A Dark Brown Dog by Stephen Crane ★★★★★ #ShortStoryReview

dogThis short story was published in Cosmopolitan in March 1901, but it was believed to be written sometime in 1893 (although I’ve seen some information noting it was written in 1890). Knowing this was an allegory about the Jim Crow South during Reconstruction, I decided to read the story and see if I could identify the hidden meanings within it. This review will outline the themes and a character analysis I found online after I read the story. I will also include my personal thoughts and talk about whether or not I identified the meanings/themes while reading the story.

Note that the analysis below is one big huge spoiler. I highly encourage you to read the story first – it will take you 20 minutes max. I should mention that the abuse of the dog may be unsettling for some readers; however, the story would not be as powerful without it.

The Characters
The Dog – The dog is clearly representing a man newly freed from slavery. This was apparent to me from the beginning. The dangling leash was also obvious to me as a symbol of the end of bondage or breaking free from chains, but I didn’t catch that the constant tripping over the leash was indicative of being unsure of newfound freedom and being held back by maintaining a slave mentality.

“A short rope was dragging from his neck. Occasionally he trod upon the end of it and stumbled.”

The Child – I struggled with figuring out the placement of the child within the Reconstruction period, mainly because the child was both friendly and mean to the dog. After reading the analysis, it is was perfectly clear who the child represented. The child was the new generation that attempted to treat former slaves as equals, but struggled to actually deliver the respect deserved. Some people were kind to former slaves, but could also still be cruel… just like the boy was to the dog. The analysis indicates the child also represents those that can’t protect former slaves from more powerful forces even if they wanted to (i.e., his Father/Jim Crow laws).

The Father – The father was a despicable character who clearly represented the hatred toward the freed slaves and Jim Crow laws.

The Family – I barely registered the family in the story since they were mentioned so little.  However, the analysis indicates that the family may represent Federal law since they were silent about the tolerance of the dog’s mistreatment by the father, much like the Federal government was complicit in mistreatment of former slaves by not stopping it. That is pretty deep for me and I didn’t pick up on that meaning at all. Personally I think there is too little mentioned about the family to make a case one way or the other, but the analysis at least makes sense now that I have read it.

The Neighbors – This one made me sad. It was obvious to me that the neighbors where depicting the people that see the abuse and mistreatment of former slaves, and may even be appalled by it, but take no steps to end it or speak out about it.

Major Themes
There were two major themes in the story – subjugation and submission. The analysis I mentioned previously also discusses themes about learning hatred, protection, limits of faith, good intentions and silent acceptance. I think the subjugation and submission themes were the most powerful.

The definition of subjugation is “the action of bringing someone or something under domination or control”. This was a defining theme of this story. The little dog may have wanted to be treated well, but he didn’t understand that he deserved to be treated well. So the dog tolerated the cruelty and the abuse that was hurled at him. The dog allowed himself to be conquered and controlled. The dog submitted to the subjugation. Even though he submitted and accepted the abuse, the dog continued to seek attention and praise from his abusers while praying that things would improve/change. They didn’t.

Liberated is the antonym of subjugated. The slaves may have been liberated, but many of them were still subjugated by others and the defense mechanism for many of them against this subjugation was to just accept it and it and pray for better times, just like the dog in the story did.

The definition of submission is “the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person”.  Again, this is a very powerful theme of the story. The dog submitted to the abuse because it was easier for him to do that rather than fight back or run away. Submission was a way for the dog to cope with the situation he was in… perhaps believing if he didn’t fight back or run away they’d come to like him and treat him better some day. Many newly freed slaves didn’t want to cause problems, they didn’t want to fight back and draw attention to themselves because the repercussions of that were much worse that the mistreatment itself in their experience. So they submitted to the abuse all while hoping and praying for change and better times.

Final Thoughts
I was looking for short stories to read recently and came across this one as a “hidden gem”. I didn’t even know Crane wrote short stories and shame on me for being ignorant of that. I’ve read The Red Badge of Courage a couple of times, but now I will be reading all of Crane’s short stories… and very soon!

This story is super short (less than 2500 words) and phenomenally powerful. The amount of symbolism packed into such a short story is nothing short of astounding. I do encourage you to read this story along with the analysis of it at americanliterature.com. I provided some of the information from that analysis herein, but the information they provided is much more detailed and also includes historical context regarding Jim Crow laws and the Reconstruction period, similar reading recommendations, and several useful links for further information about a number of related topics.

My rating – 5 out of 5

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