*This article discusses an exemplary short story titled Fleur by Louise Erdrich. Read it here: http://bit.do/fleurLE
In George Orwell’s famous allegorical novella Animal Farm, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”. When an author projects human dispositions, flaws and tensions onto animals, we can explore these traits by putting the reader at a distance; for some reason, you can accept the darker parts of your own psyche when they’re animalized, when you’re distanced from expectations of your own humanity. There is a tradition, particularly among Native Americans and Canadian First Nations to use animals to explore human nature. The short story “Fleur” by Louise Erdrich explores the tension between men and women as the protagonist Fleur Pillager violates the status quo by defying expectations of her as a woman. The story explores Fleur’s status on the Native American reservation and her assimilation into a white workplace. She infuriates the people in both of the places because they cannot define or contain her.
Before Fleur moves to Argus, USA, rumors about her use of ‘medicine’ to become more than human circulates throughout the Indian reservation. The narrator describes how Fleur transforms into a bear at night to go hunting, and that the villagers know this because they follow her tracks, which change from human to animal. The story uses preconceived associations with the bear to create a picture of Fleur’s character; she is solitary, versatile and dangerous. Fleur cannot fit into society’s expectations of her because her spirit is more complex and animalistic than her tribes’ narrow definition of what it means to be a woman. The natures of various characters in this short story are embodied by the creatures they master; by using animals to explore human nature, the story comments on the parallel between people controlling animals, and men controlling women in two societies.
A dog is a man’s best friend — or so the saying goes, so it makes sense that the male antagonist’s innermost disposition would be embodied by his dog Fatso. The antagonist is called Lily, a nickname given to him because of the lily-whiteness of his skin; he acts as a symbol of everything wrong with the attitudes of white men in Argus. Lily and his dog are introduced as a pair, immediately yoking them in the mind of the reader, allowing the disposition of the dog to shape the reader’s opinion of the man. Lily tries to act unfazed by Fleur’s bold move of joining the men’s card game, an act that crosses the unspoken boundary of gambling being in men’s territory, yet Fatso reveals Lily’s true feelings. “The dog snapped at Fleur’s arm that first night, but cringed back, its snarl frozen, when she took her place.” While Lily seems not to care about Fleur joining the card game, Fatso cringes and freezes, embodying Lily’s shock at being challenged in such a manner by a woman. Fleur ‘takes her place’ in a situation that does not have a place for her; in doing so, she declares her power over the situation and her equality at the men’s table. Lily’s horror is manifested in the reaction of his dog, a horror that will only escalate.
When Fleur joins the card game the male ego is damaged, but it is not nearly as damaged as when she wins the game and the men’s violent intentions become violent actions. Lily asks Fatso if he should look at Fleur’s cards, and the dog whines, which Lily takes to mean yes. He arrogantly assumes he has won, but his reaction shows what defeat truly does to him: “Lily looked once, looked again, then he squeezed the dog up like a fist of dough and slammed it on the table.” Fleur’s victory pains Lily, so he acts out in vengeance against the embodiment of his arrogance and fragile self-esteem, Fatso. The dog is bruised, just like Lily’s bruised ego. It is an object to be owned, controlled, and abused at the whims of his master, the man. Yet Lily is unable to intimidate, own or control Fleur, despite his best efforts. Consequently, Lily later acts out in violence against Fleur in an attempt to reduce her to a domestic animal, just like he does to Fatso. The dog offers a dual perspective of Lily’s character as well as the story’s commentary on the relationship between men and women. While the animal embodies Lily’s fragile ego, it also acts as a mirror, revealing the abusive patriarchal repression that Lily tries to inflict on Fleur. However, the story protests men being the ultimate ‘masters’ — of animals and of women — by making Fleur the master of the sow.
Fleur has authority and supernatural power over the pig in the stock pen; just as with Fatso, the animal portrays the inner nature of its master when it fights Lily violently. The sow is a distinctly feminine animal, and is one that is commonly associated with the supposedly female occupation of rearing many young. While the sow is female, it is established early in the story that Fleur does not confine herself to any society’s definition of what a woman should be. It is the sow, which we assume is under Fleur’s control, that strikes, lunges, and is ‘woken up’ by Lily’s violence and wrestles with him as an equal. The viciousness of the sow under Fleur’s control, representing Fleur’s anger and hatred for the men who oppress her, is a direct violation of the assumption that women are not violent: “They [the sow and Lily] went down and came up, the same shape and then the same colour, until the men couldn’t tell one from the other in the light”. Fleur cannot physically match Lily in a fight but her will, embodied in the sow, is just as strong as his body. The story asserts again and again that Lily and Fleur are equal, even in the floral associations of their names, and insists that Fleur is just as strong and thus equal to Lily.
It could be argued that Fleur controls and abuses the sow whose body is damaged against its will. The story could be pointing out Fleur’s cruelty, her hypocrisy in using an animal the way the men use women, and could even suggest that the abuse of the weak by the strong is inevitable or natural. The animals in the story could be seen as the ultimately abused, and yet the story is not concerned with animal welfare, but in how Native American tradition uses animals to represent the spirits of people.
Just like Fleur, the sow is confined and isolated; its body is owned for consumption. Yet Fleur and the sow act in unexpected, ‘unfeminine’ ways despite their inherent femininity. While the pig lives to be slaughtered and Fleur is raped, the woman and her spirit struggle against oppression with cunning and violence. “Power travels in the bloodlines, handed out before birth… It comes down through the eyes, too, belligerent, darkest brown, the eyes of those in the bear clan” — Fleur is powerful; she defies the patriarchal definition of her as a woman. So is the creature that embodies her rage and mystic femininity, which is so much more complex and awe-inspiring than the patriarchal definition of female. The story reverses expectations of the quintessentially female sow, doing to the reader what Fleur does to the men. Once again an animal is used to not only embody its master’s spirit, but to also offer a perspective on the view of women as meat waiting for consumption like a pig waiting for slaughter. Fleur’s protest against oppression continues even after her body is violated so that the sadness of the story is punctuated with a ray of hope in her daughter.
Just like Fleur infuriates her tribe because they are unable to define her, her daughter does the same. They cannot put a label on the child who may be ‘mixed’, or may be half water sprite; she defies definition by her very existence just like Fleur chooses to. “The girl is bold, smiling in her sleep, as if she knows what people wonder, as if she hears the old men talk, turning the story over… They only know that they don’t know anything”. The last act of violence by the three men who rape Fleur could have broken her spirit and caused her to be reduced to a patriarchal definition of female. Instead, Fleur takes on motherhood with the spirit of a bear, her eyes still “impolite as they gaze directly at a person.” Her daughter is the ultimate defiance of male control as her very existence calls patriarchal definitions into question. While Fleur lives in bear-like fierce and unapologetic freedom, Lily’s fragile ego and arrogance freeze inside the body of an ill-tempered dog. Between every layer of animal and human, the story fights for equality between the sexes, insisting on the complexity of the female identity and the futility of a confining definition.
Artwork by Joan Hill “Morning in the Indian Village” 1975