Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Inter-species Relationship

Claire Romaine's picture

                For thousands of years, people have been coexisting with animals for the mutual material benefit of both.  Whether we are talking about the herding of sheep and cows for meat or the cultivation of micers and rat-chasers, humans insisted for years on the usefulness of other creatures.  Yet, somewhere along the course of history, people began to keep animals for companionship, forsaking utility, and they thus created what modern society calls pets.  In Zadie Smith’s NW, Leah owns the solitary pet in the entire novel, a dog named Olive, but her relationship with her dog is not simply about utility versus companionship.  Rather as Barbara Smuts says in her essay about inter-species relationships, the bond between Leah and Olive is about transcending “the narrow set of assumptions about what [animals] are capable of, and what sort of relationship it is possible to have with them” (Barbara Smuts 115)

Leah is able to develop a deep meaningful relationship with her dog by shucking of the human presumption that personality and individuality are solely human traits.  Her personal experience shows her only that “post-Olive it is easy to believe in the consciousness of animals” (Zadie Smith 56), and that the affection of a dog comes without any qualifiers.  Unlike with the children that Leah is terrified of, there is no nine month span of anxiety and pain, and there is no lifelong commitment, only affection and reciprocation without fear of condemnation.  Smith even juxtaposes the relationship of a mother vainly “screaming at her children” to “Leah call[ing] to Olive, who comes lolloping” (Smith 56) to illustrate Leah’s reasons for preferring Olive to the possibility of children. 

Leah’s relationship with Olive is meaningful and affectionate and completely uncomplicated.  Moreover, it is separate from the rest of her relationships and can thus become a method of escaping the constraints and expectations of her human family and society.  Leah’s social group is very small consisting mainly of Michel, Natalie, Frank and Pauline, all of whom know each other quite well, which means that Leah has no real privacy in her relationships or confidantes she can fall back on when facing difficulties at home and no way to escape the constant pressures of her life.  Moreover, she has no privacy or substantial opportunity to form such independent relationships because even among her own family gossip is rampant.  Just notice how Natalie is able to recite Leah’s stories at dinner parties as readily as Leah herself.  Even Leah willingly takes part in the transfer of information: immediately calling Pauline to discuss the events regarding Shar.  Shar’s ‘visitation’ further illustrates why Leah might need such an escape, as Michel, Pauline, Natalie and Frank each weigh in on how they believe she should have handled the situation.  She has no refuge in human relationships from their judging, prying, and supposedly helpful eyes.  Particularly in highly personal matters, like pregnancy and child-rearing, she has no place to retreat to without also leaving behind the affection and support of those she loves. Olive, although not human, provides a much need relationship.  As Smuts says “relating to other beings as persons has nothing to do with whether or not we attribute human characteristics to them. It has to do, instead, with recognizing that they are social subjects” (Smuts 118), and Leah’s isolation lends her this ability to transcend human norms and form an important and positive relationship across species boundaries.  In Olive she finds the unconditional support and affection that she desperately craves particularly when she faces the Michel’s desire for and her thought of children.   In fact, Olive begins to function in much the same role as a child might, as even Pauline points out in reference to the dog “that’s my grandchild, there” (Smith 85).  Olive is the object of the affection and protectiveness that other women might lavish on children, and even Leah cannot figure out “how a child could be held with any more tenderness” (Smith 56).  Considering Leah and Olive’s already established relationship, Olive’s death becomes even more tragic.  Not only does the equivalent of Leah’s child die, but in Olive’s dying moments “Leah struggles to be objective” (Smith 95), to ignore her ‘motherly’ instinct to seek help, in the face of high veterinary costs.  She abandons the meaningful inter-species relationship she has formed to return to a normal human dinner party that comparatively contains meaningless trivialities.  Leah becomes an accomplice in the death of the one creature with which she has a purely positive relationship.

Regardless of Leah’s negligence when Olive dies her grief breaks the traditional customs regarding dead pets.  “She is unfamiliar with the rules concerning the mourning of animals. For a cat: one week. For a dog, two will be tolerated” (Smith 102), but long after the customary period, Leah remains depressed.  Even though she tries, as she said before to remain objective, her emotional investment in her dog precludes her from moving on or even distancing herself from this personal tragedy.  Leah’s example is far from the only one regarding the loss and mourning of animals in literature, and it showcases the depth of emotional attachment that Barbara Struts examines in here essay.  So often, however, inter-species attachment is limited to the emotional investment rather than intellectual. And this really begs the question of whether or not we, as humans, are capable of regarding another species as our equals and truly worthy of our attention in any sphere if we fight the idea of even appreciating our pets as socially independent and capable creatures.


Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. Print.

Smuts, Barbara.  Reflection.  The Lives of Animals.  By J. M. Coetzee.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.  107-120.  Print.