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Animal Imagery in the Novels of Anita Desai

Updated on September 14, 2012
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Imagery in the Novels of ANita Desai

Being a psychological and purely subjective novelist, Anita Desai deals with internal states of minds of her characters. She therefore employs the language of thoughts and interior selves of her characters. This language of interior is best communicated through images, symbols and myths. It is therefore not surprising that Desai’s novels abound in rich and symbolic images of light and color, of the sun, the moon, stars, storm, river, sea, birds, insects and animals. These images are employed to reveal the inner nature of her characters and illuminate their obsessions, changing moods, and psychic aberrations besides highlighting the dark and weird atmosphere of her stories. Animal imagery, which is related to callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, irrationality, and rapacity of human behavior, figures preeminently in her novels which treat of discord and disharmony in human relationships.


In Cry, the Peacock, Gautama is shown raising his head “like a horse”. Maya uncurls her fingers and toes to relax like “a small lazy cat”. She thinks of her friend Leila’s husband as “a ferocious and wild beast that has swallowed itself to become a house pet for its own reasons”. The admonished Maya becomes “alert like a cobra spreading its hood at the first faint sound of approaching danger”. The crawling fear of death makes her dream of rats, lizards, snakes and iguanas. Comparing herself with her brother Arjuna, Maya thinks: “If I was a partridge, plump, content, he was a wild bird, a young hawk that could not be tamed, that fought for its liberty”. There is a significant synesthetic image in which “hot, harsh colors” of darkness are compared to “vulture’s impatient screams.”


In Voices in the City, the heavy listlessness in the air of the first heat of summer is described lying “groaning like a caged lion”. Sonny who joins the company of angry young man Nirode and aged Professor Bose appears as “a fine young stag straying inadvertently into the company of a wild dog and an aged sheep.” Jit Nair’s criticism of the trait of self-contempt in Nirode appears “as a serpent’s forked tongue, flickering, quick and false for, of course, the poison was not there but in the secret fangs.” Nirode’s confession of egoism makes Jit rear back, “but of the conspiratorial shadow, like a cobra rising out of its basket when the pipe begins to play”. Mr. Ghosh Sonny’s father, who has enjoyed epicurean life of an old feudal lord, is described as a “lecherous little beast that made straight for its meal and avidly began to crunch it.” Amla who has been felt disconcerted while visiting Dharma later wonders, “why she had been clamoring and struggling like a rabbit in a trap, tearing herself to shreds.”


Bye-Bye Blackbird is free from the dark and weird atmosphere which dominates the earlier novels. Animal imagery is employed here not so much to reveal the inner nature of characters as to convey their situations and instantaneous reactions. Emma, the landlady of Sarah, ducks “her head between her shoulders like some tortoise” as she informs the latter about the expected birth of a new baby in the flat of another tenant. The Bengali lady in green, who has been invited to a musical evening at Emma’s house, tells her friend in yellow that she is so much bewitched by the drummer that she cannot take her eyes off him, her friend who too has been staring, hisses: “the evil fascination of a cobra”. As Adit praises the beauty of rural scene in England, his other Indian friends breathe audibly like “speechless animals”. Nanda Kaul, a retired old lady in Fire on the Mountain, often thinks of human beings as animals or insects in her reveries. The unwanted postman appears to her like “an oafish ox” or dull like a donkey. Her own long fingers moves like “a searching insect over the letter” of her daughter. In her early days she thought of herself as a “grey cat”.


The great writer often draws their imagery and symbols from the animal world to depict the theme of ingratitude, unkindness, and disruption of traditional human values and relationships. It is evident from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ben Johnson’s Valpone and Eugene O’ Neill’s Desire Under the Elms which reveal the rich use of the images of beasts, insects and birds of prey. Led by the dehumanizing forces over which they have no control, human beings in Anita Desai’s novels are also shown caught by surprise in the midst of universal metamorphosis which transforms them to behave like wild animals and beasts.


An INterview of ANita Desai

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    • anupma profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Anupma Srivastava 

      6 years ago from India

      Thanks Nell Rose

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      Hi, interesting look at Anita Desai, and something I will have to take a look at, they sound like fascinating books, thanks, voted up! nell

    • profile image

      IntegrityYes 

      6 years ago

      I definitely voted up.

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