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The Female Body as a Piece of Art in Pink Dog

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Elizabeth Bishop

Pink Dog

(Rio de Janeiro)

The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.

Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.

Naked, you trot across the avenue.

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!

Naked and pink, without a single hair…

Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.

You are not mad; you have a case of scabies

But look intelligent. Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)

In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,

While you go begging, living by your wits?

Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers,

To solve this problem, how they deal with beggars?

They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites

Go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights

Out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,

Drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,

What would they do to sick, four-legged dogs?

In the cafes and on the sidewalk corners

The joke is going round that all the beggars

Who can afford them now wear life preservers.

In your condition you would not be able

Even to float, much less to dog-paddle.

Now look, the practical, the sensible

Solution is to wear a fantasia.

Tonight you simply can’t afford to be

An eyesore… But no one will ever see a

Dog in mascara this time of year.

Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.

What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?

They say that Carnival’s degenerating

– Radios, Americans, or something,

Have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.

Carnival is always wonderful!

A depilated dog would not look well.

Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

Unveiling Costumes: The Feminine Body in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog”

In “Pink Dog,” Elizabeth Bishop recounts a one-sided dialogue between the poetic speaker and a naked canine, shaved to a fleshy pink and prancing for food. Though the dog’s bold behavior captures the gaze of the speaker and a crowd of onlookers, it is the speaker’s account of the event and all its inflected intricacies, which transform the poem from a lightly comical tableau to serious symbolism. From curiosity, to threats and eventually advice, the speaker’s narrative elucidates cultural issues with the bare, feminine figure. Serving as a dehumanized representation of the human body, the brazenly pregnant dog rattles the speaker’s cultural sensibilities, intimating the closely guarded social view of the female form as well as challenging its intelligence and legitimacy.

Bishop’s dog may appear to bystanders to be a common, mangy street animal; however, to the speaker and within the poem it is a devolved representation of the female body. Throughout the poem, the speaker conflates the identity of the mutt as both dog and woman. The title, “Pink Dog,” is a premier constitution of this combination. By describing the dog as pink, the speaker attributes not only the literal color to the animal but also the important connotation of pink as the essential shade of femininity. The speaker’s continued preoccupation with the female aspects of the do g’s form compounds this evidence. For example, there is the vulgar description of its “hanging teats” and the reference to the dog as a “poor bitch.”

Both of these choices in diction are even brought to the forefront of the poem by syntactic and rhythmic details. The former is set off by the only parentheses in the poem. The latter is found on a line, which breaks away from the typical iambs of the poem in favor of anapestic triple meter; further compounding this metric and rhythmic anomaly, “poor bitch” receives a double stress that disrupts the already distinct meter. “Bitch” is also a near rhyme between “teats” and “wits” and it comes after a completed stress group, forcing it to stand in its own group, erect in all its grotesque glory.

The speaker also shows no hesitation in placing the dog in uniquely human contexts, creating more evidence for the mutt’s personification as an embodiment of the female form. For instance the speaker equates the dog to a human beggar, suggesting that she will receive the same punishment- or perhaps even worse- for her actions as all the common “idiots, paralytics, and parasites” or “anyone who begs.” This commonality of punishment reflects a perceived similarity of character between dog and human. Even referring to the dog as “naked” in the first and second stanzas is an act of personification, because it ascribes human diction to the animal; dogs are not referred to as “naked,” only humans- dogs are always “naked.” “The speaker also suggests the dog would fit in better if she dressed up for the carnival: “the practical, the sensible,/ solution is to wear a fantasia” and “no one will ever see a/ dog in mascara this time of year.” But wearing costume garb would only help a person fit in. Putting on makeup would only help a real woman. For a dog these actions would only heighten the grotesque, would only abject it further.

Yet, then why does the speaker extend such advice? The answer is that the act of costuming is not meant for the dog, rather it is intended for what the dog represents: a female body. Its nakedness and femininity is what is most alarming, most disturbing, and that is what the speaker wishes to shroud. Consider the initial introduction of the dog, “Naked, you trot across the avenue.” At this point her bodily form is ambiguous; it cannot be ascertained whether it is an animal or woman or anything specific. So in the earliest reaction what first captures the speaker’s eyes is not the form of this creature but that it is “naked” and “trotting” boldly.

These two words also gain heightened stature by the initial inversion of the line which breaks away from the iambic pentameter of the first two lines; “naked” gets a stark first stress and beat; two offbeats rise up to a climax at “trot,” making its stress and beat more powerful. This pattern is even duplicated in the fifth line with “Naked and pink,” a repetition of diction and form that also intensifies the bare womanliness of the dog. Because of this emphasizing, it is clear the speaker’s advice to “dress up” is a call to cover the flaunting of the naked female body and not just a hairless dog. The figure is unsettling. The speaker wishes to cover and contain it.

To this end, the entirety of the speaker’s dialogue can be viewed as an intimation of the extent to which society is captured by and uncomfortable with exposed femininity. In the second stanza this is illustrated beautifully as, “Startled, the passersby draw back and stare [at the dog].” The bystanders are simultaneously attracted and repelled by the sight, just like the speaker, who dedicates a large amount of attention to the dog- though this consideration is impelled by disquietude. Indeed, the lengthy, abstruse threats of beggars “bobbing in the ebbing sewage” and the advice on Carnival costumes can be interpreted as misguided attempts to relieve the speaker’s anxiety over the uncovered female form; by addressing the dog’s poverty and fashion sense, the speaker deftly avoids that which is really an “eyesore”- the startlingly naked, the brazenly pink, the overtly feminine body of the dog. In the final stanzas, the degradation of the speaker’s advice into forced and contrived pedagogical exclamations also indicates how strikingly she clings to these ideas. The affirmation of Carnival against a skeptical “They” who believe it’s degenerating is lackluster and desperate: “They’re just talking./ Carnival is always wonderful!/… Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!”

In this context, the speaker’s attempts to convert the dog to the festivities of Carnival- to its elaborate clothes, ravishing makeup, and jaunty sambas- do not represent the encouraged embrace of sexual and bodily expression usually associated with the pre-Lent carnival season, but rather a distinct veiling and repression of those very ideals. To put clothes or “máscara” on the dog would only shroud its symbolism as a fertile feminine form, would merely detract from its naked purity. To attend carnivals and dance “sambas,” the canine would have to quit begging, abandoning her traditional womanly duty to gather food for her babies. These inherent flaws with Carnival’s costuming are best explicated through the event’s characteristic habiliment: the “fantasía.” This choice in diction speaks to a double meaning; the “fantasía” is both a disguise and a failed illusion. It is a masquerading fantasy. It only hides what the dog represents, and in the process, sullies that symbolism.

The unsound logic of this façade is further flawed due to its propagation by a simple-minded and inconsistent speaker. Throughout the poem, the end-rhymes of each tercet often come across as hokey or juvenile, especially because of their reliance on simple, monosyllabic rhymes. The speaker has trouble retaining a steady rhythm, meter, or even number of syllables within each line; there are anapests, iambs-four and five beat lines- lines with nine, ten, or eleven syllables. These formal incongruities amplify the inherent absurdity of treating the dog like a human beggar or dressing her up in mascara because they contribute to a view of the speaker as informal and comical which betrays the otherwise serious subject of the poem. This disparity between the objective content and subjective observer within the verse amounts to a self-satirizing speaker that is undeserving of reader’s respect. And, in turn, neither is the viewpoint expressed.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog,” the depth of cultural aversion and disgust towards the naked feminine form, as represented by the fleshy, pregnant canine and intimated through the speaker’s narrative, is exposed and objected to through the elucidation of its contradictions and absurdities. Its greatest incongruity, that which lies between the supposedly prized value of sexual expression and the actual environment of repression, is evidenced in the speaker’s costuming advice for Carnival. That which will supposedly make the female body more palatable- clothes, makeup, jovial sambas- is in actuality what makes it a masquerade, what veils the pure womanliness and motherhood of the bare dog. Perhaps this is the reason “They say that Carnival’s degenerating.” “Radios, Americans, or something” have degraded the otherwise traditional Latin concepts of beauty, so that even a pink little dog is too alarming- too brazen- too feminine.

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GradesFixer. (2018). The Female Body as a Piece of Art in Pink Dog. Retrived from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/unveiling-costumes-the-feminine-body-in-elizabeth-bishops-pink-dog/
GradesFixer. "The Female Body as a Piece of Art in Pink Dog." GradesFixer, 26 Apr. 2018, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/unveiling-costumes-the-feminine-body-in-elizabeth-bishops-pink-dog/
GradesFixer, 2018. The Female Body as a Piece of Art in Pink Dog. [online] Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/unveiling-costumes-the-feminine-body-in-elizabeth-bishops-pink-dog/> [Accessed 10 July 2020].
GradesFixer. The Female Body as a Piece of Art in Pink Dog [Internet]. GradesFixer; 2018 [cited 2018 April 26]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/unveiling-costumes-the-feminine-body-in-elizabeth-bishops-pink-dog/
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