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Animals as Symbols of the Human Behaviour Term Paper

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2019


Non-human creatures are interesting, especially when playwrights and filmmakers deploy them to represent human characters. The use of animals is common in literature materials, especially those that target youngsters. These writings offer amusement and moral lessons to their readers.

Such lessons are important in terms of boostingthe readers’ maturation and/or highlightingways of tackling various social issues. This paper examines some historical references to novels and poems from several authors who used animals as representations of human behaviour.

Furthermore, the paper will discuss the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Kohlberg’s moral development hypothesis, Darwin’s theory of survival, and Freud theory of taming one’s identity. Some of the novels and poems that the paper will investigate include Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, The Animal Tranquillity and Decay by Wordsworth, Volpone by Ben Jonson, Animal Farm by George Orwell, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.


In the recent past, talking animals have been a common feature in mythology and literature contents that focus in adult readers. Literature often uses the fictional creatures to portray numerous human-like characters. The essence of these fictional creatures is to amuse readers and provide emotional support, especially when the tale is excruciating.

The existence of creatures in literature can be traced back to the archaic days before man discovered written language (Andrews 11). Ancient artists narrated animal tales using emblematic drawings on caves, which were largely saturated with religious and metaphorical connotations.

Aesop’s Fablesis a masterpiece by Aesop that was prepared in the 16th century. The collection used animals to portray human behaviour (Ohanian, Reeves, and Hammes 8). For instance, creatures such as bulls and lions that appear in Aesop’s work have intricate mythological meanings in Greece and Egypt. Traditionally, they were popularly used in tales and studying the universe (DeMello 45).

Furthermore, the Judeo-Christian cultures also incorporated animal characters in their literature. Biblical readings reveal various animals such as snakes, foxes, and lamb that have been used to symbolise spiritual and human behaviour. For instance, the book of Genesis presents a scenario where a snake is seen communicating to a human being (NIV Gen. 3:4).

In the age of enlightenment, writers used fiction creatures to embody the political sleaze and human quirks. Jonathan Swift in particular used less admired characters of creatures to personify the detested human attributes. In his Gulliver’s Travels, Swift uses beasts that he refers to as Yahoos to represent different ethnic classes of out-dated people who have not yet appreciated the act of dressing to cover their nakedness (5).


Playwrights have used different approaches when using animals in literature. Some authors have chosen to use animals as their sole characters. The animalsusually behave normally, just like people, since they can speak. For instance, Volpone by Ben Jonson is a good example of a comedy or a play that follows the interactions of a cunning Volpone or a Fox.

The fox interacts with other characters, which are indeed animal characters, although they are depicted as human beings. Although he does not have a family, he has parasites, which depend on him. They form the basis of his story. These parasites can be equated to human beings who surround an individual to benefit or depend purely on him. Greed is the main theme of the play.

Volpone’s greediness is evident. For instance, despite him being rich, he continues to con others, thus amassing more wealth. In noting Volpone’s wayward ways, Jonson writes, “…and this makes men observe me: This draws new clients daily to my house, Women and men of every sex and age” (175). In the above quote, Volpone has managed to convince people that he is very ill and in the verge of death.

His counterfeit situation attracts many people who come to give him presents and other gifts with the hope that they can inherit his wealth. Such behaviour is highly deceptive. Johnson successfully deploys the strategy of reflecting human behaviours through animate characters.

In Animal Farm by George Orwell, the author writes a satirical account of events where animals oust human beings to begin their self-rule. However, what follows is turmoil as animals try to coexist peacefully. In the story, the animals have set seven commandments to guide their behaviours, including eliminating human beings for good.

For instance, the factual command states, “whatever goes on two legs is an enemy” (Orwell 21). This stipulation is indeed a clear reference to human beings. The setting of commandments is a good example of how animals are used to express human behaviour since human beings are good in making directives that guide their interaction with one another.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the author uses animal characters to portray human behaviour in many instances. Firstly, the story follows the life of a young girl who follows a white hare. The damsel is subsequently exposed to a world of wonder where she interacts with animals.

At the start, a hare comes her way when she is seated on the banks of a river. The hare speaks to himself. This meeting is the first instance where an animal is used to indicate human behaviour. When the hare is speaking, he expresses time consciousness when he exclaims that he is too late by checking time on its watch.

The hare says, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too later!” (Carroll 7). A further instance where human behaviour is reflected in animals in the story is when the cat is explaining to Alice the direction to follow when she is stranded. The author writes,

In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad” (Carroll 34).

In both cases, the cat and the hare are given human characters. Hence, they have the ability to make judgements regarding time and direction among other roles that are reflected throughout the novel.

In The Jaguar by Ted Hughes, the author writes a poem relating to his trip to a zoo where he observes the behaviours of different animals in their cages. According to the poem, some animals are comfortable with their caged life while others are bored. Others are demonstrating signs of contentment.

Such behaviours can be reflected on human beings in their respective settings where each individual has a unique interaction with the setting. For instance, he points out to the behaviour of Parrots when he writes, “the Parrots Shriek as if they were on fire, or strut” (Hughes Stanza 1), which can be related to attention-seeking people in the real world.

However, unlike other animals, the jaguar has not conformed to the caged life. He is depicted roaming around psychologically with no actual cage that can limit his movement. In this case, Hughes indicates that although the jaguar is physically caged, he is ready in his mind to conquer such as life and behave enthusiastically as he would if were not caged.

Such behaviour on the animal jaguar can be seen as indicating human beings who are not ready to be comfortable or be limited by their current situations. They are always looking to have a positive outlook concerning life. In the Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the novel follows the life of a young boy who is shipwrecked in the Pacific.

Boarding the lifeboat are four animals, namely the zebra, hyena, orang-utan, and tiger that is named Richard Parker. In the limited space that the lifeboat offers, it is a survival for the fittest environment where the weakest animals or people are the first to be eliminated or killed for food or for peace in the boat. Firstly, the hyena is a destructive animal. He kills the zebra and the orang-utan (Martel 161).

However, the tiger kill him and lastly the young boy. Pi has to tame the tiger to survive together or to coexist with it. However, at the end of the story, Pi gives an account of the same story, but now involving humans for the readers to decide on which the true story is based on the two sides (Martel How I Wrote Life of Pi par.1). Martel presents a scenario where the animals do much killing as they strive to survive.

For instance, according to Martel, “The hyena had attacked the zebra…its mouth was bright red and it was chewing on a piece of hide” (Life of Pi 150). At the end, the use of animals is a cover up strategy to make the story more bearable to humans as opposed to the one that has human characters only since it may appear overly brutal and unbelievable.


The age of Romanticism was characterised by many poets such as William Wordsworth and John Keats who used animal characters in their poems to reveal human beauty. The poem A Dog’s Tale by Mark Twain is another example of how animals are used to represent human behaviour.

Dog stories were very common, especially in the children’s literature and continue to feature prominently even in the present day (Lewis 12). In A Dog’s Tale, the author presents narratives of the life of a dog and its interaction with its master who mistreated it, despite it being his pet.

The brutality and cruelty of humans to the god and the puppy is laid bare when the puppy dies out of the experiments that are carried on her by the master. The poem The Animal Tranquillity and Decay by Wordsworth is a working illustration of how animals have been used to represent people’s traits.

Thus, it is evident that animal characters have formed part of many novels and poems throughout history. The subsequent paragraphs will provide a laconic elaboration of some of the popular novels and poems with animal characters portraying human personality.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

According to Datta, Abraham Maslow developed a theory to describe the things that inspire people (39). He observed how things that are connected to rewards stimulate people. According to Maslow, individuals are inspired to accomplish particular needs. However, once they are satisfied, they desire for others.

The motivation begins from physiological needs and ends with self-actualisation needs (Sengupta 102). Several tales can be linked to the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For example, in the Three Little Pigs, the pigs are seen building homes in the hope of safeguarding their lives. They demonstrate safety, which appears second in the Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

Kohlberg Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg’s concept of moral development is one of the most revered theories in psychology. He explains the moral mind-set of people towards their others. He develops six progressive stages that individuals go through in the process of tackling moral challenges.

To help his readers understand, Kohlberg resorts to using an animal (a wounded pet) to explain the stages of moral development. Furthermore, he uses the analogy of killing animals to elaborate why his son became a vegetarian at a particular of age of his moral development (Gibbs 65).

Darwin’s Theory of Survival

The use of animals in literature witnessed a unique development, particularly in the Victorian England when Charles Darwin wrote the On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin promoted the concept that human beings were not distinct from animals. He depicted them aspart of animals that evolved over millions of years.

He viewed human beings as just an upgraded version of animals. According to Darwin, populations develop from a course of ages via the natural selection plan. In explaining his theory, he said that the multiplicity of life came from a mutual origin through a bifurcating system of evolution.

His theory raised numerous discussionsamong religious leaders, scientists, and metaphysical thinkers because he was a prominent scientist. Although Darwin did not tackle the evolution of man exhaustively, he presented a set the foundations for the prospective scholars to investigate the origin of human being (Darwin 36).

The survival of the fittest concept was borrowed from this evolutionary notionin an effort to describe the methods through which natural selection was attained.Herbert Spencer devised the expression with reference to Darwin’s doctrine of natural selection to refer to species that had the highest copies in sequential periods.

Many writers have portrayed Darwin’s phenomenon of survival of the fittest through their fictional stories. For instance, the Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a good example of a survival for the fittest tale. In the story, Martel presents an account of the survival of a shipwrecked boy, Pi, who is stranded in a lifeboat that has a tiger, yet he has to survive for the next 227 days before he is rescued.

At the beginning, Pi is an innocent boy and a vegetarian according to his Jewish beliefs. However, as the story progresses, he has to drop his beliefs and shed his innocence to become a brutal killer who can eat fish and anything that he can get for his survival. When he kills his first fish, he is disgusted and sorrowful.

In fact, he expresses much apathy and discomfort with the whole process of killing a fish. However, he notes that within few days, he had become a brutal killer who would even drink fresh blood from a turtle, a clear indication of how survival desires can drive an individual to do things he never thought or imagined.

Despite the vicious discussions, when Darwin’s book was published, the theoretical and ontological believers began re-evaluating their beliefs (Workman 56). Science seemed to hoist animals to a standard that was close to humans, thus leaving the Western world in confusion.

Mistreatment of animals became an issue of great concern, especially during the era industrialisation. As such, activists emerged to protect the interest of not only humans but also animals, particularly in the US and England. The goal was to advance the concept of safeguarding the rights of animals.

Furthermore, the doctrine of using animals characters in stories also came up as discussed above to disclose negative human traits such as corruption, selfishness, and vicious industrialisation with respect to mistreatment of animals.

Freud’s Theory of Taming One’s Id

Sigmund Freud developed the structural model of being, which comprises the id, ego, and superego. According to Freud, the id constitutesthe unorganised sector of one’s personality. It is not only inborn but also the source of human desires such as sexual impulse.

It works in line with the pleasure principle that entails the urge to attain instant satisfaction of impulse. A good example of id at work is the brain of an infant that isid-oriented since a child wants instant gratification of an impulse. The id is not limited by the good or evil nature of the desire as long as it is gratified (Freud General Psychological Theory 89).

In his writings, Freud used animal characters to explain the nature of ego and id. The goal was to show how the id could be tamed. According to him, the ego and id depict a rider-horserelationship. The unconscious beliefs must be cognisant. Just like the rider, the ego determines where the horse should go (Freud The Ego and the Id 17).

However, sometimes, the rider has to concur with what the horse wants. Thus, the relationship between a horse and a rider confirms the need for proper coordination between the two elements (Bernaerts 68). In Yann Martel’s novel, id is a major force since it focuses on the pleasure principle or survival.

A person who is guided by id can do anything as long as it satisfies him or her. In Yan Martel’s Life of Pi, Pi has to act with brutal forces to guarantee that he can get food and water to ensure the survival for himself and the tiger (Nilsen 115). However, such a force cannot work all the time.

Pi has to apply his ego or reasoning to make important decisions. For instance, when he is deciding how to handle the tiger, Pi has to think about various plans to ensure that the final plan is workable and that it does not endanger him. After deliberating within himself, Pi reasons that taming the tiger is the best option.

Hence says, “I had to tame him. It was at that moment that I realised this necessity. It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me” (Martel Life of Pi 164). This strategy comes at a cost since Pi finally finds himself outside the boat when the tiger decides to respond to its animal instincts of killing.


Literature has utilised animal characters for a myriad of reasons. The existence of animals that personify human beings has helped writers to deliver moral lessons even where the stories are painful. The changing generations and struggles that are witnessed in specific periods have determined the main themes that the animal characters portray in the fictional stories.

Scholars, psychologists, and scientists have also used animal characters for various purposes to enhance reader understanding. Thus, the importance of animal characters in literature cannot be ignored.

Works Cited

Andrews, Tamra. Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky. The United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Bernaerts, Lars. “The Storied Lives of Non-Human Narrators.” Narrative 22.1 (2014): 68-93. Print.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s adventures in wonderland. Peterborough, England: Broadview Press, 2000. Print.

Darwin, Charles. Natural Selection. London: Bibliolis Books, 2010. Print.

Datta, Yatich. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Needs: An Ecological View.” Oxford Journal 9.1(2010): 39-57. Print.

DeMello, Margo. Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2008. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Florida: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. Print.

Gibbs, John. Moral Development & Reality: Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman. Massachusetts, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. Print.

Hughes, Ted. The Jaguar. Massachusetts, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1963. Print.

Jonson, Ben. Volpone, or the Fox. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1999. Print.

Lewis, Patrick. National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs that Squeak, Soar, and Roar! Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2012. Print.

Martel, Yann. How I Wrote Life of Pi, 2007. Web.

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Wales: Random House Incorporated, 2007. Print.

Nilsen, Don. “Onomastic Play and Suspension of Disbelief in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Onoma 40.1 (2005): 115-124. Print.

Ohanian, Armineh, Louise Reeves, and Elmore Hammes. The Talking Animals Part 2: Magic. Florida: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. Print.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.

Sengupta, Sunita. “Growth in Human Motivation: Beyond Maslow.” Indian Journal of Industrial Relations 47.1(2011):102-116. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Workman, Lance. Charles Darwin: The Shaping of Evolutionary Thinking. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

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