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:
- 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.
- 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