Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gift-Giving and Domesticating the Upper-Class Pooch in Flush

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gift-Giving and Domesticating the Upper-Class Pooch in Flush

Article excerpt

Engaging Virginia Woolf's Flush as an important text for feminist, modernist, and animal studies, this essay argues that the female figures in this text resist commodifying their pet by acting as guardians. But this critique of commodification is undercut by the anthropomorphic aspects of pet-keeping and the class politics portrayed in the novel.

Unlike some of her well-known fictional works, Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf has received less attention from critics working in both modernist and feminist studies. Only a few articles have appeared on this text in recent years, most of which approach it in one of two main ways. The first approach, pioneered by Susan Squier, treats the text as a feminist allegory in which the dog Flush is read as a surrogate of his owner, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In her corrective to this reading, Pamela Caughie claims that "Flush resembles less the woman writer than the writer's servant, Wilson" (60). Regardless of whether the pet is read as a substitute for the poet or the maid, both of these allegorical readings focus on the marginalization of women at the expense of Flush, failing to recognize the manner in which the text represents him as a gift and an animal domesticated by his mistress and her maid. The second approach, exemplified by Kate Flint in her introduction to the Oxford edition of Flush, reads the text as demonstrating a "drive towards animalization" of the human (xiv). Woolf often invokes the animal world because she, according to Flint, "seems to find it easier to express intimate feelings through displacing them from the human sphere onto a cosier animal one" (xv). Like the feminist readings of the novel, this approach is problematic because it conflates differences that might exist between human and animal characters by assuming that the latter are meant only to express the emotions of the former. For the most part, such readings overlook differences between the animal and his female guardians in terms of their agency, thus missing a crucial aspect of the novel that is concerned with the disciplinarian roles Elizabeth as well as Wilson play in training Flush to cohabit with them. Before analyzing the ways in which Flush is domesticated and anthropomorphized to conform to upper-class norms, I examine the manner in which he is offered as a gift to Elizabeth by her friend, the Romantic poet Mary Mitford. Essentially, an analysis of the titular character as a gift is significant for the insights it yields about the subversive roles women play against the commodification of their pet, and about the challenge their gift exchange poses to the notion of monetary self-interest. But this critique of animal commodification is undercut by the anthropomorphic aspects of pet-keeping and the class politics portrayed in the novel.

However useful the term commodity has proven to be in previous discussions of Flush, it does not encompass the complexity of the pet-human relationship that unfolds in the novel. In her 1991 reading of Flush, Caughie is the first critic to argue that "Flush is both an aristocrat of dogs and a hot commodity" (50-51), and though he "has all the markings of good breeding, [his] value proves to be contextual and variable" (50). Likewise, in a 2002 essay on Flush, Anna Snaith echoes Caughie, claiming that Flush "enjoys superiority among dogs and is a valued commodity" (621), but his value is "contingent, determined by location" (622). These critics rightly refer to the shifting values that are assigned to Flush in different contexts. However, they do not contemplate the implications of the fact that Woolf attributes the treatment of the dog as a commodity only to the male characters of her novel. In what follows, I argue that the animal protagonist of this story is better understood as an inalienable possession, one that is passed down from one female owner to the next as a gift. The use of the term commodity is apposite for an analysis of Flush only as far as male-centric modes of economic exchange are concerned. …

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