34

Wendyg

I think probably the fiction bit comes because it’s not a true account of what the animal or object thinks? Of course, that doesn’t change the value of a project or the power of using non-human POV’s to portray concepts, so go for it!

Sep-22 at 03:47

Wendyg

That sounds a great idea!
In regards to reading Black Beauty: yes, it’s a great book for analysing the techniques used at the time.

This is one of my biggest concerns for new writers on CC. There is an immense pressure to conform (usually to the lowest commercial level of the US market), which is fine if that is the writer’s target. Unique ideas and ‘voices’ are often squashed and I’ve seen writers change their style, story, and even their writing ambitions just because other amateurs (mostly) say you CAN’T.
If new writers can’t/don’t experiment when starting, then they might never do so and who knows what innovative exciting and powerful things we might miss out on.

I felt sorry for HAL, and loved Flipper (and Skippy, the bush kangaroo).

Absolutely! I hope you’re writing about one.

Sep-22 at 03:51

Timark

Kinda.

Sep-22 at 04:00

Leglessme

So did the man who trained the dolphin who played Flipper. They suffer depression when captive. He says the dolphin did what amounts to asking if it was okay to just drown himself to end him life before slipping beneath the water. The trainer has spent the rest of his life protesting the captivitiy and other maltreatment of dolphins and no one will listen.

Sep-22 at 06:43

Wendyg

That’s why movies like Free Willy were made in more modern times.

Multiple dolphins played the part of Flipper, with the main one being a female, and yes the trainer became an activist after that one died.
I would be suspect of interpreting any animal’s signals as ‘asking if it was okay to … end [its] life’ though. The cognition needed to request permission to suicide would suggest intellectual reasoning beyond shown by animals in captivity or the wild.
I’m open to being proven wrong, but how would a trainer train any animal to display such a signal and then ensure that they interpreted it correctly? It could equally have been a ‘feel sick’ signal.

Sep-22 at 07:17

Elliestorm

You know what’s really sad … I was very good friends with an ex SeaWorld trainer who described how heart broken she was when they separated her favorite whale (a young calf) from its mother but then next breath went on to defend keeping orcas and other cetaceans in captivity. She then accused me of believing lies about the movie black fish and I told her how could you look at those pools and those animals, knowing how big their world is in the ocean and justify it.

When I went to SeaWorld in aussie and was ashamed when I left I had contributed to that horrible place. Even though the pools were big for the performing dolphins … it was just sad to put them through that knowing their intelligence. It’s like when we put the disabled on display in circuses or something.

Worse was the holding pools and watching one dolphin just swim in circles because that’s all it could do. Wasn’t hard to figure out it was doing that because of lack of stimulation.

But getting back to the article, other similar books are the likes of the mice of NIMH and watership down. They make their points on society through animals.

Anne Sewell never saw the effect her book had. She died not long after she sold it. But she would have been happy to know it improved the lives of so many

Sep-22 at 07:23

Lynnlaren

Non-human POVs can be very tricky to write in a serious novel. Black Beauty did a proper job of portraying the emotions and viewpoints seriously and tastefully.

Sep-22 at 12:55

Timark

Had a similar experience with a great white in Perth sea world. The thing just lay there. That’s not natural. I am glad I saw it though. I wont be so blase in Aussie waters again.

Lions in zoos are the ones that always get me. They just look depressed.

Sep-22 at 13:36

Timark

children’s books do it all the time.

Sep-22 at 13:37

Glitterpen

Great blog post. I had no idea that Black Beauty was so important. I remember seeing the movie, long ago, but the memories are vague. I might check out the book. I don’t think I’ve ever read it.

Sep-22 at 14:21

Wendyg

Yes, that’s a big shame. It brings to mind though, that a writer’s words can have an ongoing effect long after they have died. (Of course, most will sink into obscurity, but some won’t).

Very true. It’s quite common now.
I think most adult ones focus more on sci-fi (robots etc.).

It’s still a good read, even now. However, avoid the some of the very simplified versions that have been published (which really are young children’s books).

Sep-22 at 14:23

Leglessme

This is something we tend to forget about sometimes. We are sometimes (I know, not everyone) so obssessed with being gritty or edgey or new we forget about possibly being tasteless, tacky or without class.

Sep-22 at 16:20

Elliestorm

I just hate zoos in general. All those animals kept in confinement for our amusement or to protect them because humans can’t not kill and destroy.

Sep-22 at 19:08

Timark

that is nature. big fishy eat little fishy.

Sep-22 at 19:10

Elliestorm

Killing to eat and no more is nature. Killing for greed or fun is something else

Sep-22 at 19:27
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