A Dark Brown Dog | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Course Hero. "A Dark Brown Dog Study Guide." July 26, 2019. Accessed August 11, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Dark-Brown-Dog/.

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Course Hero, "A Dark Brown Dog Study Guide," July 26, 2019, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Dark-Brown-Dog/.

A Dark Brown Dog | Symbols

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The Dog

The titular dark-brown dog represents the recently freed African American slaves suffering under the Jim Crow governments of the Southern United States. While Stephen Crane's intention is clearly to draw attention to the injustice of the situation, his choices in the analogy and the character of the dog suggest a number of prejudicial views about African Americans.

The dog drags a rope leash behind it and stumbles over it repeatedly, representing a previously enslaved population unsure of how to exercise their newfound freedom. The dog is objectively small, and small relative to all the other characters, representing the lack of power available to the African American community to determine its own fate in the emerging situation. Again and again, the dog is at the mercy of others, whether it is a family council to decide his fate, the child forcibly dragging him up the stairs to his home, or ultimately the father killing him.

The dog practices a strategy of accommodation, never defending itself against those who abuse it. This is reminiscent of the advice to the African American community known as the Atlanta Compromise, put forward by Booker T. Washington, that the safest and most effective strategy for African Americans in the violent atmosphere of the South was to stay out of politics and avoid advocating for civil rights, and instead work on building a foundation of wealth through vocation and good citizenship. It is also, unfortunately, reminiscent of a widely held prejudice at the time, one advocated in other works by Crane, that African Americans were naturally submissive. The relationship between the dog and the child echoes this notion, enabling a strict hierarchy, as does the relationship between the family and the dog, which allegorizes whites as human and presents African Americans as animal.

While the dog is ultimately good-tempered and sympathetic, the way it is used as a symbol speaks as much to the shortsightedness of the author as to the wrongs he was attempting to address.

The Child

The child represents the white Southern population that favored integration. The dog's good behavior has convinced him that it belongs in the house as part of the family. The child is significantly smaller and younger than the rest of his family and able to effect less change, and he has less power to protect the dog than others have to attack it. Likewise, although he is friendly with the dog and his intentions toward it are largely good, he has still absorbed many of the hateful and violent behaviors of the environment in which he grew up. His primary means of defending the dog is crying loudly, because he is too small to do much of anything else.

The Family

The family represents the rest of Southern society. They despise and abuse the dog, and they do not want him in their home. They take pleasure in underfeeding him and throw things at him whenever the child looks away. However, they are not completely unified in their decisions, and they argue and meet formally, representing the fact that there was no single consensus among them despite similar ideas of how society should be organized.

Of special note within the family is the father, who represents the oldest and most violent elements of the South, a racist and authoritarian dimension that gave rise to both lynchings as a common practice and the Ku Klux Klan. He delights in exercising his power over both the helpless, unresisting dog and other members of the family, notably his wife. He enforces both his will and his whim with violence, and he easily overpowers the others.

Rope

When the dog first appears, it has a rope around its neck. This is a reference to the relatively new condition of freedom for the African American population of the South, but it is also an ominous foreshadowing of the violence that will end the story. Lynchings were a terrifying common practice in the South, and reports and campaigns to stop them had been in the news in the year the story was written.

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