Shawl, “The Tawny Bitch”–Group 2

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.

6 thoughts on “Shawl, “The Tawny Bitch”–Group 2

  1. Colston Merrell

    One moment that I find particularly interesting is when Belle takes stock of her emotions shortly after hearing the tawny bitch get shot near the carriage. She notes that “the sadness with which I greet this conclusion surprises me. Dogs are lowly animals, as my father taught me, unworthy of their fame as faithful, noble creatures… ‘A dog is a debased wolf, an eater of human waste and carrion, fawning, half-civilized, wholly unreliable. The islanders, too, hold dogs in very slight esteem. Their use in the tracking of runaway slaves, perhaps, has led to their general abhorrence” (274). Up until this point in the story, I felt like I vaguely understood that there was a connection between its narrator and the titular animal lurking around its margins, but it wasn’t until I read this that I began to realize what a powerful metaphor the tawny bitch was for internalized racism and homophobia. Unlike “The Yellow Wallpaper”, there are enough moments in “The Tawny Bitch” where other characters make direct reference to the howling dog or interact with it in some way that I’m inclined to believe that Belle is not wholly hallucinating it (if she is, that’s much less interesting to me), but instead anthropomorphizing it a little, projecting her own fears and traumas onto this creature of “ignoble” birth to whom she can relate. The fact that neither her white father nor the (presumably black) islanders Belle grew up with have any respect or love for dogs, “half-civilized” as they viewed them to be, is indicative of the way in which she herself has been viewed as an outcast, set in the margins of white and black so that she cannot feel wholly either and suffering for society’s need to square her with their conceptions of one of the two. Her homosexuality is also at play, here, though less directly; the tawny bitch does not only play the role of self-analog, but also that of protector (e.g. early on, when John attempts to rape her) and liberator or co-conspirator (e.g. at the end) and so the fact that she is a “bitch,” or female, is very significant. Martha, the only other woman to make a direct appearance in the story, is described as being taller than Orson and somewhat androgynous, making even more apparent the link between obvious, open femininity and benevolence/healing/love. It should be noted that this femininity need not be classical or refined; the tawny bitch is loud and violent, but she is a she from the moment we meet her, and her eventual rescue of the captive princess (if we want to take a very optimistic read of the story’s end) is thus a subversion of the gender tropes traditionally associated with these kinds of stories.

  2. Annabella Twomey

    As Michael and Elizabeth have already touched upon, I think the dog serves both purposes of being real and imagined. As I read the story, I personally interpreted the dog as being actually real when Belle first encounters it as it is seen by both Belle and Martha and in the most realistic scenario of just appearing out of the blue (as opposed to the other scenarios, where the dog attacks a carriage). Furthermore, Belle feels an immediate sense of solidarity, unity, and familiarity with the dog as Martha immediately yells “Come away from that!” and Belle reflects, “…whether speaking to me or the bitch, I could not tell” (265). From that remark, Belle feels as though the outside world views her in conjunction with this dog or “bitch” because she is viewed as animalistic and inhuman. From this first interaction, it appears that she forms a bond to the dog that allows her to continually imagine the dog right there with her, or defending her in moments of trauma, or seeking revenge on her captors as she bites them.

    By the end of the story, Belle views the dog as an avenue to her escape as she says “…she has shown me the passage she is preparing for my escape,” (280). Whether the dog is truly there or not, it represents some form of consolation for Belle. It doesn’t seem like the dog actually, literally helps her escape, but more that that it provides some sort of solace and comfort for her traumatic captivity with her doctor and cousin John. In my previous psychology studies, people who are experiencing extreme trauma often disassociate or project their personalities and lives onto an inanimate object in order to pretend like they’re not experiencing reality. Perhaps Belle channeled her fear into the dog that she saw in reality a while ago, but became a dream or an illusion that still served the purpose of helping her cling to some sort of different life or future than the torture she was experiencing.

  3. Andreya Zvonar

    I understood the dog as real in the story. Whether or not the dog takes on a physical form is more or less irrelevant to me. I find that the existence of another character/personality is what is important. The two scenes that solidify this thought for me are the first mention of the dog (265) and the last (280).

    When the reader is first introduced to the dog, he doesn’t know to whom Martha is speaking. Belle says, “whether speaking to me or the bitch, I could not tell”. She goes on to accept the existence of the dog nevertheless: “I realized that in this apparition I had an explanation of the tiresome barking which plagues my dark hours here”. Her use of the word “apparition” suggest that the dog is not real; however, she is ready to accept the dog’s existence, therefore one should look at the dog as real even if it does not necessarily occupy physical space.

    Regardless, this suggests that Belle (and the dog) are mad. I agree with Elizabeth that this should not be called “madness”, but rather “frustration with her situation”. The final scene, in which Belle embraces her duality with the dog through the use of the first person plural (“we”) certainly gives the reader the impression that Belle is insane, yet it is a moment of clarity for her – a moment in which she is ready for autonomy. Ultimately, her dire situation is what makes me reluctant to classify her as “mad”. Like Gilman’s narrator, I do find that this perceived madness is something Belle was driven to by others, and not something that she had to have happen to her.

  4. Carl Langaker

    I am interested by the last two paragraphs told by Belle on page 280, before her story cuts off. As Liz aptly notes, it feels like Belle’s mental state transitions over the course of the story and that she is driven to madness; that is, her condition is a result of her incarceration. I think her gradual mental descent is largely mirrored by her experienced connection to the dog – when she first sees it, it is merely “an illusion and not an actual animal” (273). For the reader it at this point feels like Belle is entirely sane, despite her strangely refined way of phrasing herself. However, our last interaction with Belle suddenly sees her in a very different mental state, as if she is in a state of hysteria.

    While we are never entirely sure if the dog is truly there or not, Belle here gives food as “offerings” to the dog, and asserts that it is “so reassuring to know that she is there” (280). While she earlier thinks it is not there, now she is of the belief that it is real. Furthermore, she seemingly out of nowhere becomes convinced that the dog is protecting her, like a sort of guardian angel, and is able to communicate with the dog as well: “she says she can dig all the day, and that it will be ready” (280). This level of connection between Belle and the dog feels very abrupt. The previous interaction between the two is on the page before, where Belle merely suggests that the dog might be watching out for her, “as for temper the only signs [the dog] has shown of that have come upon threats to my well-being. I could almost love her.” (279). The sudden increased sense of companionship in the span of one day displays a significant change of mental state, highly similar to the climax of “The Yellow Wallpaper” when the wife seems to abruptly spiral out and lock herself in. For me it is this rapid acceleration at the end that paints Belle as being mad, which seems intentional due to the fact that her narration abruptly cuts off, withholding the climax of her mental frenzy – it feels like a true cliffhanger.

  5. Elizabeth Srulevich

    The scene in which Belle meets Dr. Hesselius (page 271) illustrates to me that she’s neither insane nor very sane — specifically, when she says, “Any protest I uttered against his infuriating statements was made to stand at no account, except that of proving my madness.” Furthermore, she explains that “I take it now that for a woman to love a woman is more than just a crime; it’s the very definition of insanity,” and then the scene closes, only to open immediately after with: “Distracted. Bitch barking throughout the entire night.”

    I think Belle is driven to “madness,” or what I’d maybe call rational, justified frustration with her situation. She is being punished, as far as I understand, for “loving a woman.” It seems fair that this would turn someone perfectly sane into someone more unstable. The dog, whether it’s real or imagined, seems to appear whenever Belle finishes a tangent about something traumatic. As Michael says, I think there’s evidence that points to the dog being classified as both, but perhaps the dog starts off as real and then turns into a figment of Belle’s imagination, a coping mechanism of sorts. That to me supports the hate-to-appreciation evolution regarding Belle’s feelings toward the dog.

  6. Michael Taylor

    The dog in “Tawny Bitch” defies classification as either real or imagined, not because it fails to satisfy the criteria of one or the other, but because it meets the requirements of both. The frequent mention of the dog by Belle’s captors evidences its reality, as they see and name the dog “a wretched-looking animal… [a] damned bitch… [and a] hellhound” (268, 278). Belle’s experience of the dog, however, transcends reality (as also hinted by the captors’ nomenclatural tendency towards the demonic). Though Belle rejects the dog at first with “detestation” as a result of her forced conversion to the “rationalistic empiricism” of her father, Belle grows to love the dog as it becomes increasingly spiritual in nature, culminating in a series of votive offerings and, ultimately, an escape attempt from her prison (263, 265, 280). As such, the dog cannot be considered singularly real or imagined, but occupies both the material and spiritual realms as a sort of mythic talisman – not unlike a Patronus in Harry Potter.

    As a matter of madness or sanity, the dog more closely occupies a thematic role of madness. This is illustrated in a pivotal moment of Belle’s self-reflection. Written as if in a fever, this passage oscillates between madness and sanity:

    “The bitch is back. That expressionless bark, as of a monotonous lesson learned by rote – I cannot sleep, but I begin to think that nonetheless I dream… [however] I dare not give way as I should like to do. I must remain in possession of my faculties, that I may engage the belief and sympathies of whomever I first come across on breaking free of my captivity… I must retain a rational appearance” (276).

    Here we feel the gravitational pull of the dog as an incarnation of madness, a force which Belle pushes away from as she struggles to maintain her sanity and composure. What must be mentioned, however, is that this conception of madness and sanity could just be “quackish nonsense,” like the medical prescriptions of Dr. Hesselius, and is rejected by Belle herself at the end of the story. In fact, the rejection of such constricting notions of sanity is exactly what precipitates Belle’s final attempt at freedom, as she embraces the dog as her spectral companion: “together we will tear, we will savage” (280). Perhaps, then, it is not the mad who are truly captive, even when they suffer physical confinement and abuse, but rather it is the sane who carry the unshakable chains of arid rationality and staid convention.

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