Wednesday, October 7, 2015

There is nothing more dreary than old age in animals

Her old blind dog, Baby, was sick and like to die. Baby had been the first gift from her friend the widow, Mrs. Lehntman in the old days when Anna had been with Miss Mary Wadsmith, and when these two women had first come together.

Through all the years of change, Baby had stayed with the good Anna, growing old and fat and blind and lazy. Baby had been active and a ratter when she was young, but that was so long ago it was forgotten, and for many years now Baby had wanted only her warm basket and her dinner.

Anna in her active life found need of others, of Peter and the funny little Rags, but always Baby was the eldest and held her with the ties of old affection. Anna was harsh when the young ones tried to keep poor Baby out and use her basket. Baby had been blind now for some years as dogs get, when they are no longer active. She got weak and fat and breathless and she could not even stand long any more. Anna had always to see that she got her dinner and that the young active ones did not deprive her.

Baby did not die with a real sickness. She just got older and more blind and coughed and then more quiet, and then slowly one bright summer's day she died.

There is nothing more dreary than old age in animals. Somehow it is all wrong that they should have grey hair and withered skin, and blind old eyes, and decayed and useless teeth. An old man or an old woman almost always has some tie that seems to bind them to the younger, realer life. They have children or the remembrance of old duties, but a dog that's old and so cut off from all its world of struggle, is like a dreary, deathless Struldbrug, the dreary dragger on of death through life.
From "The Good Anna" section of Three Lives by Gertrude Stein. A struldbrug is a creature from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a human who does not die, but does age, getting older and older and older and sticking around on the earth, ancient.


  1. Scott, I've heard it argued that only humans but not other animals know they will die; I disagree because I would like to believe that some animals know more than we think. And I think Stein is wrong; some animals do have ties with others (including humans) that will "bind them to the younger, realer life" (at least that was true of our dogs whose last days were better because of their contact with us).

    1. I think the ideas here are those of the character, not necessarily those of Stein. The reason I posted this is because I was raised with dogs and this passage reminded me of the last days of my old terrier. And I do think that animals know when they're dying. Some animals, anyway.

    2. You may be interested in the review that I just posted at Beyond Eastrod. v/r Tim

  2. Dammit, I just deleted not only Mudpuddle's self-deleted comment, but also the replies to that comment. Some days I hate the internet.

  3. The Reply function was a regression.

    So, the things a person remembers and does not. What do I know about Stein, I've never read Stein. But reading this passage I thought, I sure as heck have read this. And there it was in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, "Good Anna," complete, the only Gertrude Stein I have ever read. As far as I now remember.

    1. I've read a couple of her late poems and one essay on literature. It was the essay that got me interested in her fiction. I will probably read more Stein after Two Lives. Not immediately after. Unless I can find a copy of the detective novella she wrote. I'll bet that's just all kinds of sideways wacky.

  4. Aha, the miracle of following comments via email. Here is Mr Mudpuddle's comment that I deleted:

    dogs are just as aware as people. they just have different points of perception. chihuahuas especially, with their eternal wanting to go outside-childlike, maybe... i find myself curious as to why stein would write such a book; exploring other dimensions of reality? lends weight to the question: is there intelligent life on earth?

    And here is my vapid reply, that I also deleted:

    Maybe Stein just didn't know dogs that well, and her examples were all dogs that owned other people. Not everyone grows up with dogs. Animals with which we're unfamiliar can seem very alien. Our cat, whom I've known for nine years now, still can seem alien and wholly unknowable. People can also seem that way. But I do think that Stein above gives us the Anna character's thoughts, not necessarily her own.

    Threaded comments can be tricky, kids. Don't try this at home.