Charley is a traveling companion of the semi-autobiographical novel by John Steinbeck. Although his participation is sometimes attributed to the author’s fascination with dogs, Charley actually serves two functions in the novel: he is an important character that helps to highlight the author’s point and a plot-forming device, and object that triggers certain events that are unlikely to happen otherwise.
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Travels With Charley is structured in the form of a travel diary. It recounts the observations and impression which emerged during the trip undertaken by the author in his late fifties. The most often cited reason for the endeavor, stated by Steinbeck himself, was the disconnection from the country he was writing about, and the desire to experience it closely rather than from the bird-eye view.
Besides, he probably wanted to taste the local culture instead of the blurred non-distinctive nation-wide image, which can be seen in Steinbeck’s statement “There are customs, attitudes, myths and directions and changes that seem to be part of the structure of America. And I propose to discuss them as they were the first thrust on my attention” (Steinbeck 44). A peculiar detail that often draws the attention of scholars and readers alike is his choice of partner – his French poodle, Charley.
While the simpler explanations, like an attachment to a pet, are tempting, there are likely deeper reasons for this move. The research by some specialists that point to discrepancies and inconsistencies within the story and suggest that it is at least partially fictionalized, further strengthen the suspicion that Charley is not simply a random or a sentimental choice, but rather a deliberately selected way of conveying the intended message, the idea permeating the book.
First of all, it is important to note the time at which the journey was undertaken: The early sixties. The era which is commonly associated with the disillusionment in humanity: the ongoing Cold War has already turned the idea of total destruction of mankind into a feasible, and a very real threat, the sharpening civil rights struggles across America have discredited the concept of compassion and brotherhood, the Vietnam War has begun to gain its notoriety on a large scale, and the hippie movement was already emerging as a reaction to all this.
This last fact is especially important for us, as the nature-centric approach, the denial of human superiority, and the stressing on the animals’ positive traits compared to humans were on the rise in this period. This alone could serve as an explanation for Charley’s role in Steinbeck’s trip. Indeed, by contrasting the dog’s behavior and character to that of humans he’s encountered on the road, Steinbeck makes an excellent point of his observations.
The depiction of animals as demonstrating the features that are deemed positive from the human’s standpoint is nothing new and indeed has been in use long before the publication of Travels with Charley. However, to view the dog simply as a litmus test for emphasizing a point would also be short-sighted. In fact, the author rarely uses the contrasting technique directly, and when he does, he makes it subtly, without ever disrupting the life-like descriptions of the animal behavior.
Neither does he grant the dog the unusual and unlikely wisdom or intellect, or in that regard, treats him like the over-important figure. Charley is often portrayed engaging in activities any dog should: “I fed Charley, gave him a limited promenade, and hit the road.” (Steinbeck 34) This strips him of any overly sacred or pompous qualities characteristic of the animals in the Aesops of the “Natural wisdom” literature.
While it is true that Steinbeck sometimes compares Charley to a human, it always remains within the domain of the owner adoring his pet, and retains the humorous vibe, like in the description of sequences of Charley trying to wake his master up: “Often the war of wills goes on for quite a time, I squinching my eyes shut and he forgiving me, but he nearly always wins.” (Steinbeck 61) However, we soon notice that whenever the dog is present as a participant of some event, we can’t help but speculate how he would perceive the situation if he had the capability to do it.
However, there is another important reason for Charley to appear in the book. His silent presence often triggers the events that serve as a commentary for the trends of the American society of the time. The most memorable passage describes the part of the journey happening in the deep South of the country when Steinbeck reports several occasions on which Charley, who was occupying the seat next to driver’s, was mistaken for an African American by the passers-by: “”Hey, it’s a dog! I thought you had a nigger in there.”
And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions. At least twenty times I heard it—”Thought you had a nigger in there.” It was an unusual joke—always fresh—and never Negro or even Nigra, always Nigger or rather Niggah.” (Steinbeck 203) In this regard, Charley not only serves a trigger to enable the shameful attitude towards the Black population – he actually seems much more humane contrasted to the people who, either deliberately or by mistake, express their belief that the Black people are actually nothing more than animals.
Overall, Charley is preferred by the author over a human companion for two reasons. First, he makes up a subtle yet bright character, who, despite his naivety and humorous vibe, adds an angle to the events. Second, he serves as an object that triggers events that are important for the message of the book. Steinbeck was concerned with America of his day, and Charley helped him make it clear.
Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley in Search of America, New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.