Abjection and Fictional Girl-Animal Relationships

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I’m not usually big on the psychoanalytic tradition, but Jennifer Marchant’s analysis of fictional girl-animal relationships (including Lessa’s relationship with her dragon, Ramoth, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968)) is interesting. The questions she poses are worth considering and the approach she takes is fruitful. Her explanation of ‘abjection’ is also perfectly accessible  and fits rather perfectly!

“…what did that relationship between girl and dragon mean to [the protagonist of Dragonflight,] Lessa—and to me, the young reader? In this article, I want to suggest that, in Dragonflight and many other novels, the powerful relationship between adolescent female protagonist and animal plays a vital part in the protagonist’s psychic development. Moreover, I wish to make the argument that Kristevan theory is an especially useful lens for examining this bond and for considering the appeal these books have for many adolescent readers.” (p.3)

Abjection
“The time of boundary establishment is difficult and painful for the infant. On the one hand, she longs to continue the blissful unity with her mother’s body. But on the other, she fears being reincorporated with her mother, “falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling”. In order to establish herself as autonomous, she needs to separate herself from her mother’s body. Kristeva calls this period between unity-with-mother and autonomy “abjection.” Abjection is uncomfortable, both to the abject and to those within the social order. Kristeva describes it as that which “disturbs identity, system, order. [It is] what does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”. This is where the imaginary father comes in, comforting the child with “his” love, and thus preventing her from merging back into nonidentity. Abjection is not confined to infancy; it appears at any point in which someone is temporarily or permanently in a state of in-betweenness, not really one thing nor the other. This in-betweenness occurs both on a relatively small scale (concerning the individual and/or her relationships with family members) and on a larger one (concerning the individual’s relationship with community or country). The need for an imaginary father, then, is not outgrown, but continues throughout adult life, although “he” may change form. [-p.5] For example, the imaginary father may reappear in adults’ search for totally satisfying sexual relationships and/or a loving and comforting God.
Adolescents may have an especially strong need for imaginary fathers. Kristeva suggests that adolescence is a time of “psychic reorganization,” a time when people “begin to question their identifications, as well as their capacities to speak and to symbolize”.” (pp.4-5)

“Not only is the adolescent trying to establish boundaries between herself and her parents, but between her own community(ies) and those she deems “outsiders.” In addition, she must deal with her developing sexuality.” (p.5)

“Thus, the adolescent may have to deal simultaneously with several sorts of abjection, and so be powerfully drawn to descriptions of fictional imaginary fathers and their relationships with similarly abject protagonists. Such descriptions may not only reassure the reader that her experiences are not unique, but suggest that abjection can be resolved.
Lessa, in Dragonflight, is a good example of adolescent abjection and resolution.” (p.5)

It is through Ramoth that Lessa is eventually able to come to terms with both her social and sexual states of abjection.” (p.6)

“Moreover, Lessa’s uncertainties about her sexuality and her relationship with F’lar are resolved when Ramoth mates with F’lar’s dragon.” (p.6)

“For both Lessa and Opal [in Because of Winn-Dixie], companion animals play a vital role in drawing boundaries.” (p.7) “The animals also help the girls move from being “outsiders” in their new communities to being accepted members. In these ways, they act as imaginary fathers.” (p.7)

“Considering the animals as imaginary fathers suggests one way in which to interpret a common motif in girl-animal stories. While a child may have to share her parents’ love with siblings, the imaginary father’s love is for the child alone. In a similar fashion, the animal in these stories often displays a marked preference for the protagonist. Usually, this is for an unusual aspect of her personality, rather than because she is the one who feeds it.” (p.7)

“Freud suggested that the ego ideal—one’s internalized sense of what is right and good—is founded on the infant’s identification with the “father in prehistory” (or, to use Kristeva’s term, the imaginary father). The child’s later identification with her parents reinforces this. However, an adolescent has presumably already incorporated her parents’ standards, and is now in the process of separating herself from her family. At this stage, then, one might expect an imaginary father to help her explore parental standards as she decides whether to keep or reject them. Indeed, this pattern often appears in girl-animal stories—although, at least in the ones I surveyed, the animals are far more likely to reinforce the parents’ standards than to instigate rebellion against them.” (p.8)

I think it is probably significant that so many of the protagonists in this genre are attached to animals associated with power and freedom—horses, large dogs, wolves, dragons, and falcons. It is also worth noting that animals are outside the patriarchal social and linguistic systems that marginalize women. In identifying with animals, girls and women may seek an alternative social system in which they are not regarded as the inferior “other.” Although animals are not generally believed to use language, many of those in girl-animal stories communicate very effectively via vocalizations, body signals, and/or telepathy. In this sense, they may represent an alternative to male-privileged language. Thus, while the animals still ultimately function to integrate the protagonists into patriarchal society, they may also imply that this society can be questioned, subverted, and perhaps eventually changed.” (p.9)

In a number of novels, the protagonist learns that the animal itself is less important than the supportive structure it has helped her develop.” (p.13)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Marchant, Jennifer ‘An Advocate, a Defender, an Intimate”: Kristeva’s Imaginary Father in Fictional Girl-Animal Relationships’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 30(1), Spring 2005, pp. 3-15

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