Study Guide

Animal Dreams Violence

By Barbara Kingsolver

Violence

I could see plainly then that it was a heavy-bodied peacock shuffling from side to side on a low branch. Apparently the creature was too dull-witted or terrorized to escape, or possibly already injured. The children pursued it ferociously, jumping up and pulling at its long tail feather, ready to tear it to pieces. The boy with the stick hit hard against the belly and they all shrieked. He hit it again. I couldn't see the stick but I heard the sickening whack when it made contact.
I looked away. I'd arrived in Grace, arrived at that moment in my life, without knowing how to make the kind of choice that was called for here. I'm not the moral guardian in my family. Nobody, not my father, no one had jumped in when I was getting whacked by life, and on the meanest level of instinct, I felt I had no favors to return. Especially to a bird. It was Hallie's end of my conscience that kept pinching me as I walked.

[...]

"Stop it!" I yelled. My heart was thumping. "You're killing that bird!"

The boy froze like a rabbit in headlights. The other kids, down on their knees, stared too. [...] When I was ten I'd demolished a piñata exactly like this one[.] (2.28-32)

Hello, Codi's trauma. Codi's got a funny relationship to violence—and to her own morality. Notice how she imagines that Hallie is actually the one responsible for any good action she does. Also notice that Codi is super suspicious of Grace: she's convinced this is the type of town where children in large groups maim animals for fun. This scene foreshadows the fact that it's actually the kind of town that loves to have parties and eat candy.

Curty lay his hypnotized rooster on the block and held its feet, keeping the rest of his body as far away as possible. It never regained consciousness. Emelina swung the axe over her shoulder and brought it down on the mark. The pink, muscular neck slipped out of the collar of feathers as if the two parts had been separately made. The boys hooted and chased after the body as it thrashed across the dirt. But I was fascinated by the head: the mouth opened and closed, silently, because the vocal cords were in the part that had been disconnected.

[...]

I can't believe you're watching this," she said when both boys were settled down to plucking feathers. [...] "You used to have a hissy fit when we'd go over to Abuelita's and she'd be killing chickens," Emelina said. "Remember? Even when we were big, twelve or thirteen."

"No, that was Hallie. She's the one that had such a soft heart. We've always been real different that way." (4.25-30)

This scene is in part another example of how Codi believes that she's an evil monster with a heart made out of mine tailings—but it's also about how death and violence are a part of normal life.

This morning I saw three children die. Pretty thirteen-year-old girls wearing dresses over their jeans. They were out in the woods near here, picking fruit, a helicopter came over the trees and strafed them. We heard the shots. Fifteen minutes later an alert defense patrol shot the helicopter down, twenty miles north, and the pilot and another man in the helicopter were killed but one is alive. Codi, they're American citizens, active-duty National Guards. It's a helicopter from the U.S., guns, everything from Washington. [...] The girls were picking fruit. When they brought them into town, oh God. Do you know what it does to a human body to be cut apart from the sky? We're defenseless from that direction, we aren't meant to have enemies attack us from above. The girls were alive, barely, and one of the mothers came running out and then turned away saying, "Thank you, Holy Mother, it's not my Alba." But it was Alba. Later, when the families took the bodies into the church to wash them, I stayed with Alba's two younger sisters. They kept saying, "Alba braided our hair this morning. She can't be dead. See, she fixed our hair." (16.56)

None of this stuff is made up: the U.S. really did send troops to Nicaragua to support a revolution that had serious war-crime problems just because the revolution was the capitalists and the government was the socialists. That's Cold War politics, and Kingsolver makes this scene as painful as it can be. We get young girls, killed and violently disfigured by U.S. soldiers, whose deaths are long and excruciating, and Kingsolver lays this all at the U.S. taxpayer's door. It's pretty rough—no wonder Codi doesn't want to believe it, even when the news is coming from her sister.

"I could see that you're good at it. Very good." I struggled to find my point, but could come up only with disturbing, disjointed images: a woman in the emergency room on my first night of residency, stabbed eighteen times by her lover. Curty and Glen sitting in the driveway dappled with rooster blood. Hallie in a jeep, hitting a land mine. Those three girls.

"Everything dies, Codi."

"Oh, great. Tell me something I don't know. My mother died when I was a three year old baby!" I had no idea where that came from. I looked out the window and wiped my eyes carefully with my sleeve. But the tears kept coming. For a long time I cried for those three teenage girls who were split apart from above while they picked fruit. For the first time I really believed in my heart it had happened. That someone could look down, aim a sight, pull a trigger. Feel nothing, forget. (16.172-5)

This is basically a summary of this novel's meditation on the theme of violence. Even violence is connected to our capacity for memory and forgetfulness: we forget violence because we don't want to remember painful things.

Loyd seemed at a loss. Finally he said gently, "I mean, animals die. They suffer in nature and they suffer in the barnyard. It's not like people. They weren't meant to live a good life and then go to heaven, or wherever we go."

[...]

"I'm not talking about chicken souls. I don't believe roosters have souls," I said slowly. "What I believe is that humans should have more heart than that. I can't feel good about people making a spectator sport out of puncture wounds and internal hemorrhage."

Loyd kept his eyes on the dark air above the road. Bugs swirled in the headlights like planes cut loose from their orbits, doomed to chaos. After a full half hour he said, "My brother Leander got killed by a drunk, about fifteen miles from here."

In another half hour he said, "I'll quit Codi, I'm quitting right now." (16.178-80)

Loyd is a deep dude. What do you think he's pondering during that hour? Is he seeing a montage of images like Codi is? Is he thinking about how fighting cocks are basically tiny, feathery Roman gladiators? Or is he thinking about how recreational violence led to the biggest loss of his life?

"Everybody always talked like Leander died of drinking, but he wasn't but fifteen. Not old enough to sit down and order a beer. Everybody forgets that, that he was just a kid. We drank some, but I don't think he was drinking the night he died. There was a fight in a bar."

"What did he die of, then?"

"Puncture wounds. Internal hemorrhage." (18.40-3)

Here's the real reason Loyd quit cockfighting: it wasn't for Codi; it was for his dead brother's ghost.

"The seat of human emotion should be the liver," Doc Homer said. "That would be an appropriate metaphor."

[...]

I understood exactly. Once in ER I saw a woman who'd been stabbed everywhere, more severely in the liver. It's an organ with the consistency of layer upon layer of wet Kleenex. Every attempt at repair just opens new holes that tear and bleed. You try to close the wound with fresh wounds, and you try and you try and you don't give up until there's nothing left. (21.84)

Closing a wound with more wounds, Codi is pretty metal here. But the point is that healing from traumas—literal and emotional—isn't easy. It's a pretty painful thing to do, in fact.

"They kidnapped her one morning in a cotton field," I said. "They kept her prisoner for weeks and weeks, and we kept hoping, but then they moved everybody to another camp and some of the prisoners they shot. Eight of them. Hallie and seven men. All of the men were teachers. They had their hands tied behind them and shot them in the head and left the bodies all sitting in a line at the side of the road, in a forest right near the border. All facing south."

I felt a hard knot in my chest because this was the one image I saw most clearly. I still do. [...]
"The man that found them was driving up from Esteli, coming along the road, and at first when he saw them all sitting there he thought, 'Oh that's too many. I can't give them all a ride, they won't fit in my truck.'"(25.114-5)

It seems important to note that the image Codi can't get out of her mind is like Doc's pictures: in reality, the people are dead, but they look to the driver like hitchhikers. What's essential here, of course, is that Codi is using the specificity and horror of that image and the mistake it creates to fix this in the mind of herself and her listener—to make it something to remember. Instead of accepting an altered past, Codi's fixating on the truth of the image.

In another fifteen minutes he hears scrubbing. She is cleaning the floor. The toilet has flushed more than two dozen times. There are rules concerning all of these things. (13.23)

This one isn't explicitly violent—although it is extremely gross. Anyway, it suggests the bloody mess that Codi must have been dealing with in the bathroom. The emphasis here is less on the violence itself than the lengths that little baby Codi will go to just to cover it up. Forgetting can be pretty hard work.

Out in the median, at an angle that bore no relation to the direction of traffic, sat a white convertible with its frame bent violently into a V-shape.

When we passed it I saw that it wasn't a convertible after all; the top had been sheared off, and lay on the other side of the road. An arc of glad and chrome crossed the highway like a glittering river littered with flotsam and jetsam: a pair of sunglasses, a bright vinyl bag, a paperback book. I'd never seen such a badly wrecked car.

[...]

The ambience pulled out right behind us, its warning lights alternating like crazy winking eyes. We quickly left it behind, though, and we weren't speeding by any means. Loyd saw me watching the ambulance and glanced up at the rear-view mirror. "They're not in much of a rush, are they?"

Just then, while we watched, the lights stopped flashing. I understood that I had just seen someone die. (24.24-9)

In this book, violence always seems to happen just off camera. A person inside an ambulance, a baby in a bathroom, a woman in Nicaragua. What's the point? That it's hard to care about what you can't directly see.

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