The Lives of Animals Background

The Lives of Animals Background

The Lives of Animals is a unique work in the canon of South African author J.M. Coetzee. Published in 1999, the work is an amalgamation of non-fiction and fiction that come together for the purpose of stimulating discussion about the underlying philosophy of how man relates to animals within the specific context of animal cruelty. Coetzee engages a series of his own lectures with a fictional interpolation of an Australian writer of fiction named Elizabeth Costello.

Costello is a highly respected writer of feminist fiction who is equally famous for being a passionate devotee of the rights of animals. Her esteemed status is undermined in her golden years, however, by growing misanthropy which if fed by the disgust and revulsion at the way that humans treat animals. In her defense of animals, she is situated as treating her fellow human beings with the same lack of regard she accuses those of abusing animals display.

What makes the book stand out as more than mere novel or even as just another example of meta-fiction is what happens after Costello’s story ends. The section of The Lives of Animals which encompasses the fictional Costello is more of a very long short story than even a novella. The rest of the book consists responses to the preceding by actual real-life academic experts all notable in different fields of study: Barbara Smuts, Peter Singer, Marjorie Garber, and Wendy Doniger. These responses range from Garber’s critique of the literary merits of Coetzee’s fiction to Singer’s own fictional construct of a Socratic dialogue between him and his daughter over the ethical dimension of eating hot dogs.

The result makes The Lives of Animals one of the more difficult books to categorize because not only is it part fictional and part non-fictional, but within the fictional aspect are references to non-fictional and the non-fictional section responds to the fictional section as if it were real. Clearly, Coetzee is trying to make a point in drawing this parallel, but the point has remained open to debate since publication.

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