Karenin's Smile: Notes Towards Animal Rights Literary Criticism


This paper shall attempt to draw together some ideological and critical points with the aim of laying the foundations for what can be termed animal rights literary criticism. Earlier critical works by Carol J. Adams and Timothy Morton which discuss related subjects via other forms of criticism will be examined. The readings these works provide of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley’s literature will also be reviewed. Finally, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being will be used as a “test case” for this critical perspective. It should be made clear from the outset that all arguments and observations made towards this end will extend from an a priori moral position: that animals are sentient beings capable of experiencing pain in the same way as humans, and are deserving of the same inherent rights to life and cruelty-free existences as human beings. This position must either be rejected outright (along with all critical argument that stems from it) or accepted. In this sense, animal rights criticism is no different from countless other established critical viewpoints that demand their readers take for granted one core moral assumption: feminism (women are deserving of the same rights as men), queer theory (homosexuals are deserving of the same rights as heterosexuals), or Marxism (capitalism is an inherently exploitive and oppressive force which should be criticized if not undermined). As this brief summary of three broad and well-established critical perspectives should suggest, no serious critical work done from any of these fields simply restates these individual moral positions and condemns any examples of literature that state otherwise; doing so is not criticism, it is aimless propagandizing. These sketches towards animal rights criticism will attempt to avoid such shortcomings by observing the roles animals play in works of literature, and pointing out salient and recurring themes and archetypes with regard to their treatment, suffering, and relationships with humans. It should be made explicitly clear from the outset that a literary theory focussed so intently on one subject can have no pretensions about being able to offer insight or fresh perspective on all works of literature. Animals do not occupy enough sufficiently large roles in the history of literature for it to be maintained that works which do not feature animals are notable because of that void and what it may imply1. Instead, literary works which explicitly examine issues of animal rights, use animals as metaphors for the human experience or use animals as a means of analysing humanity will be the focus of such a criticism. As a final preamble, while some of the arguments and examples used in animal rights criticism may seem confrontational, it should be remembered that this is invariably the case with all theories whose tenets are not yet commonly observed by the societies in which they are located.

The origins of animal rights criticism

Animal rights criticism could locate itself on the scholarly map by finding its roots in works focused upon different critical perspectives. Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics Of Meat has gained notoriety since its first publication in 1990 for the apparent audacity of its thesis: that the repression of women and the consumption of animals stem from the same patriarchal urge to oppress, and thus the causes of feminism and vegetarianism hold much in common in both origin and purpose. While much of Adams’ book approaches her subject from the perspective of cultural, sociological and occasionally linguistic theory, she also discusses how her subject is relevant to literature and literary criticism.

Adams dates “vegetarian protest literature” to Pythagorus and Plutarch, noting that, just like feminism, the concept of vegetarianism (and by extension vegetarianism in literature) is not the relatively recent phenomenon that it is depicted as in mainstream media. Adams focuses in particular on the period of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, a period marked by what Adams calls “Romantic vegetarianism” (Adams, 121). Percy Bysshe Shelley is perhaps the most famous and canonical of the writers whom Adams examines, and Shelley’s vegetarianism is certainly a recognized part of his now near-mythic life and exploits. Shelley wrote an essay arguing for a vegetarianism titled “A Vindication Of Natural Diet”. Adams notes the popularity and effectiveness of Shelley’s vegetarian writing, pointing out that Robert Browning and George Bernard Shaw were amongst those who credited their shift to vegetarianism to Shelley. While “A Vindication Of Natural Diet” explicitly argues for the adoption of a vegetarian diet on the basis of (among other things) the immorality of killing animals, it is, essentially, no different from countless tracts and essays that concentrate solely on the issue of animal rights; hence, animal rights criticism could do little but agree with it. However, several of Shelley’s more broad and multilayered pieces incorporate issues of animal rights in wider contexts. “Queen Mab” and “The Revolt Of Islam” both depict the consumption of meat as sinful. In the latter, the renunciation of meat-eating is included in Laone’s speech heralding the city’s liberation from Othman’s tyranny:

Never again may blood of bird or beast
Stain with its venemous stream a human feast,
To the pure skies in accusation steaming!
“The Revolt Of Islam”, Canto V, Stanza LI/5, l. 4-6

Timothy Morton examines Shelley’s vegetarianism and the role it occupies in his literature in Shelley And The Revolution In Taste. Morton frames Shelley’s belief in the immorality of meat consumption in the larger structure of what he terms “ecocriticism”. This “ecocriticism” synthesizes vegetarianism with the archetypal Romantic advocacy of the return to nature and the need for freedom above all else. Morton aligns the cause of vegetarianism with that of class struggle. He offers a list of those for whom Shelley’s writings demands liberation: “the natural world, dominated by technologies of tyranny, animals, the working class” (Morton, 240). The relationship between class struggle and the struggle for animal rights is encapsulated in “the naturalistic axiom...that the animals cannot vote, that the workers are disenfranchised even if they can” (Morton, 240).

Adams devotes an entire chapter of The Sexual Politics Of Meat to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a work which remains exceedingly popular not only with readers but with critics who seem to be able to approach the novel from an exhaustive number of critical angles: feminism, romanticism, existentialism, post-humanism, and animal rights criticism. The creature of Frankenstein is a vegetarian, and is one for explicitly moral reasons. While demanding that Frankenstein create a companion for it, the creature explains that it does “not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut [its] appetite” (Shelley, 141). The creature’s proposed seclusion in South American with its companion evokes the Edenic ideal: “we shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human2” (Shelley, 141). Adams sees this Edenic ideal as paralleling the vegetarian vision of Eden adopted by “Romantic vegetarians”. Referring to indications in Paradise Lost and Genesis that Adam and Eve ate no meat, Adams states that “the Romantic vegetarians heartily accepted the notion of the meatless Garden of Eden...They transformed the myth by locating meat as the cause of the Fall” (Adams, 125). The creature’s vegetarianism does not merely speak to its “inherent, original benevolence” (Adams, 121), but is also indicative of the revulsion and hate humanity greets it with, and thus is another way in which the novel’s core theme of alienation is established: “by including animals within its moral circle the Creature provides an emblem for what it hoped and needed - but failed to receive - from human society” (Adams, 122).

While Adams’ case for the correlation between feminism and vegetarianism and Morton’s integration of vegetarianism into the Romantic revolution are valid and compelling arguments, mainstream understanding of vegetarianism and the overall cause of animal rights itself has developed greatly since the time of the Shelleys. As is hopefully demonstrated by the fact that the vegetarian aspects of Adams and Morton’s arguments have been discussed thus far with little reference to other critical traditions, it is now feasible to discuss the issue and its relation to literature without having to validate it by way of a more established critical theory. Thus far, our discussion of animal rights criticism and the literature it chooses as its subject has been limited to dealing with texts through the scope of vegetarianism. While vegetarianism is certainly a core element to the animal rights movement, it does not address all of its issues: animal testing, the slaughter of animals for the purpose of clothing, the treatment and role of pets and other animals human being interact with on a day to day basis. Can animal rights criticism shed any light on texts that make no explicit reference to vegetarianism?

“Karenin’s Smile”: a test case for animal rights criticism

Milan Kundera’s acclaimed novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a work that incorporates animals thematically yet is not centered around them. It contains elements of the archetypal animal protest literature we saw in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Vindication Of Natural Diet” in which story and character are abandoned for the sake of authorial argument and commentary, but is rife with Kundera’s commentary on a variety of other subjects and cannot in any way be dismissed as one-dimensional animal rights propaganda. Animals and the treatment they are given by humans act as metaphors and provide insight into the novels human characters. As such, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is an ideal test case for animal rights criticism.

A recurring character in the novel is Karenin, a dog saved from death by one of the novel’s protagonists, Tomas. The bond Karenin develops with Tomas’ wife, Tereza, is touched upon throughout The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, particularly in the novel’s final section entitled “Karenin’s Smile”. Not only do the novel’s final pages present an emotional and compelling image of love and understanding between Karenin and Tereza, but they also contain direct and explicit commentary on the issue of animal rights and humanity’s responsibility to animals, presented by the novel’s nameless narrator. The closing of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being addresses issues regarding animals and their rights in two ways: firstly by examining the way in which animal life is forced into a hierarchy of worth, and secondly by presenting the novels characters, and by extension all of humanity, with what Kundera calls the “fundamental test” of goodness.

Tomas and Tereza move to a collective farm in rural Czechoslovakia after the Soviet takeover of 1969 to avoid the hardships caused by Tomas’ criticism of the former Czechoslovak communist regime. Once there, they befriend the collective farm chairman, who like Tereza, shares a close relationship with an animal companion: a pig named Mephisto. Mephisto has been “raised like a dog” (Kundera, 283), and has thus been raised in the hierarchy of animals. Despite the fact that he lives on a farm where other traditional food-providing animals such as cows are raised for slaughter, the chairman treats Mephisto as a best friend, even going so far as to imagine Mephisto and himself as equals, “two little pigs” (Kundera, 299) chasing women. For whatever reason, Mephisto has been raised from the status of a food source to an individual with a personality, privileges and rights. Unlike the chairman, the hypocrisy of befriending an animal on one hand while exploiting and killing cows on the other does not sit well with Tereza. While watching the heifers on the farm, Tereza comes to view them as having human characteristics3 and realises that “man is as much a parasite on the cow as the tapeworm is on man” (Kundera, 287). Thus, Kundera blurs the lines of traditional, hierarchical modes of thinking about animals.

Another, more subtle way in which the traditional hierarchy of animals is questioned in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being comes in the form of Karenin’s gender. When Tomas and Tereza adopt Karenin, they give him the masculine variant of a feminine name (Karenina) and refer to him with the masculine pronoun despite the fact that Karenin is biologically female. They choose to do this on the basis of Karenin’s physical features4, and later discover that Karenin’s personality supports their decision: he acts more male than female. While it could be argued that this indicates an unnatural human control over animals, it can also be argued that it is a demonstration of the depth of personality and character animals are capable of having, and the capability of human beings to respect and acknowledge that depth. Adams notices that humans achieve an emotional distance from the animals they eat through linguistics: using the generic “it” pronoun to refer to beings with clear gender differences (Adams, 75). Adams suggests that this is to diminish the female presence of animals (the majority of animals exploited and slaughtered for food are female), but for the general purposes of animal rights it simply serves to strip animals of any personality, individuality, and more importantly, capacity for emotion and pain. Thus, referring to Karenin with the male pronoun not only respects animals’ capacity for personality and character, but also their ability to defy gender stereotypes, and ultimately defy the supposed hierarchy of animals.

In the novel’s final pages, Kundera’s narrator offers the following comment:

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

Kundera, 289

This statement, which has been embraced by the animal rights movement as a powerful summary of its beliefs, presents the issue of animal rights as not only a test, but an indicator of how humanity will act in other moral situations. One page previous to this statement, Kundera’s narrator describes how the Czech communist party, looking for ways to inspire hatred for its enemies within a populace that distrusted the party itself, created an atmosphere of animal persecution. Having convinced the populace to view pigeons and dogs as menacing vermin that needed to be destroyed for the betterment of society, the party was then able to redirect that hatred towards those it accused of conspiring against it. This example supports the notion of the “test”, and suggests that cruelty towards animals is a sort of original sin that precedes and is responsible for all further atrocities.

While this test presents the opportunity for failure, as the example of the communist party’s practices shows, it also gives humanity the opportunity to vindicate itself. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being has been said to be unique for “killing off” its main characters only halfway through the text. In fact, Tomas’ estranged son receives news that his father and Tereza are killed while returning to the collective farm after a night in a neighbouring town well before the novel’s halfway point. Such foreknowledge places the reader in an interesting position; when Tomas and Tereza move to the collective farm in “Karenin’s Smile”, the novel’s final chapter, the fact that they will soon die is a known fact5, and the event does not carry the emotional impact that a sudden death would. While Tomas and Tereza’s death happens outside of the novel’s literal text and “between the lines”, Karenin’s death is drawn out in an agonizing and emotional fashion over thirty of the novel’s final pages. Not only does this mean that Karenin’s death has a much more pronounced effect that Tomas and Tereza’s death, but also that almost the last impression of Tomas and Tereza the reader is left with is their treatment of Karenin in his final days. If, as the “test” would seem to indicate, humans can be vindicated or condemned on the basis of their treatment of animals, the compassion Tomas and Tereza show Karenin, and the grieving they go through for him, vindicates them, and possibly by extension, the entire vision of humanity Kundera depicts in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. This is no small feat, especially considering that the novel has depicted countless marital infidelities, the betrayal of personal principles in the face of persecution, and the death of what Kundera refers to as the “Great Marches” of socialism and philanthropy. All of these things are vindicated in Karenin’s smile.


As the works by Adams and Morton have shown, animal rights criticism can be seen to share some of its purposes and areas of interest with other critical perspectives. Conversely, these same works indicate that the origins of animal rights theory (in some basic form) have existed for almost as long as other, more established critical traditions. In any case, animal rights criticism has an established history, even if much of that history refers to the theory by a different name. If this analysis of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is any indication, as I hope it is, future critics and readings will be able to apply that history and new ways of thinking about animal rights to a wealth of texts.

Early in the The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Kundera provides the word “compassion” with two definitions by looking at its etymological roots. The word can refer to a sense of sympathy with one who is of a lower status than the sympathizer, and thus it “connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer” (Kundera, 20). Conversely, Kundera says, in some languages the word has a much more positive meaning: the inability to live with the misfortunes of others as well as the ability to share any and all emotions with ones companions. Both of these definitions of compassion can be seen in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being’s discussion of animals: the farm chairman’s hypocritical love for Mephisto matches the first. Tereza’s contemplation on the cows likely fits the second definition. The compassion shown to Karenin may very well be the example Kundera had in mind when describing the second, legitimate form of compassion. Kundera’s narrator says as much, stating that he in fact loves Tereza as she cares for the dying Karenin. The narrator imagines Tereza abandoning humanity’s legacy of animal exploitation, “stepping down from the road along which mankind, ‘the master and proprietor of nature,’ marches onward.” (Kundera, 290)

Works Cited

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics Of Meat. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 2000.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, translated by Michael Henry Heim. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Morton, Timothy. Shelley And The Revolution In Taste. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Works Of P.B. Shelley. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1994.

1 In other words, animal rights criticism differs from feminist criticism which would (rightly) assume that it could offer critical insight into a literary work in which not a single female character appears or is given “a voice” in dialogue.

2 It is safe to say that the creature’s use of the term “human” in this context is more than somewhat sarcastic, despite the gravity of its plea. The creature’s idyllic vision is far removed from what it has come to identify human society with: the slaughter of animals and fear and persecution of that which is different, namely itself.

3 “Calm, guileless, and sometimes childishly animated, they looked like fat fifty-year-olds pretending they were fourteen.” (Kundera, 287)

4 “It can’t be Anna Karenina...No woman could have so funny a face. It’s much more like Karenin. Yes, Anna’s husband.” (Kundera, 24)

5 The novel ends with Tomas and Tereza preparing to go to sleep in a hotel in the neighbouring town, the night before their deaths.

Copyright 2003, Bruce Lord.