Shawl, “The Tawny Bitch”–Group 3

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 3

  1. Joseph Levine

    In trying to decide whether the dog is imagined or real, I would rather believe it is a literary device without definite purpose. At first, it was difficult to tell whether the dog was real, as its appearance is singularly perceived by Belle. She complains of its “the tiresome barking which plagues my dark hours here” (265). Belle also describes her “attraction to the island’s cult of magic, with its grandiose claims to control the forces of nature” (263) and her initial aversion to “Reason’s worship” (263). Thus, I initially attributed the barking as some kind of fantasy or superstition. I did not, however, believe it was a hallucination, which would imply that Belle is not sane, but rather some projection in her mind that was not heard by her ears as much as in her head. In any event, my speculation was confounded by the various references the other characters make to the barking. Throughout the story there are several confrontations with the dog in which it breaks up an assault, attacks a carriage, and wanders around the grounds of the property. The characters reference it explicitly, leading to believe that the dog was certainly not a hallucination of Belle’s but likely a corporeal presence. When the dog is unable to be killed by pistol shot, however, was when I definitively came to the conclusion that it must be an apparition. In addition, the dog’s ubiquity, combined with the note at the end describing “canine apparitions” (281) leads me to believe that it was indeed a ghost. Either way, I believe that question is meant to be ambiguous and used as a metaphorical device for Belle, as described in the slides.

  2. Haley Glover

    Similar to others, I read the dog as a literal presence in the beginning of the story that evolved into a symbolic figure after the dog was supposedly shot. As a source of strength, the dog is described in parallel to Belle as strong and steady while she is wavering and quick to do as she is told. For example, when Belle first encounters the dog, Martha yells at them to move away from the door and Belle writes, “whether speaking to me or the bitch, I could not tell. I backed away anyhow, and the bitch held her place” (265). The tawny dog embodies revolt against the white authority. While Belle is imprisoned and molded by white hands, the dog resists control and escapes such dominance. It seems Belle uses the dog as a channel to reckon with her Blackness and find resistance in this identity that has been subdued and treated as madness. For example, on page 278, when Dr. Hesselius is treating Belle’s lower digestive system, the distinction between Belle’s screams and the dog’s howls are indistinguishable and echoed off of each other. While Belle “subsides into sobs” the dog lets out a “low, near-constant menacing growl” (278). Thus, while Belle’s body is coopted by white male authority, her spirit in the tawny bitch resists and threatens such white power. To these white men, Belle as a Black woman is reduced to an animal. This is evident in Dr. Hesselius’ description of Belle’s mother’s “cunning animality” (271). Shawl leans into these animalistic depictions of Blackness and redefines this gross reduction of humanity into a source of strength and resistance within the spiritual manifestation of the Black spirit that repels white washing hands.

  3. William Koch

    I oscillate between possible interpretations of the dog and whether it is a real or imagined presence. Ultimately, I do think it occupies a sort of middle ground. Perhaps it begins as a real being that then becomes an imagined representation of Belle’s condition after it has been killed or disappeared or what have you. The interactions of the other characters with the dog, however, complicate its interpretation as a completely imagined figure. I do think the dog is a manifested object that represents Belle’s condition in the eyes of her captors and the trauma based mental illness that arises in the experience of her captivity. There is a clear self-identification between Belle and the beast; she marks occasions in which she cannot tell if her captors address her or the dog when they say “bitch” (265), and the descriptor “tawny” could be equally applicable to the dog or to Belle as a child of both a slave and an enslaver (274). I think a convincing argument could be made, too, that the dog is a representation of the mental unrest of the situation. Belle might project her suffering onto the fictitious animal that comes into existence as a result of the trauma of her abuse. The epilogue supports this idea when revealing that Hesselius is known more for having resolved mental disturbance than raising them (282). Here, similarly, Belle’s mental disturbance is a result of her setting. Only once she begins to endure trauma does the dog arrive, thereby representing the horror of her situation as an object of debasement for her captors.

  4. Michael Frank

    The fact that the protagonist’s name is Belle instantly brings to mind Beauty and the Beast. One interpretation of that story is as an analogy of the experiences of young women in arranged marriages learning to love unfamiliar husbands. The Tawny Bitch starts with a similar premise, as Belle’s cousin and violent suitor is something of a literal beast– “(He) mauled me about with two fat, hairy paws…” The twist in this story comes when Belle regresses a beast herself, gradually identifying more with “the tawny bitch.”

    There are hints of this from the beginning of the story, for instance, when she first meets the bitch and doesn’t know if Orson refers to her or to the animal. Soon after this, she bites the nose of her cousin– a distinctly animal behavior. Belle is constantly treated like an animal, spoken to with no assumption of comprehension and even being taken on walks. It is no wonder that another mistreated creature is the only outlet of empathy she can find in her captivity. In fact, “tawny bitch” sounds like an insult that might be spat at Belle by her cousin. Unlike in Beauty and the Beast, Belle does not find freedom in her captivity, but rather is degraded by it to the point of unraveling into something animal. However, the legacy of the dog pack haunting the area suggests that her pain lingers and perhaps her spirit fights back to this day. This ending also perhaps clarifies the fate of Belle’s mother and emphasizes her enduring legacy.

  5. Alexandra Lawson

    Much like the yellow wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the dog in “The Tawny Bitch” serves as both a real and imagined character for Bell. Initially, Bell’s description of the creature is rational, suggesting that there is an actual dog present. However, as she breaches madness, becoming increasingly obsessed with the dog, it becomes clear that the dog is imagined. For Bell, the animal has become a symbol of security and comfort, while for the reader, its continual appearance and decreasingly rational depiction, illustrates Bell’s divulsion into madness. A particular moment that stood out to me as illustrating this transition, was Bell’s description of what we presume is the dog on her walks with Martha. She states, “something – some animal, perhaps – keeping pace with us… That it was an illusion, and not an actual animal, was proved by the precision with which it matched our speed and direction…” (273). This shadow, while Bell recognizes it as an illusion at this point, increasingly occupies her mind. Later, she even mentions it to Martha. Even though she recognizes the shadows as imagined, the fascination with them illustrates her divulsion into madness. She has become so preoccupied with the tawny bitch, that she has begun seeing forms of it in her everyday life. This scene also illustrates that initially Bell was quite rational. Initially she did not even notice these shadows, and even late in the story she recognized that the animal she saw within them was merely an illusion. While the recognition of the illusion of these shadows does not fully clear her of insanity, it does illustrate an important transition in the story where she is almost caught between rationality and insanity. I think this scene in particular, illustrated to me the imagined role that the tawny bitch had begun to fill for Bell and really mirrored “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I think in both stories the strong fixation and transitioning description of the dog and wallpaper, really illustrate a movement in the narrator towards madness.

  6. Dan Cielak

    The dog’s literal presence and figurative representation within the story helps solidify Belle’s character and departure into madness. I think that the dog in this story is both real and imagined. When we are first introduced to the dog, the dog’s presence acts as a buffer to Belle’s rebellious tendencies. She refuses to submit to Cousin John’s request for marriage and, though it is not readily apparent from the narrative as to why she is initially placed in the prison, I assume she ended up at St. Cecelia because she broke some code of conduct at Winnywood Academy, thereby demonstrating a rebellious attitude. Moreover, in the scene with Cousin John, the dog both guards and saves her from these tendencies. Before the dinner with Cousin John, Belle is given the opportunity to attempt an escape as the “door [is] open, I believe, and . . . defended by the tawny bitch” (Shawl 265). Here, Belle contemplates the idea of “making off” after noticing the door is left ajar (264). Given that her attempt would have probably proven futile and put her in even more trouble, the dog’s presence in this part of the scene acts as a buffer to her inclinations to disobey. She resists the thought of escaping because the dog stands in her way. A little later in the narrative, involving the scene when Cousin John attacks Belle, the dog’s reintroduction to the scene stops the fight that ensued between the two. Shawl writes, “[the] beast rushed past him to a position which would have forced my cousin to engage with her in order to come at me” (268). Here, in a more direct manner, the dog intervene and guards Belle from any further advances from Cousin John.
    The lines get a little blurred after this scene as to weather the dog’s presence in the narrative is literal or figurative. Personally, I think that, like the wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the dog takes on a more symbolic representation as the story progresses because there are no more direct interventions involving the dog. Likewise, Belle begins to create this fictitious sounding plot to escape from the prison with the help of the tawny bitch. I think that the dog is in fact killed by Orson after Cousin John tells him to shoot her, but Belle continues to image that she is still alive. And, towards the end of the narrative, I believe that Shawl uses the dog to demonstrate Belle’s demise as an autonomous character who must revert to these external sources of hope to help her deal with both Dr. Hesselius and Cousin John.

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