Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dog or boy?

While I do appreciate all animals, I do not consider myself a “dog person”. I have no desire to own a dog in the future and struggle to comprehend some people’s bizarre obsessions with their own animals. For these reasons, among others, I found Muir’s “Stickeen” generally enjoyable to read but his descriptions of the dog a bit humorous.

My first grade Sunday school teacher once told me that animals do not have souls. I woefully thought of my dog and cat back home and their apparent lack of both cognitive abilities and personalities. I highly doubted the assertion at age 7 and today still believe that animals possess a more complex level of mental processes than they are often attributed.  That being said, I still find the attribution of strictly human-like traits and abilities to animals slightly absurd.

Throughout Muir’s “Stickeen”, Muir openly describes his affinity and admiration for his canine companion. He writes, “The little adventurer was only about two years old, yet nothing seemed to novel him. Nothing daunted him. He showed neither caution nor curiosity, wonder nor fear, but bravely trotted on as if glaciers were playgrounds.” Later in the text, however, Muir’s tendency to speak to the dog slightly annoyed me. He admits, “For we had been close companions on so many wilderness trips that I had formed the habit of talking to him as if he were a boy and understood every word.”

Not only does Muir attribute to Stickeen the capacity of comprehending the human language, but he also assigns the dog words of his own. While evaluating the safety of a dangerous ice bridge, Muir tells how Stickeen “began to mutter and whine; saying as plainly as if speaking with words, ‘Surely, you are not going into that awful place’.” Muir responds, “His looks and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as I would to a frightened boy, and in trying to calm his fears perhaps in some measure moderated my own. ‘Hush your fears, my boy,’ I said, ‘we will get across safe’”. He goes on to recount the dog’s vast emotional transformation, beginning with cries of despair and ending in grateful trembling and sobbing at his survival.

I don’t mean to demean Muir’s meaningful relationship with Stickeen during such transformative times in his life. I certainly grant animals the capacity for such emotions as bravery, despair, and elation, but I found Muir’s eventual characterization of Stickeen as a young boy slightly irritating. If anything, this tendency reveals the significance of companionship during expedition and adventure. 

1 comment:

  1. While I am undoubtedly a dog person and was not irritated by Muir's personification of his newfound dog friend, I found it interesting how Muir made particular language choices in his descriptions. Muir viewed Stickeen as both "a child of the wilderness" and as a true "mountaineer." Beyond just endowing Stickeen with human-like qualities and talking to him as if he were a human companion, I think Muir's personification proved to demonstrate how Stickeen served to bridge the gap between nature and mankind. Muir's descriptions of Stickeen's ease during the climb (before the crevasse) showed how Stickeen was merely an extension of nature itself and was completely comfortable in it. However, his fear at the crevasse showed a more human side. I think Muir's authorial choice to personify Stickeen more and more throughout the story was the only way to show how Stickeen blends between both nature and to man.