A Dark Brown Dog | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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A Dark Brown Dog | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Meeting

A very young child is leaning against a fence when a small dark-brown dog approaches him. The dog has a bit of rope hanging from his neck, and he trips over it occasionally. The dog capers to amuse the child, who hits him and then hits him again while he is cowering. The dog turns onto his back and appears to pray apologetically. This amuses the child, but eventually he grows bored and wanders off.

The dog follows the child back to his home, and the child beats and berates the dog again. The dog continues to follow the child, sneaking behind him, but trips on his dragging leash. The child sits on the step, and this time the dog's playing amuses him enough that he grabs the rope and drags the dog upstairs to his family's apartment. The dog follows to the best of his ability at first but becomes panicked when the child pulls hard on the rope around his neck. Because the dog is smaller, the child wins and drags him into the apartment. Once there, he plays with the dog, and both are happy.

Home Life

When the child's family comes home, they are scandalized that the child would bring a stray, dirty animal into their house. They call the dog names, and the child cries. When the father of the family comes home, he demands to know what has made the kid howl. Out of spite, and to upset the others, he decides to let the child keep the dog.

The child and the dog become good friends, and the dog is with the child every waking hour. However, the family continues to abuse the dog. At one point the father accidentally hits the child with a saucepan he is swinging at the dog. Nevertheless, for the most part the dog is able to evade their physical attacks, and when the child is there the family refrains from abusing the dog so that the child doesn't cry.

At the same time, all is not completely well. The dog howls in the night, which upsets the family and the neighbors. The child himself sometimes beats the dog for no reason, though he also snuggles into it for comfort when he is sad. The family purposely underfeeds the dog, but eventually the child corrects this. The dog grows and prospers, and seems to earnestly love the child. He accompanies the child on all his outings.

Death of the Dog

One day the father comes home drunk and proceeds to abuse his wife. The child and dog walk in on this, and the child, having been in this situation before, hides under the table. The dog believes hiding under the table is a game and does not take cover. The father beats the dog savagely with a coffee pot. The child tries to intervene, but on a whim the father picks up the dog by the leg and throws him out the window.

The fall kills the dog and elicits ambivalent reactions from the neighbors. They are all surprised, but they seem alternately perturbed and entertained. The child wails inconsolably and climbs backwards down the stairs to find the dog. In the alley where the dog's dead body landed, the child sits and mourns the loss of the dog. Eventually the family comes and finds him by the body.

Analysis

Race and Historical Context

Stephen Crane's "A Dark Brown Dog" draws attention to the poor treatment of African Americans, but it also reveals the author's biased attitudes.

"A Dark Brown Dog" was written in 1893 and first published in 1901. At the time, Jim Crow and segregation were current news, as legal challenges to the associated practices, such as Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, were being debated at the highest levels of government. African American leader Booker T. Washington was publicly advocating compromise, slow progress, and avoiding agitating for federal assistance as a way to avoid violent conflict with the Southern white power structure. Meanwhile, violent clashes and lynchings, or killings by mobs, continued to occur, and despite military incursions against them, the Ku Klux Klan continued terrorizing the south. These facts would have been readily available to contemporary readers of the story, and the allegory presented would have been easily comprehensible.

The dog represents African Americans, freed from slavery and, from the author's perspective, struggling with their new autonomy. The dog is described several times as tripping over the bit of rope that still hangs from his neck, and it is by this old remnant of his former state that the child drags him up the stairs. The dog is too small to determine his fate, compared to those around him, which speaks to the lack of resources African Americans had available to protect themselves or better their situation. The older family members' cruel treatment of the dog and their unwillingness to have him in their home is in keeping with racist Southern attitudes. The dog is accommodating to the child and forgiving of the family even after their abuse. This mirrors the strategy publicly advocated by Booker T. Washington in the Atlanta Compromise: hard work, vocational training, thrift, nonviolence, and accommodation. However, the dog's submission also evokes a common racial prejudice of the time that African Americans were, by nature, simple and subservient. This depiction appears frequently in Stephen Crane's work. In "Stephen Crane in Minetta Lane," he says explicitly: "The most extraordinary quality of the negro is his enormous capacity for happiness under most adverse circumstances. Minetta Lane is a place of poverty and sin, but these influences cannot destroy the broad smile of the negro, a vain and simple child but happy."

While the dog is a sympathetic character and the story clearly revolves around unjust brutality toward him, the implications of Crane's narrative choices show a great deal of prejudice against his subject. The choice to allegorize the African American population in the form of a bestial, simple, and ultimately less than human creature raises questions as to the extent of Crane's sensitivity. A human portrays every character that represents the white group or position, but human characters are not used to portray African Americans. The dog is at his happiest in a relationship to the child that is explicitly subservient. Crane writes of the dog that "neither criticism nor rebellion ever lived for an instant in [his] heart" and he "was proud to be the retainer of so great a monarch." The image of the child dragging the struggling dog up the stairs evokes widespread racist notions of white missionaries "uplifting lesser races" or "making them more civilized" despite their protestations. The child himself carries troubling implications as a symbol: he is more or less well-meaning, but naive and inarticulate, presumably lacking the wisdom and intelligence of the older family, who want nothing to do with the dog. This is not to imply that the adults in the story are meant to be sympathetic figures. They are clearly mean-spirited and violent, taking pleasure in starving the dog and ultimately killing it on a whim. However, it is also easy to read the child's actions as selfish and misguided, to the detriment of the dog.

Stephen Crane's prejudices about African Americans were not uncommon at the time of his writing, though they were also not universal. His depictions of both African American and immigrant communities were criticized during his lifetime, at the same time that he was lauded for his journalistic endeavors drawing attention to the suffering of those same communities. "A Dark Brown Dog" is a story profoundly of its time, and it remains useful as a historical document even if not a universal statement.

Tradition of Cruelty

The naturalist writers were interested in how a person's environment shaped them and, in particular, how cruelty and tragedy arose from poor conditions, as well as how the misery of the past carried forward. Nowhere is this more apparent in "A Dark Brown Dog" than in the character of the child. The child lives in a small apartment with an unspecified number of adults who are not supervising him at all despite the fact that he is described as so young he has to go down the stairs backwards. The adults take joy in being cruel. They amuse themselves by starving the dog and throwing objects at it. Worst of all is the father, who abuses his wife, as well as whatever else is in reach, and kills the dog on a whim. In all of these cases the family's violence is described as a game, a sport, and something for their amusement. "The father was in a mood for having fun," Crane writes, "and it occurred to him that it would be a fine thing to throw the dog out of the window." Likewise, their treatment of the child reflects less care for his feelings than desire for him not to be nuisance, and they acquiesce to his wishes for better treatment for the dog mostly to stop him from crying.

Growing up around this lack of empathy, the child has a streak of cruelty he cannot comprehend or explain. His first action upon seeing the dog is to beat him, and his abuse continues even after he and the dog are described as close friends. His berating of the dog foreshadows the verbal abuse from the family. The child takes ownership of the dog without consideration of whether he had another home, because he decided on a whim—"avariciously," the story says—that it would be amusing to have the animal. The same logic pervades the father's decisions, one of which leads to him killing the dog. The child's cruelty is causeless, or at the very least unjust according to the text, and is an imitation of the way the child is raised, though in other respects the child has the capacity to be kind as well. This analysis extends to the groups being portrayed allegorically, with even well-meaning people who had been raised in a deeply racist tradition acting on that tradition of racism without considering it. People learn hatred almost passively when their environment is full of it.

Allegory, Language, and Personification

"A Dark Brown Dog" is an allegorical story: its characters represent groups and ideas. The dog itself represents liberated African Americans in the South, who lack the power to protect themselves from their white neighbors. The child represents an emerging movement of Southern whites sympathetic to integration and equality: still new and small relative to the other characters, and not entirely free from the violence and prejudice of their parents. The family represents older Southern traditions and practice, and the fact that they are not entirely in agreement speaks to an ongoing debate within the region. The father, the patriarch of the family, represents the most powerful and cruelest elements of the old South. The child, despite his best intentions, is too weak to defend the dog from the hatred of his family and the casual violence of his father.

These allegorical characters, depicted to be somewhat like real people, are also deeply personified. Both the dog and the child have thoughts and actions attributed to them that are adult in terms of age and out of proportion in terms of scale to the actual events. The child is described as conducting "interviews" with the dog and "going off to hobnob," and later he is referred to as a "terrible potentate," a term that would more accurately describe a cruel king than a small child. The dog, meanwhile, is described as praying, lacking confidence in the rest of the family, and being "proud to be the retainer of so great a monarch."

The juxtaposition of sophisticated, adult language for the actions of the child and the dog provides the story with an air of verbal irony, one that is matched with and played against the juxtaposition of violence with the language of entertainment in the case of the family and most especially the father. The father's drunken rampage is described as "a carnival," and his killing of the dog includes a description of him "hilariously" swinging the small animal by its leg. The contrast between the language utilized by the story and the practical realities it describes heightens the cruelty of the characters depicted.

A Dark Brown Dog Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 The child meets the dog but is uninterested in him.

Rising Action

2 The child decides to drag the dog up to his apartment.

3 The family protests the dog, but the father overrules them.

4 The family abuses the dog; the child protects him.

5 The child and the dog become best friends.

6 The father comes home drunk and violent.

Climax

7 The father kills the dog for fun.

Falling Action

8 The neighbors watch the body hurtle through the sky.

Resolution

9 The child crawls downstairs to mourn his friend.

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