Study Guide

Animal Dreams Themes

By Barbara Kingsolver

  • Memory

    Straight talk: memory is totally the central theme of Animal Dreams. Basically, Codi has a memory problem: she's got a mental block on her childhood that starts with the memory of her miscarried child. Doc is also concerned with memory: he's obsessed with changing history. Both of them have trouble dealing with violent things that have happened in the past—and that are happening in the present. One way to deal with trauma is to forget about it, right?

    Questions About Memory

    1. Codi says that truth and memory are not the same thing. How does the national memory relate to the truth about war in Nicaragua?
    2. In Animal Dreams, how can we tell real memories from reconstructed ones? What are the benefits of authentic experiences as compared to imaginary ones?
    3. Is reconstructing memory always a bad thing? In the last scene of the novel, Codi seems to rewrite her memory of her mother's death as not a tragedy. Why is that important? Is it true?
    4. How do objects function in relation to memories in Animal Dreams? What does Codi get out of burying a bunch of objects instead of burying Hallie's body?

    Chew on This

    In Animal Dreams, memory is both a personal and a political issue.

    In Animal Dreams, vision, memory, and identity are all connected.

  • Heroism

    At the beginning of Animal Dreams, Codi Noline tells us in no uncertain terms that she's no hero—especially not compared to her sister Hallie. Hallie herself, of course, pretty much hates the whole idea of heroism, and whenever people talk about it in this book, they tend to claim that heroes are somehow different from other people. Part of Codi's journey seems to be claiming some heroism for herself—not as something that makes her better than everyone else, but as a normal part of life.

    Questions About Heroism

    1. Most of the heroic childhood memories in the book are ultimately assigned to Codi. Does that mean that Hallie's right, and Codi's the real hero in this family?
    2. Is Codi the hero of Grace? Does she save the town from the mine? Is Hallie the hero of her collective in Nicaragua?
    3. Do you think that Codi could have done more to save Hallie? Were her actions heroic? If not, what is the book's take on heroism in those circumstances?
    4. Why is Animal Dreams so critical of the idea of heroes?

    Chew on This

    Animal Dreams rejects the idea of heroism in favor of collective action. At the same time, the novel demonstrates how each person must act individually as part of a whole in order to get things done.

    In Animal Dreams, the idea of wanting to be a hero is a distraction from what is actually important in life, which is doing what you're good at and what's important to you, day after day.

  • Home and Family

    Home is what Codi Noline is looking for in life.

    Well, she thinks she's looking, anyway. Her friend Emelina accuses her of being a "home ignorer" because, among other things, her walls are so bare—but it's a pretty apt description of Codi's personality, too. In fact, Animal Dreams is basically the story of Codi learning not to ignore the fact that she has a home both in Grace and in her own identity. By the end, we're pretty sure she's ready to hang a few pictures on the walls, but it sure takes her a while to get there.

    Questions About Home and Family

    1. How does Animal Dreams develop and complicate the symbolic relationship between birds and homemaking? What does this symbolism have to do with Codi's eventual rejection of flight?
    2. Hallie says that Americans are too materialistic, Loyd thinks people should be as unattached to stuff as coyotes, and Codi has no pictures on her walls. What is the relationship between home and stuff in Animal Dreams? Is stuff always bad?
    3. How are home and family connected to the theme of memory in Animal Dreams? Is it possible to be at home in a place where you didn't grow up and don't have a life's worth of memories?
    4. Do you think that Loyd and Codi will take over Doc's house after he dies? What would it mean if they did, and what would it mean if they just up and moved to Tucson?

    Chew on This

    In Animal Dreams, the idea of nesting, or making a home somewhere, is connected symbolically to birds. For Codi, peacocks represent home, while for Loyd, it's fighting cocks that do the representin'. As the narrative progresses, however, Loyd leaves his birds behind. Ultimately, while nesting is important, Animal Dreams places primary importance on living a life you can be proud of, not just a life that's like the one your parents lived before you.

    Codi has actually a home her whole life in Grace; it's only by the end of the novel that she realizes she's been ignoring it for years.

  • Vocation

    Ah, the age old question: what will I be when I grow up? For Loyd Peregrina, learning to be something, even if it's just a dude who sorts pecans, is the essential ingredient that turns him from a boy into a man. At thirty-something, Codi Noline still hasn't found that magic job. She's been everything from a gas station attendant to a medical researcher, and she's still not quite grown up. Figuring out what she wants to do for a living, as it turns out, is going to be a pretty essential part of Codi's journey in Animal Dreams. As she learns, you've got to figure out what you want to do every day if you want to figure out who you are.

    Questions About Vocation

    1. If you're supposed to do what you're good at, as Hallie says, than why isn't Loyd a cockfighter and Codi a doctor?
    2. If the best you can hope for is doing what you're good at day to day, is Doc a successful example of a person who had led a good life?
    3. What if Codi really turned out to have found her calling selling frozen lobsters at a supermarket? Is there room in Animal Dreams for "what you do all day" to be something less prestigious than driving trains or teaching kids?

    Chew on This

    Writing from Mexico, Hallie describes a guy with a bucket of shrimp to sell who keeps his load balanced by drinking a kilo of water every time he sells a kilo of shrimp. Throughout the rest of the novel, however, balance and efficiency aren't so much the goal of work as a kind of organic connection to your labor. Although Animal Dreams seems to say that it doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it well, in the end it's also essential that what you do reflects who you are.

    Animal Dreams ends up envisioning life as well lived as long as you are able to do work you believe in, day by day. With this rubric, Hallie has lived a good life, and the novel ultimately concludes that her death, while sad for Codi, isn't a tragedy.

  • Animals

    There are a few sentences from Animal Dreams that will probably stay with us for the rest of our lives. "'Collie's a cock mechanic,' Loyd said" is one of them (16.113). Obviously, that's because this sentence expresses so neatly the ways that animals are tied to an idea of vocation throughout the novel. Animals can't help doing what they do—and dreaming about it—every day. That's what Hallie and Loyd want to be like, but Codi has to learn to work toward a life in which, like Jack the dog, she does what she's good at and knows how to do—and feels that it's enough.

    Questions About Animals

    1. Jack the dog survives drowning in a river, is half dog and half coyote, and acts as a go-between in Codi and Loyd's relationship. Is Jack the dog a symbol for the baby that Codi lost?
    2. Codi sometimes compares Loyd to an animal—she says his hair is "animal black" for instance. Given the history of dehumanizing indigenous Americans, do you think that kind of language is racist? If so, is it Codi being racist? Is Kingsolver?
    3. This novel makes animals its best examples of the right way to live, yet Codi and Loyd agree that animals, unlike humans, are not meant to live long and happy lives. Is this a contradiction?

    Chew on This

    Codi's identification with animals illustrates her fundamental difference from her plant-loving sister, Hallie.

    In Animal Dreams, it seems as if the problem with humans is that they're constantly trying to deny the fact that they are animals like all others.

  • Plants

    At first, Animal Dreams sets up a neat dichotomy: Codi equals animals, and Hallie equals plants. Over the course of the novel, though, this analogy doesn't quite hold up. We see Codi gathering flowers and giving slug advice to people, and it seems as if she'll eventually be taking care of the garden at Doc's house. Animals and plants are symbolic of different things about the two sisters, but it turns out they're not the opposites that Codi has often imagined them to be. Instead, animals and plants, like the sisters, are interdependent.

    Questions About Plants

    1. Why does Codi think she can't take care of a houseplant early in the novel? Is she right?
    2. What's the relationship between Emelina's gardening and her mothering?
    3. It turns out that Loyd owns an orchard in Grace—but he can have it only if he has a kid. Why is family associated so strongly with growing trees?
    4. Why do you think Kingsolver focuses on the rabbit brush growing up on the old alfalfa fields in the book's final scene?

    Chew on This

    Plants in Animal Dreams stand in for the earth's capacity to heal from the violence of pollution.

    Over the course of the book, Codi's struggle to deal with the memories of her miscarriage are healed through her efforts to save the fruit trees themselves.

  • Earth

    At some point in Animal Dreams, Codi says that before moving to Grace, she didn't know there could be so many shades of brown. Well, folks, this should come as no surprise, given that dirt plays a pretty big role in this novel. We've got graves, dead cropland, orchard soil, riverbeds—there's dirt everywhere here. That dirt, by the way, is usually being poisoned, salted, filled with human remains, or in other ways made barren—sort of like Codi's identity for most of the novel.

    Things change, but it sure does take a while, and it isn't easy.

    Questions About Earth

    1. When Codi remembers the alfalfa fields where her mother died, they're full of grain. Now they're barren from too much salt. What's the connection between Codi's mom and the dead fields?
    2. It's notable that the Black Mountain Mining Company plans to route the newly dammed river right over the place where Codi buried her miscarried infant. What's the symbolism of that move?
    3. When Loyd tells Codi that he'd die for the land, he doesn't mean the nation. What does he mean, and why is it important to understand the difference between Pueblo and Anglo ideas about the earth?
    4. Do you think everyone in Grace owns an orchard? Is Grace, Arizona a kind of realized version of the agricultural society Hallie's trying to help create in Nicaragua? What might be the relationship of people who don't own land in Grace to the Stitch and B**** movement to save Grace's river?

    Chew on This

    In Animal Dreams, land is like the human mind in that it remembers and in a sense lives with the effects of violence.

    In Animal Dreams, identity is ultimately based on place.

  • Violence

    Folks, there's a boatload of violence in Animal Dreams—although except for the chicken killing and cockfights in White River, most of it doesn't take place directly on screen. In fact, we think that's basically the point. Violence doesn't often happening right in front of you, where you can intervene directly. A lot of it is hidden, like the way Loyd's father's upbringing made him a lousy father, or the way the mine poisoning the river, or the way Hallie is shot in Nicaragua.

    But just because the violence in Animal Dreams doesn't draw attention to itself, as it does in some narratives (we're looking at you, Game of Thrones), that doesn't mean it isn't affecting everything all the time. That might be the point of Codi's problem with cockfighting: violence is everywhere already, so why make more of it?

    Questions About Violence

    1. Loads of birds die in Animal Dreams—there are cockfights, chicken slaughters, and even the pretend beating-to-death of a peacock. But at the end, there's a scene in which Nicholas learns to walk while he's watching a hummingbird fly. What's up with that?
    2. The ladies of Stitch and B**** are pretty excited about the idea of dynamiting some Black Mountain bulldozers. It's clear that if they knew how to use the stuff without blowing themselves to smithereens, they'd do it. Is Kingsolver drawing a parallel to the contras here? If so, why compare the nice old ladies of Grace to these people?
    3. Loyd's dad was taken off the reservation as a kid and never learned to be a part of Apache or Pueblo culture. Loyd thinks that's what made him such a terrible father. Is taking a kid away from his culture a form of violence, even if there's not necessarily any physical abuse?
    4. What is this novel's take on why people seem to be able to commit violence and then forget all about it and go on with their lives? Is that something Codi does, too?

    Chew on This

    Animal Dreams connects the problem of violence to the problem of memory. It's hard to eradicate violence because it's so difficult to remember that we participate in it.

    Violence against animals and the earth in Animal Dreams is analogous to violence against other human beings.