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“Fierce and Free, or Caged and Cowed”: Interspecies Oppression and Survival in Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport

Elisa Pesce


Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) explores the social, cultural, and environmental crises of the contemporary United States from the perspective of a white, middle-aged woman and mother of four. Her angst-ridden interior monologue is interrupted only by short sections of third-person prose that relate the story of a mountain lioness in search of her lost cubs. While the juxtaposition of these two narrative strands serves Ellmann’s explicit purpose of drawing a parallel between experiences of motherhood and denouncing the way capitalist and patriarchal societies have historically rested on the oppression of both women and nature, this paper argues that Ducks, Newburyport also advocates for a renewed commitment to harmonious interspecies coexistence through the story of the protagonist’s eldest daughter, Stacy. A moody and troubled teenager, Stacy single-handedly saves her family from a gun attack, following which the narrator thinks that her daughter’s courage was inspired by “some kind of rapport” (Ellmann 998) that she feels with the recently captured lioness. In light of the wild creature’s function of foil for both the narrator and Stacy (De Bruyn 274-79), I propose that Ellmann presents interspecies articulations as a harbinger of hope in a cultural context in which the girl is nevertheless constantly forced to navigate the tensions between the aspects of her connection to the animal world that make her fierce and free and those that work to keep her—and symbolically all women, minority groups, and nature—caged and cowed.

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1. Introduction

1Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) presents the thoughts and worries of a white, middle-aged home baker and mother of four through a 1,000-page interior monologue interrupted only by twenty-five short sections of third-person prose that relate the story of a mountain lioness. While the narrator spends most of her days in her kitchen, drowning in house chores, childcare responsibilities, and constant worries about the violence and hostility of the contemporary United States, the lioness boldly searches the area around her house in Newcomerstown, Ohio, looking initially for food and later for her cubs, kidnapped by a couple of do-gooders and delivered to the nearby Columbus Zoo. This paper looks beyond the parallel between experiences of motherhood drawn by the alternation of the human and animal narratives (see, for example, The Economist; Taylor; De Bruyn) to explore the significance of another interspecies connection evoked in the novel’s final lines that involves the lioness and the narrator’s eldest daughter, Stacy, a moody fifteen-year-old born from her first marriage to Frank, a Native American man. Contrary to her mother, who concludes that whether the rapport between Stacy and the lioness is “because she feels fierce and free, or caged and cowed, doesn’t bear thinking about” (Ellmann 998), I argue that the question deserves thorough consideration. In fact, whether Stacy’s connection with the animal world derives from a shared sense of freedom or captivity ultimately depends on the girl’s choices and reactions to the threats that similarly target her and the lioness, which are rooted in the interconnected forms of capitalist and patriarchal oppression underlying both violence against women and environmental destruction.

2Ellmann represents interspecies relations as having both positive and negative implications for Stacy, due to her gender and mixed ethnicity. Whereas the fact that the novel ends with the narrator planning to visit the zoo where the lioness is imprisoned seems to suggest that oppression will prevail, the woman believes that it is thanks to the lioness that Stacy has mustered the courage for saving her whole family from their armed neighbor, Ronny. Furthermore, a sense of optimism is eventually restored through Stacy’s young age, which allows the narrator to hope that her daughter will remain rebellious and become a strong and fulfilled individual. After some initial considerations on interspecies articulations and the function played by the lioness in relation to the human mother and daughter, I examine Stacy’s rapport with the wild creature by focusing, firstly, on the elements that suggest that her connection to the animal world makes her fierce and free and, secondly, on some of the interrelated forces that work to keep her—and symbolically all women, minority groups, and nature—caged and cowed.

2. Interspecies Articulation in Ducks, Newburyport

3Ducks, Newburyport is a narrative of identification. While the interior monologue sections aim at providing an account of the life of the human mind, Ellmann similarly describes the animal subplot as “a genuine attempt to imagine what it’s like to be a mountain lion” and a due reflection on the way we interact with animals in a time characterized by mass extinctions, zoos, factory farms, slaughterhouses, and hunting trips (in Quadri n.p.). This latter endeavor is performed in a third person omniscient perspective, thus avoiding charges of explicit anthropomorphism. Nevertheless, interspecies articulations occupy a prominent position also in the human narrator’s free-flowing thoughts, which fosters a reflection on the way anthropocentric animal narratives can support the restoration of a harmonious connection between the human and the nonhuman world.

4As John Berger points out, anthropomorphism only developed a bad reputation over the last two centuries, following the disappearance of animals from daily life, while it was previously considered “an expression of animals’ proximity to man, the residue of the continuous use of animal metaphors” (11). This loss of proximity to the natural world was accompanied by an increasing necessity to foreground the elements that separate humans from the nonhuman over their shared underpinnings and by the consequent destruction, as Paul Shepard remarks, of that “deeper sense of cohesion that sustains our sanity and keeps our world from disintegrating” (88). From this perspective, the tendency to consider anthropomorphism as inherently negative clearly appears motivated by concerns for its power in reminding us that humans are, and will always be, a part of nature. Even more frightening, as Donna J. Haraway suggests, is anthropomorphism’s ability to activate “the previously passive categories of objects of knowledge,” thus consequently positing animals not as passive objects of human knowledge but as autonomous knowing subjects (594). Ellmann’s approach to interspecies articulation criticizes assumptions of human superiority over the nonhuman and seeks to restore anthropomorphism and similar narrative stances as positive practices. This is evident not only in the narrator’s interest and engagement with patterns of animal thought and behavior (extensively analyzed by De Bruyn, and Malewski and Lavery), but also—as I argue in the following pages—in the way the woman conceives of the lioness as an empowering model for her daughter Stacy, as strong and brave as any human woman and mother could be.

5Ducks, Newburyport enacts interspecies articulations as intended by Pauliina Rautio, that is, as a means for “finding and inventing connections to our surrounding nonhuman world... [by focusing] on what we share with nonhuman nature by virtue of co-existing, rather than what sets us apart” (451). Inevitably, Rautio argues, these articulations are a product of default anthropocentrism, in that “we experience and view the world necessarily as the species that we are, with all of our species-specific biophysical limitations and possibilities” (449-50). This means, among other things, that as humans we depend on language as a limited and imperfect means for interpreting and relating the world (451). Since verbal communication is also one of the major anthropological differences on which man’s superiority over the nonhuman world has historically relied in Western thought, Ellmann’s literary experimentation with enriching ways of looking at and interacting with animals focuses on consciousness as a shared human-nonhuman trait and deploys language to make speculations, rather that statements, on animal life.

6For instance, halfway through the novel, the human mother wonders:

  • 1 All further uses of italics in the quotes from Ellmann’s novel are original.

there are seven and a half billion people in the world, so there must be seven and a half billion of these internal monologues going on... animals must have some kind of monologue going on in their heads, even if it’s more visual than verbal maybe, the fact that bald eagles certainly always seem to be thinking about something when you watch them on the eaglecam... they keep everything in mind at all times, except when they’re asleep, but then they’re dreaming, and that’s like a monologue too, in a way. (Ellmann 514-15, original emphasis)1

7Earlier she speculates in similar terms about several other living beings, including both animals: “I think animals think a lot... they’re the ones who have the time... that birds could think up whole novels in twenty seconds, I bet... every single thing alive has its own... point of view, even a worm, or a jellyfish” (795)—and plants: “trees go into a dormant state at night, the fact that if trees sleep, perchance they dream, and I wonder what their dreams are about... if trees sleep and dream and eat and drink and blossom and, and mate and exfoliate, and experience euphoria and take care of their companions, then they must really want to live, just like we do” (715-16).

8As Anne Malewski and Nick Lavery argue, the narrator’s emotional and intellectual investment in other forms of life leads her to imagining nonhuman viewpoints as valid “but without claiming certainty of their specifics, [thus] freely expand[ing] traditional ideas of consciousness from human to non-human life forms” (311). Analogously, her interior monologue aligns with the type of inner speech (the product of the intertwining of our own thoughts with self-reflection on how those thoughts are received) that Godfrey-Smith both describes as the prerequisite for higher-order thinking and refuses to accept as the only way people can contemplate their internal states (that is, by verbalizing them). Consequently, Malewski and Lavery maintain that, by using contrasting prose styles for her two protagonists, Ellmann positions interior monologue as a uniquely human form of inner speech, while questioning “the related assumption that it gives humans a cognitive advantage over other animals” (310). In fact, the human narrator often second-guesses herself and seems paralyzed by her inner speech, which exposes the discrepancy between social expectations and her spontaneous responses to outer stimuli. The third-person narration, in contrast, portraits the lioness as always confident and resolute in her relations with the world.

9The relentlessness of the interior monologue aptly conveys the pressure and anxiety that characterize the human narrator’s existence, that “caught-by-the-throat feeling of always doing something wrong” (3) that, according to Judith Warner, is shared by all mothers in the twenty-first-century United States. The woman, however, perceives herself as constantly failing also because, following her mother’s premature death, she “never completed the rest of [her] teenage rebellion... never really became a person, or not the person [she] might’ve been” (Ellmann 728). As a result, she worries that she is a terrible role model, especially to her eldest daughter Stacy (344), who, like all teenagers in their rebellious phase, scrutinizes and criticizes her every move. She is afraid that her crippling insecurity makes her a burden to her family (273) and the whole of humanity (432) and might affect her children as negatively as her lack of resolution in adopting a more sustainable lifestyle—a major source of conflict with Stacy (185, 218, 410-11). As Molly MacVeagh demonstrates, to survive this sublime anxiety the narrator adopts two strategies: breaking things up to reduce insurmountable problems into smaller, more manageable challenges (12-13) and blanking things out to disengage with negative thoughts when they become too much to bear (15). This second strategy proves particularly useful because, as MacVeagh argues, it allows the woman to disavow the complicity of her domestic labor in large-scale issues such as climate change. According to her ideal of a good mother, providing for her children ultimately trumps safeguarding the planet (10). Consequently, while she shows awareness of the need for radical change, the woman has abandoned all forms of activism (Ellmann 208, 333, 339) and retreated into a paralyzing state of numbness and constant fear that eventually also prevents her from effectively protecting or showing care to her family.

  • 2 Interestingly, the thoughts association that spans from historical information about cougars in Ohi (...)

10Equally alone (the cougar is a mostly solitary animal and females usually raise their cubs alone) and concerned for her offspring’s wellbeing in an extremely hostile world, the lioness differs from the human mother for her zen approach to life and defiance in the face of danger, which makes her an example of freedom and bravery in the eyes of the narrator. As Ellmann explains, the primary function of the mountain lioness is precisely to provide a psychological touchstone for the latter: “both the mountain lion and the human narrator are embattled mothers, at the mercy of a society which awards them little status. If you were free, brave, and alone, what kind of a mother would you make? A great one. That’s what the lioness is” (in Quadri np.). Combined with Ben De Bruyn’s claim that the wild creature operates as a foil that “clarif[ies] features or unfulfilled desires” of her human counterpart (274), Ellmann’s words invite a reading of the lioness as a projection and expression of qualities—above all bravery—that the narrator would like to but does not possess. In fact, as Malewski and Lavery highlight, the woman explicitly identifies herself not with her fierce feline co-protagonist but with the Cowardly Lion from the film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which enters her thoughts in situations in which she feels she is failing “to fulfil her own socio-cultural role as an adult, and a mother” (305). She is also mostly worried about the presence of a runaway lion in the area and hopes, in a clever play on words, that the creature will return to the (natural) attics where nearly extinct species live and won’t think of hiding from her hunters in her own attic (Ellmann 744, 800).2 For my purposes here, however, it is even more useful to consider the lioness’ function as foil for the narrator’s unfulfilled desires, especially when interpreting her closing remarks that Stacy feels some sort of connection with the woebegone creature.

11As I explained earlier, the woman frequently worries that Stacy (and her other children) might inherit her crippling insecurity and cosmic pessimism (Ellmann 80). Her speculation that Stacy empathizes with the animal can therefore be read as a projection of her maternal desire that, unlike her, the girl will be brave enough to realize her dreams of justice and independence (and, by proxy, remedy her mother’s unfulfilled youth). This would also explain her reluctance to investigate the origin of Stacy’s rapport with the lioness: it is a means of fending off the possibility that the girl’s feelings are triggered by a shared sense of oppression. Finally, if the lioness complements the human mother’s qualities, Stacy’s harmonious rapport with the wild creature can be viewed as a wishful confirmation of the fact that, with a little change on her part, the mother could still restore a good relationship with her daughter—a possibility that seems to materialize after Stacy is described as more mature, responsible, and kind to her mother and siblings following her feats of heroism against the family’s armed neighbor.

12By encouraging and helping Stacy be fierce and free, the interspecies relationship with the lioness emphasizes that the fight for the girl’s own good is inseparable from that against all forms of violence and environmental destruction. This community of purpose reinforces Ellmann’s conceptualization of interspecies articulation as a concern for and exploration of what unites humans with the natural world, rather than separating them from it, and foregrounds Stacy (instead of her mother) as a positive and hopeful interspecies articulator. Based on this premise, the girl’s mixed ethnicity also invites a reflection on the similarities between her mother’s approach to human-nonhuman relations and Indian metaphysics, which Vine Deloria and Daniel R. Wildcat describe as “the realization that the world, and all its possible experiences, constituted a social reality, a fabric of life in which everything had the possibility of intimate knowing relationships because, ultimately, everything was related” (2). The way the narrator’s interest in human and nonhuman psyche and her speculations on the existence of similar forms of conscience across species and kingdoms allow her to turn to animal patterns of thought and behavior to express her discomfort with dominant models of human adulthood (Malewski and Lavery 312) suggests a vision of the world as closely interrelated. Even more importantly, however, the novel presents the spiritual rapport between Stacy and the lioness as the seed of hope for a profound and much needed change in Eurocentric worldviews.

3. Fierce and Free: Rebellious Girls and Untamed Lions

13Tim Ingold describes the maintenance of the social order in Western culture as relying on the implied evolutionary premise that “the level of being that sets mankind above the animal kingdom has to be achieved, in the course of an ascent from savagery to civilization, just as it has to be achieved in the development of every individual from childhood to maturity” (6, original emphasis). This cultural framework, therefore, aligns children with animals against adulthood and consequently, as Yi-Fu Tuan remarks, positions both as forms of wilderness “that must be subdued,” that is, domesticated or civilized (115). Based on these premises, I suggest that the empowering aspects of Stacy’s connection with the mountain lioness can be fully appreciated only by taking into consideration her gender and ethnicity alongside her age. If, following Ingold and Tuan, the girl can be considered closer to the animal because she is still in the state of nature associated with her young age, her relegation to the status of savage mostly derives from widespread colonial paradigms that promote and enforce the conflation of women and Indigenous people with the natural world. By having Stacy fight as fiercely as the lioness against the interconnected forms of oppression engendered by those paradigms, Ellmann exposes and criticizes dominant heteronormative models of futurity and the everyday dynamics of violence against women, while advocating for the implementation of respectful and empowering interspecies relations.

  • 3 While the boy’s vicious behavior is triggered by and aimed at subjugating Stacy’s cat-like claim to (...)

14Stacy’s spiritual emancipation at the end of the novel is the result of a long process of self-analysis that begins with the girl’s escape from home to join a Hopi tribe in Arizona. She chooses this destination not because of her biological father’s tribal ancestry (which Ellmann does not specify), but rather because she heard her stepfather, Leo, “talking about the mesa near him in Arizona... and the way the Hopi live, the stuff they eat and all” (Ellmann 844). While the narrator is afraid of being the cause of Stacy’s reckless behavior, the girl explains that she ran away because her boyfriend “threatened to kill her cat” when she refused to get more involved with him, a move that she describes as quite frequent among boys her age: “they can turn on you really fast, and get all vicious” (846). The episode is particularly effective in showing the crossover between violence against animals and violence against women. Since, as Juliet Clutton-Brock reminds us, cats are the only domestic animals that maintain independence from humans in terms of breeding, organization of territory, and food supply (26), by threatening Stacy through her cat, the boy implicitly expresses his assumed right to exercise control over her.3 On the other hand, Stacy’s attempt to find refuge with the Hopis betrays her wish to be part of a community that shares her respect for both women and animals. Her overnight adventure thankfully turns into a bid for freedom, an experience that, according to her mother, transforms Stacy into a grownup overnight: “she’s acting like a reformed character, all calm and collected about everything, and cheerful... she seems sort of sorry but proud at the same time... she’s faced the real world and survived, and she knows we all know that, so maybe she’s satisfied, and won’t ever have to run away again” (Ellmann 847). Indeed, Stacy refuses her mother’s help in dealing with her former boyfriend and prefers to confront him alone to “get closure” (847) in a first, important demonstration of self-confidence. Her independence and ability to take care of herself, however, are not only signs of personal growth. I contend that she is forced to develop these skills, primarily in response to a violence-ridden environment in which those who should protect her often show no real interest in her wellbeing.

  • 4 For an in-depth analysis of Ellmann’s critique of both extinction narratives and human intervention (...)

15Stacy’s mixed white-Native American ancestry, in fact, automatically deprives her of the right to protection that, as Kathryn Bond Stockton argues, is ideologically bestowed on white, middle-class Western children by virtue of their alleged weakness and innocence (30-31). Consequently, despite her age, she cannot embody the imagined child who, according to Lee Edelman, provides “the telos of the social order and come[s] to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust” (11). On the contrary, she is threatened by the very systems expected to maintain the status quo. For example, the narrator complains that the police show indifference for Stacy’s disappearance. Instead of alerting patrols and actively looking for her, they concentrate on shooting down all the wild animals that a man in the vicinity used to keep locked up in his homemade zoo, a massacre in which Stacy could have accidentally been involved—“She could be in Zanesville with all the lions and tigers, and trigger-happy cops, the fact that she could be meeting a lion at this very moment” (Ellmann 826). Importantly, the woman continues by worrying that “she could be raped any minute by football stars or Olympic swimmers or priests or, well, the president even” because, she concludes, “America’s not a safe place for a girl... nobody’s safe in America” (826-27). The authorities show the same mix of aggressiveness and detachment toward the elusive mountain lioness. In the interest of public safety, a lot of money and resources are invested in hunting her, but the first man who manages to briefly capture her is not even able to offer new information about her and declares that to him it “[j]ust looked like a cougar” (897). This cultural and institutionalized indifference to the animal world, which dovetails with the police’s above-mentioned penchant for killing rather than protecting, contrasts with the care and understanding of both human and nonhuman beings that the narrator, not without a tinge of romanticization, frequently praises in Native Americans. The fact that the latter, too, like the lioness, have historically suffered from colonial oppression is stressed by the narrator’s mental association between broken treaties and the anecdote that the mixed-blood Cherokee tracker who finally manages to capture the lioness has to “keep reminding the police daily of their no-shooting agreement... so he could catch her alive like they’d asked him to” (945). The police’s disinterest in the lioness’ wellbeing even leads the Cherokee tracker to use the scientific language of “extinction and conservation” (945) to defend the importance of sparing the animal’s life, a fact that further reminds the reader of “what we’ve done to animals” (104).4

  • 5 The fact that children consider the lioness a hero further unmasks the cultural preconceptions unde (...)

16After escaping her first captor, the mountain lioness is praised in the local news for leaving the man unharmed and, as a result, to all the kids she becomes “some kind of folk hero” because, despite passing through well-populated areas (including the narrator’s garden) and being spotted by several people, “she never kills anybody and she always eludes her captors” (Ellmann 897).5 This episode marks the moment when the narrator starts to see through the mass hysteria generated by the authorities, who insist on portraying the lioness as a national danger:

there are all kinds of Twitter hashtags and conspiracy theories now... and everybody’s speculating on whether it really is a lion or something supernatural or even extraterrestrial, or fake, the fact that this lion emergency has even made people forget about Trump for a while, the fact that you’d think that would work in his favor but he’s not happy about it, the fact that he’s always tweeting that his enemies have released the lion to distract people from his important work. (798)

17There is even “a club, devoted to shooting this one lion... Freedom From Fear, the FFF” (798) whose members promise that “after they get this lion, they’re going to rid America of ‘all predators, both human and animal’” (799)—an unsurprising program since the club’s name is reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. While musing on the authorities’ inconclusive plans for capturing the animal, the narrator explicitly underlines their similarities to U.S. anti-immigration politics: disproportionate and relying on widespread panic. Indeed, like “an undocumented alien, a non-native incomer that entered Ohio illegally” (802), the lioness poses a threat to patriarchal forces by appearing in places where she is not supposed to be. As Timothy Pachirat argues, mechanisms of power in modern society use distance and concealment to separate the dominant group from the undesired ‘other’ (3). Any alien subject, from human foreigners to unruly animals, that escapes their assigned place of confinement is a danger to surface power relations and triggers repressive measures (5), like those implemented to capture the lioness.

18As the novel sadly confirms, the system of oppression will not rest until the lioness is returned to a place that restrains her from coming into real contact with humans, which in this case is the same zoo where her cubs have been taken. As De Bruyn observes, however, the similar treatment that the U.S. government reserves to immigrants and the wild lioness does not only invite “readings in terms of national identity and recent immigration politics” (278), but also offers an example of “cross-species solidarity rooted in flight and tenacity” through the portrayal of a nonviolent predator (279). In contrast to the multiple forms of animal exploitation and mass slaughter and the equally widespread forms of violence against women, immigrants, and ethnic minorities featured in the novel, the lioness’ behavior highlights how an animal’s perception or conception of freedom does not involve hurting or oppressing other beings. She demonstrates that, in the natural world, killing is limited to feeding and defence, and is never carried out for other, exclusively human, purposes.

19Similarly to the lioness, Stacy, at the end of the novel, achieves a “new heroic status” (Ellmann 980) for saving her family from their neighbor Ronny without reverting to real violence. Ronny had been stalking the narrator for some time but, despite feeling uneasy about his obsession with firearms and support of open carry laws, the woman could never foresee that one day he would enter her house uninvited, armed with a semi-automatic rifle; mostly, she interpreted his frequent unsolicited visits as boring, time-wasting attempts to talk with someone and never considered the possibility that the man was actually attracted to her. Therefore, in front of Ronny’s suddenly aggressive behavior, which includes verbally abusing her in front of her four children and repeatedly shooting his rifle around her kitchen, the narrator remains “frozen to the spot... deer-in-the-headlights kind of stuff” (Ellmann 963). Stacy, on the other hand, has just the courage and skills that it takes to wait for the right moment and strike back: while her mother does not give too much credit to her old self-defense manual, Stacy has evidently studied it and, despite her amusement “at the seventies clothes and hairdos” (384), has memorized all the moves presented in it. Thanks to her cool-headedness, she thus successfully deploys them to disarm Ronny.

  • 6 As John Berger argues, until the nineteenth century, animals were also conceived as mediating betwe (...)

20In this context, the narrator’s use of the word “rapport” in her closing remarks on Stacy’s relationship with the lioness (Ellmann 998) is illuminating as it dovetails with Ella Cara Deloria’s description of animals as mediators of the power of the gods in Indian religious beliefs. Referring more specifically to the Dakota people, Deloria explains that animals would sometimes spiritually engage with humans to lend them supernatural abilities and help them overcome a special crisis.6 The person involved would thereafter:

hold in reverence the animal whose spirit led him and would feel a kinship with it. Whenever he was in need of supernatural help he could become en rapport with that spirit… He was no longer a plain man but one imbued with supernatural strength and power. To get en rapport the visionary sometimes merely thought on his mentor and reached him in that way; at other times he ‘demonstrated’ him by publicly acting out the rôle of that animal in some characteristic way. (43, original emphasis)

21Stacy’s brave response to Ronny’s assault evokes this type of mystic identification with the lioness. Even if the girl has never really encountered the animal, through the latter’s empowering story of survival, she became en rapport with her and could enact the same courage in the face of danger. Significantly, the narrator associates the self-defense techniques used by Stacy with wild felines: for example, she calls the style that the manual illustrates for fighting another woman “tigress-style” (Ellmann 386). The narrator also mentions the book right after a detailed account of the Sand Creek Massacre—“the government kept breaking all its treaties, broken treaty quilts, Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, our national heroes, the fact that that left the Indians no peaceful way to defend themselves or their land, self-defense manual” (332)—thus highlighting and denouncing the way women, ethnic minorities, and the land itself in the U.S. have historically and systematically been under threat and left to fend for themselves, instead of being protected by laws and national heroes.

22This, however, also reminds the narrator of the Indian warrior Mocchi: “self-defense manual... the fact that the Sand Creek Massacre took six hours, the fact that Mocchi saw her mother killed by two soldiers right in front of her, and then they tried to rape her but she killed one and escaped, and became a woman warrior” (Ellmann 332). Ronny’s assault could have ended in the same tragic way for Stacy. Instead, the girl fights and defeats Ronny with the courage and self-defense abilities of a brave lioness. Her mother comments that she is “a hothead, raring for a fight... she reminds me of Mocchi, kind of, the Sand Creek warrior woman” (782), who became an icon of (female) Indian resistance and rebellion by fighting Europeans and seeking vengeance for her family (Mendoza, Strange Owl-Raben, and Strange Owl 70). The positive association between Stacy and Mocchi resurfaces at the end of the novel, emphasizing the difference between the girl’s fierceness and her mother’s numbness:

what a flop I was in an emergency... it’s better to just think about Stacy and how brave she was, the fact that she was so brave... she’s like Superwoman, cheerleaders... she’s got that can-do attitude, Navy SEALs stuff, but not so bloodthirsty, SWAT team... where did Stacy get all her courage from... it’s hard to believe it’s from Frank, the fact that she’s Mocchi the warrior girl and I’m just a flop... this whole thing has given Stace a real boost, a sense of accomplishment, power even, and why not, because she definitely is powerful. (Ellmann 978-79)

23Even if the woman evidently struggles to let go of her Euro-American cultural framework and its correlated models of boldness, she also associates Stacy with alternative examples of female power. In a move that defies the representations of teenagers in action movies—where the hero is supposed to “decide whether to save the humble girl or the nation [but] it always works out that, if you save the girl, the nation too will survive somehow” (477)—Stacy autonomously saves herself, her mother, and her siblings, confirming her alignment with non-mainstream paradigms of heroism.

24However, while Stacy’s independence and bravery raise hope for her future, these same qualities are also the reason why she represents a danger to the social order: similarly to the lioness, whose venturing outside her attic is disproportionately portrayed as a threat to the nation, Stacy’s subversive self-reliance defies the heteronormative conceptualization of children as the image of a nation’s soul and future that underpins their cultural representations as innocents in need of being rescued by an (adult) hero. To assess the value of interspecies relations in the novel, it is therefore important to also consider and analyze the forces that are constantly at work to keep Stacy and the lioness subdued and thus maintain the patriarchal status quo.

4. Caged and Cowed: Of Human and Animal Oppression

25While the mountain lioness inspires Stacy to be strong and self-confident, the fact that the creature is eventually caught and imprisoned in the Columbus Zoo hints at the possibility that the girl’s bid for independence, too, could be easily nipped in the bud. Significantly, the moment when the tracker shoots his anesthetizing dart offers yet another image that binds the animal to Stacy: the lioness is captured, and thus enters the world of humans, in stormy weather (Ellmann 927), similarly to Stacy, who was born during a storm (941). Moreover, after the capture, the tracker is allowed to give her a name, an act that, from the narrator’s perspective, marks her passage from freedom to captivity: “all her life that mountain lion has been alone and free and unnamed, and now she has a name and she’s not free anymore” (944). Since given names are one of the first things that babies receive when they are born, I argue that the storm that provides the background to both Stacy’s and the lioness’ entry in the human world is an ominous warning of the turbulent waters that they will have to navigate, and that naming represents the first attempt to subject them both to what Judith Butler calls the hegemonic force of the “paternal/symbol” (104). I therefore suggest looking at names and common nouns in the novel to gain valuable insights into the forms of oppression against women and animals explored by Ellmann.

26A first example is cougar, a common synonym for mountain lion and a vernacular term for Puma concolor. As Rosemary-Claire Collard explains, as a scientific name for a species, cougar is “a figure born out of biological practices of naming and classification” (524) that do not account for the heterogeneity of the category animal but nevertheless bring into focus a set of particular observable qualities (523). Cougars are ubiquitously considered “‘mysterious,’ ‘ghostly,’ and ‘elusive,’” characterized by graceful movements and exceeding cleanness (524). With humans as their only predators, they have been the object of centuries of persecution that have eradicated them from much of eastern North America; they nevertheless maintain “the greatest range of any wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere” (525). This resistance to annihilation mirrors the survival of Native Americans against European colonialism, as highlighted by the narrator’s remarks that both the Native Americans’ and the cougar’s presence in Ohio largely pre-date that of the first Europeans and their descendants (Ellmann 800, 870, 928).

27Besides its scientific meaning, the word cougar also has connotations in popular culture that further link it to forms of aggression. Because of these animals’ elegance and predatory performances, since the 2010s the term has come to signify “older women who pursue and/or date younger men” (Collard 527). As Collard argues, this new meaning highlights the link between predation and sexuality at the origin of several stereotypes about women and the way in which they reflect the mechanisms underpinning both the human-animal divide and gender oppression: by gaining power through (sexual) predation, cougars reinforce the conflation between women and the category of animal. Consequently, as Collard remarks:

the ‘cougar’ figure relies on a common move in colonial discourse: using an animal metaphor to imply a base primitivism, a raw animality, unmediated desires, and so on... There is an [sic] implication that (in their desperation) ‘cougar’ women are not controlling their base instincts. They are savage... The ‘cougar’ figure perpetuates this but couches it in a language of empowerment. Even though in this case it is women occupying the masculine gender identity of sexual predator, the effect is still to buttress and re-perform the gender divide, while simultaneously re-performing a humanist understanding of culture and nature. (533)

  • 7 The lioness also indirectly partakes in the final episode of violence along with Stacy and the narr (...)

28By associating both Stacy and her mother with the animal cougar, Ellmann exposes the way in which all three of them are the target of the same oppressive power structures. For example, Ronny accuses the narrator of encouraging him, being a “prick tease” (Ellmann 961), and “playing hard-to-get” (965), thus implicitly describing her, at least potentially, as a cougar for exercising sexual agency.7 Stacy, as highlighted in the previous section, is similarly threatened by her boyfriend for resisting his sexual advances, thus showing a will for self-determination instead of passivity.

29A further slur—addressed to Stacy in kindergarten—that shames a woman for her alleged predatory sexuality is squaw, a derogatory term predominantly used to refer particularly to American Indian women. As Nancy J. Parezo and Angelina R. Jones explain, the term has historically been part of “the oppositional binary system through which Native American women have been seen as either squaws or princesses” (373; see also King 3). First recorded in the early seventeenth century at the time of European contact, squaw initially had positive connotations, indicating a “female Indian ruler who could establish and enforce peace” (Parezo and Jones 376). By the reservation period, however, it had become associated with a set of racial markers (dark skin, crude features, a squat and fat body, an ugly face) stereotyped and visualized through “body pose, sartorial clues, facial haggardness, and muteness” (379). The sexual connotations of squaw date back to the Californian gold rush of the 1850s, where a regional colloquial use emerged in the sense of tramp, whore, or bitch (380-81; see also King 3-4). Its association with sexual penetration is indicated by Parezo and Jones as deriving in the same period from “a way to hold a gun barrel during crozing and chiming processes” (380), that is, the hollowing and finishing of the inside of the barrel, with the phallic symbolism of the gun clearly contributing to the establishment of the term’s implications for vagina.

30Another way the word squaw acquired a sexist meaning seems to have been its use in rifle competitions, where it indicated a target shaped as “a figure in a kneeling position” (Parezo and Jones 380). This not only supports Collard’s argument about the contribution of activities such as hunting in establishing a link between predation and sexuality; it also connects to another key phrase that Ellmann’s narrator repeatedly mentions to refer to different vulnerable subjects: sitting ducks. The most significant instances are a scene of domestic violence involving her friend Cathy—“[she] was really a sitting duck in that car, the fact that he could’ve killed her easy” (Ellmann 757); the description of two massacres, involving animals in Zanesville—“[they] were all in just terrible shape, sitting ducks for those police marksmen” (838)—and unarmed American Indians in Gnadenhutten, respectively—“the Moravian Indians were just ‘sitting ducks,’ .. they were all pacifists so they didn’t put up a fight” (329); and the narrator’s comments on her previous husband’s absence from Stacy’s life—the girl is “stuck in limbo, sitting duck, waiting for Frank’s next move” (347).

31As far as her mixed ancestry is concerned, Stacy’s vulnerability is also enhanced by the lack of positive representations of Native Americans in U.S. popular culture. Her mother is shocked when she learns that she watches musicals not because she likes them but “To see how they make me feel” and that the answer is that she feels “not white” (Ellmann 786). The genre, in fact, has significantly contributed to reinforcing offensive clichés of Native Americans, as demonstrated by the narrator’s comments on the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun: “the way they portray Indians in that movie... the Indians are all milking goats on the train, and washing their clothes and shooting arrows and cooking beans and cutting up the upholstery and trying to pitch a whole tipi village in the middle of the traincar, the fact that I don’t know what Stacy made of all that” (376). Unsurprisingly, online content and social media do not provide Stacy with forms of representation or identity models that could boost her confidence, either. One of the main sources of the girl’s alienation and low self-esteem is her addiction to Morning Routine videos, an emblematic product/symptom of the cult of aesthetic beauty that characterizes the contemporary age: “Stace watches a whole bunch of these videos in a row and then she crashes, and gets depressed” (81), being bossed around from afar from morning to night (343). These videos, in which white, upper-middle-class girls painstakingly illustrate their morning rituals to get perfect and ready for the day, complicate the function that, according to Pachirat, screens have in modern capitalist society of creating distance “by constructing and reinforcing racial, gender, citizenship, and education hierarchies that coerce others into performing dangerous, demeaning, and violent tasks” from which the viewer generally benefits (9). In fact, the perverse ritual of watching and being watched established by the Morning Routine videos benefits neither the viewer nor the video maker: while the former is enthralled despite, or even by, her enhanced sense of isolation and aesthetic shortcomings compared to the performer (which in Stacy’s case takes the form of a class and ethnic, as well as aesthetic, divide), the latter is coerced by a dependence on and obligation towards not only her followers but also the commercial brands that finance her videos, the only beneficiaries in this fraught exploitation of the cultural power of sight.

32Cary Wolfe elucidates the dominant role acquired by vision in the upward movement from “lower” to “higher” life forms that reproduces the evolutionary pattern described by Ingold in the quote given earlier. He argues that, since Freud’s time,

the origin of humans is located in an act of ‘organic repression’ whereby they begin to walk upright and rise above life on the ground among blood and feces... All of this is accompanied by a shift of privilege in the sensorium from smell to sight, the nose to the eye, whose relative separation from the physical environment thus paves the way for the ascendancy of sight as the sense associated with the aesthetic and with contemplative distance and sensibility. (2)

33In Ducks, Newburyport, if Morning Routine videos represent a means for restraining young girls like Stacy by fostering their dependence on cultural-specific ideals of aesthetic beauty, the zoo is the form of control by confinement and contemplation that imprisons her animal spiritual partner, the lioness. As Berger remarks, zoos are a “monument to the impossibility of animal encounter” that came into existence around two centuries ago, when animals disappeared from daily life (21). Interestingly, their emergence as a new type of museum in which animals are reduced to the purpose of entertainment and the passive object of human knowledge was accompanied by the appearance of realistic animal toys for children (23), a parallel instrument of cultural training to the idea that real animal encounter would thereafter be inherently impossible or artificial. While looking at animals is the purpose of a visit to the zoo, and similarly to what happens with Morning Routine and other video products, there is no opportunity for the viewer to actually “encounter the look” (Berger 28) of the “looked at,” which highlights the function of sight as a mechanism of distancing and control, rather than dialogue, in regimenting human as well as human-animal relationships.

34In their distinct but closely related experiences of watching and being watched, Stacy and the lioness are both pawns of the capitalist powers that, as Berger explains, have reduced both humans and animals “to isolated productive and consuming units” (13). However, thanks to the girl’s environmental awareness and spiritual rapport with the lioness, the novel conveys hope that Stacy will be able to reject this role and work proactively to challenge cultural patterns of human-animal relationships. Perhaps, similarly to most children, she will be disappointed by the lethargic demeanor of zoo animals (Berger 23-24), a reaction that, although unwittingly, shows children’s ability to recognize and more openly criticize the artificiality and marginalizing purpose of the zoo. Her emotional response to seeing the encaged lioness could ultimately reveal the quality of the feeling underpinning her spiritual bond with the animal. By leaving this moment untold, Ellmann highlights that freedom from oppression is not a simple, straightforward achievement; rather, it is contingent upon awareness of and constant commitment to fighting all forms of injustice, an endeavor positively influenced by the establishment of harmonious interspecies relationships.

5. Conclusions

35While dominant notions of human-nonhuman interactions threaten to control and oppress Stacy because of her gender and mixed ethnicity, by entering en rapport with the lioness the girl reclaims the positive connotations of cross-species associations evoked by words such as cougar. For example, I join De Bruyn in maintaining that Stacy’s rapport with the lioness minimizes the derogatory power of cougar by “downplaying sex and magnifying resilience,” thus portraying interspecies connection as a source of solidarity rather than stereotyping and dehumanization (279). The oppressing power of patriarchal logos is further subverted by the positive, enlivening energy embedded in the Indigenous name given to the lioness by the Cherokee tracker: Mishipeshu, “an Ojibwe word for underwater panther” (Ellmann 944; see also Native American Legends) and the same name that the narrator associates with Stacy when she rejoices that “we’d beaten a guy with a gun, Mishipeshu... if it wasn’t for Stacy... and her self-defense tactics, it might have been a different story” (971). Thanks to her spiritual bond with the lioness, Stacy chooses the empowering road of interspecies harmony and grants a happy ending to her and her family’s story.

36At the end of the novel, the lioness is described exactly like a Sumatran tiger that Randy Malamud observes at the London Zoo: “powerful, but broken; noble, but subaltern; beautiful, but destroyed; free, once, but now captive, constrained, enclosed, miserable, resigned” (139). However, her connection with Stacy challenges and potentially subverts the reduction of the lioness to a beast “in the most derogatory sense; banal; immobilized” (Malamud 145): as the girl’s new sense of empowerment demonstrates, captivity has not altered the lioness’ ability to become en rapport with humans who are open to interspecies relationships. Accordingly, Stacy has found in the (re)connection with the natural world a fulfilling alternative to the empty promises of the Western dominant model of unlimited upward mobility that not only prevents her from receiving any of the alleged benefits of a society shaped in the name of future children, but is also grounded in the destruction of nature, thus undermining the very future that it claims to bring about. Stacy’s personal growth at the end of the novel even manages to restore some degree of optimism in her mother, to whom she has never ceased to embody hope: as the narrator concludes, “maybe this is why you give birth, so that with any luck someone in your family will be handy in an emergency” (Ellmann 971) and, I add, will contribute to shaping a better future by embracing old and new ways of respectfully being part of nature, instead of endlessly reproducing hegemonic views about man’s superiority over it.

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1 All further uses of italics in the quotes from Ellmann’s novel are original.

2 Interestingly, the thoughts association that spans from historical information about cougars in Ohio to the narrator’s attic includes a reference to Frederick, one of the family’s cats (Ellmann 800), stressing how attic animals are as domesticated as pets. The cougar is linked to Frederick also through Alligator Mound, the place where she is captured and whose form, according to the narrator, Frederick reproduces when he sprawls on the ground (520). The presence of Frederick in these thoughts associations thus opens up a third, more hopeful possibility about the future of human-animal relations: since cats are associated with independence within a domestic environment, I contend, by echoing De Bruyn, that the novel suggests that “we should learn to live apart together” with animals (282-83).

3 While the boy’s vicious behavior is triggered by and aimed at subjugating Stacy’s cat-like claim to independence, viciousness is itself typically associated with cats, too, since these animals can be very affectionate but also suddenly turn aggressive. Interestingly, in Native American mythology, the wildcat generally plays a negative role, and in the Hopi language, the term is also used to refer to a man with a bad temper or who acts nastily against women (Native Languages of the Americas). Similarly, catcalling is a form of sexual harassment whose name associates attractive women with feline predators but is actually predominantly practiced by men as a form of objectification. The versatility of the cat in providing an analogy for human personality and actions, therefore, highlights that the boy’s sense of entitlement—within and supported by a determinate cultural system—is the real issue at hand, rather than Stacy’s desire for independence.

4 For an in-depth analysis of Ellmann’s critique of both extinction narratives and human intervention in species conservation, see De Bruyn.

5 The fact that children consider the lioness a hero further unmasks the cultural preconceptions underlying the mass hysteria promoted by the authorities.

6 As John Berger argues, until the nineteenth century, animals were also conceived as mediating between humans and nature in Western cultures (4), offering “explanations, or more precisely, len[ding] their name or character to a quality, which like all qualities, was, in its essence, mysterious” (8-9).

7 The lioness also indirectly partakes in the final episode of violence along with Stacy and the narrator: when Ronny enters their kitchen, the mother and her four children are preparing cookies shaped in the form of a cougar to celebrate the fact that the lioness survived the hunt. In a moment of delirium, Ronny starts shovelling raw cookie dough in his mouth with a big wooden spoon (Ellmann 963-64) while the cougar cookies in the oven start burning (967).

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Electronic reference

Elisa Pesce, “Fierce and Free, or Caged and Cowed”: Interspecies Oppression and Survival in Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, NewburyportEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Elisa Pesce

Elisa Pesce (she/her) is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her project investigates the reasons underlying the omission of women from models of fictional maximalism by assessing the scope and implications of this narrative mode in the framework of contemporary cultural production in the United States. She is therefore interested in the interrelation between standards of genre formation and literary merit and questions of power. Elisa has presented her research outputs at various international conferences and in international journals. In 2022, she organized and chaired the International Panel “Fictional Maximalism and The Americas: New Voices, New Perspectives” for the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies in Glasgow. She worked as guest editor for eSharp and RSAJournal, and as a GTA at the University of Glasgow.

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

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