Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4: Majnoun's End


Chapter 4 opens with a brief overview of the fates of the titular dogs. We are told that five years have passed since the events of the preceding chapter and that, of the initial fifteen dogs, only two remain. These are Majnoun, aged eight, and Prince, aged seven. We are told that, in the time that has passed, Nira and Majnoun have grown closer and more intimate in a way that is not mired in the day to day, as Nira's relationship with Miguel is. Majnoun and Nira understand each other well, but Nira does not understand why Majnoun wants to eat other dogs' feces, nor why he has such an urge to mount bitches in heat. She finds theses things distasteful, though she could not say where the natural behaviors of Majnoun stopped and where his cultural or learned behaviors began. This divide between cultural and learned behavior is then exploited by the narrator to say that, when Majnoun and Nira finally come to a major disagreement, it is over status, a quality both cultural and innate in dogs.

Specifically, Majnoun perceives Miguel as the leader of their family pack. Miguel is forceful and disrespectful toward Majnoun, so he sees him as more of a dog and more of an authority figure; Nira on the other hand, in her cordiality and inability to treat Majnoun as a submisssive, is not thought of by Majnoun as a true master. Nira refuses to let this point drop, however, so when she keeps asking Majnoun what status he thinks she holds in the house if Miguel is the leader, Majnoun growls and threatens Nira as a display of the equality he perceives them to have. This creates distance between Nira and Majnoun, which Majnoun feels can only be resolved through argument (which he is not skilled in) or violence. Since he will not hurt Nira, Majnoun flees the house one day.

Seeing Majnoun flee, Hermes is upset. He believes that, if Majnoun were to continue living with Nira, he could die a happy death. He grumbles to Apollo about this, but when Apollo is curt with his brother, Hermes decides to illegally intervene once more in their wager. He appears to Majnoun in a dream, telling Majnoun that his future is with Nira and that he will no longer misunderstand the intention behind her words. When Majnoun wakes up, he hears music coming from a passing car and suddenly understands the lyrics—not semantically, but as they are truly meant to be understood as a play with rhythm and tonality. Walking back home, he hears a breakup and is shocked to find that he understands the mix of comfort and pain in the words being spoken. Upon returning home, he senses the true sentiment in Nira's words and tells her for the first time that his real name is Majnoun. Nira, too, senses that something has changed in the dog.

Walking with Nira, Majnoun finds that he has been gifted the ability to speak and understand all human language, though he likes English best because it is the closest to his natural dog tongue. He composes English poems for Nira and tries to teach her dog language, which is his favorite. He gives up, though, because she is not able to grasp the accent. Majnoun's new speech capacities are, at first, a point of tension with Nira. For one, she has grown accustomed to his wordlessness. Additionally, there is the issue of Miguel, who dislikes Majnoun and in front of whom they cannot speak. Even so, however, they come to understand each other even more, and Nira even stops thinking of Majnoun as a dog. A brief interlude is offered here about how only the gods are able to achieve perfect mutual understanding and how, given the gift of a near-perfect understanding with Nira, Majnoun was glad with his choice to return to Nira's place, now undoubtedly his home.

Two years pass. Majnoun begins to appreciate Nira in a different way—that is, by watching her favorite movies and consuming other media with her. He watches Tokyo Story with Nira and, rather than thinking it's long or boring, he is simply fixated on the lack of dogs in the movie, as well as the way that bowing and status are coded with each other. In reading Jane Austen with Nira, Majnoun comes to question Nira about how much she enjoys sex. When she answers, Majnoun is unable to understand the ritual of sex, and he thinks about his own capacity to imagine making love with another dog. He considers his own sexuality, which is neither strictly homosexual or heterosexual. Majnoun also thinks more about human art and is fascinated by the way that it eludes understanding. At the same time, there is a complementary struggle to acquaint Nira with dog culture because of its lack of relics and artifacts. When he tells her a dog story about conflicting desires with no clear ending, for example, Nira struggles to understand and fully grasp it.

The distance between Nira and Majnoun continues to narrow. One night, they even have a shared dream of looking into a pond and seeing the reflection of the other. After this, Nira refuses to address Majnoun as her dog, saying, "I'm as much his as he's mine" (132). This, unfortunately, is a portent of ill fortune. Majnoun's preordained time to die has come, but the Fates (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, whose job it is to weave the thread of life, measure its length, and cut the thread at death, respectively) are unsure of how to do so, since Majnoun's thread has grown so close to Nira's, which in turn is close to Miguel's. Their three lives are bound inextricably together in a way that cues the Fates to think that a god has interfered in the mortals' lives. Atropos complains to Zeus, who is unsympathetic to her pleas; as a result, Atropos cuts two of the threads at random and adds life to the remaining thread.

Our perspective then switches back to the household of Nira and Miguel. They are arguing over housework, but in reality Miguel is jealous of Nira's being able to stay home all day and work while he must leave to go to work. Majnoun thinks that time alone, apart from him, would do Nira and Miguel well. Miguel and Nira plan to go to some wineries and spend a few days on vacation, and they will leave Majnoun alone for the weekend (as he insists, privately, to Nira). On Friday, the day that she and Miguel are to depart, Nira goes on a walk with Majnoun, discusses the pleasures of the seasons with him, and even gets him a carrot muffin from a bakery. Nira is unsure about leaving Majnoun alone, but he again insists that he will be all right.

Majnoun notices that more time has passed than Nira and Miguel said, and that they have still not returned. We are told that the dog's heightened consciousness of time due to his new intelligence in particular makes this painful for Majnoun. He writes a poem for Nira on the first day that she is gone, and he spends the other days listening to Tannhäuser and wandering around outside. On Tuesday, strange people appear and wonder who Majnoun is. They are Miguel's brothers and mother, and they seem to be discussing who might take Majnoun and what to do with the things in the house, which they rummage through. Majnoun realizes that Miguel's family is not loyal to him and wants nothing to do with him, so he leaves and returns to the den in the coppice.

The next day, Majnoun begins a vigil that will last years, returning to a spot near Nira and Miguel's house and waiting for her to return, since he has not fully grasped the fact of her death. Majnoun waits every day for Nira, scrounging in the park and taking food left outdoors at a dog cafe. When Miguel's family sees him near the house or when Animal Control spots Majnoun, he hides and returns eventually. However, the nature of Majnoun's waiting changes. When a For Sale sign appears at Miguel and Nira's home, interest in Majnoun dies down as a new family moves in. He frequently switches vantage points and takes food from the neighbors, who understand that he is waiting and do not take him in nor turn him in to Animal Control. Throughout his vigil, Majnoun thinks about two things more than anything. First, he thinks about what it might mean to be human, and what changes in sensory perception are attendant to being human. He knows, however, that he cannot figure this out simply by subtracting sensory talents or gifts from the way he exists as a canine, so he continues to wonder about what made Nira who she was. Similarly, he also wonders about what it is that makes him a dog. Specifically, he wonders if his waiting and loyalty to Nira are unique to him or intrinsic to his being as a dog.

Five years into Majnoun's waiting, Zeus takes notice that his life is unnaturally long and that he is miserable. Zeus goes to the Fates to sort things out, but they are callous with him because of his earlier indifference toward them. They agree that, if Zeus is able to convince Majnoun to give up his vigil, they shall release him into the next life. Zeus then goes to Hermes and Apollo, who argue about who shall help Majnoun. Hermes is noted for his meddling in earthly affairs, so he is chosen. Both, however, acknowledge that Majnoun will be unable to die happy without Nira.

Hermes realizes that, by giving Nira and Majnoun divine intimacy, he has made his own task much more difficult. Nonetheless, he appears next to Majnoun one day and speaks to him in both dog language and English. Majnoun recognizes Hermes and asks to be taken to Nira, but Hermes says he will have to leave this place to do so. Majnoun is unprepared to do this, however, so Hermes simply waits and keeps him company. Majnoun asks Hermes to stop time, and he obliges. The resultant blend of sounds and smells—which hit all at once, failing to dissipate with time—is painful to Majnoun, and he asks moments later for time to be unfrozen. Majnoun asks Hermes what it is like to be a god, and Hermes replies that he cannot express this in any language and that his manner of feeling is totally different. Majnoun wants to ask Hermes many questions about philosophy and life, but the only important thing to him now is Nira's whereabouts. He does not ask, however, for fear of the answer, and Hermes in turn does not press Majnoun.

As the sun sets, they eventually leave their station and wander together. Settling down finally, Hermes says he knows that Majnoun wants to ask him a question. Majnoun asks Hermes the definition of love. Hermes says that such a question comes from Majnoun's unique intelligence (not something inherently canine), and he says that, if he answers Majnoun, Majnoun must consider leaving with him. Majnoun assents. Hermes then tells Majnoun that love does not mean one thing and never will; moreover, he tells Majnoun that when Nira said it, she meant something conditioned by the long journey of her own life experiences. Hermes then takes Majnoun on a long metaphysical journey, showing him each point at which Nira's definition of love was formed. This deep understanding of Nira's being makes Majnoun crave her presence, and the pain of her absence is so unbearable that he agrees to give up his vigil and join her in the afterlife. As the chapter closes, Hermes (as a psychopomp) guides Majnoun's soul to the afterlife.


If Chapter 2 shows readers how—when dealing with creatures of human intelligence—violent or forceful exercises of power result from a lack of complete understanding between parties, Chapter 4 shows us the exact opposite of this dynamic. That is, we are shown in Chapter 4 how, when intelligent creatures truly understand one another, power and hierarchy become redundant, and the boundaries between people collapse. Of course, this is highlighted through the increasingly close relationship of Majnoun and Nira, who share their favorite stories, deep thoughts, and even dreams with one another. By tracing the ways in which the relationship between Majnoun and Nira deepens, then, Chapter 4 provides readers with the most comprehensive understanding of what essentially separates the canine from the human—that is, the intrinsic qualities that prevent humans from completely understanding dogs, and vice versa. Moreover, by exploring this question with regard to the distinction between what is innate or learned, as well as with regard to the phenomenon of love, the chapter provides us with the answer to many of the questions raised earlier in the novel about the limits of the dogs' newfound intelligence and the capacity of humans to understand the dogs.

As the chapter opens, Majnoun and Nira are embroiled in a series of small disagreements over Majnoun's behavior. She has endeavored to teach him that eating the feces of other dogs is unsavory, but he is often unable to resist the temptation for more than a few months at a time (119-120). Moreover, she has tried to instill respect for female dogs in Majnoun, but Majnoun insists that a bitch in heat would like to be mounted by as many dogs as possible (120). Nira is initially unable to stay angry at Majnoun, however, because she herself does not understand the distinction between what in Majnoun's behavior is "natural" (i.e., unable to be controlled) and what is "cultural" (i.e., able to be learned and unlearned) (120). This is an astute observation for Nira to introduce for two reasons. First, as we are informed in the next sentence, the disagreement that initially drives Majnoun away from Nira is over something that lies at the intersection of culture and instinct—status. Second, by priming us to the distinction between the cultural and the innate through Nira's thoughts, Alexis is able to get readers thinking about what behaviors in Majnoun might be unchangeable (and thus essentially canine) or changeable (and thus not essentially canine) as we move forward with the chapter.

The disagreement over power in the household is important in itself. Because Majnoun's respect for Miguel is based in both a lack of understanding of Miguel and several subtle, more animal cues (e.g., the tone of deference in Nira's voice when speaking to him), the idea that power evolves from misunderstanding is reinforced. Moreover, this is underscored by Majnoun's perception of equality between himself and Nira, rooted in their wordless, semi-complete understanding of each other. This is a simple fact of human thinking, but only the dogs are able to voice this concern with their lack of shame, humility, or arrogance surrounding natural power dynamics. It is the human being, rather, who in this instance perceives inequities in power or dominance but seeks only to prove herself as dominant to other living beings. In other words, the dispute over power reveals the first substantive divergence in the thinking of dogs and humans: while a fixation on power is something culturally and instinctually possessed by both dogs and humans, their methods of tending to or coping with this fixation are different and reinforced in unique ways.

When Majnoun is later gifted divine understanding of human language by Hermes, we are attuned to even more granular differences between the canine and the human. After all, before this gift from Hermes, much is left to the imagination regarding the difference between the canine and the human simply because it is incommunicable. Afterwards, however, Nira and Majnoun's relationship shows readers that despite what one might assume, very little in the novel is explicitly presented as either exclusively human or canine in provenance. Majnoun, for example, develops a passion for human art, language, and music—even teaching Nira a bit of his own language and telling her a "culturally canine" story. Though Majnoun understands art like Tokyo Story in a very different way from human beings (e.g., focusing on the dogs shown and looking at how height is associated with power in the film), he is able to participate in its consumption. Meanwhile, Nira learns to see Majnoun as an equal to her because the boundary to their complete mutual understanding has been removed. There is very little that they are unable to share with each other and agree on. However, even after the divine gift of mutual understanding, the two seem to have a lingering disagreement over human love and sexuality. Majnoun's questions to Nira about sex, as well as his subsequent reflections on his own sexuality, show us that dogs simply do not understand love or sex in the same way as human beings do (129-130). As such, this cues us to understand love and sexuality as human constructions. As far as we readers know, this remains true for sexuality throughout the course of the novel.

Love, however, is a different story, and this is demonstrated by the sidebar about the Fates being confused by the closeness of Majnoun and Nira's respective threads as well as by the chapter's ending (which sees a second visit from Hermes to Majnoun). Where the former is concerned, we see how understanding another being and allowing illusions of dominance between them to dissipate opens the door to love. This is how Majnoun's closeness to Nira approximates even her life partner Miguel's, and a similar closeness was observed between Atticus and Rosie in the past, when they spoke the forbidden language to one another and did not seek to dominate one another. Where the latter is concerned, then, we learn exactly how understanding opens the door to love through Hermes' final address to Majnoun:

What you want to know, Majnoun, is not what love means. It means no one thing and never will. What you want to know is what Nira meant when she use the word. This is more difficult because Nira's word is like a long journey taken by one woman alone. She read the word in books, heard it in conversations, talked about it with friends and family, Miguel and you. No other being has encountered the word love as Nira has or used it in quite the same ways, but I can take you along Nira's path. (147-148)

Thus, Chapter 4 ends with one of the novel's most significant revelations about the nature of humanity: love is not essentially human, but rather idiosyncratic. Majnoun might have come to an understanding of what love meant if he knew how to apply this language to himself. The same might be said for Atticus in Chapter 3, who feels that, without the language to describe his feelings for Rosie, he is acting perversely (94-95). When Hermes, god of translators, then takes Majnoun through Nira's memories to show him what love meant to her, it is clear that Majnoun understands for the first time what "love" means, both to himself and to her. This is why he agrees to travel with Hermes to the afterlife with the hope of seeing her again—a complete, thorough, and normally impossible understanding of another has opened the door for a love that transcends biological species, life, and death. Moreover, as we will see, the echoing of this sentiment at the end of the next chapter reinforces this understanding of love.