One of the major themes explored in the text is the importance of language—after all, it is indispensable in facilitating interpersonal communication, and it also holds aesthetic or artistic value in its own right.
The former aspect of language is addressed thoroughly through Atticus' repression of the new language, Majnoun's relationship with Nira, and Benjy's desire to learn the human tongue. In the first case, Atticus' impulse to believe that the new language will keep them from behaving and acting as they used to reflects a heightened awareness of how language shapes and influences both actions in and perceptions of a larger world. In the second case, we see through Majnoun and Nira's relationship how full communication and understanding through shared language truly opens the door to a peaceful, loving, and equal relationship between two beings. In the case of Benjy, we see how Benjy's fervent desire to learn English truly comes from a recognition of language's power to manipulate or control others. In each case, we see how, when language opens the door to communication with others and the formation of unique social relationships, it begins to assume a unique kind of power.
Separately, however, there is the issue of language's aesthetic value, addressed through the character of Prince. Prince's love for language and successful innovation in poetic form not only leads to his internal satisfaction at the moment of death, but also soothes the gods and becomes an immortal creation after his death. Language is thus also the only thing in the text that is able to bridge the mortal divide between the secular and the divine.
Death and Mortality
The stakes of the divide between mortals and immortals is itself a significant theme developed throughout the novel. Early on in the novel, we are told that one of the most painful things for the dogs, given their new intelligence, is a heightened awareness of time. Attendant to such a discovery is, of course, the sudden realization of one's own mortality. This realization is reflected in the text as early as Prince's poem about the master who knows each of the dogs' secret names (29). Awareness of one's own mortality then opens the door for more fulfilling and satisfactory ways of living: out of the idea that the mortal body is limited, Atticus invents a notion of the divine; Majnoun learns to care for and truly depend on another being; Prince is desperate to compose and spread his language; and so on.
Most significantly, however, this theme is laid bare at the end of the novel when the narrator offers us Hermes' reflections upon departing the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Hermes recognizes that he is infinitely more powerful than the cab driver he rides with, for example, but he also knows that mortal beings are the only ones who know what it is to love, truly emote, and feel urgency in their actions. Mortality is powerful in its own right because the gods cannot access it.
The Meaning of Love
One of the most pressing concerns of mortal life explored in the novel is that of love. Love is first brought up by Nira when she is talking to Majnoun initially about a variety of complex concepts like religion and government. When she asks Majnoun if he has ever loved another dog, he is unclear about what exactly the emotion is. Similarly, when Atticus reflects on his relationship with Rosie in Chapter 3, we are clued to think that he feels something like love for her, but he says that he thinks himself to be perverted. He chalks this up to a lack of language describing and thus validating the feelings he has for Rosie. Later on, Majnoun is indeed able to learn what love truly means to Nira, but only by understanding her language and the experiences which have led her to construct her language as she does.
Throughout the first four chapters, then, love becomes inextricably linked to language, since language and experiences which are shared or communicated through language open the door to love. This idea is validated at the novel's end when Prince—whose language and aesthetic intuition justify his existence—is given the ability to understand Kim and thus love him by Hermes. Love and language are thus two faces of the same experience—sharing one's self fully with another.
The Human (or Canine) Condition
In exploring subjects like love, religion, and art, the novel offers many comments on which may be considered explicitly human, canine, and neither (i.e., cultural/learned behavior). Through the relationship of Majnoun and Nira, Atticus' contact with the divine, and Nira and Majnoun's conversations about art and stories, respectively, we learn that none of the aforementioned subjects are exclusively canine or human, but rather conditioned by the ability to intelligently and clearly communicate.
What remains intrinsic to each group, then, is actually few and far between. In the case of the human, for example, one thing which seems to be a common element is the ability to say something other than what one truly means, or else create the appearance of something that is not so. This is not to say, however, that humans are duplicitous. Rather, human beings gain satisfaction in the novel by creating things that elude understanding (like their art), saying things other than what they mean (creating new meaning through tone or unspoken understanding), and acting contrary to how they implicitly think (i.e., when Nira refuses to admit her deference to Miguel, though Majnoun sees it clearly). Dogs, on the other hand, are more clear and straightforward, placing greater faith in tradition, nature, and instinct to determine what actions are appropriate in a given context.
Power and Domination
One other complex idea explored in the novel is the idea that excessive power and domination are at the antipode of love, produced when mutual understanding is at a minimum. While there are instances of natural power grabs and displays of domination (e.g., mounting) among the dogs before their intelligence sets in, their intelligent awareness truly just opens the door to suspicion and misunderstanding in ways that were earlier unfathomable. Atticus' misunderstanding of Majnoun, Bella, Athena, and Bobbie in relation to his new order leads to his attempts/successes at murdering them. Miguel's misunderstanding of Majnoun allows him to feel as if he is in control of the dog. Conversely, Benjy's inflation of his own self-worth leads him to overestimate his power over Clare and Randy—and, ultimately, to be abandoned and killed. Telling, too, is how mounting changes after the onset of intelligence: it goes from something that one did not even think about to something with odd connotations, beyond the sexual and beyond instinct. Power and domination are thus the alternate approach to understanding another, given intelligent awareness of death: if one cannot unite with another in pursuit of mutual enrichment, then perhaps one can dominate another and bend them to one's will.
The Power of Belonging
Despite everything that transpires between the pack members, the novel takes great care to remind us of the importance of belonging. Atticus even explicitly says so to Majnoun in their final discussion: "Black dog, [...] can there be a feeling greater than belonging?" (39). Beyond this, however, there are several other examples of this belief in practice. For example, Atticus' desire to kill off Majnoun and company is itself fueled by a desire to return to a larger collective—that is, the community of normal dogs. Majnoun's reluctant acceptance of Benjy into his home is conditioned by his feelings of loyalty and kinship with Benjy, being from the same pack. Prince's guidance of Benjy to Clare and Randy is fueled by a similar motivation. Finally, Prince's own love for his pack is explored as a natural result of his love for their language. If Prince loves his language, after all, he should also love the people who keep it alive and share it with him. This last point then lends itself to a discussion of belonging as similar to the feeling of love experienced between beings whom share a significant degree of life experience, such as Atticus and Rosie or Majnoun and Nira.
The Nature of the Divine
Beyond the divide between the mortal and the immortal, the novel also invests significant attention in exploring the nature of divinity itself. This is done most thoroughly and aptly through the experiences of Majnoun, Atticus, and Benjy. First, when Nira explains the concept of divinity to Majnoun and he thinks of it as "a master of all masters," he thinks such an entity is possible but is not particularly moved by it (49). Later, when Atticus imagines his idea of the divine, he does so by looking at his own shortcomings and imagining what a dog would be like if it had these missing virtues in excess. Finally, when Benjy imagines an afterlife on his deathbed, he thinks of it as a place with rigid social echelons, something he was wont to pursue on earth. Together, these three pieces of evidence suggest that the intelligent dogs in the novel invent divinity according to what they lack in their own lives and cannot achieve based on the limits of their body or their mortality. Majnoun will never be a master, Atticus a perfect dog, or Benjy someone who is content with his station in life, but by imagining that there exists something—outside of their experiences and thus outside mortality—that has all these qualities, the dogs arrive at a vision of omnipotent divinity similar to the gods imagined by human beings. An important note, however, is that the gods envisioned by the dogs are not benevolent, but rather think of power in the same way as the dogs. This further suggests the relationship of divinity to qualities inherent in its believers.
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.