On Anthropomorphism.

Words: Natasha Seymour
Images: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Three Cats at an Indoor Party, 1841. Colour woodblock print.

30 November, 2019

“Anthropomorphism, which is marked by the attribution of human characteristics, has led to the further exploitation of animals as merely a vessel with which to fill human meaning, moralising and rationality.”

Natasha Seymour

Peter Singer has referred to the devaluing of animals as ‘speciesism’ (2009), whereby nonhuman species are organised on the bottom rung of a value-system that privileges speaking beings. Many, like Greg Garrard and Mary Midgley (2004, 1998), argue that animals have been consistently marginalised and ‘removed from everyday life’ through modes of capitalist production—such as the production of meat, the exploitation of animals in zoos and circuses, or even the breeding and domestication of animals. Anthropomorphism, which is marked by the attribution of human characteristics (such as the ability to speak, express emotions and rationalise), has led to the further exploitation of animals as merely a vessel with which to fill human meaning, moralising and rationality. Animal attributes have been persistently disowned or categorised as inherently primitive or immoral in nature (Garrard, 2004: 141). Steve Baker (1996) refers to this symbolic devaluing of animal-associated traits as the ‘rhetoric of animality’ and argues that inherent in this system of dominion is a power structure of social and political regulation and ‘othering’. Through this rhetoric, anthropomorphism has often served to further the structural divide between humans and animals that has been rendered in fables and children’s tales for centuries, and to binarise animals as inferior and ‘beastial’ and humans, on the other side, as rational and sovereign beings. Even so, anthropomorphic narratives have pervaded in the canon of modern literature, but, as Manes argues (1996: 15), they have functioned to ‘compress the entire buzzing, howling, gurgling biosphere into the narrow vocabulary of epistemology’.

Indeed, anthropomorphism has often served as a metonymic and metaphorical tool for affirming the ‘regime of privileged speakers’ (Manes 1996: 16) and not as a legitimate and decentred means of representing animal subjectivity and the non-human, disconnected from human exploits. However, recent undertakings of ecocriticism and new materialism have ushered in a reimagining of anthropomorphic modes of storytelling. Importantly, these recognise what Donna Haraway refers to in The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) as ‘naturecultures’, which refers to the arbitrary nature of the human/nonhuman binary, and emphasises the inherent interconnectedness of material and cultural forms. Val Plumwood (2002) and others (Archer-Lean 2014; Leatherland 2018) have also emphasised the need for new anthropomorphic modes of storytelling that problematise, through the creative exploration of human/animal relationality and subjectivity, the constructed gulf between human and non-human beings, and push against human exceptionalism. In this essay, I engage with two fictional texts—Ceridwen Dovey’s collection, Only the Animals (2014), and George Saunder’s allegorical short story, Fox 8 (2018). In my discussion, I examine the ways that new anthropomorphic narrative modes can offer a powerful alternative to the hegemonic, anthropocentric structures that reduce the nonhuman to ‘ciphers that we fill with our meaning’ (Leatherman 2018: 18). 

Can anthropomorphism be more than just animals with human feelings?

For some, anthropomorphic animal figures are inescapably bound by the ‘language of human action’ (Leatherland 2018: 12) and meaning making, and positioned problematically as fabular and metonymical substitutes for human affairs.  Narrative is anthropomorphic by nature—all narrative is symbolically mediated by the ‘vernacular of action’ (Leatherland 2018:13) that maps neo-liberal expectations onto human and non-human lives. Aesop’s fables, for example, were used as ethical and moral guidelines for children. The animal characters in these stories often stood in for the abstract human notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. However, Christopher Manes argues in his essay ‘Nature and Silence’ (1996: 16) that ‘the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative’.

He contends that nonhuman species have been denied the status of speaker, and that this silence has played a significant role in the mistreatment of animals. Hence, for some, anthropomorphism is yet another mechanism of this maltreatment. Although many modern anthropomorphic characters could be considered examples of ‘speaking’ animals (Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbitor and Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, for example), it is their referential and metonymical nature, as vehicles for human concerns, that undermines them as figures that might otherwise give us a window into animal/nonhuman meanings.  Nevertheless, some have called for a revival of anthropomorphic storytelling, and Plumwood argues that ‘the refusal of communicative status to animals is a crucial, formative arena where closure and exclusion strategies […] are developed’ (2012: 56). In The Eye of the Crocodile, she argues against the critical and complete rejection of anthropomorphism as a narrative device:

Any representations for a human audience will have to be, in some sense, an interpretation in human terms […]. The problems in representing another species’ speech or subjectivity in human terms are real, but they do not rule out such representation in any general way, and they pale before the difficulties of failing to represent them at all (2012: 68).

For Plumwood, anthropomorphism is an essential, indispensable tool that can fight against ‘instrumental reductionism’–where animals are reduced (often for the purpose of seperating animal death from the production of meat) as non-subjects (2012: 65). Forms of new anthropomorphism in narrative seeks to illuminate the similarities between human and nonhuman species, for the purposes of subverting the constructed divide between them.

Let’s be real: parody and relationality in Only the Animals

The stories in Ceridwen Dovey’s short-story collection, Only the Animals (2014), are examples of new anthropomorphic modes of storytelling. Set in various wartime periods, Dovey creates animal subjectivities postmortem—each animal has died, one way or another, in the fires of human conflict. As Archer-Lean argues in her revisitation of anthropomorphism through Dovey’s work (2014), Only the Animals rejects ‘anthropocentric realism’ (2014: 3), in favour of a ‘postmodern, non-realist reflexivity’—a kind of parodic opposition to moral realism that exposes the inherent fabricated nature of anthropomorphic texts. Rather, Dovey moves away from the allegorical rendering of anthropomorphic characters, by emphasising the experience of her animal characters in stories like ‘Red Peter’s Little Lady’. ‘Red Peter’ is set in Germany in the WW1. A chimpanzee by the name of Red Peter writes letters to his wife to-be, another ape named Hazel, via Red Peter’s human trainer Evelyn. Red Peter has been trained by a German zoologist to become ‘human’, but his elevated status as part-human, part-ape is challenged when the war sends Germany into a food crisis. Dovey’s layering of unrealistic elements: romantic sentiments between Red Peter and Evelyn, intertextual references to Kafka’s A Report to the Academy, and her unexpected choice of narrator—a dead chimp, speaking in first person—all compound to work against our rational assumptions. Dovey’s representations of her chimp, Red Peter, is devoid of moralising or attempts at realism. Her ‘irrational’ anthropomorphism helps us to criticise, as readers, the primacy of the humanistic logic that subjugates nonhuman species as immoral, irrational and primitive.

Dovey is very aware of the farce of this distinction in Only the Animals. In ‘Red Peter’s Little Lady’, Dovey sets up the letter-correspondence so that Red Peter’s communication with Hazel is mediated through Evelyn, his trainer and, as we discover in the letters, former lover. This animal/human/animal dialogue is complicated by the sentiments between Evelyn and Peter, and also by the degrees of ‘human’ that Hazel and Peter individually exhibit: Peter as ‘almost’ human and Hazel as ‘not yet’ human. Many times, Red Peter’s letters to Hazel narrate his observations of human behaviour in a tone of ‘ironic reflection’ (Archer-Lean 2014: 3). For example, he expresses to Hazel that he enjoys exercising naked, but he then warns her that ‘one should only venture into nudism when one has learned to wear clothes’ (2014: 54). Later, Hazel writes to Red Peter in her reply, asking him about his sexual preferences: ‘would you like me more human, or less human, or more or less human?’ (2014: 57). Here, Dovey’s characters are textually self-reflexive; their reflections on what it is to be human highlights the culturally constructed nature of human distinction from animals.

The metaphor and the moral: revisiting the fable in Fox 8

Anthropomorphic fables have, in many ways, served only to misuse animals as metonymical and metaphorical figures. Garrard makes the point in his essay, ‘Animals’, that anthropomorphic narratives are generally degenerated as ‘childish’, and that fabular animal representations (such as the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood or the Tortoise in The Tortoise and the Hare) often involve the use of wildlife to enforce social norms, such as hard work and obedience (2004: 141). Theriomorphic representations—where animals stand in for humans in a more overt way, such as the depiction of Jews as rats in Nazi Germany—also exploit the symbolic associations we make, of animals as dumb, unclean and even untrustworthy (2004: 142). However, George Saunders’ allegorical short story, Fox 8, re-envisions the fable genre in an ecocritical setting. In his review of Fox 8 for the Guardian, Alex Preston (2018) labels the tale ‘a deceptively childlike fable […] rich with ethical and environmental concerns’.  Indeed, at the forefront of Fox 8—which follows the story of a fox run out of his habitat by the construction of a ‘mawl’ (mall) called ‘Fox View Commons’—is a moral tale about the ramifications of environmental and habitat destruction.

Leatherman argues (2018) that in fables, humans are ‘signified, the heart of the matter, whereas animals are always lesser beings, non-humans, mere representations’. In Fox 8, however, the ‘moral’ at the heart of the story is about animal and environmental suffering. Saunders’ depiction of the environmental destruction and animal suffering subverts the conventions of fabular modes of storytelling; in Fox 8, the animal characters are both the metaphor and the moral— they are real characters, not ‘stand-ins’, and the message at the heart of the story speaks to their experience, as animals.  Fox 8 says, in the first pages of the story, that when he heard humans speak it ‘sounded grate!’, ‘like pretty music!’ He wants to ‘understand them total lee’, through learning English, and spending much of his days observing humans and human interactions. The idiosyncratic vernacular that Saunders employs in the story enables us, as readers, to imagine a process of animal meaning-making that is marked by the inherent relationality among the characters, both humans and non-human. Just like in Only the Animals, the self-reflexive, parodic elements of Fox 8 serve to foreground it as an allegorical work of fiction, that cannot pretend to reveal, in any realistic way, the feelings of animals. Although Fox 8 is undeniably a modern fable, Saunders subverts fabular conventions by placing animal and environmental suffering at the centre of the story.  

Final words

In his seminal text Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation (2002), John Simons asks ‘how can we dissociate ourselves from ourselves and enter an animal world?’ For many, anthropomorphic narratives offer a legitimate path to disassociating the ‘human’ from stories about animals. Val Plumwood and others have called for new anthropomorphic modes of storytelling. Through the creative exploration of human/animal relationality and subjectivity, anthropomorphic representations can trouble the culturally constructed division between humans and nonhumans. This push against human exceptionalism has been led by critical theorists within ecocritical theory, new materialism and philosophy, however authors such as George Saunders and Ceridwen Dovey (just to name a few), have shown that fiction may be the ultimate place to explore new kinds of animal representations. New anthropomorphic narratives can offer a powerful alternative to the hegemonic, anthropocentric structures that reduce the nonhuman to ‘ciphers that we fill with our meaning’. If we do it right, we can make writing animal narratives a better practice.


Archer-Lean, C (2014) ‘Revisiting the ‘Problem’ of Anthropomorphism through Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 34, no 1.

Baker, S (1993) Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Dovey, C (2014) Only the Animals, Penguin Books, Australia.

Garrard, G (2004) ‘Animals’, Ecocriticism, Routledge, New York, pp. 136–159.

Leatherland, P (2018) Deconstructing Anthropomorphism: the “humanimal” narratives of Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, and Richard Adams, Durham University Press, Durham.

Lovino, S & Opperman, S (2014) ‘Stories Come to Matter’, Material Ecocriticism, Indiana University Press, pp. 1–17.

Plumwood, V (2012) The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, Australian National University Press, Canberra.

Haraway, D (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness, vol 1. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Manes, C (1996) ‘Nature and Silence’, in Glotfelty, C. & Fromm, H.. The Ecocriticism Reader: landmarks in literary ecology, University of Georgia Press, Georgia, pp. 15-29.

Midgely, M (1998) Animals and Why They Matter, University of Georgia Press, Georgia.

Preston, A (2018) ‘Fox 8 by George Saunders Review – wisdom in the woods’, Tues 27 Nov 2018, The Guardian, Access: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/27/fox-8-george-saunders-review

Saunders, G (2018) Fox 8, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

Simons, J (2002) Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation, Palgrave.

Singer, P (2009) ‘Specisim and Moral Status’, Metaphilosophy, vol. 40. No. 3–4. pp. 567-581.

Anthroprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

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