Stephen Crane’s “A Dark Brown Dog” opens with a child lazing about outside. He is soon approached by a small dark brown dog with a broken rope tethered around his neck. The child and dog are wary of each other at first, but soon the dog comes to enthusiastically enjoy his company and in his excitement he begins jumping on the child. In response, the child begins beating the dog and admonishing him. The dog “prays” for forgiveness, and the child grows bored and begins to walk back home. The dog follows him from a distance, and after a while the child realizes the dog has followed him and admonishes him once again. However, the dog continues to follow him home and once arrived, convinces the child of his worth by performing tricks. The child drags him upstairs by the broken rope and once his family returns home there’s a great uproar at the dog’s presence. The argument is put to rest when the father comes home because in his angry state he allows the child to keep the dog to spite the rest of the family. Time passes. The child and the dog grow close despite the child’s periodic beatings, but the dog always forgives him and holds no malice towards him. The family resents him and beats, kicks, and underfeeds him when the child is not around; nonetheless, the dog grows and becomes healthy and adept at dodging blows, and he’s more or less happy with his life. That is, until one day when the father rages through the home drunk. The child and the dog return from an adventure together and upon realizing the situation, the child dives under the table for protection. The dog sees this as an invitation to play, and the father immediately targets him. He sends the dog flying with two swift kicks, and even as the dog lies on its back begging for forgiveness, he picks him up, swings him above his head, and throws him out the window. The dog falls five stories and lands on the roof of a shed before rolling off into in alleyway. The child is later found by the dog’s body.
This is a tragic story. There is not a single glimmer of happiness in it whatsoever. Before writing my analysis, I decided to look up other interpretations of the story to see where my opinion lay. To my surprise, all of the sources I found asserted that this short story is a conceit for slavery. Having studied Stephen Crane’s movement, Naturalism, for a research paper a year prior, I had immediately assumed the story was a critique on the urbanization and cruelty of mankind. Scientific determinism is practically incarnate in the dog; absolutely nothing he does, despite doing everything in his power and never once doing anything wrong, saves him from his eventual horrific demise. But this was not the consensus of Prezi literary critics everywhere: slavery was the driving metaphor. Rereading the story with the dog’s fur replaced with brown skin and his rope replaced with chains, the narrative transcended from depressing to crushingly devastating. Though Crane’s decision to use a dog as a placeholder for former slaves may be demeaning, the story is incredibly indicative of the mindset and transitions facing the country in the 1890’s.
However fascinating this interpretation is, “A Dark Brown Dog” holds its own as a fascinating piece of art. In my tracking of abuse and subsequent submission, the doom meant for the dog is painfully evident at the beginning of the story, arguably, even within the first paragraph. Crane does nothing to spare feelings; the dog is treated brutally by everyone, including the boy that is supposed to love and protect him. He allows some slack in the abuse in particular short sections of the text to allow us some hope for this dog who we are all rooting for, but they don’t last long. The dog is always met with some kind of unjust violence that the dog returns with only guilt, apology, and prayer. All violence comes from the hands of the humans. When put into the context of an post-emancipation Jim Crow metaphor, this is devastating. The emotional impact is just as equal when the metaphor is removed, however, and it remains equally effective.
I find Crane’s construction of a dual story while never straying from his movement’s core values fascinating. The story of a dog and a boy is completely separate from the tale of slavery and the racism suffered at the hands of white Americans, and yet Crane writes this story so effectively that these stories can stand together as well as apart. I would love to attempt an imitation of this, but I’m not sure I could ever find a conceit so effective in each of its sections.
- Which version of the story do you like more/think is more effective?
- Do you think Crane intended for this to be a metaphor for the struggle through Jim Crow laws, or do you think we’re just reading into this story too much?
- This story focuses intensely on abuse and acceptance of said abuse. What other situations do you think this metaphor could apply to? Or is this conceit only useful in regards to slavery?