In Search of Literary “Wild Spaces”

This list can also be found on the Toronto Public Library website.
Literary Wild Spaces
A dictionary check shows that the word “nature” refers to: 1) everything NOT made by humans; and 2) the innate way that BOTH animals or humans behave. So nature is something that is both outside and inside us. What, then, defines the human-animal boundary.

Below are a few literary explorations into this question:

The first edition (1896) cover.The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)
H.G. Wells
In the tradition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this chilling, late-Victorian novel explores science and the manipulation of nature. Edward Prendick is rescued from a shipwreck and finds himself on a remote island. There he meets Dr. Moreau whose experiments produce “monstrous hybrids”…creatures that are grotesque combinations of human and animal bodies and behaviors. The process of producing the creatures is extremely painful, and of course the monsters eventually take matters into their own hands…or paws….

Heart and Science

Heart and Science (1883)
Wilkie Collins
Conducting medical experiments on live animals (vivisection) was a huge debate in Victorian England. Collins opposed such practices and through the character of the malevolent Dr. Benjulia, he reveals the underside of vivisection. Benjulia’s attitude toward animals as merely objects of medical interest is echoed in his sinister treatment of Carmina Graywell who develops a brain disease which Benjulia encourages for the sake of scientific observation.
Picture 3The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England (1985)
Coral Lansbury
Is there a connection between animals strapped to vivisection tables and poor women strapped to gynecological examination tables? In an engaging and accessible way, Lansbury shows that Edwardian women fighting for the vote and protesting the cruel treatment of animals saw a clear connection. Excerpts from letters, popular novels and Victorian pornography make for a compelling read.
Picture 4Agnes Grey (1847)
Anne Brontë
As in Jane Eyre, the “governess” is the central character in this novel. Like many domestic or companion animals, the governess is both petted and neglected by her families. Her moral advice is also often unheeded. Children who are cruel to animals (birds in particular) foreshadows an unhappy life, and it is no surprise that Agnes’s eventual lover will rescue her cherished dog from an agonizing fate.
Picture 5Disgrace (1999)
Jim Coetzee
Disgrace picks up questions about the animal-human boundary in the context of contemporary moral behavior and violence. Coetzee’s human protagonist, however, is not the upstanding Victorian governess but an aging professor accused of sexual predation—but he, too, discovers an uneasy empathy with animals in a brutally violent world.

Sir Oran (illustration by F.H. Townsend

Melincourt (1817)
Thomas Love Peacock
Sailors bringing back exotic animals (such as orangutans and chimpanzees) to Europe in the late 1700s stimulated new questions about the human-animal boundary. In the satirical novel Melincourt, Sir Oran (Orangutan) comes to reside in the home of Anthelia’s future husband. Oran develops romantic feelings for Anthelia. But is he animal or human? Or something betwixt and between?

Edgar Allan Poe

 The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)
Edgar Allan Poe
A brutal murder of a young woman and her mother are investigated by Dupin and his friend (the unnamed narrator of the tale). Several witnesses hear (but do not see) the murderer, each attributing to him a different language. The resolution of the crime turns on the notion that what distinguishes humans from animals is speech…

Richard Mansfield in an 1887 dramatic adaptation of the novel.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
Robert Louis Stevenson
Darwin’s theory of evolution made the problem of the animal-human boundary much more complicated for Victorians. What does it mean to be descended from apes? Do “we” humans retain animal passions and habits? How do we keep our animal aspects under control? Dr. Jekyll’s answer is to divide himself into two persons, with Mr. Hyde becoming a “Vegas-like” hedonist-twin. But does what happen in Vegas stay in Vegas?

Picture 1

The Ape and the Sushi Master (2001)
Frans de Waal
This is one I’ve always wanted to read….an exploration by a distinguished primatologist on the human-ape question and a probing look at how we characterize human nature. 

Picture 2

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K. Dick
In an apocalyptic future, real animals are cherished and valued by humans. But where does “the machine” fit in? Dick’s seminal novel complicates the human-animal boundary further by incorporating artificial intelligence and “the cyborg” into the picture.


Picture 3

Being Caribou (2006)
Karsten Heuer
What does it mean to become animal? How might this be answered by accompanying animals as they migrate, experiencing their breeding season? Heuer and his wife, Leanne, spend five months (on foot) following an Arctic herd of caribou. The result is an extraordinary read…especially as the route covers vast reserves of oil that are slated for development.
Picture 4Metamorphosis (1915)
Franz Kafka
What does it mean to become “vermin”—an unwanted animal? Kafka was one of the first to explore this in a bizarre, prescient novella that speaks so much to our contemporary world. One morning Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach and although his family recognizes elements of his “humanness,” this quickly fades as he becomes more and more inconvenient to the household. Was it just his human body and the ability to speak, then, that has kept Gregor from the fate of other unwanted animals—society’s vermin?


Hilary Scharper is a Canadian author, living in Toronto. She has spent over a decade as an assistant lighthouse-keeper and steward at the Cabot Head Lighthouse and Bird Observatory, located on the northern Bruce Peninsula. Her eco-gothic novel, Perdita, draws on her experiences at Cabot Head. She is also an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. 

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