‘A Dark Brown Dog’ by Stephen Crane: Short Story Analysis
‘A Dark Brown Dog’ is an Edwardian short story penned by American short-story writer Stephen Crane. Crane was a prolific novelist, poet, and short-story writer. This short story titled ‘A Dark Brown Dog’ is an allegorical story about America’s African-American population who were grappling with their new freedom after the American Civil War ended. The use of allegory brings out the severity of the Jim Crow laws that still subjugated the Black American population. Like the little dark-brown dog in this short story, they were given freedom, but the Southern White American only tolerated them. These White Americans had no love for the Black Americans in their hearts. The little boy represents the new crop of white Americans who were tolerant and even close to the Black American population, but they, like the child, did not have the means to make their voices heard. The voice of the mob was to abuse the rights of the African-Americans. Note that ‘A Dark Brown Dog’ was written by Stephen Crane in 1893 and was published in 1901.
The story starts with the dog enjoying its newly given freedom trying to befriend a younger toddler boy. There is an indication that the dog represents the freshly freed African-Americans because he has a rope tied around his neck. Further, the dog does not know what to do with his freedom; that is why he keeps tripping over the rope. The toddler boy represents the new generation of white Americans, especially in the Southern states. Their forefather’s teachings have conditioned them to look down on the Black Americans. However, this little boy sees that the little brown dog is faithful to him. More than that, the dog is good entertainment, loyal, and can be extremely useful. So, the boy adopts the dog. He takes hold of the dog’s rope and pulls him up the steep stairs to his home. The old slavery is thus replaced by a lesser but terrible act of segregation of a race. The Jim Crow laws put hurdles in the African-Americans path towards true freedom and living their American dream. The little brown dog who knows nothing else but to be subservient to a master is even ready in his ‘freedom’ to be subservient to the little boy because he knows no other way of life. Therefore, he lies on his back, indicative of how the Black slaves used to be placed and beaten by their white owners. This is also a slight indication to the young white American people about their Christian faith and how they go against the central teachings of Christ’s mercy when they abuse a little dog or the African-Americans.
The boy’s conscience is partially stirred initially and then entirely towards the middle portion of the story. There is a mention that the boy too beat the dog and yelled at it. The child was acting the way his elders had encouraged him to behave towards the African-Americans. Coming to the other parts of the story, the father represents the Jim Crow laws whose ultimate desire was to torment the Black Americans because he considered them to be lesser human beings. The family members of the little boy who are not happy with the idea of the dog sharing their own space try to talk the father into getting the dog out. However, the father, on a whim, is ready to keep the dog. This spites the older generation of family members who have always looked down on and ill-treated Black Americans. The boy remains faithful to the little brown dog. I think it must not have gone amiss that the dog’s color is indicative of the race alluded to. The boy’s father is a drunkard and a physical and mental abuser of his family. He is the one who, on a whim or just for the heck of it, thought the life of the little brown dog to be immaterial that he:
- Banged and hit the dog twice with his massive coffee pot.
- He held the dog by its leg and threw him out of the window.
The dog landed on a rooftop and then slid down into the alleyway dead. The only person left to mourn him is the little boy, but there is no one to comfort him on his friend’s loss; a friend who wanted no more than to be loyal to a cause and gain a reason to live after years of hostility towards his race. Hopefully, the young boy is symbolic of the future people who would give justice to the death of the little brown dog and so many other abused races who have suffered for no crime of their own other than they were born with a different color of skin.
The family members represent the general white American population who just tolerated the dog in their presence. They say that there is always a fine line between the word tolerant and intolerant, and that is the border the family members kept on crossing back and forth with their behavior with the little dark-brown dog. They kicked him, threw kitchen utensils at him, and verbally abused the dog, which is indicative of the horrible violence meted out to the Black American community. The neighbors who watch the fall of the half-dead dog are the independent spectators, who mutely watch the tragic show unfolding. As silent spectators to racial tyranny and not making any attempt to root out racism, we are committing a terrible crime. By being mute spectators, we are increasing the chances that more such crimes and deaths of Black Americans will continue to occur in our own time as in Stephen Crane’s time. I have recently reviewed President Barack Obama’s memoir, The Audacity of Hope, which deals with a similar subject.
Like the Black Americans, the dog knew how to survive. Despite:
- Being abused physically and mentally.
- Being unwanted except by the toddler boy.
- Being under-fed.
- Being always ill at ease
Despite all this, the dog overcame his hardships and grew confident. This is symbolic of the African-American community coming to its own after the American Civil War. The dog now had a voice. It is mentioned that the dog stopped wailing and whimpering at night and started to bark loudly. Thus, freedom of speech and expression were the main tools that led to real emancipation in early twentieth-century America. This is what fueled the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s in the USA. Like the dog, the Black Americans who are oppressed do not wish to be martyrs, or avengers, or revengeful people. There is an attempt by Crane to romanticize the racism issue. But just bearing the pain of racism is no way to live life. When there is a problem, one must speak up in a dignified manner and have intellectual conversations across the table. This is what President Barack Obama spoke about throughout his Presidency. He mentioned in detail in Change We Can Believe In how he would handle racism in America during his Presidency. So, one need not necessarily picture oneself as a martyr or an avenger. That is not a decent way to change another person’s mind towards a better relationship. Dialogue is required. The little dark-brown dog may have forgiven the boy and the others for harassing him, not because he was stupid but because he was immune to suffering. We must not get immune to suffering. We must work towards a better life for everyone through dialogue where everyone is represented and heard. Therefore, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Stephen Crane’s attempt at romanticism of racism. This is what Harriet Beecher Stowe did in her classic American novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This is not how racism should be tackled either in America or in the world where racism is a serious issue.
I want to draw your attention to the animal cruelty element in this short story titled ‘A Dark Brown Dog’. The dog remains ever trusting and ever faithful, happy to have a family and to have a fine master whom the dog treated like a monarch. But he is not rewarded for his love. He gets hate, abuse, and scorn every time he tries to win his family’s affection, especially the little boy. There is an odd love-hate relationship between the boy and the dog, making the story realistic and a fine caricature. To read the story is painful even without knowing the background elements of the Black Americans. The story ends with only the little boy mourning his dark-brown friend. A dog who had done him no wrong, who yet had to face discrimination only because he was so weak and vulnerable that advantage could be taken of him.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story by American writer Stephen Crane. I have always loved Stephen Crane’s works. I consider them classics and encourage my students to read his books. If you are an educator and are interested in getting your wards to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on my blog’s products page. I hope to read, review, and analyze more American novels, short stories, essays, and non-fiction books this winter. So, if you are interested in more American bookish content, this is the site you should be watching.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short-story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan