Date of this Version
Wehrman, Rose. Jungle Books: Animal Symbolism in the Fiction of Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. May 2020.
The human claims to be the apex predator of the animal kingdom power hierarchy: all other animals are ranked below him. However, in Western society with its history of racism and sexism, the white male stands at the apex, with women and people of color on lower rungs of the ladder, closest to the animals. Societally, this totem has become not only a ranking of power, but of perceived worth.
The novels and short stories written by the authors studied here utilize animal imagery and metaphor for the reader to gain insight into their characters and the world within which they live. This analogy allows readers to comprehend the human experience at its most primitive, basic level, and the use of animals as symbols allows for empathy and connection when the distance from human to human is too great to bridge. The shortcomings of humans are expressed and experienced through their animal counterparts. Contrasts between domesticated beasts, wild animals, and birds, which are able to transcend such categorizations, allow readers to comprehend the power positions of characters, especially in shedding their animality. Through the metaphor of abused cats and dogs, domesticated but doomed mules, and free birds, human characters find places among animal power hierarchies. In certain cases, animals are bestowed with the agency in order to serve as symbolic power representatives and further the insult of animalized humans. The use of animal metaphor facilitates narrative dehumanization of the Black man and woman in early 20th century Southern literature, and particularly in the works of Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston, demonstrates a societal brutality through animals to highlight societal wrongs, which leads readers to recognize social injustice with an eye towards progress. Subversion and manipulation of the hierarchical “natural” order by these authors is in no way an accident but intentionally exposes and criticizes societal structures of oppression. Black characters are not stripped of their humanity, but through animal metaphor, the authors discussed here show how their characters find different ways of using their power and modify these ways in order to counter white privilege and racism.