Nisi Shawl, “The Tawny Bitch,” Group 4

In the slides, I emphasized that Shawl’s story both embraces and parodies “The Yellow Paper” and the white, heteronormative princess stories so common in the Western tradition. The tawny bitch of the title, of course, refers to both Belle and the dog as monstrous more than princess figures. How did you understand the dog in the story? Real or imagined? Sometimes one and sometimes the other? Pick a single moment and explain in a paragraph or two how it helps us define the dog and Belle as mad, sane, or something else.

4 thoughts on “Nisi Shawl, “The Tawny Bitch,” Group 4

  1. Alexander Merrill

    While reading the story, I thought that the dog was real. After seeing the discussion question and going back to the story, I questioned whether the dog was real or not, and I think the most accurate answer would be that the dog is real and not real at the same time.

    I think the best argument for the dog being fake revolves around the ambiguity in the comments about the dog made by people other than Belle. However, I think one comment by Cousin John clears up that. On page 268, talking about the dog, he says “Mine?… Why should I saddle myself with such a wretched-looking animal as that? Put it out. Have it whipped from the grounds!” Since Belle herself is not taken out and kicked off the grounds, John must be talking about an actual dog there in the room. In this regard, there is a real dog that Belle sees and has interacted with. Furthermore, Belle does not come across to me as insane. There is a lot of rationality to her mindset and thought process, and it seems that she is just being wrongly punished for having some sort of sexual and/or romantic relationship with another woman. I also don’t feel the insanity reading The Tawny Bitch that I feel from reading something like Berenice, which in effect makes me more trusting of Belle’s account of events.

    On the other hand, some of Belle’s description of the dog as well as the constant barking keeping her up through the night does seem valid to be read as a hallucination or imaginative escape/distraction from her reality. Belle fixates on the dog similarly to the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper or Egaeus in Berenice, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this fixation encouraged a strong imagination or hallucinations in regards to the dog. I would imagine that Belle’s conception of the dog is different from the reality of the dog, but that the dog is rooted in truth, thus it is both real and not real.

  2. Jacob Morton

    Were it not for my awareness of the discussion question going into the story, I would have likely assumed the dog was real upon its introduction around pp. 264-265. Already knowing the question definitely colored my initial reading of it; I noticed details that would have otherwise fallen through the cracks–small ambiguities that sneakily validate both possible interpretations. For instance, without the question, I may not have noticed the vagueness of a line like: “‘Come away from that!’ she ordered harshly, whether speaking to me or the bitch, I could not tell. I backed away anyhow, and the bitch held her place. I realized that in this apparition I had an explanation of the tiresome barking which plagues my dark hours here, and bids fair to keep me from ever obtaining a full night’s sleep.” (p. 265) For starters, the question of who Martha was addressing–the dog or our narrator–opens up the interpretation of the animal’s nonexistence. Her command–while ostensibly directed at the dog–could be explained away with the possibility that she was really talking to the narrator. Furthermore, she is already describing the dog as an “apparition.” Henry pointed out the “extraterrestrial feel” this gives the dog; however, the double-meaning of apparition allows the sentence to be read in a couple different ways. Apart from the ghostly/paranormal definition commonly associated with the word, apparition also means the vision of something uncanny. Throughout the story I found myself considering a third option–the dog neither exists in real life nor in the narrator’s mind, but as a ghost–something supernatural. This theory is supported by both the unreliable, Shining-like acknowledgement of the dog by multiple characters (thus ruling out the idea that it’s entirely in her head), and the extended post script at the end, which hints at the haunted nature of the demolished house.

  3. Henry Mooers

    Based on my reading of Tawny Bitch, I am not actually convinced that the dog in the story has a physical existence outside of the head of Belle. There are a couple reasons as to why I am skeptical.

    First of all, it is important to look at the initial description of the two characters that introduce the dog; Martha and Orson. I note that on page 264, Belle admits that she “have not yet made you [us] see these two, I think fixtures though they are in my prison”. Right away, there is something inherently “off” about the manner in which Belle introduces us to these people. Her use of the word “fixtures” exudes a non human tone towards Martha and Orson. Belle’s forgetting to describe them (despite having already introduced them prior) gives off an anti chronological, dream-like feel to their presence.

    Second, Belle’s description of the dog gives it a bit of an extraterrestrial feel. She refers to it as an ‘apparition’ whose growl seemed to erupt ‘from some deeper region, it seemed, than her throat’ on page 265.

    Lastly, I feel as though its important to note the actual reason why this dog is part of the story in the first place. It’s bark keeps Belle awake at night. Given that sustained lack of sleep is often a cause for mental health issues, I believe this is a pretty important topic to break down. The dog’s function in the story as a likely exacerbation of Belle’s mental condition leads me to believe that it’s merely a figure of her mind.

    Based on the way Shawl introduces us to the dog on pages 264-265, my sense is that it does not actually exist.

  4. Gordon Lewis

    One paragraph that stuck out to me the most as an explanation of the origins of the tawny bitch was when Belle was describing her father’s disdain for dogs. Her father would rarely speak about her mother, often dodging her questions or else being silent entirely. The only exception, Belle notes, was in her father’s damnation of dogs: “their viciousness, their unruliness, and their unpredictability, especially when dealt with as a pack”. To me, I saw the tawny bitch as a manifestation of Belle’s mother, and a premonition of her fate (much like that of the woman in the yellow wallpaper in Gilman’s story). I also see her father’s descriptions of these animals as representative of his thoughts on the enslaved people he controlled in his plantation in the West Indies.

    I think the tawny bitch is a symbol of freedom to Belle. To her mother, it was liberty from her husband and captor whose fetishization of mixed race people seems obvious. For Belle, the tawny bitch shows her the path to escape the white, male, heteronormative, and medical authority of Cousin John and Dr. Helsius, and regain control over her own life. To me, Shawl’s parody of the Yellow Wallpaper is a much more open criticism of the “Death of Nature” and the rise in a medical institution that was exclusively dominated by white men.

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