Pigs in Literature and Popular Culture: A Tutorial
Center for Animals and Public Policy
Spring, 2000


"Dogs look up at you: cats look down at you: but pigs is equal...."
(Old English saying, quoted in Watkins & Hughes 173)

Session 1--Literature for Adults-- discussion and essay (approx 5 pp) isolating prevailing themes (issues: eating pigs, using them for experimentation--including biotech and transplant, or factory farming although probably only eating and treatment on the farm will apply in the earlier texts) and approaches (satire) based on reading Orwell's Animal Farm and a Wodehouse novel (Heavy Weather, Summer Lightning, Something Fresh or the short story "Pi-hoo-o-o-o-ey!" on which they are all based.

Orwell's "Fairy Story" shares the dark tones of satire found in works like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Adams' The Plague Dogs, and Hughes' Sweet William. Its animals suffer and endure and go unrewarded. "Its message (which is by nomeans a moral) is that of all the great fairy-stories," explains C. M. Wodehouse (Times Literary Supplement 6 August 1954); "'Life is like that--take it or leave it.'" Orwell may have intended the story as political allegory, but in a letter he writes that his intention was to analyze Marx's theory "from the animal point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them; the true struggle is between animals and humans." As Blount puts it: "One reads it and ends by feeling shame--like Gulliver--at being human, as well as shame that men can exploit the ideals of their fellow men. It is almost as if not Orwell but a committee of wise animals had written the story, arranging their characters to interest us in human revolutionary parallels in order to draw our attention to an animal plight: animal fable in reverse" (67-68). The initial speeches by Old Major support this intention, as does the increasing exploitation of the other animals by the pigs as the pigs themselves become more and more human. Ultimately the metamorphosis returns the farm to a world where "Some animals [humans] are more equal than others." Featured in all the Blandings novels is the imposing Berkshire sow, Empress of Blandings. Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (1995) describes her as "a baloon with ears and a tail....She is the property and pride of Lord Emsworth, and she has won three consecutive Fat Pigs silver medals at the Shropshire Agricultural Show. In the course of Wodehouse's many tales set at Blandings Castle, she is stolen, kidnapped, hidden, and even forced to diet" (377). "It is ironic that, with a storyline that includes animals only at its climax and no social message, 'Pig' performs a more troubling critique of the slaughterhouse and a more profound questioning of the human state than does [Upton Sinclair's] The Jungle. As a macabre story, driven by the sinisterly humorous vision of its author, Roald Dahl's 'Pig' certainly puts the problems of cities, animals, and people beyond resolution. Interestingly enough, the primary victim of the meat-producing industry in 'Pig' is a human being. 'Our hero,' Lexington, is actually butchered at the end of the story, in the same dispassionate manner as pigs are butchered. He is, however, first 'animalized' in a sense. He is raised nearly from birth, in complete isolation from civilization, by an eccentric vegetarian aunt in her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After Aunt Glosspan's death, Lexington comes to New York City with all the innocence of an animal brought to slaughter.... Dahl ... puts the reader in the same position as Lexington; the surprise ending repeats, in an admittedly minor and safe fashion, the violent shock suffered by Lexington and, not incidentally, by the pigs who are also dragged to slaughter on the same conveyer belt carrying our hero to his death."....

"In combining narrative visions that usually exclude one another at the beginning of 'Pig,' Dahl anticipates the deadly fusion of clashing ideas at the end of his tale: the fusion of slaughterhouse practices with sacrosanct human flesh. Cannibalism, of course, is not unusual in works of horror. Nor is it unusual that violation of the taboo against cannibalism be tinged with humour, as it is in 'Pig.' The films Eating Raoul and Parents are recent examples of sinister amusement being drawn from the idea of people eating other people. 'Pig' distinguishes itself from other humorous renditions...in centering upon the human victim and raising important essential questions about the actual difference between humans and animals....

....Lexington goes...to an extremely dirty cafeteria, there to taste meat, a 'greyish-white slab' (198) of roast pork, for the first time in his life.

"His ecstasy at finding this wholly new and eminently tasty food suggests an association with the conventional view of pigs: he is living by his taste buds alone and will consume anything that satisfies his sensual needs. One has to bear in mind that the conventional view of pigs as undiscriminating feeders is unfair. Nevertheless, Lexington's pure sensual delight at the taste of meat does put a different complexion on the title 'Pig.' Has Lexington sinned, then? Has he proved himself a 'pig in the conventional sense and thus become susceptible to slaughter? Or has he not sinned, since he cannot balk morally at the slab of meat, and thus proved himself an innocent animal ready for the butchering?

"At the slaughterhouse, his response to the sight of a pig being hooked up to the pulley and dragged upside down into the secret regions of the building only deepens the dilemma of his moral state. Unlike the immigrants in The Jungle, Lexington experiences no sympathy for the pigs. The struggles and squealing of a particularly 'nimble' pig as it hops along on three legs and fights the pull of the chain elicit from Lexington only the observation that this is 'Truly a fascinating process ' (203). He is curious about the 'funny cracking noise,' which is the sound of the pig's leg or pelvis breaking, but is ultimately more concerned that the recipe for this strange new meat stuff is extremely complicated that that the pig is suffering.

"....All flesh is meat to this slaughterhouse.... Ultimately, it does not matter whether Lexington is a good human being or a bad one, an innocent animal or an amoral one: the slaughterhouse is after flesh alone. In this respect, Dahl equalizes humans and animals in a way that Sinclair does not.

"....Dahl does put us inside the butcher's victim by following Lexington on his upside-down course towards death. He does not, however, depict this death as cruel or shocking. Lexington is alarmed but not panicked. He does not seem to be in a great deal of pain after his throat is slit. The blood pours into his eyes and he grows sleepy, but that is about all we learn of the physical effects of butchering. Perhaps the insidious gentleness of the slaughter might lead someone to opt out of a meat diet. Yet 'Pig' is not obviously an argument against meat-eating. Nor is it clearly an argument, made metaphorically, about the inhumane treatment of even the most innocent of sentient beings, human or otherwise. The effect of the story, rather, is to raise the existential question of what quality in humanity keeps us out of the slaughterhouse. Why should Lexington...be exempt from slaughter when pigs or 'Daisy and Snowdrop and Lily' the cows are not? (Scholtmeijer 153-157)

Though pigs are not the main characters (as the dog is in Travels with Charley) or even the main symbols in John Steinbeck's novels, pigs do appear in them. Mary Allen, in Animals in American Literature (U of Chicago, 1983), comments: "By one means or another, John Steinbeck's animals are put to death. Marine invertebrates are gathered as specimens; pigs and chickens are slaughtered for provision; a colt succumbs to pneumonia; a mare is sliced open to save her foal; mice are squeezed to death by a half-wit; insects are squashed; dogs and rabbits are struck by swerving cars. The violence in Steinbeck's world generally takes a peculiar turn in the case of animals, who meet death in an ingenious variety of ways, drawn out with the graphic detail and detachment of a biologist.... While metaphors align lower species with underdog man, the actual animals have little in common with him. And the tenderness expressed for human suffering does not extend to animals--nor does Steinbeck's sentimentality--as he maintains an almost perfect detachment from their sensations" (115). The novels she discusses that have pigs in them are The Red Pony (1937), To a God Unknown, and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The young boy in Red Pony (which, incidentally, is recommended for young adult readers) finds "'pig killing was fascinating, with the screaming and the blood, but it made Jody's heart beat so fast that it hurt him.' This 'hurt' is the stimulation he looks for to break the monotony of farm life, both before and after he owns a pony. When Jody's father says he will need him in the morning, the boy tremulously but hopefully asks if it will be to kill a pig" (123). Jody's eagerness is shared by the boys and men in Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven (1932). In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad brothers are equally enthusiastic about slaughtering animals, among them pigs ("Noah, leaning over the felled pigs, found the great artery with his carving knife and released the pulsing streams of blood"). In To a God Unknown, animals, though often treated as totemic, are still brutalized. Allen comments: "Joseph's first encounter with wildlife in the West is the huge boar, which 'sits on its haunches and tearingly ate the hind quarters of a still-squealing little pig' (5). The man's revulsion rules out both a worshipful approach or an affinity for this low species. He does not shoot only because it occurs to him that this boar may be the father of fifty pigs and perhaps the source of fifty more. But once on his own ranch, Joseph is soon at work with the knife, cutting the Wayne brand in the ears of his calves and performing castrations" (121-122). This mystery series, featuring a female veterinarian, includes numerous animals. Though the pig is the focus in this one, a large sow named Sara--worthy of Wodehouse--appears in Dr. Nightingale Traps the Missing Lynx (1999).

Session 2--Literature for Young Children-- Discussion and essay: How do the themes and attitudes emphasized compare with those found in pig literature intended for adults? What accounts for the differences if any exist? I'd suggest focusing on a few nursery rhymes like "This little pig goes to market" and "Tom, Tom, the piper's son;" a well-known pig tale like Three Little Pigs; Potter's two pig tales; and maybe what cartoon pigs little kids are exposed to. Perhaps even focusing on an issue (like eating pork) would be wise. You may also want to consider the following:

Victoria Moran, author of Compassion, The Ultimate Ethic: An Exploration of Veganism (1985), believes that "the overwhelming attitude expressed in children's literature is that animals exist for our use; indeed they love to serve us" and goes on to trace the hardening of that attitude in TV, books, and human cultural habits" ("Children and Animals: Keeping Love Alive," The Animals' Agenda March 1986: 10-13). The New York Times "cited a report by the Interior Department Fish and Wildlife Service, which found that....[v]ery young children were the most exploitive, harsh and unfeeling of all children in their attitudes toward animals. These results suggest our own cultural idealization of the relationship of very young children to animals is not only incorrect but may foster a distorted understanding of the needs of young people" (Marcus 128).

"...comparatively few contemporary children have actually seen a living farm animal, except perhaps in zoos, but How Do We Help? Echoes book after book in
depicting such animals in rural environments and assuming children are familiar with them. A child who cannot recognize such objects from experience in reality must learn them from images--from the experience of pictures. And because images so uncommon in reality are so common in picture books and indeed in all children's literature, learning them is a significant part of a child's early visual education. "Words like 'cow' or 'duck' are often among the first ones spoken by young children; that they can recognize and name such images long before they know the names of significant objects in their actual environment speaks of how successfully they can learn the conventions of picture books. So does the presence in book after book of a sort of creature who not only does not appear in the children's environment but does not actually exist at all outside of books. The characters in Max's First Word are cartoon creatures who look unlike anything in the real world, although they vaguely resemble rabbits. But even the, they are rabbits who wear human clothes and use human furniture and who apparently can speak like humans. It is a cliché that such pictures are so common in books for young children because children 'like' animals; it is certainly possible that children learn an interest in such humanized animals from their frequent appearances in books" (Nodelman 34-35).

"Pigs figure in nursery rhymes, folk-tales, fables and classics of children's literature: A. A. Milne's nervous Piglet in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and Beatrix Potter's Pigling Bland and Little Pig Robinson, for example. Cartoon pigs include Walt Disney's version of the Three Little Pigs, and the pin-up, Miss Piggy of the Muppets" (Watkins and Hughes 168). "Fictional pigs are rarely villains; George Orwell's 'gang of three' in Animal Farm must really be exceptional. They generally walk on their hind legs and wear clothes. With their pinkish bodies and snouty faces, pigs are more human-looking than other, furrier animals. In Alice in Wonderland by Lewis
Carrol, the Duchess's baby turns into a pig while Alice is carrying it along: 'If it had grown up,' she said to herself, 'it would have made a dreadfully ugly child, but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think,' and she began thinking over other children she knew, who might do very well as pigs" (Watkins & Hughes 168-169)

Nursery rhymes, Picture books

"In 1913 [Potter] married...in spite of her parents' objections and moved to Hill Top Farm for good. This triumph is celebrated, several critics have suggested, in The Tale of Pigling Bland, published in the month of her wedding, October.... The book is illustrated with a view of her garden at Hill Top...and ends with the escape of Pigling Bland and a 'perfectly lovely little black Berkshire pig,' Pig-wig, from a claustrophobic kitchen to...Potter's beloved Lake District" (Allison Lurie, Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature [Boston: Little, Brown, 1990], 97. Incidentally, Laurie titles her chapter on Potter "Animal Liberation.")
_________, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930)
"In the Tale of Little Pig Robinson, the protagonist goes even further, settling on a desert island and becoming the pig 'with a ring at the end of his nose' who
was so useful in Edward Lear's Owl and Pussycat" (Lurie 97) "Chester...speaks with startling self-awareness: 'Of all things,...why on earth did I have to be a pig? A pig is no better off than a cabbage or a carrot, just something to eat. But before I end up as so much sausage and ham, I intend to try and amount to something.' "'But what else,' the narrator asks, could a pig ever be? That was Chester's main problem, and he turned this around and around in his head until one day it suddenly came to him, 'I'll be a star in the circus!'" (Marcus 132). TV, films, and cartoons, comics

Session 3--Literature for Early readers. Discussion and essay: Do these texts differ from those intended for younger children? How? And how do they, if they do, differ from those intended for adults? Again, focus is essential. I'd suggest using the same issue(s) you chose for the earlier essays since that will suggest how texts aimed at different age groups handle delicate matters). Here I'd suggest Charlotte's Web, Freddie the Pig, and Babe (novel and film) as primary texts.

"Sarah Trimmer directly questioned the Cartesian view of animals [as unfeeling machines] in Fabulous Histories...[where] a lady admits she had 'been for a long time accustomed to consider animals as mere machines, actuated by the unerring hand of Providence, to do those things which are necessary for the preservation of themselves and their offspring...' but she modifies this belief when she encounters a pig showing obvious intelligence" (van Essen 5).
  "...the pig leaves the farm and seeks his fortune in the world ('What, leaving your mother, you foolish pig?' Pigling Bland had no choice, and a rather happier end.) Piggy tries everything, wearing the most fashionable and appropriate clothes, including cigar and top hat. He tries landscape gardening, driving a horse, dancing, including a bal masque, but eventually goes to a fair and takes to drink. In the end, the butcher arrives. Anyone who finds Beatrix Potter harsh should take note of the 'Rake's Progress', and other picture books and annuals intended for the Victorian child (though Piggy is of slightly earlier date). Perhaps the butcher would have come anyway, whether Piggy had left home or not; the moral is rather ambiguous" (Blount 70-71). "The hero of this story, a young pig named Wilbur, is saved...through the creative, aggressive work of a spider named Charlotte who inhabits the same barn," writes Mary Daley at the opening of her discussion of the novel in Gynecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978). She sees the novel as an example of the hero's need for the protection and wisdom of the Cosmic Mother (Spider) and questions why the hero saved from slaughter must be male [as is the case also in Babe]. White himself, who acknowledged that seeing his own pig slaughtered provided the impetus for Charlotte's Web, said that writing the novel taught him "there was no need to tamper in any way with the habits and characteristics of spiders, pigs, geese, and rats" in order to tell their story. Faith McNaulty sees the story as a tale about "the sweetness of being alive...[a story which] marches up to Death, looks him in the eye, and cuts him down to size" (The New Yorker 30 Nov 1987: 132ff; see also Lanes 105-6).

"White did not use animals as personifications of humans, nor did he write for children on one level and for adults on another. Charlotte, Wilbur, the hero pig, Templeton the rat, and the goose who says everything twice are essentially what they are--barnyard animals. The author himself has left us his view of this classic in a letter to the producer of the movie: ...I do hope, though, that you are not planning to turn Charlotte's Web into a moral tale. It is not that at all. It is, I think, an appreciative story, and there is quite a difference. It celebrates life, the seasons, the goodness of the barn, the beauty of the world, the glory of everything. But essentially it is amoral, because animals are essentially amoral, and I respect them, and I think this respect is implicit in the tale...I discovered that there was no need
to tamper in any way with the habits and characteristics of spiders, pigs, geese and rats. No "motivation" is needed if you remain true to the spirit of fantasy" (Egloff 166).

"There are few writers who can make animals come alive as well as Dick King-Smith, and his best loved book is Babe. The story of a pig who becomes a sheep-herder has been made into a successful movie and has created interest in earlier works by this remarkable author. These include: Ace: The Very Important Pig and The School Mouse [featured in a recent amzon.com ad]" (Lewis and Mayes 316-317).
  "Warmth and wry humor suffuse the pages in this tale about how a talking bone saves a charming piglet [Pearl] from becoming food for a fox" (Loer 1).

Session 4--Literature for Young Adults. Discussion and essay: How do approaches and themes adjust for adolescent readers? Why, in comparison to what is found for young children and for adult readers, is so little available? Are there farm animals in the animorph series? Are they farther from works intended for
younger children and more like approaches, attitudes and themes found in adult pig literature?). Consider as well the animated Animal Farm and Babe in the City which are considered suitable for older child viewers or adults.

Session 5--Adult updated. Discussion and essay will focus on Darrieussecq's Pig Tales and Smiley's Moo. How do the themes, issues, and approaches and attitudes in these very contemporary works by female authors compare to adult texts considered earlier and to the children's literature considered?

Session 6--Perceptions of the Pig: A Proposal for on-going humane Education using the pig as an example.

Secondary Sources