Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5: Two Gifts


Chapter 5 opens with a discussion about whether something in Prince's poetry would have led one, in retrospect, to believe that he could have died happy. While the answer given to this question is a resolute "no, not really," we are told that there is something in Prince's wit and depth that made Hermes want to protect him (149-150).

We then turn to a description of Prince's early life. Whelped in Ralston, Alberta, Prince is a mutt born to mutts, and he is taken in by a kind family with a son named Kim. Kim and Prince grow incredibly close, and for two years, Prince lives an idyllic and rustic life in Ralston, but eventually Kim gets in a fight with his parents and runs away, taking Prince with him. They travel to Toronto together, a place totally unfamiliar to Prince, and Prince loses Kim one day while chasing after a particularly enticing and irreverent squirrel. Having lost everything and unable to find Kim again, Prince then wanders the city for a few days and begs. Eventually, he is taken in by the people who leave him at the veterinary clinic at King and Shaw.

We then turn to the moment of Prince's enlightenment, and the narrator tells us that the transformation affected Prince differently from all of the other dogs: namely, Prince in particular began to think of language and naming as fascinating. We are told that, because of the strange and bewitching effect of Prince's language—which is, in large part, owed to his recitation skills—he gained a new form of status that scared the conspirators, leading to his eventual ousting from the pack. Throughout it all, however, Prince remained fascinated with and in love with his pack's language.

Apollo notices Prince's overflowing love for his pack's language and, as the god of poetry, he is upset that another poet's passion may cost him his wager with his brother. He and Hermes then begin to argue about whether the language of their bet is, in focusing on the moment of death, precise enough. Though Apollo is worried about losing and tries to get Hermes to give up the bet, Hermes is unrelenting. As a result, Apollo decides that he will violate Zeus' edict and involve himself in Prince's life, making the now fifteen-year-old dog suffer.

Our attention then turns to Prince in the narrative present. While he has had plenty of time to explore the city over his many years, he has a special place in his heart for the beach. Specifically, he loves its smells, the fact that it is an area where dogs are usually kept on leashes (Prince dislikes having to subdue other dogs with violence), and the willingness of humans on the beach to leave him alone while they tend to more important business (like playing with a beach ball or rollerskating). He even writes poetry about the beach, and thinks of it as another kind of home. This is all taken away, however, when Apollo sends poisoned sand into Prince's eyes and makes him blind. Once he goes blind, Prince realizes that, despite finding humans overly emotional, threatening, and distracting, he will have to take shelter with one for the rest of his days. He considers a home far away from Glen Stewart but ultimately fears that master and loathes the home's distance from the lake. He opts instead for a home on Neville Park with a woman and her three sons.

Making his way out from the park, Prince is struck by the persistence of fascinating smells and aromas, but he falls down stairs twice and hurts himself. His task of getting to his new home, however, motivates him to get up and keep going. He is able to navigate certain areas and forests almost perfectly—being part of his well-trodden territory—but crossing the street proves particularly dangerous and nerve-wracking for Prince. After crossing the street one time, Prince is even stepped on by a group of careless runners. When he runs into other dogs, they are kind to him and recognize his distress. He sleeps in some gardens and wakes the next morning shivering from the cold. He is still dead set on getting to his new home, so much so that he only stops by the lake to take the scent in before continuing up the boardwalk to his new home on Neville Park.

The family takes Prince in and treats him well, but Prince still mourns the loss of his faculties. Though he feels he has triumphed over blindness, he is mournful that, when he dies, so too will the language of his pack and his poetry. In an effort to preserve it, Prince—called Elvis by his new masters—recites one of his poems for the mistress of the house whenever he senses that she is near. Eventually, she senses that Prince is trying to say something, and she repeats it back to him. Prince feels that this is yet another breakthrough, but Apollo will not let Prince be happy and renders him deaf. After this final loss, Prince retreats inwardly and stops eating and drinking, waiting for death. His mistress takes him by the lake one last time, which he smells and finds relaxing, but he is then taken to be put down at a clinic. As he lies awaiting death on the table, though, one of Prince's own poems returns to him as if someone else is reciting it, and this gives him joy. He dies happily with this feeling.

Later, at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern, Apollo and Hermes discuss the aftermath of their wager and plan possible future bets regarding humans and their intelligence, such as giving cats human intelligence or giving humans the intelligence of dogs. Eventually, they think about giving humans divine language but ultimately decide against it. Hermes leaves the tavern and gets into a cab. Though he knows that he is infinitely more knowledgeable and powerful than the driver of the cab, he still feels a divide between them. This, of course, is the divide of mortality, which separates absolute power and knowledge from love and fragility. Hermes wishes to know how the mortals live and feel.

Finally, though, Hermes' thoughts center on Prince and his fears about his poetry being forgotten. We are told that, for the immortals, poetry always exists in the present and is never forgotten. Thankful for Prince's poetry and feeling magnanimous, Hermes then gives Prince one more gift. In Prince's final moments, he imagines himself to be in a field in Ralston all over again. He hears the voice of Kim calling him from across the field and understands it fully and perfectly. He smells all of the smells again and bounds towards Kim. As the book closes, we are told that, "in his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return" (171).


Despite being earlier presented with the details of fourteen other dogs' lives, Chapter 5 is remarkably the first and only time in the novel that we see how a dog endowed with human intelligence can die happily. Importantly, the dog chosen by Alexis to die happily and tip the wager in Hermes' favor is not Atticus the leader, nor is it Majnoun, who reaches a perfect understanding with his master and learns what love truly means through her. It is not Bella, nor Athena, whose lives are mutually enriched by the friendship they share. Nor is it Benjy, whose callousness and self-interest were ultimately the very thing that led Zeus to turn on him and cause his death. Rather, it is Prince, the dog who was earlier targeted for his poetic gifts and whose primary characteristic is his fascination with language. Not only is this slightly metafictional, calling our attention to the novel itself as a written work offering the potential for redemption and enlightenment, but it also centers writing, creation, and literature in general as means by which the mortal is able to achieve contentment and leave a legacy.

While we have paid much attention to how the gift of human intelligence affects existing structures and features within the canine community like power hierarchies, this chapter is rather explicit in showing how the introduction of human cognition had unprecedented effects in the form of language. Specifically, when the chapter offers its reflection on how Prince was differently affected by the enlightenment than other dogs, we are told of how some dogs venerated Prince's language for its ability to make them see the world differently, but we are also told of how certain dogs loathed Prince's accumulation of status and renown for something so strange and new to them (as opposed to, for example, some physical prowess or talent familiar to canine life). Even so, Prince's fascination with language runs so deep so as to insulate him from this hatred: even after being ousted by the other dogs in the pack, his biggest fear is that their shared language will go extinct. Later, even when he is blinded and braves a series of trials to reach the house on Neville Park, passing his language on is his chief concern.

More than anything else, this is why Prince is able to die happy by thinking of someone else—possibly his last mistress—reciting the poems he has written. Though he has no guarantee that such a thing will actually come to pass, Prince's faith in the ability of language, naming, and poetry to outlast him is almost religious. His contact with the immortality of language on his deathbed is not unlike the visions of the divine revealed earlier to Atticus and Benjy in their last moments. Just as the other dogs are made to place faith in a god or divinity that exists past the bounds of mortality, so too does Prince find redemption in the knowledge that language is itself immortal. This very idea, in turn, is reinforced when Hermes thinks for a final time about Prince's craft: "For the immortals, all true poetry existed in an eternal present, eternally new, its language undying. Having once been uttered, Prince's verse would live forever."

The idea that intelligent mortal language can live forever is especially interesting and deep when contextualized with two other factors. First, there is the fact that the true language of the gods is such that it is incomprehensible to all lower forms of life (169). The fact that intelligent life forms like humans and the titular dogs—who are mortal and must submit to the gods in the realm of the physical—are able to cross the divide of mortality to reach the realm of the immortals is, in itself, quite powerful. It is perhaps the best blessing that humans and other intelligent creatures have been given. Second, there is the fact that, in the last paragraphs of the text, Hermes seems to link the divide between gods and humans (i.e., that of death) with the capacity to love. Those who are mortal are able to love because it is a necessary result of comprehending and accepting someone else's mortality, along with your own. Language and love, then, become linked conditions of mortality in Alexis' vision, related to each other in a deep and inexplicable way that is contingent upon the intelligent awareness of one's own limited lifespan. It is thus not surprising at all to us when, feeling generous, Hermes allows Prince to understand Kim and vice versa for the first time, allowing the poet to feel love in life as no dog has.

Where Alexis' novel leaves us, then, is in full and continued contemplation of the human condition, specifically as illuminated by the titular dogs. The ending does not provide us with a grand sense of resolution, but rather with a sense of inevitability and sadness mixed with hope. It is with the same mood that we are then left to contemplate the relevance of what we just read to our own lives. Are we truly ever able to experience love without understanding another person? Is language the only key to immortality achievable within the realm of the natural and the mortal? Is language as inevitable a consequence of life as death? What is the cost of power, and is it worth the sacrifice of pursuing higher callings? And most fundamentally, how are we as humans to use our twin gifts of life and love—the same gifts offered to Prince by Hermes? The answer Alexis provides seems to suggest that these gifts are ends in themselves, worthy of the pursuit of and effort towards true understanding, but it is ultimately up to readers to decide for themselves.