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3 - Of He-Dogs and She-Dogs

Barking (with) dogs: the Grammar System of Transitivity in Munro’s “Save the Reaper” and “Floating Bridge”

Sabrina Francesconi
p. 69-84


Cet article propose une analyse linguistique de deux nouvelles-phares de la période de maturité dans l’œuvre d’Alice Munro “Save the Reaper” (1998) et “Floating Bridge” (2000). Il s’agit de mettre en lumière, à travers leur positionnement grammatical, l’importance que revêtent les allusions aux animaux et en particulier les chiens dans ces deux nouvelles pour souligner la solidarité entre la représentation des femmes et des animaux et leur commune victimisation.

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  • 1 The quotations from Alice Munro’s stories, “Save the Reaper” and “Floating Bridge,” will be hereaft (...)

1From imaginary horses to dead turtles, from corn bugs to tropical birds, polymorphic and polysemous references to animals pervade the pages of “Save the Reaper.”1 Annoying mosquitoes accompany the everyday life of the main characters—Eve, her grandchildren Philip and Daisy, and her daughter Sophie—during their summer holidays on the shores of Lake Huron. Even the realm of Eve’s childhood reminiscences is inhabited by “tropical-coloured birds” and “a fat horse with dinky legs and burning red eyes” (SR, 163), depicted on the “whitewashed outdoor wall” (SR, 163) the woman decides to look for during her countryside exploration. A further zoomorphic memory fragment the actress retrieves from her past is a “shrub cut to resemble a bear” (SR, 163). Animals, then, permeate the text, as in the case of “Blackbird”, the name of the expensive “ungraded alternative school” (SR, 154) Sophie had attended as a child. Notably, two verbs are borrowed from the animal world to depict the children’s behaviour: Philip “trot[s] along” (SR, 170), while following his grandmother out of the isolated house (“like the most tractable little boy in the world” (SR,170)), and Daisy “squealed with fright and pleasure” (SR, 167), upon seeing three dogs.

2In the short story “Floating Bridge,” the elusive character of Helen is repeatedly compared to animals: her look being described as “fresh-out-of-the-egg” (FB, 62), her expression being reminiscent of “a calf’s or a deer’s” (FB, 62), her presence, observed while in Neal’s van, referred to as “that of a domestic cat that should never be brought along in any vehicle” (FB, 67). The third-person-narrator even adopts a zoomorphic simile to depict Jinny’s brownish-gray hair, affected by chemotherapy, “like mouse fur” (FB, 56). Not only does she use animals to describe her characters, but also to make her setting vivid and vibrant. While Neal is driving around the town, and waiting for Helen to give him the right direction, Jinny perceives “a dog […] nosing around under a table” (FB, 66). Towards the end of the story, night-feeding animals, birds, bats and frogs populate the enchanted and uncanny Borneo swamp, where Ricky leads Jinny, before kissing her. Characters, in turn, become narrators, to share with Jinny their animal-based stories. The first by Ricky, on the scared porcupine “sitting in the middle of the road” (FB, 82), the second by Matt: a double entendre, on a nice horse, a nice fat duck and a pussy. All the animal references express a range of human-animal relations, from observation or reminiscence, to identification, through resemblance.

3Within the multifarious and multifaceted zoopoetics, a prominent role in both stories seems to be played by dogs—Trixie in “Save the Reaper,” and Goober, Sally, and Pinto in “Floating Bridge.” The intra-story relevance is confirmed and expanded at the inter-story level: the textual and linguistic weaving of the dogs’ characters showcases multiple mutual resonances across the two stories. The aim of this paper is, hence, to analyse modes and forms of cross-representation of the dogs in “Save the Reaper” and “Floating Bridge.” Ultimately, it seeks to show how both stories outline a wide range of human-dog relations, which develop throughout the narrative, affecting both animals and humans, and changing from neglect to alliance (Deleuze).

4The first stage of both stories is illustrated in Cape Cod Evening (1939), a painting by Edward Hopper, the widely acclaimed visual artist admired by Alice Munro (York). The setting is rural Cape Town in Massachusetts, the place where the American painter had built a summer holiday house and which is used in the painting to explore and represent the tension between nature and civilization. The upper section features a house, to the right, and some trees, to the left. In front of the building, a middle-aged man and woman look pale, sad, self-absorbed: their gaze is empty and directed downwards. Presumably a couple, they look, yet, mutually distant. Natural sunlight is diffused, soft, cold, and uncut grass is blowing in the wind. Against this melancholy backdrop, the most salient element in the picture is a dog, centred, beautiful, his gaze projected outside the depicted space. If the couple seems to be alienated in this rural landscape, the dog looks extremely integrated. Unlike the empty and self-projected gaze of the couple, the gaze of the dog is full, active, alert, dynamic.

5Through the subtle use of visual resources, Cape Cod Evening reveals profound psychological implicatures. Rather than “companion species” (Haraway), viewers notice the dog-human divide, the absence of mutual recognition. Through an inter-semiotic shift, I plan to map the verbal expression of this stage in the short stories, as well as its subsequent development into a different stage of dog-human alliance. In order to do so, the paper adopts functional stylistic analysis (Canning) and foregrounds the grammar system of transitivity, as next section clarifies.


6For the examination of meaning-making verbal patterns, I will use the tools of systemic functional linguistics (SFL). In contrast to generative approaches to language, Michael Halliday (1978, 1985) conceptualized and described language as used in everyday social interaction for specific functions. Since the various social functions determine linguistic choices and grammatical structure, language is conceived as a system, where content and expression are integrated. In SFL, the main semiotic unit is the clause, the rank at which we start talking about how things exist and happen, how people think, feel, and interact in certain circumstances (Thompson). Considering the clause as the prominent rank, namely the basic semiotic unit in the language system, this paper seeks to unpack nominal and verbal groups within clauses.

7After observing word classes, I shall look more in depth at the grammar system of transitivity, whereby language patterns are addressed as expressing content, therefore as representing the environment. Transitivity covers the behaviour of different types of process and participant roles, configured as linguistic structures. It can have three elements: 1. the process itself, expressed by a verb, 2. the participants in the process (persons, things or abstract entities), represented by a nominal group, and 3. the circumstances (of location, extent, manner, cause, accompaniment, matter, role) evidenced through an adverbial group or prepositional phrase. The following sentence, for instance, deploys the three elements:

Sophie’s children, Philip and Daisy, were sitting in the backseat (SR, 146).

8Specifically, “Sophie’s children, Philip and Daisy” are human participants, “were sitting” is the process, and “in the backseat” is the circumstance of location in space. I will interpret data obtained from language analysis as to how they shape Munro’s zoopoetics, within the narrated events, and within the narrative process.

9As suggested above, this paper adopts a bottom-up approach, and carries out a close inspection of the language of the short stories. This personal encounter with the text seems to be consistent with the author’s own method and style. Munro, in fact, pays attention to every structural pattern, narrative detail, and linguistic item. She uniquely captures and depicts the smallest, almost unnoticed, apparently peripheral and insignificant detail: writings on a three-sided bus shelter, a bear-resembling shrub, a baby’s stroller whose seat had been chewed by some dogs. If she were a director, the 2013 Nobel-winner would privilege the close-up, rather than the panoramic shot. Among the range of verbal items and patterns, I will be looking, in particular, at the behaviour of the system of transitivity. This system, indeed, reveals strategies of inclusion/exclusion of dogs as participants; as well as forms of representation, in the observation of processes describing what the animals do or how they are acted upon.

10To sum up, SFL provides a valid framework for the inspection of Munro’s work, which can then be conceptualized as an interconnected system of stories, where individual characters, narrative patterns, short stories have their own distinct and irreducible identity, but which can be more profoundly understood in their mutual formal, semantic, and aesthetic relations. Over her fourteen collections, Munro anticipates, retrieves, develops, and varies her themes. Hence, the entire oeuvre may be appreciated as a unique symphony, where a slow movement modulates themes and variations. Paying attention to every musical note and pattern, listeners can perceive and recognize the echoes of previous stories in every new piece (Francesconi 35).

“Save the Reaper” and “Floating Bridge”

  • 2 No need to stress the relevance of the trope of secrets in Munro’s aesthetics, as demonstrated by t (...)

11Both SR and FB were first published in The New Yorker, the former in June 1996, the latter in July 2000. Subsequently, they have appeared in short-story collections, SR in The Love of a Good Woman (1998), and FB in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), widely acknowledged as the works of maturity, the highest expression of Munro’s oeuvre. They have a similar length, the former being 34-pages long, and the latter 30-pages long, in the Vintage editions. Alongside a third-person extradiegetic narrator, SR and FB feature a woman as protagonist and focaliser, Eve and Jinny, respectively. Jinny is a 42-year old woman, who is undergoing chemotherapy; Eve is older, a grandmother, and an actress. Both women suffer from a tension in their family relations: Eve with her daughter, Sophie; Jinny with her husband, Neal. Both situations imply an antagonist, not totally but partially responsible for the tension: Ian and Helen. Ian is Sophie’s husband, whereas Helen is the girl who is about to help Jinny and Neal at home. The stories’ conclusions neglect the tension and offer a turn, whereby the two protagonists manage to establish an unexpected, yet intimate and empathetic connection: Eve with her seven-year-old grandson Philip, Jinny with the just-met young waiter Ricky. In SR, this resolution is manifested through the silence Philip keeps about the dangerous adventure; in FB it is marked through a kiss Ricky gives Jinny on the floating bridge itself.2 Both secret-sharing and kiss-receiving mean comforting complicity to Eve and Jinny, as well as crucial narrative turns in the two stories. Yet, Munro’s readers know that echoes across Munro’s pages may be perceived below the surface, where seemingly minor details and patterns resonate. Among these are the characters of the dogs, both Eve and Jinny meet when they reach the isolated and desolate, yet symbolically and semiotically dense, houses in the countryside.

Analysis and discussion

12Quite interestingly, dogs are present in two out of the ten sections both SR and FB are divided into. Yet, differences may be envisaged at the level of dispositio. SR introduces Trixie in the very opening scene, when Philip notices her “riding in the open back of the truck, running back and forth from one side to the other” (SR, 148) and in the penultimate, extended, and main scene of the story, when Eve, little Daisy and Philip reach the big, “yellowish-gray-brick” (SR, 164) house. Conversely, Goober, Sally and Pinto enter the narrative setting in its 6th and 8th sections, set outside Matt and June Berson’s trailer-house and next to the cornfield, therefore in a more central and compact narrative short-story area. This difference may be related to distinct temporal and diegetic organization: SR features a concentric structure, with past time being deployed in central sections (3-5), and present time events unfolding in the external circles (1, 2, 6-9), whereas FB features a relatively linear and progressive temporal trajectory. Consistently with the different structure and development of the stories, dogs appear in the most relevant sections of both texts.

13The dogs’ appearance within the narrative is strictly related to the naming question. In SR, the name of the dog, Trixie, is revealed after Philip’s direct question: “”What’s its name?“ said Philip. ”Trixie“” (SR, 166). Unsurprisingly, Philip’s concern with language pervades the narrative, from the very beginning, where he invents a specialised terminology for the aliens’ game he plays with his grandmother. In FB, on the contrary, dogs’ names are introduced more slowly and obliquely, and through the protagonist’s viewpoint. At first, Jinny cannot hear anything but indistinct noises, whereas, later, the sound becomes clear. Besides the thematised longing for the dogs’ names, the three lexical items are foregrounded through unusual organisation and presentation, using spacing, new line, and in-between full stops:

This time when he called the dogs to come after him Jinny could make out their names. Goober. Sally. Pinto (SR, 71).

14Via the devious use of graphical strategies, the narrator draws the readers’ attention to the animals; asks them to acknowledge the presence and role of the dogs; highlights their names; and celebrates their uniqueness. Albeit differently, both stories then foreground the dogs’ names, on the levels of content and of expression.

15When dogs are not overtly named, they are indirectly mentioned throughout the narratives, with personal pronouns and possessive adjectives. In referring to Goober, Sally, and Pinto, FB is grammatically unproblematic, as it adopts plural forms. SR deserves more attention: Philip uses the pronoun ‘it’ to refer to Trixie, in spite of being recurrently told that Trixie is a female dog:

“Is your dog friendly?” he said in a challenging way. “She won’t hurt you,” the man said. “Long as I am here, she’s okay. She gets in a tear because she’s no more than a pup. She’s still no more than a pup.”
“What’s its name?” said Philip.
“Trixie,” the man said, and on hearing her name the dog jumped up and bumped his arm. He swatted her down. (SR, 166).

16Alongside physical violence we start acknowledging in the last clause, the excerpt suggests that the young character has a neutral perception of the animal, legitimised by grammar correctness (Halliday: 2014, 248). The child’s approach may be linked to his cautious and suspicious attitude at the beginning of the story: he relies on language accuracy to establish some reassuring distance with the unknown.

17Within nominal groups and in both stories, reference is to the “pup”, configured either as a noun or as an adjective, in the lexeme “puppylike”. In FB, the first encounter with the dogs is described as follows: “A couple of dogs came barking down the short drive. One was large and black and one small and tan-coloured, puppylike” (FB, 68-69). The focaliser is Jinny and the adjective “puppylike” gains end-focus. Interestingly in SR, when Trixie is presented as non-dangerous, the man repeats “no more than a,” in two clauses, divided by a full stop: “She gets in a tear because she’s not no more than a pup. She’s still not no more than a pup” (SR, 166). The anaphoric structure minimises the dog, an effect, which is elsewhere (and in both stories) achieved through the use of the adverb ‘just’, meaning “simply; only; no more than” (OED). In order to reassure Philip, Eve says: “That dog’s just a yapper,” meaning that the dog only wants to yap, without attacking her. Since this clause is positioned at the beginning of the scene, it is semiotically relevant. This is also reminiscent of a passage in FB: “You don’t need to bother about any of them but Pinto,” she said. “Them other two just cowards” (FB, 69). Unsurprisingly, one of the two “cowards” has been named Goover, a personal noun very close to the derogatory lexeme “goober”, meaning imbecile.

18As the adverb “just” is used within dialogues to minimise the semantics expressed by the identifying process “is”, the verbal group and, specifically, the absence of the passive voice in the framing of human-animal relations should be observed (passive voice being identified by Kies (1992) as the predominant in the suppression of agency performed by Orwell’s dystopian 1984). The only occurrence is from FB and refers to when Jinny enters the cornfield: “The dogs thank God must have been taken inside” (73). The agentive by-phrase expressing the initiator of the activity manifested by the verb, is absent, and the dogs operate in this clause as patients. What matters is not the action performer, but the result of the action itself. A free indirect thought, the unit articulates Jinny’s relief in not seeing the animals, conveyed by the “thank God” exclamation and connoted as spontaneous and uncontrolled by the absence of punctuation marks. This sole solution may be related to the “it” pronoun adopted by Philip. Both patterns express Jinny and Philip’s initial encounters with the animals, their anxiety and attempts to establish some reassuring distance, either within direct speech or within free indirect thought. Overall in the texts, however, Munro seems to reject syntactic strategies for the undercutting of dogs’ agency for which the narrator is responsible, like passive forms. To encode and denounce patterns of marginalization of and violence against animals, the narrator privileges lexical levels and dialogues, wherein her characters (and not the narrator herself) hold responsibility.

  • 3 Boundary markers for text annotation: || clause; ||| clause complex; [[]] embedded clause.

19In order to check the validity of this hypothesis, a closer look may be cast at clause composition and functioning in terms of transitivity, the grammar system concerned with environment representation through participants, processes and circumstances (the latter will not be addressed here). Overall, dogs are present as participants in 46 clauses in SR and in 31 in FB. Of these, 36 dog-as-subject clauses (daS) and 10 dog-as-object clauses (daO) operate in SR, as the following underlined instances exemplify3:


||| “Trixie,” the man said, || and on hearing her name || the dog jumped up || and bumped his arm ||| (SR, 166).


||| At the same time Trixie rushed forward, || and another man’s voice said, || “Fuck. Get that dog out of here” ||| (SR, 168).

20In FB, 18 clauses configure dogs as subject and 13 clauses posit them as object, as exemplified in the following underlined excerpts:


||| They bumbled around at the wheels || and Neal sounded the horn ||| (FB, 69).


||| Then a door opened, || she heard [[the dogs barking]] [[and Matt yelling]] || and the door slammed shut ||| (FB, 75).

21The occurrence of dog-related clauses in the two stories is illustrated in Table 1, as well as dog-as-subject and dog-as-object distribution:

Table 1: Dog-related clauses and subject-object distribution

Save the Reaper

Floating Bridge

Dog as participant

46 (100%)

31 (100%)

Dog as subject



Dog as object



22As the table shows, subject positioning is privileged in both stories, which is again a strategy of narrative foregrounding (echoing the animal’s placement in Hopper’s painting). Yet, such device in the stories is far from homogeneous, and shows significant differences in terms of both content and expression, in its form and function. Hence, next section will observe processes in clauses featuring dogs as subjects.

23Within dog-as-subject clauses, verbs indicating “states of being” and verbs indicating “actions” can be detected. In SFL, states of being are expressed through either attributive or identifying processes: an attributive clause is about characterising, while an identifying one is about defining (Halliday 2014, 263). Three times are dogs associated with processes of attribution in both stories, as in the following instances:

||| “Is your dog friendly?” || he said in a challenging way ||| (SR, 166).
||| “She won’t hurt you, […] she’s okay” ||| (SR, 166).
||| They had not come over to bother her || when she got out ||—they were used to her now ||| (FB, 77).

24Operating within a dialogue in the first two examples and as the object of Jinny’s viewpoint in the third one, attributive processes seem to characterise the animals not in themselves, but only in relation to human beings. If, grammatically, this is unsurprising, since attributive clauses are defined in SFL as “relational” units, this seems to diminish the dogs’ individuality. What is at stake within these dialogues is not a relationship between “companion species” (Haraway), but a subordinated existence at the service of, to the benefit of humans. Something different, yet, occurs at the narrative level, thus confirming the previously anticipated narrator/character divide. Across the story, indeed, the dogs grow, and change their attitude towards unknown beings and situations, as the human characters of Philip and Jinny do, in SR and FB, respectively. Yet, neither humans nor animals change their identity and become something else: they actually become themselves (Deleuze).

25Dogs are configured, in identifying processes, six times in SR, and once in FB. Instances show that such processes—used within dialogues, thus expressing characters’ views—regularly minimise the animals, as already noticed.

||| “That dog’s just a yapper, || he won’t hurt me ||| (SR, 165).
||| She gets in a tear || because she’s not no more than a pup ||| (SR, 166).
||| “You don’t need to bother about any of them but Pinto,” || she said. || “Them other two just cowards” ||| (FB, 69).

26Overall, a significant number of dog-as-subject clauses configure behavioural processes, in SFL expressing bodily postures and expressions, that is, physiological processes (Halliday: 2014, 301). Behavioural processes feature eight occurrences in FB and ten occurrences in SR:

||| The little man stood there with both arms waving || and Trixie was wagging her tail, || roused from her scared docility sufficiently || to bark farewell || and chase them partway down the lane ||| (SR, 171).
||| One of the dogs barked halfheartedly, || to say that somebody was coming, || but [[it was somebody]] they knew ||| (FB, 77).

27Both instances show that behavioural processes are consciously performed by the animals, with a communication purpose: “to bark farewell” in the first case, and “to say that somebody was coming” in the second. The dogs follow a communication code, and use their bodies to communicate with human beings, by establishing an alliance.

28A similarly high number of occurrences can be observed as regards material processes: fifteen in SR and five in FB. The distinction between material and behavioural processes is blurred, as Halliday himself claims (2014, 301). In order to check the textual deconstruction of the traditional homogenising representation of dogs, the distinction has been stressed here between dog-bodily actions, such as, ‘bark’, ‘sniff’, ‘wag the tail’, ‘bumple’, and actions, such as, ‘run’, ‘rush’, ‘come’, which can be performed by other living beings. The former ones have been considered behavioural processes, whereas the latter ones are regarded as material processes. Interestingly for material processes, SR configures the character of Trixie by resorting to verbs mainly pertaining to the lexical field of movement, whereas FB narrative operates within a lexical field of sound.

||| For there was a dog [[riding in the open back of the truck ]], [[running back and forth ]] (SR, 148).
||| Trixie appeared from somewhere || and walked around the car in a disconsolate way || (SR, 171).
||| The threats and names [[he called]] were not intelligible to Jinny, || but the dogs quieted down ||| (FB, 69).
||| One of the dogs barked halfheartedly, || to say that somebody was coming, || but it was somebody they knew ||| (FB, 77).

29The canine community is thus depicted and celebrated as plural, diverse and irreducible. The following table sums up process distribution in the two stories, within dog-as-subject clauses:

Table 2: Processes’ distribution in dog-as-subject clauses


Save the Reaper

Floating Bridge

















36 (100%)

18 (100%)

30To sum up this section devoted to the level of transitivity in dog-as-subject clauses, dogs are described as different and act differently. Through material processes, they are mutually differentiated; through behavioural processes, they are celebrated in their communication impulse. Moreover, animals develop across the narrative and very often are reminiscent of human beings. It seems that Munro aims to question the traditional human-animal divide: “suggest[ing] a closeness between the living species, she reminds us of the lost intimacy between animals and human beings, of the solidarity of their common destiny” (Ventura 161).

31When dogs are treated as objects, they operate in the text mainly within verbal, mental and material clauses. Absent in SR, verbal clauses (expressing saying and communicating) occur significantly in FB, as in: “Helen called to them to shut up, to lay down, to piss off” (FB, 69). As the instance epitomises, verbal communication with the animals establishes, in FB, a vertical tenor and is performed either to give orders or to insult. Present in both stories, albeit not frequently, mental clauses featuring dogs as objects express “perception,” “cognition” and “desideration” (Thompson 94), as in “she heard [[the dogs barking]],” actually two clauses unbound in time, being composed of a non-finite embedded clause with the present participle. The subject and focaliser is Jinny, and the three dogs are the object of her perceptive verb “hear”.

32Notably, SR extensively and frequently posits dogs as objects in material clauses and carries out a discourse of physical violence:

||| Trixie whined in pain ||–somebody had kicked her ||| (SR, 168).
||| The fourth man had got up || to kick the dog ||| (SR, 168).
||| The little man hauled Trixie out from under the table || and threw her into the outer room ||| (SR, 168).

33Central, pivotal and pervasive, the theme of violence is expressed through three syntactic solutions, offering yet other examples of Munro’s typical patterning of (theme) repetition and (formal) discontinuity. In the first, the narrator adopts the daS-daO shift in the sentence, which carries multiple implicatures. From the viewpoint of content, an effect-cause reversal is constructed: violence, as cause, is emphasised by the attention-drawing dash (Bigot 19) and the potentially universal agent is highlighted by the “somebody” pronoun. From the viewpoint of style, Trixie is the opening and closing item in this sentence, thus gaining opening- and end focus. In the second, the violent action is expressed within the final clause, in order to denounce voluntary violence: the human participant in the head gets up with the explicit aim of kicking the dog. In the third, the syndetic coordinating conjunction “and” (Blin 95) is used with a seemingly additive value but with an implicit temporal function (meaning ‘and then’). Analysed by Blin as a devious use of coordination in Munro, this strategy also reflects a conversational feature (Pillière), representing the everyday practice of violence. In short, the three instances articulate gratuitous, voluntary, and reiterative violence, which pervades processes throughout the clauses. Following Haraway’s feminist criticism of animal representation, the violence unleashed against Trixie may be read as a vicarious way of showing the abuse performed against the prostitute, against the “bitch”. In this vein, the dog and the prostitute are associated as sharing a common destiny, as victims of violence. The following table sums up process distribution in the two stories, within dog-as-object clauses:

Table 3: Processes’ distribution in dog-as-object clauses


Save the Reaper

Floating Bridge














10 (100%)

13 (100%)

34This section devoted to transitivity in dog-as-object clauses shows that dogs are positioned as the target of either physical or verbal violence, and configured as victims of human abuse.

35To sum up, a first reading of the two stories suggests striking similarities in the representation of dogs, whereas divergences emerge at a more profound reading. The brief and partial analysis has shown that apparently similar patterns within the two short stories are actually configured in a significantly different way, on the lexical, syntactic and textual levels. If dogs are present in the same number of sections (2 out of 10), section distribution within the stories is different, revealing a relatively peripheral placement in SR and a more central and compact positioning in FB. As for noun-related aspects, both stories foreground dogs’ names: directly in the former, obliquely in the latter. The use of personal pronouns, possessive adjectives, defining terms, instead, articulates in the human characters a negative perception of and attitude towards animals. Indeed, the bird’s eye gaze over the narrative and linguistic strategies adopted for the representation of dogs suggests a divide between narrator’s and characters’ attitude and approach to animals, which may reflect what Ingold perceives as a gap between “domination” and “trust”. The close inspection of transitivity has been used to check this hypothesis.

36Within dialogues, dogs are perceived and defined through the characters’ viewpoint: processes of identification in SR, specifically, encode understatement and processes of attribution only define animals in relation to humans. This is consistent with observations about nominal patterns. In this vein, as objects in the clauses, dogs seem to be systematically victims of physical and verbal violence perpetrated by human beings operating as subjects in the clauses. Specifically, verbal processes encode tenor as unequal power in FB, and material processes express physical abuse in SR. The latter is articulated through a wide range of processes, such as “kick,” “throw,” “swat,” while verbal aggression is expressed via processes, such as, “shut up,” “lay down,” “piss off”. The semantic field of violence, indeed, pervades the dog-centred scenes, revealed through thematic patterns of marginalisation, insult, and abuse: gratuitous, deliberate, and reiterated physical violence seems the real, recurring theme in these sections.

37The narrator’s attitude towards animals, instead, is revealed through subject-object positioning. Dogs predominantly operate as subject in both stories, albeit more frequently in SR than in FB, and with an enhancing function. When functioning as subjects, perceived either by the narrator or by the focaliser, dogs seem to be celebrated as unique living beings, as acting and moving differently, as experiencing emotions, feelings, anxieties, as communicating among themselves and with human beings. The two stories, moreover, encode their actions differently: material or behavioural processes in SR are mainly associated with the semantic field of movement, in FB with the semantic field of sound. Interestingly, the narrators seem to revolve around the same semantic field to subvert violence perpetrated upon animals (as objects) and to celebrate their distinctive identity (as subjects): the victim of physical violence, Trixie, is mainly characterised by physical energy; the victims of shouted insults, Goover, Sally, Pinto, are mainly depicted while proudly barking.


38Text analysis has demonstrated that Munro’s zoopoetics is pivotal and pervasive within her system of stories. The fact that the Canadian author recurrently deals with the same topic means that it matters to her: she foregrounds the importance of animals and she denounces violence against animals/women. The representation of dogs is, however, profound and layered, as verbal strategies negotiate the narrator and the characters’ attitudes and approach through different textual and diegetic strata, from the narrative surface till deeper layers, inhabited by minor, generally neglected and almost unnoticed patterns, details and items. The stories, indeed, invite the reader to dig into the layered nature of writings, of names, of language, and overcome rigid limits, borders, and categories. Ultimately, Munro’s zoopoetics is dynamic and fluid. Throughout the pages and the stories, it unfolds and develops patterns of continuity and discontinuity, of congruity and dissonance. Narrating the growing awareness of some characters alongside the hopeless, static indifference of others, zoopoetics weaves a polysemic, polymorphic and polyphonic narrative space.

39The rejected frozen approach to animals is epitomised, at the beginning of both stories, by Philip in SR and by Jinny in FB. Seven-year-old Philip is the only one in Ontario who knows, and proudly keeps to himself, the secret about the aliens’ game code. Meanwhile, Jinny is often captured while reading self-referential messages written on a bus shelter, on a van, on a bench. Both are reminiscent of Hopper’s self-absorbed couple. Yet, among the specialized terminology Philip himself had invented, there is the term “translated,” adopted to express the aliens’ appropriation of human and animal bodies. Through the inclusive and fluid connotation carried by the term, Philip acknowledges the dog on the truck as part of the community of “translated” aliens to be identified. The trigger, for Jinny, is instead the double entendre told by Matt, on the nice horse, nice fat duck, and pussy. Apparently a provocative and sterile nonsense piece, the story brings to the surface the doctor’s words, and forces the woman to acknowledge them. In the end, Philip welcomes Eve’s story, in the filtered and purified version offered to his parents, Sophie and Ian: he learns complicity, he learns to share secrets, rather than keeping them for himself. And Jinny hears, smells, tastes, sees the word “tannin,” offered by Ricky, the one who knows and loves the dogs, and who: “sounded the word proudly as if he’d hauled it up out of the dark” (FB, 83). (Trotting) Philip learns the name of the dog, of that Trixie, who holds the name of a horse bet, and Jinny understands the names of the dogs, of that Pinto, who carries the name of a horse. They have learned trust, they have learned alliance, they have acknowledged animality in themselves (Derrida), and are now ready to bark with the dogs.

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1 The quotations from Alice Munro’s stories, “Save the Reaper” and “Floating Bridge,” will be hereafter referred to as SR and FB.

2 No need to stress the relevance of the trope of secrets in Munro’s aesthetics, as demonstrated by the 2003 international congress entitled “Writing Secrets,” organised by Héliane Ventura at the University of Orléans.

3 Boundary markers for text annotation: || clause; ||| clause complex; [[]] embedded clause.

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Bibliographical reference

Sabrina Francesconi, “Barking (with) dogs: the Grammar System of Transitivity in Munro’s “Save the Reaper” and “Floating Bridge””Caliban, 57 | 2017, 69-84.

Electronic reference

Sabrina Francesconi, “Barking (with) dogs: the Grammar System of Transitivity in Munro’s “Save the Reaper” and “Floating Bridge””Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 24 May 2019, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sabrina Francesconi

University of Trento

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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