When I was about ten, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, the first novel I ever read and the first story I ever heard, in which the dog died. Heartbroken does not begin to describe my response. There were tears to be sure, but there was also the engineering of hindsight, working out ways to change the ending. That’s the measure of a truly effective tragedy. Your subconscious just can’t seem to accept that it happened, that there must have been a different way for the story to turn out, a way in which the agony is avoided.
One of the ways in which people rationalize the fact that bad things happen is the fallacy of the just world. It’s a notion that twists karma into a pretzel, preferring the belief that bad things happen because people justly deserve the pain, to the belief that the world is really just that capricious. Something like that is at work when we read stories. Even if we don’t believe that the world is just, our gut likes to think that stories at least should be. Tragedy is the departure from that belief in justice.
But even once we accept tragedy in our fiction, it’s often because of a similar rationalization. We reason that the tragedy was necessary in some way, or deserved on some level. Spock has to die to save the rest of the crew. Trinity dies to free Neo to do what he has to do. William Wallace needs to die to rally the troops. Trace it back to Shakespeare and the Greeks if you must, but tragedy nearly always at least plays a narrative purpose. Pure tragedy, that serves no purpose, that is simply nihilism, is exceedingly rare. And when it does exist, when we do see pain for the sake of pain, agony that serves no narrative purpose other than holding it up to the light, we tend to be disgusted. That’s the core criticism of torture porn and its ilk.
We can rationalize nearly any horror to any number of human beings in the name of drama so long as it serves narrative purpose, but the same logic does not apply to dogs.
It’s a very common occurrence in comment threads and blog posts to see that precise chain of thought. A horror film’s trailer shows a dog and the response is that nothing better happen to that dog, that any amount of gore or imaginative torture to human characters is preferable to a single cruel kick in passing that yields a pained yelp.
Even the rationalization of narrative necessity does not hold with dogs. The mother in Where the Red Fern Grows tries to explain to her son, that it was a good thing in a way for the dogs to have died. She argues that now the family was free to move to the city, give more opportunity for education and such to the children. Oh how I hated that mother. Nothing in my mind could give a silver lining to those deaths.
We’re willing to rationalize the fates of people, because they have some rationality of their own. No matter how small, how young, people have moral agency. People are malevolent in an infinite number of ways and so if a person suffers in a story, we deliver a neutral and balanced response. We expect the story to demonstrate that the person either does or does not deserve the suffering. But we know instinctively that dogs do not deserve it. We feel sick guilt that when a dog suffers in a story, we have dragged them unfairly into our narrative games. They are true innocents, in a way not even the youngest of children can manage in stories. Call it original sin maybe, that suspicion that a human can deserve hell, even if only for narrative reasons, because the seed of evil is already there.
But there is more to innocence than a simple lack of moral complexity, lest the most innocent things in the world would be inanimate. We do not tend to treat the suffering of all animals in stories equally. Part of it is familiarity. Those of us who have not spent a life with horses do not react so viscerally to a cruelty to them in a story as we do to cruelty to a dog. But innocence is also conflated with a certain goodness, a set of attributes that we associate with dogs and saints. The difference is that we require a story to prove sainthood in people, but confer it automatically to any canine unless proven otherwise.
Some affect a disgust at the sensitivity people demonstrate towards dogs in this way, arguing that it is a moral blind spot of sorts. That it is disgusting to empathize more with mere animals than with human beings. But I think that there is more than empathy at work here. It is guilt.
We know that our dogs would die to protect us, that they have a selfless loyalty burned into their bone and pounding in their veins. They have the moral code of Arthurian knights, steel sheathed in velvet kindness. This is the way of the pack, and when dogs accept us as their pack, it is in a sense the most horrific lie that humanity has ever told. We accept the mantle of pack leader without shouldering the responsibility. How many of you would throw yourself in front of a bear to protect your dog? How many of you would lay down on your dog’s grave to die?
Is it any wonder then that we cannot bear their suffering in a story? It isn’t because we feel more for dogs than we do for men, but because we cannot bear the reminder of our own betrayal.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.