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 17, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Dark-Brown-Dog/.


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A Dark Brown Dog | Themes


Power and Violence

The social structure within "A Dark Brown Dog" is one of hierarchy that is violently enforced, and both the language and the events of the story show this theme.

The child rules over the dog as a "terrible potentate," beating him several times in the story for no good reason. The dog, meanwhile, accepts this order submissively and often even happily, with "neither criticism nor rebellion ever lived for an instant in the heart." That the dog accepts the abuse and never seeks redress is a combination of both the dog's temperament and the "monarch" and "subject" relationship between the two of them.

Above the child is the rest of the family that gripes, complains, and abuses the dog maliciously. They hold a meeting to decide the dog's fate. The child is able to keep them at bay somewhat by crying whenever they assault the dog, but as the story points out, he cannot always be around. "They used to gain a certain satisfaction in underfeeding him," Crane writes, in one example of the family abusing their superior position over the dog.

Above the rest of the family is the father, who ends the argument about the dog, declaring it should be kept, out of his desire to aggravate the rest of the family. He then "quelled a fierce rebellion of his wife," implying an argument or a beating, given his actions later on. The father exercises his power over the rest of the family through his disregard of their wishes, through issuing dictates the others must follow, and through violence when the mood takes him. No one in the house has any power to stand up to him, and so he may abuse the others as he likes. The dog, as the smallest and least powerful member of the household, is particularly vulnerable, and when the father kills the dog, it is with no more thought about the consequences than that it would be funny to do so.

These power structures reproduce the dynamics between races in the South, for which the story is an allegory. At every level, "A Dark Brown Dog" is a story about the ease with which those who have power abuse those weaker than themselves.

Thoughtless Cruelty

"A Dark Brown Dog" is a story full of violence and malice, but little of it has a cause or larger intent. Rather, the environment itself seems to be poisoned with a pervasive meanness, the effects of which are clearly visible in the character of the child as he acts out the verbal and physical abuse practiced by the adults in his life on the dog. Though the dog is described as his closest companion, he sometimes beats it for no discernible reason, and the way the text describes it, it appears clear he himself does not understand why he does this.

The family likewise abuses the dog for sport, as a matter of course. They throw things at him constantly and purposely underfeed him. If the father will not allow them to be rid of the dog, they will at least lash out at it.

The father, of course, represents the worst of this cruelty, and he exercises it against everyone around him. He seems to routinely beat his wife. At one point he is trying to hit the dog with a saucepan and accidentally strikes his son. He beats and then kills the dog for no reason other than a sudden whim and the idea that it might be amusing. The only time he seems to consider the feelings of others is when he believes he can make them angry.

Some of the neighbors as well take a voyeuristic position and experience vicarious excitement at the death of the dog. Others are horrified but make no move to help. Though they are not active participants, they are a part of the environment in which this violence occurs and will continue to occur.

In-Group versus Out-Group

Of particular relevance to the discussion of race relations in the South is the theme of in-group and out-group. Though there is viciousness in most of the character interactions in the story, all characters are kinder to those they perceive as within their own group. The family's reaction to the dog is that it is an outsider, disreputable, and not a thing they want in their home. Though the dog and the child are closely allied, the family is much more aggressive toward the dog. They attempt to placate the child because he is one of their own.

This is true even of the father. While he is actively violent against his own family, he is never murderous. This protection does not extend to the dog, who he kills without any particular reason. The neighbors outside watch this but cannot and do not intervene.

There is an additional in-group out-group dynamic with respect to the way the dog relates to the rest of the family. While he is accommodating of the child, he mostly evades the other family members and even at points actively steals food. However, his relationship with the child is a special one of loyalty and devotion.

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