Scholarly Musings: Dolphins, Wolves, and Neo-Transcendentalists (oh my!)

Well, you know November has come…when it’s gone away.

(just thought I’d ease you into this very academic post with a pop culture reference :-D)

Happy T(of)urkey Day, everyone! May your pumpkin pies be tasty and your tryptophan-induced comas relaxing.

I did say I’d do a post or two for the Tea with Transcendentalists challenge this month, so I suppose I’d better get my transparent eyeball in gear (sorry, my Transcendentalist humor is a bit rusty).  So, naturally, we’re going to skip the 19th century altogether and look at two late-20th century children’s novels with Transcendentalist themes!

Hang on, didn’t I write a paper for that EcoCriticism class a few years ago, addressing these very two books?  And haven’t I been hoarding just about every file related to just about every class I took back in college?  That means I can outsource this post to 2008-Neri!  How clever am I?  (so clever)

First, a little background info from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

  • “Transcendentalism is an American literary, political, and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other important transcendentalists were Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Theodore Parker. Stimulated by English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume, the transcendentalists operated with the sense that a new era was at hand. They were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe” (O, 3). Emerson and Thoreau sought this relation in solitude amidst nature, and in their writing. By the 1840s they, along with other transcendentalists, were engaged in the social experiments of Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden; and, by the 1850s in an increasingly urgent critique of American slavery.” [1] (emphasis mine)

Also, a few notes:

  • The following are excerpts from my essay on Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (which I’ve also discussed here) and Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves.  Any skipped passages are indicated by ellipses.  I also modified a number of citations so they wouldn’t disrupt the flow.


  • There are ******MAJOR SPOILERS****** ahead for both books.
  • Please forgive the overabundance of dashes.  2008-Neri was a huge fan of dashes.  Er, wait… *glances through most of her posts* … yeah, ok, it’s not just 2008-Nerija ^_^;;
  • Also, as per the typical college experience (right? amirite?), 2008-me was completing this essay an hour or so before it was due, and thus, I’d somewhat honey-badgered the conclusion.  I.e. there is no conclusion.  2012-me will jump back in at that point to wrap things up.
  • I mentioned the ******MAJOR SPOILERS******, yes?

. . . . . . . .

The Wilderness as “Moral Training Ground” in Twentieth Century American Children’s Novels: O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and George’s Julie of the Wolves   

According to Anne Scott MacLeod, it was in the early nineteenth century that a distinctly American children’s fiction developed. [2]  At that time, the young nation’s apprehension about its future influenced its approach to children and, thus, its treatment of children’s literature.  MacLeod describes “the sense of urgency that made of every childish experience an opportunity for teaching morality”; indeed, “the purpose of childhood […] was wholly preparation, entirely a moral training ground for adult life” (pg. 94).

There was little controversy expressed in children’s stories, no encouragement to question the young political system (89). Thus, children’s literature stressed “order, restraint, stability, and a strong sense of social responsibility as the age interpreted it” (94).

These ideals were to be developed first within the family… By the time a child left home—as writers realistically assumed many children would—he or she would have “internalized the moral values of […] parents.” [3]  If the lessons were successfully passed on, then the nation would continue as a strong, independent, and moral entity.  After all, as noted by historian Robert Hine, “[w]hat a society wants its children to know reveals what that society wants itself to be.” [4]  No wonder, then, that in the United States’ early decades, children’s books and stories were so clear in their agendas.

[T]he attitude the fiction displayed toward its child audience was […] in some ways more respectful than it has been in many children’s books since.  However much they may have overestimated children’s interest in ethical questions, the authors took them seriously as moral beings. [5]

Over a hundred years later, though the larger society may have … a tendency to underestimate children’s ethical or intellectual mindsets, the literature itself still presents young people as ethically capable—and necessary—for a healthy nation.  What has changed is the assumption about where and how those children learn the best morals.  According to MacLeod, the “traditional hierarchy of parents and children has been dismantled” in children’s literature of the second half of the twentieth century, “along with, emphatically, the system of mutual respect and affection that once bound fictional parent and child to each other in peace and contentment.” [6]  No longer can children completely rely on their elders for ethical guidance—especially in times of social or familial unrest.

Whereas the early nineteenth century stories idealized the home and family as the place to gain moral strength before entering the larger world, two late twentieth-century novels—Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), and Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves (1972)—portray a child who gains the strongest ethical insights when isolated from adults.  More specifically, the child gains moral strength when isolated in the wilderness.  When they witness disagreement—even corruption—among the adults they encounter, it is only in the wilderness that O’Dell’s Karana and George’s Miyax are fully able to make up their own minds about what is ethical.

All of this is not to say that such novels as O’Dell’s and George’s imply children must ignore and/or abandon their elders—or human society—altogether.  Even George’s novel, which, of the two novels, gives the most negative portrayal of human adults and the most pessimistic prognosis for human-environment relations, does not completely discredit human community as important for children.  However, in each novel the child’s education in nature begins after a dramatic upheaval in her or his human world.  What the novels imply is that, at least in the situations experienced by Karana and Miyax, adult human guidance is not enough to help a child survive such political or familial turmoil.

The Lost Woman of San Nicolas

The difficulty with analyzing O’Dell’s novel is that the account is based on the actual experiences of a woman who lived in a village called Ghalas-at, on an island “about seventy-five miles southwest of Los Angeles” [7] … Thus, certain elements of the novel’s plot cannot be discussed as purposeful devices to manipulate readers’ experience.  Yet the novel as a whole is not categorized as autobiography or memoir (the story is told from Karana’s first-person point of view).  Rather, it is classified as “historical fiction.” [8] Thus, one can speak of the novel having its own purposes besides simply relating events.  After all, O’Dell chose to tell Karana’s life in the form of a story, piecing together what facts he knew and filling in the gaps.

The novel begins when Karana is twelve years old, on the day that forty Aleutian hunters, along with a captain from Russia, arrive at her people’s island.  Already Karana is aware that the relationship between her community and the visitors is strained—Karana’s father, the chief of Ghalas-at, tells of a previous time when Aleutian hunters and a Russian captain abused their hosts’ hospitality.  Understandably, the village fears that they will again be cheated, even though this new captain promises his hunters will do their own work and the people of Ghalas-at will be paid half the value of the catch.

Besides the problem of her people’s history with the Aleuts, Karana has her own ethical concerns regarding the hunters’ behavior.  Their purpose in coming to the island is to hunt otter.  But as they proceed, Karana begins to worry that they will kill too many.

I was angry, for these animals were my friends.  It was fun to see them playing or sunning themselves among the kelp.  It was more fun than the thought of beads to wear around my neck.

(Pg. 23)

Thus, the reader learns Karana’s personal morals—she values the animals for their own sake, more than the goods that could be made from their bodies.  But when she expresses her concern, her father responds by “laughing at [her] foolishness,” assuring her that more otters will come to replace the ones that die (23).  He is more concerned that the hunters will try to cheat the people of Ghalas-at from the payment they deserve.

The Aleuts’ visit ends in disaster.  On the day the hunters prepare to leave with their otter pelts, the negotiations between the captain and Karana’s father turn violent.  Over twenty of the villages forty-two men, including Karana’s father, are killed before the Aleuts finally leave.  Now the village is in crisis.  The men begin to resent the women who must take on work that the deceased once completed—work that the men feel should be theirs.  It is useless bickering, in Karana’s eyes—“Since there was already ample food to last through the winter, it no longer mattered who hunted”—and it really reflected the community’s sorrow over their lost loved ones (34).  After two seasons, Karana’s neighbors can no longer bear to remain in a place filled with the memories of the deceased, so plans are made to leave the island and travel east.

It is at this point, in the midst of so many changes in her community, that something will provoke Karana to separate from her people, forcing her to rely on her own judgments.  On the day a ship comes from the east to take the people, Karana’s younger brother is accidentally left behind.  Horrified by the adults’ refusal to turn the ship around—the sea was now too rough—Karana jumps into the water and returns to the island.  But a few days later, as the siblings wait in vain for the ship to return, wild dogs kill her brother and Karana is left alone.  Finally, symbolic of her long-term break from the community of Ghalas-at—a symbolism only readers are aware of, as Karana still expects her people to return for her at any day—she burns down the village, unable to bear the memories of those she lost.  …

Within a few weeks, conditions on the island begin to test Karana, daring her to compromise the human laws under which she was raised.  In order to keep safe from the dogs that killed her brother, Karana feels she must make weapons, a practice forbidden to women.  She recalls stories told by elders to frighten young women—warnings that the environment itself would be angered by a breach in the law:

Would the four winds blow in from the four directions of the world and smother me as I made the weapons?  Or would the earth tremble, as many said, and bury me beneath its falling rocks?  Or, as others said, would the sea rise over the island in a terrible flood?  Would the weapons break in my hands at the moment when my life was in danger, which is what my father had said? 

(Pg. 61)

On the one hand, by assuming that Nature would agree with human rules, Karana’s people could be assuming, in turn, that those rules came originally from Nature.  This assumption places Nature above humanity—Nature is the ultimate authority, whose feelings and judgments are expressed by phenomena such as floods or earthquakes.  On the other hand, the people could be following the opposite worldview—one that places humanity above Nature.  That is, the environment is under human power, reacting to human emotions rather than expressing its own.  Thus, in a way, Karana risks death no matter what she decides: there is the risk of death by not having proper weapons when the dogs attack, or the risk of death by disobeying her community’s (and, presumably, Nature’s) laws.  She must make the decision based on her own beliefs, and not simply out of fear for her physical safety.

In the end, Karana chooses to defy her community’s rules:

I thought about these things for two days and on the third night when the wild dogs returned to the rock, I made up my mind that no matter what befell me I would make the weapons.

(Pg. 61)

As a sign that she made the right choice—or, at least, as a sign that the island is unaffected by the ethical beliefs of human beings—after Karana makes her first bow and arrow, natural forces even aid her in making more weapons.  First, as she hides behind a bull sea elephant, which she plans to kill for his tusks, the western sun throws her shadow away from the creature.  Then, even though her arrow misses and she injures herself, the sea elephant reveals he was already planning to fight another male.  By the time the fight ends, one of the males is dead and she is able to gather his tusks.

The reader can make several conclusions.  On the one hand, one might see Nature as a conscious force with its own set of moral beliefs, in which case Nature rewarded Karana for choosing the right path.  Or, if the environment does not have a specific set of moral values, then at least it acts as a tester of human beliefs—Nature, by this assumption, was pushing Karana to choose whether or not she would believe her community’s laws.  On the other hand, if one does not see Nature as a self-conscious entity, then it reveals itself in these scenes as a neutral space in which a person, if isolated from other human beings, can decide for herself or himself what human worldview to follow.

But Karana’s examination of her own beliefs does not stop at considering how she must relate to human society.  Now that she is alone, she can also reevaluate her beliefs about human relations with the environment—namely, with the animals that share the island.  Several years before Island of the Blue Dolphins was published, Aldo Leopold examined in his essay, “The Land Ethic,” the differences between ethics as they concern human-to-human relationships, and ethics as they concern human-to-environment relationships.  … Both Leopold and [Neil] Evernden argue against … an attitude [that values non-human nature only for utilitarian/economic reasons], because it dooms a substantial number of earth species—“most members of the land community have no economic value” (Leopold 246).  Both writers argue for a more emotional connection to the environment, a connection that “makes the world personal—known, loved, feared, or whatever” [9]

It is this shift in ethical attitude toward the environment that Karana is finally able to cement within herself, once she has been alone on the island for many years.  At first, she had killed a number of the wild dogs that threatened her.  But she spared the leader to keep as a companion, a friend she named Rontu, who kept away her loneliness… She describes the creatures she sees in vivid detail, her tone one of curiosity, fascination. …

She names [one] otter “Mon-a-nee, which means Little Boy with Large Eyes” (155).  She also tames and names several birds, keeping them by a home she had built for herself on the headland.  One recalls Evernden’s comment that “[t]he act of naming may itself be a part of the process of establishing a sense of place” (101).  Karana is relating to the creatures in her environment on a personal level, thinking of them as people, as evidenced by her calling the otter “Little Boy.”  And when Rontu dies, she grieves for him as for a person, burying him with flowers and colorful stones.

But the most didactic statement in the novel, a statement which reveals most clearly Karana’s moral convictions, comes one chapter earlier, though still close to the novel’s end.  After having befriended so many animals on the island, and observing others, Karana decides she no will no longer hunt them.

Nor did I ever kill another cormorant for its beautiful feathers, though they have long, thin necks and make ugly sounds when they talk to each other.  Nor did I kill seals for their sinews, […] Nor did I kill another wild dog, nor did I try to spear another sea elephant. 

She echoes her thoughts from early in the novel, about caring more for an animal’s personality than its usefulness—but now, after having spent so many [years] without other people to tell her otherwise, Karana’s conviction is cemented and her attitude toward her community changed.

Yet this is the way that I felt about the animals who had become my friends and those who were not, but in time could be.  If Ulape and my father had come back and laughed, and all the others had come back and laughed, still I would have felt the same way, for animals and birds are like people, too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things.  Without them the earth would be an unhappy place. 

(Pg. 161)

Continued on pg 2

1/100th of an Altairian dollar for your thoughts?

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