A Dog’s Tale – Book Review

Title – A Dog’s Tale

Author – Mark Twain

Genre – Fiction


“My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me, I do not know these distinctions myself.”

A classic short story by Mark Twain that first appeared in a 1903 issue of Harper’s Magazine, which was later expanded into a book published by Harper & Brothers in 1904.  This can’t really be reviewed, because it’s Mark Twain – the writing is brilliant, of course!

The story is narrated from the point of view of a pet dog named Aileen Mavourneen. Spread over three sections, the first part describes the dog’s relationship with its mother as a young pup, and all that it has learnt from her. The second part tells the reader how the pup is separated from its mother and sold to a new place as a household pet. Part three delves into the now grown up dog at her new residence, life with the children and adult humans of the family, and her own experiences as a mother now that she has a pup of her own.

As a young pup herself, the narrator learned a lot of valuable lessons from her mother. “We learned to be brave and prompt in times of danger, and not to run away, but face the peril that threatened friend or stranger, and help in the best we could without stopping to think what the cost might be to us.”  Mum was considered the only cultivated dog in the neighborhood. There was more to her than her “education”. She taught not by words but by example. She herself learned by listening in the dining room and drawing room, and by going with the children to Sunday school, and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, the knowledge which in turn was passed on to other canines.

On being sold to a new household and separated from her mother, mum’s teachings ring in her ears, “Take life as we might find it, live for the good of others, do well and right without expecting rewards.” One day, in her new home, she stands watch in the nursery. Or in her words, “I was asleep on the bed. The baby was asleep in the crib, which was alongside the bed. The nurse was out, and we two sleepers were alone.” All of a sudden, a fire breaks out and the baby’s cries wake the dog. As she darts towards the door, her mother’s parting words come to mind, “In memory of me, when there is a time of danger to another, do not think of yourself, think of your mother, and do as she would do.” She drags the baby out of the room and into the far end of the hall, where she gets beaten up (and subsequently suffers a permanent limp in one leg) by the master who misunderstands the situation and assumes the dog is harming the child. Once the truth emerges, praises are showered on the dog, and life is back to normal in the household. Until the dog finds her puppy killed.

A brilliantly crafted but disturbing story. The book starts off humorously and keeps you hooked right from the first few lines, as the narrator tells us about his mother and the significance she played in her life. But by the end, the book turns into a heart wrenching tale of how dogs love humans the way they do, even when they are wronged. “I did not know what I had done to make him so bitter, yet I judged it was something a dog could not understand, but which was clear to a man.” A supposedly intelligent master who is a scientist, doesn’t seem to use his intelligence when he disables the mother dog and blinds her pup. The lines are poignant. As the caned dog runs and hides, her thoughts are touching, “I was so afraid that I held it in and hardly even whimpered, though it would have been such a comfort to whimper, because that eases the pain, you know.” As the dead puppy is being buried in the garden, a servant laments, “Poor little doggie, you saved HIS child.” The scenes are heartbreaking, as the dog waits for the puppy to “grow out from the soil” as that is how she has seen seeds grow into plants.

This was the author’s attempt to highlight animal cruelty in the name of science. In spite of being written over a century ago, issues of animal abuse still stand and the book deserves to be read. Animal/dog lovers might squirm over the descriptions and choose to give this a skip, citing reasons of not being able to read about animal cruelty. But not reading about the issue, does not mean it ceases to exist. All the more reason why such books, stories, cases need to be read and highlighted.

Rating – 5/5


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