The Importance Of Animals And Animal Imagery In “Obasan” And “The Wars”
Animals play an important role in the novels “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa and “The Wars” by Timothy Findley despite meaning two very different things for the characters in each text. In “Obasan,” animal imagery is used to demonize the Japanese-Canadians by comparing the powerlessness and oppression they receive from the Canadian government to the treatment given to animals. Yet in “The Wars,” the protagonist Robert Ross finds the greatest kinship with animals and prefers them to the company of other humans. In this essay I will explore how each text uses animals and animal imagery as they are significant in the demonization of Japanese-Canadians and their national identity, and the role they play in developing Robert’s identity and morality during the war.
As a child Naomi, the protagonist of “Obasan,” remembers her parents caring for “cotton-batten-soft yellow chicks,” placing them in a chicken coop where they resemble more like “yellow puff balls” than chickens (Obasan, 83). Immediately after placing the chicks into their cage without warning a white hen pecks at a chick with the intent to kill, “[a]gain and again the hen’s beak strikes and the chick lies on its side on the floor, its neck twisted back, its wings, outstretched fingers” (Obasan, 83). The baby chicks with their yellow fur represent the Japanese-Canadians, having the stereotypical yellow skin of East Asians, the white hen representing the Canadian government. The pecking of the chicks to death is symbolic of the brutal acts committed by the government to Japanese-Canadians, such as their forced internment and theft of Japanese-Canadian homes and property, while also representing the white Canadian’s wish to eradicate all Japanese-Canadians out of the country.
The chicken is an animal that reoccurs frequently during the novel. To Naomi, to be a chicken – specifically a chick – is to be yellow, oppressed, and weak. Essentially, to be Japanese. As a young girl, she recognizes that to be yellow is to be chicken, and she rejects her yellowness (Obasan, 217). She unconsciously wants to reject her Japanese ethnicity, if it means that her and her family will no longer be subject to this discrimination that is specific to Japanese-Canadians, yet not to German-Canadians. Symbolically, Sho and Danny, two Japanese-Canadian boys, powerless and disadvantaged as they are, kill a hen and they are adamant that they must “make it suffer,” choking and beheading the chicken’s head (Obasan, 222). Another instance of chicken imagery is when Naomi refers to the house the government forces her family to live in, a disgusting and small house in the isolated town of Slocan, Alberta. She refers to the house as more of a “chicken coop,” due to its poor insulation from the cold and heat, and the many flies and mosquitoes from the cows in a nearby barn (Obasan, 279). In the winter, the only warm place is by the coal stove where Naomi’s remaining family “rotate like chickens on a spit” (Obasan, 279). The presence of flies and mosquitoes around their chicken coop display the filthy conditions Japanese-Canadians are forced to live in, in displaced homes and in internment camps. it also reinforces the Canadian government’s demonization of Japanese-Canadians, treating them no better than farm animals. Other instances of Japanese-Canadians being treated as subhuman are present through animal imagery: they are “despised” and “treated like cringing dogs” (Kogawa, 269), and their forced evacuation from their homes resemble “ants in an overturned anthill” (Kogawa, 169).
In “Obasan,” chickens appear at the same time Naomi is aware of the concept of death. Baby chicks are killed by larger hens and by boys. In “The Wars” birds are also associated with death. When Robert is stuck in a trench, frozen and in distress, prior to his encounter with a German sniper he later accidentally kills, a white-throated sparrow sings (Findley, 146). Immediately after Robert and his men are attacked by chlorine gas, Poole tells Robert that a man had died yet he cannot see him; all he could hear were “the sounds of feeding and of wings” (Findley, 90). Despite birds being an omen of death for Robert, it reinforces his connection with animals as being an integral part of his identity.
Unlike for Naomi and the Japanese-Canadians during WW2, for Robert animals symbolize morality and the rejection of his faith in humanity. In rabbits, he is reminded of his beloved, younger sister Rowena who embodies innocence to Robert. His affinity to animals is evident in Rodwell’s sketch book where out of about one hundred sketches, the sketch of Robert was the only human out of all the animal sketches, albeit the sketch of him was “modified and mutated – he was one with the others” (Findley, 160). Within the company of animals, he is reminded of a greater sense of morality, values he is unable to find among his fellow soldiers. When he runs with a coyote for an almost half-hour, his immediate thought was to wonder why it wasn’t hunting, where there may be squirrels and rabbits to hunt. Robert’s first thought was of violence, and he is humbled that the coyote was only searching for water (Findley 25). Robert, who is exposed to the horrors of war and the traumatic rape by his fellow Canadian soldiers, comes to value dehumanization, considering people to be the real savages. His love for animals eventually kills him, as he sacrifices his own body to save horses from a burning barn. He, along with his beloved horses, die at the hands of men and his lack of faith in humanity is validated by his death.
Within “Obasan” and “The Wars,” animals come to symbolize two very different things. For Japanese-Canadians, animals – particularly chickens – represents how the Canadian government views their community as being equal to or less than animals. For Robert, animals help shape his identity by providing him his moral standards and, ironically, help him remember his own humanity during a war where there is a lack of mercy or morality by either side. As humans, we consider ourselves to be superior to animals, yet we treat our own kind atrociously – sometimes even worse than animals. What kind of creatures, or beasts, are we then?
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Animals play an important role in the novels “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa and “The Wars” by Timothy Findley despite meaning two very different things for the characters in each text. […]