A Dog’s Life
A dog’s life
In her article, The Creature Connection1, Natalie Angier reviews the history of human attitudes towards animals. Angier opens with the dog, man’s best friend, and continues to describe the paradox between the huge sympathy for pets versus the way things are: man, who so deeply loves animals, kills five million abandoned cats and dogs in a course of one year and spends over forty – eight billion dollars on pets’ needs, excluding additional expenses of two billion dollars for the their protection. But at the same time, man squanders over three hundred billion dollars on meat and hunting equipment and millions more on biological and chemical pest control.
In the gap between these inconsistencies, Mihail Petrovitch Zotov, Anton Chekhov’s protagonist in his story The Dependents, fits in rather well: he hates animals, but raises a horse and a dog name Lyska.
The definition “pet” might not be the best description for Lyska, “a big, mangy, decrepit-looking, white yard-dog, with black patches… its right eye shut”2 or for the horse – “as timid and as crushed, with spindly legs, grey hair, a pinched stomach, and a bony spine”3.
In Zotov’s defense it should be stated that he does not deliberately starve his animals out of cruelty. He is a poor, solitary old man, who can barely support himself. His arthritis torments him, deprives him of sleep and exhausts his already weary body and soul. In his solitude, there is no one to nurse him or to keep him company, except the two creatures in his backyard. Even in his memory there are no people: when he prays before the icons, he does not remember for what or for whom he prays. The deceased are long forgotten and their identity is as unimportant to Zotov as is the monotonous sweeping of the corridor or boiling of water in the samovar.
The sad lives of the dog and the horse are interwoven into Zotov’s dismal and wretched life.
Lyska and the horse react warmly to Zotov’s presence, and when he steps outside in the morning they immediately come to life. They approach him, in their hesitating – wavering manner, and even after Zotov opens the gate and throws them out, they continue their loyalty: they leave, reluctantly, but pause, not too far away, “looking dejectedly towards the gate”4, wishing to return to the place which is their home and refuge.
Mark Ivanitch, Zotov’s neighbor and godfather, rebukes him for lack of care of his animals: Lyska and the horse are nothing more than walking carcasses. He advises his friend to lead them to the slaughterhouse and be done with them.
Zotov listens and decides to obey. His poor health and solitude make it harder for him each passing day, to go on living like this. He wants to move to the farm where his stepdaughter lives. She, who will inherit his home after his death, must therefore support him now, at his time of need. He packs his few belongings, prays and goes out on the road. He leaves the gate open, enabling the animals to go wherever they desire to find a better future for themselves. “He had not gone a mile into the country when he heard steps behind him. He looked round and angrily clasped his hands. The horse and Lyska, with their heads drooping and their tails between their legs, were quietly walking after him.”5
Zotov may have left the animals behind, but the animals cannot and will not leave him. With loyalty that has not even a promise of reciprocation the horse and Lyske follow him. In spite of his cursing and scolding, in spite of his humiliating insults, in spite of the fact that he has nothing to offer them, the horse and Lyske remain faithful.
However, when the drunken Zotov leads his horse and dog to Ignat’s slaughterhouse to end their miserable lives, it seems that it isn’t only their lives he is taking, but also his own:
“… The horse was put into a stand, after which there was the sound of two dull thuds, one of a blow on the skull, the other of the fall of a heavy body. When Lyska, sees the death of her friend, she flew at Ignat, barking shrilly. There was the sound of a third blow that cut short the bark abruptly. Further, Zotov remembers that in his drunken foolishness, after seeing the two corpses, he went up to the stand, and put his own forehead there, ready for a blow. And all that day his eyes were dimmed by a haze, and he could not even see his own fingers.”6
In her article Angier quotes Dr. Alexandra Horowitz7 saying that human beings are extremely particular in regard to animals they love. Even the pets that gain sympathy and affection are still subjected to whimsical treatment and various kinds of cruelty. “I’m not certain,” says Horowitz, “that this is a love to brag about.”8
Is Zotov’s story a ruthless criticism on the way people care – or not care – for their pets and animals? Is this an example of love that one should not or must not be proud of?
Zotov’s name, Mihail Petrovitch, bears a correlation to two of the founders of Christianity: Michael, the archangel9, and Saint Peter.
Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, was considered to be the first Pope and the one to receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven. In Jude10 and in the Book of Revelation11 Michael is described as the one who was the head of G-d’s armies, leading them to victory in the war against Satan.
Chekhov stripped his characters of their Christian source, but kept the judgmental and moral aspect of their identity: Mihail Petrovitch Zotov is an elderly man who sentences to death two defenseless creatures without logical reason. The absurdity of their death highlights the fact that there was no question of faith or lack of it in the matter. Zotov was just carrying out a meaningless idea of a simple man – his neighbor and godfather, Mark Ivanitch. Both he and Zotov were too stupid to understand the true implications of this bitter and worthless suggestion.
These most unnecessary deaths correspond with two stories by the well known Russian writer – Ivan Turgenev12: Mumu, a story of a dog drowned to death by its owner and The Dog – a sequence of unnatural events of three dogs – one a ghost and two, very much alive.
Mumu is Gerasim’s deeply loved dog. Gerasim, a dumb – deaf giant, is a janitor at the house of very old, very rich and very spoiled widow. One day he finds an abandoned, frightened dog and starts to look after it with great devotion and care:
“No mother could have looked after her baby as Gerasim looked after his little nursling. At first she — for the pup turned out to be a bitch — was very weak, feeble, and ugly, but by degrees she grew stronger and improved in looks, and, thanks to the unflagging care of her preserver, in eight months’ she was transformed into a very pretty dog of the spaniel breed, with long ears, a bushy curly tail, and large, expressive eyes. She was devotedly attached to Gerasim, and was never a yard from his side; she always followed him about wagging her tail. He had even given her a name… He called her Mumu. All the servants in the house liked her, and called her Mumu, too. She was very intelligent, she was friendly with everyone, but was only fond of Gerasim. Gerasim, on his side, loved her passionately… “13
The love story of Gerasim and Mumu is intensified against Gerasim’s poor position: a good hearted man who found it difficult to integrate into urban life, in which he was cast – unwillingly – by his bored owner. Before he met Mumu, Gerasim had fallen in love with a laundry girl, who brightened up the darkness of his existence. But his owner’s unreasonable meddling banished the girl from Gerasim’s life, marrying her to a drunken shoemaker who moved away to live somewhere else. Painful as this was, Mumu’s expulsion was infinitely worse: ” “Ah, what a silly you are!” said the lady, and going up to her, she stooped down, and was about to stroke her, but Mumu turned her head abruptly, and showed her teeth. The lady hurriedly drew back her hand…. A momentary silence followed. Mumu gave a faint whine, as though she would complain and apologize…. The old lady moved back, scowling. The dog’s sudden movement had frightened her… “Take her away,” said the old lady in a changed voice. “Wretched little dog! What a spiteful creature!” “14
Thus Mumu was doomed. The lady would not rest until she could expel the dog from her home: not once nor twice did the servants try to remove the dog quietly, and to keep her secret from the landlady. Eventually Gerasim realized that there was no way out from his mistress’s capricious will so he drowned Mumu in the river. At that moment Gerasim’s own life came to an end: he returned to the village, occupied his time with his previous work as a farmer and kept very much to himself. When his mistress tried to bring him back to Moscow, she failed miserably and later “declared that such an ungrateful creature was absolutely of no use to her. Soon after this she died herself; and her heirs had no thought to spare for Gerasim; they let their mother’s other servants redeem their freedom on payment of an annual rent. But Gerasim still lives, a lonely man in his lonely hut; still strong and healthy as before, and does the work of four men as before, and is serious and steady. But his neighbors have observed that ever since his return from Moscow he has given up the society of women, will not even look at them, and does not keep even a dog.”15
The reference to Turgenev’s second story, The Dog, is implied in the opening of The Dependents: “Grumbling and talking to himself, Zotov put on his overcoat, which was like a crinoline, and, thrusting his feet into huge clumsy golosh-boots (made in the year 1867 by a bootmaker called Prohoritch), went out into the yard.”16 Prohoritch seems to be just a random name but actually that very name reappears three times in three different stories by Turgenev: Tok – Tok, Smoke (1867) and The Dog (1870).
In The Dog Prohoritch Porfiry Kapitonitch reminisces how a ghostly dog began to haunt his nights, scratching and making a noise under his bed. An old man sent Prohoritch to the town of Belyov to ask for a certain Sergey Prohorovitch Pervushin. Prohoritch went there and found Pervushin’s house: “it was really not a house but simply a hovel. I saw a man wearing a blue patched coat and a ragged cap, well … he looked like a workingman, he was standing with his back to me, digging among his cabbages. I went up to him. ‘Are you so and so?’ I said. He turned round and, I tell you the truth, I have never seen such piercing eyes in my life. Yet the whole face was shrunk up like a little fist with a little wedge-shaped beard and sunken lips. He was an old man. ‘I am so and so,’ he said. ‘What are you needing?’ “17
Prohoritch told him his trouble – the trouble of ghostly dog. Pervushin thought long and hard and finally determined: ” ‘This is not sent to you as a chastisement, but as a warning; it is for your protection; someone is praying for your welfare. Go to the market now and buy a young dog and keep it by you day and night. Your visions will leave you and, moreover, that dog will be of use to you.’ “18
Prohoritch obeyed, left for the city at once and purchased the first dog he came across – “a two months’ old setter puppy with a reddish brown coat, white lips and white forepaws.”19 From that moment on the ghostly dog’s nightly pestering appearance stopped altogether. But the story did not end there: the dog, Trésor, grew up to be a gigantic hound, attached to his owner with great devotion, never leaving his side.
One day a stray dog with Rabies attacked Prohoritch. The Trésor leapt on it, not once but twice, in order to save his beloved master. He succeeded but lost his life in the process.
Two of Turgenev’s stories express exceptional devotion between man and dog, a close relationship that ends with the dog’s death under tragic circumstances. Ironically, these incidents illustrate the depth of kinship between humans and their pets.
In order to strengthen the resemblance between the stories and to clarify that The Dependents is not tainted with animal hatred, Chekhov used anther literary reference, this time to a story of his own: Whitebrow.
The owner of the slaughterhouse, to whom Zotov brings his dog and horse, is named Ignat. This name also appears in Whitebrow as the name of the brainless keeper. But Whitebrow is not about Ignat the keeper. It is about the whereabouts of a hungry female wolf, a mother of three cubs, that searches for food to bring to her family and accidently seizes a young and rather stupid dog, called Whitebrow.
The narrator of The Dependents enables his readers to look into heart and soul of animals by closely portraying the way they walk20 and behave21.
The narrator of Whitebrow centers the story on the wolf’s perspective: how unsuccessful it is trying to hunt a lamb or a sheep for dinner, how successful it was in previous years, how tired and gaunt it is now, how puzzled it is in the face of this dog which considers itself a friend and how desperate it is, returning empty handed, to its starving cubs.
The choice of the name Ignat is not accidental: Ignat is the name of the Romanian’s Christmas of the Gypsies (“Ignatul Porcilor”), due to the traditional custom to slaughter a pig during that day.
The use of Ignat’s name for the slaughterer (The Dependents) and the keeper (Whitebrow) has a very close relationship to its historical meaning. The double repetition of the name in the two stories compels the reader to review them not only as individual works of art, but also as a continuance of the same idea: Ignat of The Dependents slaughtered the horse and the dog the way one slaughters a pig, without knowing how truly valuable they were to their owner.
Ignat of Whitebrow is nothing but a clumsy fool, who enabled the wolf to break free.
Although the reality of Whitebrow does not sympathize or soften the hard circumstances in which Chekhov’s protagonist lives, the very nature of its outlook offers insight and sensitivity, in the same way as in the story The Dependents. The wolf is like Zotov and his animals – creatures that get very little food and many insults.
Zotov is an angry old man. A city man, “belonging to the artisan class”22 – according to the narrator and to Zotov’s own confession. Now he has nothing but a few prayers, basic cleaning routine and fury towards his dog and horse. This fury is not an ordinary anger. It is something Zotov is accustomed to. His pets are not needed for amusement but in order to fill his life with substance. The horrible way in which Zotov treats them is the only way his knows in order to survive.
Mark Ivanitch, the grocer who offers to kill Zotov’s dog and the horse, simply does not understand what the animals meant to him. And how could he, when even Zotov himself does not realize his own emotional dependence?
Zotov is blind to the elusive yet important nature of those few comforting moments in his dreary daily routine. The time and the space his pets provide him – despite the great poverty – are a golden opportunity for Zotov to actually talk to someone, get mad and even forgive, as people need to do in order to maintain sanity.
It is a priceless possibility for him to be human again, the way Gerasim was with Mumu.
The dog and the horse save Zotov’s life, the way Trésor saved Prohoritch’s.
But Zotov is neither warm nor merciful as Gerasim and Prohoritch were: the hardship of life has taken its toll on him. Not only does he not show warmth and compassion towards his animals, but also uses very harsh expressions when he speaks to them: “I am not obliged to feed you, you loafers! I am not some millionaire for you to eat me out of house and home! I have nothing to eat myself, you cursed carcases, the cholera take you! I get no pleasure or profit out of you; nothing but trouble and ruin, Why don’t you give up the ghost? Are you such personages that even death won’t take you? You can live, damn you! but I don’t want to feed you! I have had enough of you! I don’t want to!” “23
But after he calms down, Zotov turns to the horse and dog in a different tone – quiet and reconciled: “Let somebody else look after you now! I am stingy and ill-tempered. . . . It’s nasty living with me, so you try living with other people. . . . Yes. . . “24
He goes to Mark Ivanitch, the grocer, and asks him for “a gallon of oats again to-day. . . . Do be so good… never mind tea — don’t give it me to-day, but let me have some oats. . . . I am ashamed to ask you, I have wearied you with my poverty, but the horse is hungry. “25
Maybe one can’t say that Zotov loves his pets, but there is no doubt he’s closely attached to them, cares for them in his infuriating way and needs them in his life, just as they need him.
The horse and the dog represent Mihail Petrovitch Zotov, a feeble and miserable old man in his dying days. Together they are three worn out, depressed creatures, who barely drag themselves from here to there, from the house to the yard and back again.
When Zotov chooses to get rid of them, he does so not only because the horse and the dog stand in his way for a (supposedly) better alternative for living, but also because he thinks this is the best solution for them as well: why should they hold on to this life anymore? Who will look after them, when he is gone?
Zotov and Lyske, Zotov and the horse – they’re one. The way Zotov treats his animals reflects his atavistic nature just as the devoted way in which the animals behave towards Zotov mirror their own subtle nature.
Lyske and the horse do not ask for much: just a little food and someone to live with. Someone who would love them, even if he does so in the most offensive way. Someone to love.
Animals, as Mums, Trésor, Lyske and the horse demonstrate, tend sometime, to be more humane than people. Connection with them is the most meaningful relationship in the lives of Gerasim, Prohoritch and Zotov. Being in their presence provides all the warmth and closeness that are missing from all encounters with other human beings.
Later in her article Angier claims that scientists reviewed affection towards animals, to their lives, senses, emotions and impulses, as a key element to the most substantial aspects of our humanity. That is to say, it is through the animals that we discover ourselves.
It seems that more than anything, The Dependents, Whitebrow, Mumu and The Dog are an allegory about the way in which society simply cannot reconcile with the existence of the unfortunate. These stories illustrate that when people are rejected, they turn to animals for affection.
A cold and crude heart would never fully comprehend, nor even recognize, such a relationship.