Study Guide

The Lives of Animals, by J.M. Coetzee in Animal Studies

The Lives of Animals, by J.M. Coetzee

Jeez, this title sounds like a moldy oldie. In some ways Coetzee is playing off of ancient, noble-sounding titles here. The Nobel-prize winner's novella, The Lives of Animals, is a central text for literary theorists working in the field of animal studies. The book was originally written as the novelist's contribution to the Tanner Lectures at Princeton in 1997. Rather than give a traditional talk, in his own voice, Coetzee writes a very metafictional novella featuring his alter ego Elizabeth Costello.

Sound strange? Well, um, it is—and on a number of levels. Elizabeth Costello is the protagonist of the novella. She is a famous, well-regarded novelist who has been invited to give a series of lectures at a small liberal arts college. The majority of the book comprises these lectures—lectures filled with some pretty radical ideas about how we should and shouldn't be treating animals—and we're quickly left to wonder are these are supposed to be the lectures that Coetzee would have given. If so, why are they in the context of a novel? What is Coetzee's game here?

Coetzee is a vegetarian and animal rights advocate, so why wouldn't he just write out a screed against factory farms? The novel interests both literary scholars and animal studies theorists because the text introduces a fascinating ambiguity—by reading a novel one has written for the occasion, instead of giving a formal talk, the author is able to take distance from the arguments his characters make even while he stands in front of the audience and delivers them.

Some scholars see this as an intriguing model for the kind of ambiguity and complexity we need to be prepared to hold in mind if we're going to talk to each other about the place of animals in our world.