Animalistic Interactions in Oryx and Crake

For a novel so concerned with humanity and the quest for evolutionary progress in the creation of the post-human (the Crakers), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is highly preoccupied with animals—those creatures subordinate to humans who nonetheless play an increasingly key role in both the world of the novel and the narrative in particular.  However, these animals are for the most part tenacious hybrids, created through human intervention, and as such they occupy a gray area between the “natural” and the “artificial.”  As the narrative progresses, though, we come to see that even the most artificial of hybrids have been naturalized—the wolvogs have destroyed all actual dogs and roam wild, while the pigoons and rakunks have gone feral.  Interestingly, though, traces of human intervention seem to emerge in these wild animals’ behavior.  Most strikingly, when Snowman is pursued by a pack of feral pigoons and cornered in the guard-house, the creatures seem to exhibit a degree of near-human cunning and intelligence.  When Snowman attempts to rescue his supply bag from the stairwell, he is stopped by the pigoons, who “were waiting for him, using the garbage bag as bait.  They must have been able to tell there was something in it he’d want.”  If the pigoons are using logical thinking to trap Snowman, then the imprint of earlier human engineering seems more indelible than the characters in the novel would have initially thought. 

However, a more interesting interpretation might emerge if we examined Snowman’s relationship to animals over the course of the novel.  As a child, Snowman (then Jimmy) loves visiting the pigoons, and he’s horrified when someone jokes about eating pigoon because, “he didn’t want to eat a pigoon, because he thought of the pigoons as creatures much like himself.  Neither he nor they had a lot of say in what was going on.”  Here, young Jimmy develops an empathy with the engineered pigs based on a perceived mutual companions for himself.  A few years later, his pet rakunk Killer becomes, as he later admits, his closest friend; and it is his mother’s “theft” of Killer to free her, more than anything else, that initially shocks and devastates Jimmy when he discovers that she has abandoned him.  It’s tempting to see this paradigm as breaking down once Jimmy meets Crake and becomes enamored of girls, but the fact that he insists on referring to his old friend as Crake throughout the narrative foregrounds a continued fascination with, and attraction to, the animal realm.  It seems telling that, as a “word person,” Jimmy/Snowman cannot ever truly identify with animals—he states that the English connotations and sound of the bird’s name “Thickney,” which he assumes in the Extinctathon game,  repulsed him and thus prevented him from embracing it as a nickname.  As a “word person,” Snowman sees himself as separate and separated from the animals, though it is his use of language that draws them closer to him.  By referring to his closest friend and lover by their MaddAdam monikers Crake and Oryx, respectively, he both brings them closer to him and establishes himself above them—as storyteller, he gets to arbitrate names.  This act of fixing his closest companions with their animal monikers finds its converse, arguably, in his encounter with the pigoons at the guard house.  Here, bereft of all human companionship and all sense of human narrative, Snowman falls back on his wordsmith abilities—he concocts a story of human-like motivation for the pigoons, to make his predicament bearable. Snowman’s facility with language seems to act as a barrier to relationships, be they with animals or his partially animalized human companions, but it also serves to form what tenuous links he has.  And as the only storyteller in a post-apocalyptic society, these links seem to become all-important.

-Heather Freeman

~ by Heather on February 19, 2009.

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