"But you can't know what a life has been until it is over."
In this quote, Hermes attempts to persuade Apollo that the moment of death is most important for the wager they have made about granting human intelligence to animals. This quote is significant for many plot-related reasons—for example, it is this quote that will lead to disagreements over whether the deaths of Bella, Athena, and Benjy meet the terms of the wager between Apollo and Hermes. Outside of the plot of the novel, however, it is also significant because it offers us evidence to support a worldview in which free will plays a major role. Though there are gods in this world, and though they are at times quite involved in the daily affairs of their supplicants or creations, Hermes' suggestion here indicates that not all aspects of a life can be known until that life is over—or, in other words, that not everything in a life is predestined and set by fate at birth. This is why the gods are genuinely surprised or active in debating the affairs of the dogs throughout the novel; such things are new to the gods when they happen and are unknown before, despite the gods' unlimited power. There is something special in the character of mortality that makes humans inaccessible to the gods, though they are otherwise able to be crushed or changed according to any god's will.
"Human intelligence is not a gift. It's an occasionally useful plague."
In this quote, Apollo states his central philosophy regarding the helplessness and misery at the core of the human condition. This quote is significant in terms of plot because it is this central belief that leads Apollo to accept the terms Hermes lays out for their wager with a rather cavalier attitude. After all, as Apollo believes, the bet is certainly in his favor. On a more philosophical note, however, this quote is significant because it frames the central question explored by the book. Throughout the novel, we see all the ways in which human intelligence, when placed in a mortal body, contributes to suffering: consider, for example, the dogs' newfound awareness of time; their failure to assume their old canine behaviors, even under pressure; and their constant angling for power that now has new connotations. On the other hand, we also bear witness throughout the novel to all the ways in which Apollo is wrong in this belief—for example, the love Prince has for poetry and the closeness Majnoun shares with Nira. The novel is as much about proving Apollo's claim as it is rebutting it, and thus this quote is important when considering Alexis' larger claims about humanity.
“Beyond the hills, a master is / who knows our secret names. / With bell and bones, he’ll call us home, / winter, fall or spring.”
In this quote, Prince recites one of his early poems to the pack. While most of Prince's poems are interesting aesthetic objects for the way in which they incorporate the names of he dogs in the pack (e.g., this poem's use of "Bella" in between the words "bell and bones"), this poem is particularly significant for the way that it foregrounds the centrality of death in the novel. Intelligent awareness of death, as we come to learn throughout the novel's course, is one of the most significant factors that drives the desires of both the dogs and the humans around them in the novel, and Prince's choice to tackle the idea of death though language is reflective of this idea.
"Can there be a feeling greater than belonging?"
In this quote, Atticus speaks for the last time to Majnoun about his fears and insecurities as a being that is neither fully dog nor human. It is significant because it introduces one of the most central concerns for many of the dogs throughout the novel—that is, belonging to a larger community and fitting into an assigned place in that community. It is the drive for belonging that eventually pushes Prince and Majnoun to accept Benjy into their homes and lives, despite their better judgment. It is also a vision of belonging in one's place that Benjy comes to associate with the divine upon his death at the end of Chapter 3. Additionally, belonging in the novel is presented as something that allays the fear of mortality—for example, how Prince thinks that the existence of others in his pack will keep his language, and thus his poetry, alive. Only upon the death of others in his pack does Prince begin to fear his own death.
Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another's madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.
In this quote, we are told by the narrator about the importance of mutual understanding in a relationship between two beings. By this point in the novel, we have already been clued to believe that asymmetrical knowledge between two parties results in violent or performative displays of power or dominance, but this quote provides us with a perspective from the opposite end of the spectrum. Specifically, it tells us that there are also downsides to fully understanding another being like how Nira and Majnoun understand each other towards the novel's end. It is the closeness between Nira and Majnoun, unnatural among mortals, that leads to Nira and Miguel's untimely deaths. Our closeness to others may allow us to transcend the limits of normal mortal thought or feeling, but it also perhaps dooms the very mortal bodies that have achieved this closeness.
"I'm as much his as he's mine."
In this quote, Nira expresses her feelings of equality with Majnoun. This quote is significant because it reveals the frailty of the divide between species once intelligence and understanding are introduced into the equation. While such a realization ultimately dooms Nira to be killed off by the Fates, this understanding is also unique among both humans and dogs. It reinforces the importance of understanding and clear communication among mortal beings, and also emphasizes the capacity of mortals to care for and love one another when they know each other, as opposed to the gods.
In general, humans were—as far as Prince was concerned—overly emotional and emotionally obvious. You could tell a human was angry from three blocks away, and that's without the creature growling, lunging, or baring its teeth! They were beacons of emotion and it was often disruptive being near them.
In this quote, the traditional perspective with humans on top and other animals on the bottom of the social order is flipped on its head. Here, humans are presented as almost more animalistic than dogs, with their emotions being expressed unsubtly and constantly. This quote is significant because it cues readers to rethink their assumptions about the supremacy of specifically human intelligence and consciousness. While we might think that our emotional intelligence is great and that we are excellent at hiding our feelings, to a being with a different perspective, we are almost childish.
Death was in every fibre of these creatures. It was hidden in their languages and at the root of their civilizations. You could hear it in the sounds they made and see it in the way they moved. It darkened their pleasures and lightened their despair.
In this quote, the narrator outlines Hermes' thoughts for us at the end of the novel. Importantly, the idea that mortality is central to the experience of intelligent life on earth is reinforced here. We see here what we have suspected throughout the novel—namely, that it is awareness of our own mortality that drives intelligent beings to create language and community, and to envision themselves in a loving relationship with another. This quote is thus a pithy summary of one of the central philosophical points in the novel.
And yet, a divide existed between them, one that the god could not breach, despite his power, knowledge and subtlety: death. On one side, the immortals. On the other, these beings. He could no more understand what it was to live with death than they could what it was to exist without it.
In this quote, the narrator outlines Hermes' thoughts about the divide between mortals and gods. This quote invests our understanding of the fragility of mortal life with a certain kind of optimism and hope. Even though the gods in the novel are so powerful that they could save, change, or eradicate any mortal's life on earth, they still do not understand the unique sensations attendant to an intelligent mortality—love, a craving to understand one another, and so on. The human invents the divine in order to fill gaps left by their own mortality, but so too must the gods invent their own notions of what humans feel and experience, being unable to do so themselves.
In his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return.
In this quote, the narrator closes his narration by saying that Prince's last moment on earth is spent experiencing love for his prior owner, Kim. This is because Hermes has once again given him a gift, this time the gift of understanding Kim's language. Much as with Majnoun and Nira, understanding is the gateway for two mortal beings to experience unfettered love for one another. Unlike Majnoun, however, Prince was gifted the opportunity to briefly love on account of his own gift for language and poetry. Driven by knowledge of his own mortality, Prince invents language to navigate this knowledge that ultimately leads him to love, another central feature of intelligent mortal experience.
Fifteen Dogs Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fifteen Dogs is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.