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2 - Of Boxes, Stuffed Simulacra, and Fiction

“A body in which nothing was real”: Taxidermy and Fiction in “Vandals” by Alice Munro

Lucile Bentley
p. 47-56

Abstract

Cet article s'intéresse à la présence des animaux dans la nouvelle “Vandals” d'Alice Munro, dont le personnage principal, Ladner, est un taxidermiste. Il semblerait que la forte présence des animaux ne soit pas uniquement un moyen de représenter la nature environnante mais un outil pour définir et comprendre le personnage énigmatique de Ladner. De plus la taxidermie est utilisée comme une métaphore du processus d'écriture qui permet de souligner la violence potentiellement présente dans l'acte d'écrire.

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1“Vandals” was first published in The New Yorker in 1993 and was later included in Alice Munro's eighth collection of short stories, Open Secrets published in 1994. This short story is one of the darkest in Munro's œuvre. The story is set in Southern Ontario and begins with a letter from Bea to Liza, following the death of Bea's companion, Ladner, an English World War Two veteran who became a taxidermist. This unsent letter was originally a letter to thank Liza and her husband Warren for having come over to Bea's house while Ladner was in hospital, and for letting her know that the house got vandalized. The first part of the story is internally focalised through Bea's perspective, and the narration alternates between past and present. The reader learns more about Ladner, an enigmatic Englishman and his relationship with Bea. The second part of the story is internally focalized through Liza's perspective as the reader is taken back in time to the day when she went to Bea's house to check the pipes. Without apparent reason, Liza is the one who vandalizes the house. Some episodes from Liza's childhood, when she used to spend her Saturdays and her holiday at Ladner's house creep back in the narrative. It is towards the end that the narrative includes an episode from Liza's past, evoking the fact that Ladner used to rape Liza and her little brother Lenny.

2I will study the roles of animals in this short story in order to highlight their metafictional function. Because Ladner is a taxidermist, stuffed animals are part of this fictional world. Furthermore, it is said that Ladner arranged a museum of sort on his land using stuffed and living animals, the whole effect being close to a diorama. Animals are also used to describe characters, and Ladner in particular. I would like to suggest that the fact that animals and animal imagery are very present in this story is destined to encourage a vision of animals as something more than mere representatives of the natural world. Because of their physical presence, they are tokens of a type of writing that endeavours to give pride of place to matter and the corporeal. Moreover, I will show that taxidermy is represented as an art that can be compared to the art of storytelling: creating a physical presence, a physical body, from a mere absence is indeed what both taxidermy and writing are all about. I will show that animals are part and parcel of a way of writing that pays attention to surfaces and matter, and that they are also the elements that reflect how this writing is performed.

3In order to do so, I will first envisage the blurring of differences between Ladner and the animals he preserves, then I will show more specifically that Ladner, like a dead animal, is a hollow waiting to be given physical presence and I will explore in detail the actual process of stuffing animals, that is to say the process that allows them to come into the narrative as realistic elements. Finally, I will try to show how the animals are used to warn the readers about the violence behind any attempt—especially artistic ones—at imposing a single version of events which pretends to be truthful.

Animals as Ladner, Ladner as animals

  • 1 In the quotations from Alice Munro’s "Vandals," the story will be hereafter referred to as V.

4In order to make the analogy between taxidermy and writing possible, the story first relies on the analogy between the objects of both arts—the art of writing and the art of preserving animals. The comparison of Ladner with his stuffed animals and with animals in general has already been shown by other critics (Dawson; Foy; Ventura). For example, when Bea first sees Ladner, the similitude between him and a dog is underlined: “It was Bea's impression that he had a fierce dog with him. But this was not the case. Ladner did not own a dog. He was his own fierce dog” (V, 267).1 The transition from having an animal to being an animal corresponds to the transition from juxtaposition to assimilation. The transformation of Ladner into a dog, represented by the passage from the verb “had” to “was” is even more prevalent in this set of sentences in which similar words are repeated (“[…] fierce […] dog […] own […] dog […] own fierce dog”), making this transition all the more obvious and memorable. Not only do the animal comparisons in the story give a hint of Ladner's predatory instincts (Ventura 313) but they highlight how the animal body and the human body share common features.

5The most striking passage in which Ladner is described as an animal occurs when, through the filter of Liza's memory, the rape scene is described. In the passage, Ladner becomes one with his stuffed animals:

P.D.P.
Squeegey-boy
Rub-a-dub-dub.
When Ladner grabbed Liza and squashed himself against her, she had a sense of danger deep inside him, a mechanical sputtering, as if he would exhaust himself in one jab of light, and nothing would be left of him but black smoke and burnt smells and frazzled wires. Instead, he collapsed heavily, like the pelt of an animal flung loose from its flesh and bones. He lay so heavily and useless that Liza and even Kenny felt for a moment that it was a transgression to look at him. He had to pull his voice out of his groaning innards, to tell them they were bad.
He clucked his tongue faintly and his eyes shone out of ambush, hard and round as the animals' glass eyes.
Bad-bad-bad (V, 292)

  • 2 "A bird’s body could be all of one piece, carved of wood, but an animal’s larger body was a wonderf (...)

6This passage is essential to the reader who is trying to find an explanation for Liza's vandalism. Even if the readers progressively understand Liza's anger, this passage confirms their hypothesis. The significance of the passage is graphically conveyed by its being framed by two passages in italics, meant to reproduce Ladner's speech before (maybe during) and after the rapes. Therefore, the reader is meant to pay particular attention to this passage and cannot miss the lexical field of bestiality that is applied to Ladner. The link between Ladner and his stuffed animals is established gradually, first with the reference to wires which were said in a previous passage to constitute the fake body of some of the stuffed animals2 and then the comparison introduced by “like” reduces Ladner to his skin which becomes a “pelt.” What is indeed left of the animals, in the process of taxidermy, is their skin. Finally, the comparison becomes almost an identification with the adverb “as” used to describe Ladner's eyes, “hard and round as the animals' glass eyes.” Even the sounds produced by Ladner are no longer human, his innards are “groaning” and he “cluck[s] his tongue.” Similarly, the passages in italics no longer resemble a fully-formed language, it seems that the words are repeated both for the pure sounds of them (some are similar to onomatopoeias) as much as for their content.

7The initial comparisons in this passage with a machine and then with a dead animal suggest that Ladner is being metamorphosed during the rape, into something not quite human. Carrie Dawson demonstrated that Munro's story does not try to categorize paedophiles as non-humans or unnatural beings but it is also clear that, in this very instance, Ladner loses some of his human characteristics in letting his sexual drive command his behaviour. Munro does not suggest however that this lack of control is a characteristic of animals because Ladner is not compared to a living animal but rather to a dead or wounded one. This hybrid creature that Ladner transforms into is nevertheless something other, that is why the children feel that it is a transgression to look at him. This in-betweenness of Ladner's is also that of stuffed animals. Taxidermy transforms them into abject beings as Ailsa Cox has concluded, using the word “abject” in the Kristevan sense (Cox 94); they are both compelling and impossible to watch. Rachel Poliquin has underlined the visual quality of stuffed animals, which, because of their status of in-betweenness (both objects and animals, cultural and natural) are “mysterious, unsettling, provocative, and overwhelmingly visually magnetic” (Poliquin 4).

Ladner as an empty centre in the story

  • 3 Ladner is not only compared and assimilated to animals in the story but also to machines. For examp (...)

8Ladner's multiple transformations also serve to point out the inability of the other characters (and of the reader) to understand Ladner.3 When Bea tries to understand the man she lived with, she uses modals as if to suggest that nothing was certain about him: “[Ladner] had realized [Bea] was a person he could live with. She asked him if he couldn't say wanted to live with, and he said yes, he could say that. He could say it, but he didn't” (V, 274). The repetition of the modal “could” lays stress on the various possibilities of interpretation concerning Ladner. It is significant that this passage underlines what Ladner doesn't say because silences are shown to characterize Ladner. On another occasion, Bea remarks: “Other things she had to learn concerned what he would say and wouldn't say” and she concludes with his inaccessibility: “I come up against block of solid darkness” (V, 274) thus associating Ladner with darkness, the same one that is alluded to at the end of the story, therefore suggesting a mystery about who he is. The man is a dark centre in the story and his silences are one reason of his remaining a puzzle. The story as often in Munro's fiction is narrated through the prism of multiple focalizers but never through the prism of Ladner's focalization. Ladner is given only a few direct speeches–indirect speech is what is privileged for him–and he is never granted internal focalisation.

9The story starts just after Ladner's death, thus emphasising his absence at the very beginning of the story. However, Ladner is the centre of the story, he remains forever present in the thoughts of the characters and even in the dream of Bea. She even admits that in spite of his physical absence, she has a sense of his presence (V, 264). In the same way stuffed animal are a visual reminder of death, Ladner is also “dead but not gone” (Poliquin 9). Even though “[t]here are notable examples of mysteries, potential layers of narrative in the collection, that are brought to our attention but never -fleshed out” (Foy), Ladner is the central darkness around which the story is built. The rape is also the central event around which the story circles because it explains the whole act of vandalism, but it branches out from the fact that Ladner himself is inscrutable.

10Therefore, Ladner is the black centre of the story, around which narratives try to give human form, just like in the art of taxidermy, the animal skins cover an empty centre. The reader is made aware of the hollow that is constitutive of stuffed animals when the act of taxidermy is described: “Ladner fitted the skin around a body in which nothing was real. A bird's body could be all of one piece, carved of wood, but an animal's larger body was a wonderful construction of wires and burlap and glue and mushed-up paper and clay” (V, 286). The different elements that make up the larger bodies allude to the underlying construction of narratives in a work of fiction, which then remains invisible once the object is finished. The narrator reminds us that with stuffed animals, just like in fiction, “nothing [is] real” (V, 286). Interestingly, paper is constitutive of the bodies of stuffed animals. The allusion to a material necessary to both arts (taxidermy and literature) was evoked earlier in the story when Ladner gave a tour of his house to Bea: “He told her the body would be built up with papier-mâché” (V, 273). This explanation is directly followed by a description of bookshelves, on which stuffed animals are probably on display, stressing the link between both arts. Similarly, when Liza vandalizes the house, books and stuffed animals are smashed up together on the floor (V, 280, 282).

“Stuffing” Ladner's skin

11The association of writing to taxidermy can be taken further if we consider how Ladner becomes a presence in spite of his absence. Narratives are used as layers of skins, applied on the dark centre in order to give sense of the mystery that Ladner represents. The different layers of narratives surrounding the characters, and particularly Ladner, act like a skin to dress the empty centre that he represents, making him somewhat present, in spite of his absence, for the readers. One of the narratives evoked to give him flesh is the romantic depiction given by Peter Parr to Bea before their first encounter with Ladner: “He was a man who had been wounded and disillusioned in the worst way and had withdrawn from the world, yet gave all he could back to it in his attention to nature” (V, 266). Peter constructs Ladner as the romantic hermit or recluse who lives a life of contemplation in nature. This version is immediately canceled by Bea's comment and own vision of Ladner: “Much of this was untrue or only partly true, as Bea discovered” (V, 266). Bea's version of Ladner is another layer meant to give shape to Ladner, but it is constantly highlighted as being biased and only one of several versions. Remembering her second encounter with Ladner, Bea remembers thinking that Ladner was perhaps not so mysterious after all, and concludes: “The layers of information” (V, 273). This sentence highlights once more the layers that envelop Ladner. This layering is similar to Munro's narrative art, which superimposes levels upon levels of possible worlds, stories, interpretations, as in a palimpsest. The process has often been pointed out by critics such as Beverley Rasporitch or Ajay Heble who considers her writing as a “paradigmatic discourse” (Heble 5).

12The close connection between Ladner and the animals also acts as an element that gives flesh to Ladner, that makes him physically present. Firstly, animals, whether dead or alive, are powerful visual presences that lend Ladner a corporeal presence, through the uses of comparisons and metaphors. Lucile Desblache has explored the literary potential of animals and explains:

Il est aisé de comprendre combien l'essence spontanée et visuelle d'un animal, combien les rapports intenses entre être humain et non-humain […] peuvent encourager l'expression d'émotions, projeter des visions inconscientes ou des pensées irrationnelles, renvoyer au mythe imprécis d'une humanité aux traits humains originaux indifférenciés de ceux des animaux. (Desblache 31)

13It is the visual that is triggered through the use of the analogies with animals, linking human and non-human. Not only do animals add another layer of the mysteries constitutive of Ladner but they also enhance his visual presence. Animals in “Vandals” reinscribe the corporeal within the scriptural even more so that the reader pays particular attention to skin in this story and sees it as a texture constitutive of the text. Human skin is indeed described and connected to other realms. Ladner's face was wounded during the war and the scar is said to resemble a “metallic-looking patch of skin” (Munro 270) thus associating the man to a machine. Bea's skin is scrutinized by Liza: “She was prey to little pouches and sags, dents and ripples in the skin or flesh, sunbursts of tiny purplish veins, faint discolorations in the hollows” (V, 287). The description provides minute details of the skin insisting on its variable texture. The reference to colours (or the lack of it) mirrors the work done on dead animals. The reader is told that Bea learnt “how to color lips and eyelids and the ends of noses” (V, 274) of dead animals. A realistic representation therefore includes not only a work on textures but on colours. Even the bark of the tree onto which letters are inscribed becomes a “gray skin” with “blotches” (V, 294). Corinne Bigot sees the letters on the tree as a scar that bears the memory of the rape (Bigot 129), Bea's skin tells the tale of aging and the animal skins are seen as undergoing a transformation through taxidermy. Humans, animals, machines and vegetables share a common ground through the connection of the skin and are given a corporeal presence which is then transformed into a text. Arranged by the taxidermist, they can tell different stories but they all tell narratives of longing (Paquelin). “Taxidermy is narrative art” (Dawson 69) and the animals' skin is its text.

14Furthermore, the use of comparisons in an attempt at characterising Ladner allows him to gain materiality. Comparisons, as opposed to metaphors, show in discourse the tool that creates a resemblance between two objects: “[la comparaison] porte au discours la resemblance elle-même, montrant ainsi du doigt la raison de la métaphore” (Ricoeur 222). As Antoine Traisnel has shown in his study of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, comparisons traditionally remain on the surface of the text because they cannot depart from the tool they use to show a similarity between two objects. Comparisons therefore go against transcendence and are privileged tools for incarnate or embodied writing (Traisnel 46-7).

15The desire behind storytelling, in Munro's fiction, is shown to be a desire for order, for making sense of something, for attaching coherent meaning to something that seems chaotic. Yet most stories conclude on the inability of storytelling to provide a sense of wholeness. Howells declared: “This effort to arrange reality into patterns which gesture provocatively towards hidden connections while at the same time recognizing the falsity of any fictional construction is what animates Munro's storytelling efforts” (Howells 53). This same desire is present for Ladner who is constructing a narrative through his open-air diorama. His near obsession towards labelling animals, trees and plants betrays a desire to control nature through the act of naming. Munro presents Ladner's longing to give meaning and impose a narrative as a form of violence–therefore laying stress on the potential violence of art.

The violence of art

16The stuffed animals are visual reminders of Ladner's violence against nature. Firstly, they bring to mind the hunting and killing of animals necessary to taxidermy. Secondly the specific arrangement of the animals and their breeds testify to a wish to impose a narrative on nature. The description of the forest, seen through Bea's eyes during her first visit, is a long list of the various animals that the visitor can encounter: from the royal eagle to the bear, these animals are all native of the Canadian forests and have even become emblematic of Canada, like the beavers presented in the action of building a dam. Ladner has created a Canadian “garden of Eden” meant to hide another type of violence: the rape of the children (Dawson 76; Ventura 311). Ladner is therefore positioned as an early settler (Ladner's British nationality reinforces the parallel) setting foot on a pristine Canadian land. His work on the land in order to transform the swamp into a diorama is very similar to the domestication of the bush when colonizers arrived in Canada (Ventura 310). Besides the beaver is a direct connection with Canada's colonizing past because it is as a response to the European demand in beaver fur that generated the creation of the Hudson's Bay Company. Like the early British settlers, Ladner benefits financially from his exploitation of nature.

17The paedophile is further inscribed in a history of violent invasions. Before immigrating to Canada, Ladner was a soldier during the Second World War. Bea also discovers that he is not a pacifist but supports the Vietnam War. Besides when Bea scans through the books on Ladner's bookshelves during her first visit, the reader can notice the prevalence of war narratives:

There were books in the house–a small section of books on taxidermy, the others mostly in sets. The History of the Second World War. The History of Science. The History of Philosophy. The History of Civilization. The Peninsular War. The Peloponnesian Wars. The French and Indian Wars. (V, 273)

18Even the books that do not deal with wars are historical narratives which underline the importance for Ladner to collect knowledge. The very concept of “Civilization” even evokes the justification of colonisation. Moreover, the book that catches Bea's attention, The French and Indian Wars, repeated at the end of the paragraph, sheds light on Ladner's fascination with the violent invasion of the land. It is no coincidence that the title of the story which recapitulates his life should indirectly refer to a Barbaric people, the Vandals, known for their extensive invasion and the thrashing of towns and villages they seized. Munro creates a filiation between Ladner and historical warriors so that his present violence against nature and the children resonates with other conflicts from the past and takes a larger significance.

19Ladner's imposition of a fixed form on the animals and the arrangement of his diorama are therefore seen as a violent act inherent to taxidermy. Héliane Ventura has argued that Liza is also a figure of the artist and that her thrashing of the cabin is similar to action painting. She observes that Liza's art is a gesture which brings about her liberation from Ladner's enterprise of colonisation or imposition on nature: “[Munro's protagonists] simultaneously assert the predatory nature of art and its liberating function” (Ventura 319). As I have attempted to show that taxidermy is a mise en abyme of the process of writing for Munro, in particular the process that allows her to give material density to her characters, it is important to qualify this claim because Munro also shows the failure of the act of writing if a single truth or interpretation is imposed upon the many-faceted complexity of existence. Thus, taxidermy is the mise en abyme of writing and of its potential violence.

20The use of animals in “Vandals” enables the reader to understand better who the character of Ladner is as if the understanding of who a human being is necessitated the recourse to animal simile. As Dawson said, the bestiality within Ladner is not meant to show him as non-human because he is a paedophile, rather, I argue that the animal comparisons (which are by the way not exclusive to Ladner) serve to highlight the uncanny within Ladner. Both stuffed animals and Ladner belong to the abject. Besides the animals allow Ladner to gain a physical presence within the story. Finally, they tell a metafictional story about the technique behind Munro's realism. Like Munro's writing, these animals are meant to reproduce reality (“[s]tuffed and lifelike” [V, 271]), surfaces being of the utmost importance in this gesture to realism, but there is always something that shows that this is not quite reality, just like the bird's glass eye. The stuffed animals also point out the violence underlying one's desire to reproduce what one considers to be reality and truth.

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Bibliography

Bigot, Corinne, Alice Munro : les silences de la nouvelle, Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2014.

Cox, Ailsa, Alice Munro, Tavistock: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 2004.

DAWSON, Carrie, “Skinned: Taxidermy and Pedophilia in Alice Munro's 'Vandals'”, Canadian Literature 184 (Spring 2005), 69-83.

Desblache, Lucile, La Plume des bêtes: Les Animaux dans le roman, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2011.

Foy, Nathalie, “'Darkness Collecting': Reading 'Vandals' as a Coda to Open Secrets”, Essays on Canadian Writing 66 (1998), 147-68.

Heble, Ajay, The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Howells, Coral Ann, Alice Munro, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Munro, Alice, “Vandals”, Open Secrets, London: Vintage, 1995, 261-294.

Poliquin, Rachel, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.

Rasporich, Beverly, Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990.

Ricoeur, Paul, La Métaphore vive, Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Ventura, Héliane, “Aesthetic Traces of the Ephemeral: Alice Munro's Logograms in 'Vandals'”, Tropes and Territories, Marta Dvorak and N.H. New eds, Montreal: Mc-Gill University Press, 2007, 309-322.

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Notes

1 In the quotations from Alice Munro’s "Vandals," the story will be hereafter referred to as V.

2 "A bird’s body could be all of one piece, carved of wood, but an animal’s larger body was a wonderful construction of wires […]" ( V, 286).

3 Ladner is not only compared and assimilated to animals in the story but also to machines. For example his wound on his cheek is said to be a "metallic-looking patch of skin" (V, 270).

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References

Bibliographical reference

Lucile Bentley, « “A body in which nothing was real”: Taxidermy and Fiction in “Vandals” by Alice Munro », Caliban, 57 | 2017, 47-56.

Electronic reference

Lucile Bentley, « “A body in which nothing was real”: Taxidermy and Fiction in “Vandals” by Alice Munro », Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 11 June 2019, connection on 24 November 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/2673 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.2673

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About the author

Lucile Bentley

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, CAS

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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