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In Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver reinvents the Western genre, riffing on a couple of common tropes and stock characters while simultaneously creating a female-centered story that rejects the violence and disconnected heroes of stereotypical Westerns. As in many Western tales, a small town is threatened by a villain, but in this case it’s a type of villain that makes more sense in a modern context — instead of a gun-slinging “bad guy,” we have a faceless corporation intent on pursuing its own financial interests at the expense of the environment. Instead of a staunch, infallible protagonist, we have an irresolute heroine whose disconnect from her emotions is not an asset, but a major source of weakness. While she does play a part in saving the town of Grace, her more important task is to overcome her resistance to intimacy. Naomi Jacobs calls this novel an anti-Western, a critique of the myths underlying popular Westerns that “unravels the Western’s conventional approach to heroism, to violence and death, and to community.”
The first trope that Kingsolver uses is that of a lonely stranger arriving in a rough small town. Codi Nolene rides into Grace on a bus instead of a horse, but otherwise her arrival is reminiscent of the entrance of many Western protagonists. Wearing jeans and cowboy boots, she stands on deserted Main Street, taking stock of her surroundings. But she’s not a real stranger: within a few pages, she tells us that she’s not a “moral guardian” and has “no favors to return” (15). Her sister Hallie, is the selfless heroine, the woman fighting for a cause. Codi resembles a typical Western hero in her independence, her self-reliance, and her avoidance of close ties. But in Animal Dreams, these attributes aren’t presented as admirable. Codi feels like an outsider everywhere she goes and is clearly suffering, though she claims that “pain seemed to have anesthetized me” (91). She’s not heroic — she admits that when she reads about disaster, her instinct is to run away. She drifts through life unable to make any real commitments, whether to place, profession, or relationships. She sees love as a trap to be avoided because “nothing you love will stay” (240). Like a virile cowboy hero, she has a healthy sexual appetite and suffers no qualms about having a casual fling with the handsome Native American, Loyd. In a reversal of the usual roles, Loyd is the one who models what a connection to home and family should look like, thus bringing Codi’s own emotional disconnect into sharp relief.
In a typical Western, the male protagonist must put aside his personal feelings and pursue justice at all costs. In The Virginian, for example, the hero hangs an old friend-turned-cattle thief because it’s the “right” thing to do. Codi is the opposite. She has buried her feelings for so long that it has left her emotionally crippled. Her mission is to get in touch with her feelings and stop suppressing her memories. She must conquer the fear of intimacy that keeps her isolated and unravel her connection to the community. Interestingly, Codi is also a schoolteacher, albeit only temporarily, and so she combines two familiar Western stock characters into one. However, unlike The Virginian’s schoolmarm, Molly, and others of her ilk, Codi doesn’t provide a love interest and softening influence for a rough-hewn hero. Instead, she is the one who needs to be softened and civilized; her male lover, Loyd, provides the wisdom and type of self-sacrificing love more typically associated with women.
Every Western must have its villain, preferably one dressed in black. The antagonist in Animal Dreams is the Black Mountain Mining Company, a faceless entity that can’t be defeated with old-fashioned violence. Instead of the men riding out with guns to tackle it, the women of Grace invent a creative way to defeat their enemy. While dynamite and bulldozer-tampering are initially proposed as solutions to the threat, the women have no intention of resorting to violence. Instead, they join together in a communal effort to raise money and ultimately outwit the villain. Violence is not glorified in the novel, but actually disparaged. The cruelty of cock-fighting and of the attacks in Nicaragua stand in stark contrast to the solution dreamed up by the women: the creation and peaceful sale of beautiful pi?atas. As Naomi Jacobs puts it: “the novel desacralizes violence and reauthorizes connection and nurturance as essential bases for heroism.”
From Loyd’s matrilineal clan (in which women are the “center of things” (240)) to Do?a Althea and the other matriarchs of Grace, in Animal Dreams, women wield all the power. The novel is ultimately about female strength, which is found in self-awareness, intimacy, community, and love. It stands in direct opposition to the male violence that seems unavoidable in traditional Westerns. The women of Grace save their town with creativity. Hallie fights for Nicaragua not with weapons but by helping the people grow food, and Codi finally reconnects with her feminine side, emerging whole and able to join her community. She is at last able to accept the love of her “fifty mothers.” Through the novel, Kingsolver demonstrates the importance of self-awareness and intimate connections while pointing out that peaceful resolutions to conflict are possible. She also shows us the unique and powerful ways in which women influence the world.
Jacobs, Naomi. “Barbara Kingsolver’s Anti-Western: ‘Unraveling the Myths’ in Animal Dreams.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 2 (Fall 2003). Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 216. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2010
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