A Dark Brown Dog is a sad, but important story relating to the Jim Crow South, written by Stephen Crane in 1893, and published 1901. We hope this guide is particularly useful for teachers and students to better understand the historical context and the story's allegory.
Here's the story: A Dark Brown Dog, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Etymology of Jim Crow, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Reading, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
The Dog - The protagonist of the story, who on one level is an abused dog, befriended by a mostly well-intending child. On a symbolic level, he represents a man recently freed from the chains of slavery (his dragging leash). He seems lost with his new-found freedom, tripping over the leash, still in the mentality of slavery. He tries to befriend the Child, who drags him home, where bad things will happen.
A Child - A very young child befriends, and abuses the stray dog, in an effort to protect him from harm. The child represents the new generation of Southerners attempting to treat black people as equals after they were no longer slaves, but as Crane alludes in his story, the Child doesn't quite treat the dog as he deserves, nor can the Child protect the dog from more powerful forces (his father/Jim Crow laws).
The Father - The angry, abusive man with a savage temper who makes the final decision to allow the dog to stay in the home just to antagonize the protestations from the rest of the family. He is responsible for administering hateful abuse that results in submission and the death of the Dog, over the Child's protestations.
The Family - Crane does not reveal details, other than that when the Dog first appeared, "they made a great row." It may be that the wife represents the North and the federal laws. There is no dialog, which represents a silent tolerance of the dog's mistreatment by the father. Only the child screams in protest, but has no authority. The wife is complicitous because she doesn't stop the mistreatment (like the federal government doesn't stop Jim Crow laws). She participates in the beating, similar to federal "separate but equal" decision (see Historical Context section below).
The Neighbors - Their only role in the story is as witnesses to the horror of watching a dog thrown to his death. One of them with clothes pins in her mouth was like "a gagged prisoner." They were complicitous because they took no action to stop the abuse (though they must have heard the dog and child wailing).
This powerful tale of cruelty and sorrow has at least two levels. The first is a sad story about a dog and a very young child, who administers both protection and cruelty, until the dog's tragic death at the hands of the child's father. It is also an allegory and social criticism of post-Civil War Reconstruction, in which the dog represents recently freed slaves who continue to be mistreated under the pretense of being free; the child is the new generation of white Southerners who have good intentions to attempt protecting African-Americans, but haven't matured enough to offer a safe and nurturing environment; and the father embodies Jim Crow Laws, which enforced segregation and suppression of African Americans, stripping their rights, even though they are supposedly freemen, protected by Federal civil rights.
This story is symbolic fiction in which the actual events and characters are allegorical references to historical events and convey social criticism by the author.
The origins of the term "Jim Crow" come from a 19th century plantation song, "Jump Jim Crow." The white actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice performed minstral shows and popularized the character in his song-and-dance act in the 1830s. He toured throughout the United States and Britain, and was a massive hit among white audiences. The caricature name became a derogatory term for African Americans. The term "Jim Crow laws" refers to repressive laws and customs aimed to restrict African American rights. Visit Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
To better understand the social criticism and powerful symbolism in Stephen Crane's story, it's important to understand the historic context of the post-Civil War era, particularly the Reconstruction period after slavery was abolished (1865-1877) in the "Jim Crow South." For decades after the Civil War, African Americans remained in serf-like conditions, beholden to an employer or landowner, lacking basic rights. White supremacy campaigns surged. Federal protections were established to offer basic civil rights (Amendments 13-15, called the Reconstruction Amendments). But it was the state and local "Jim Crow" laws in the Southern states which were the ultimate authority, represented by Crane's father. African Americans' ongoing mistreatment, with the promise and hope of a better life, represented by Crane's stray dog. The federal government, unable to provide real protection but with good intentions, represented by Crane's wife. Younger generation white Southerners with good intentions represent the child.
Jim Crow laws were state and local statutes which segregated and effectively stripping African American and poor white voter rights through strict election rules, literacy, and record-keeping requirements. Ironically, the federal government helped Southern segregation with Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision allowing "separate but equal" institutions.
By 1910, less than 0.5% of black men were registered in Louisiana. North Carolina eliminated all black voters between 1896-1904. "Separate but equal" continued throughout the country into the World War II era. President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, imposed segregation of federal workers, and allowed the Southern Democrats to continue suppressing minorities. It wasn't until 1948 that the armed services were desegregated by President Harry Truman. The NAACP won the case, Brown v. Board of Education in the Supreme Court in 1954, a pivotal victory leading to school desegregation, overturning the "separate but equal" decision slowly, but surely.
Not until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s did African Americans begin to make progress towards legal, social, and political equality; a very long road. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed by President Johnson, was prompted by the ongoing efforts of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, along with many others.
The rights of minorities remain an issue-- particularly relating to immigration-- which have reigned debates about the appropriate role of governments and changing cultural attitudes about terrorist threats, diversity of race, religion, and sexual identity. Crane's allegory resonates just as much today.
Did the story enfuriate you? How could anyone treat a dog or a human so cruelly? Where was a loving role model for the child to learn how to care for and create a safe harbor for a helpless creature? Why didn't the dog try to leave? Why pray for his captor? Evoking these feelings and questions is just Crane's intent. To make you uncomfortable, and cause you pause to reflect, "What would I have done?"
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
“A short rope was dragging from his neck. Occasionally he trod upon the end of it and stumbled.”
“The child lifted his hand and struck the dog a blow upon the head.”
“He wriggled contritely and showed his repentance in every way that was in his power. He pleaded with the child and petitioned him, and offered more prayers."
“In his mind he was being dragged toward a grim unknown. His eyes grew wild with the terror of it. He began to wiggle his head frantically and to brace his legs. The child redoubled his exertions. They had a battle on the stairs. The child was victorious because he was completely absorbed in his purpose, and because the dog was very small.”
“Scorn was leveled at him from all eyes, so that he became much embarrassed and drooped like a scorched plant. But the child went sturdily to the center of the floor, and, at the top of his voice, championed the dog.”
“The father of the family, it appears, was in a particularly savage temper that evening, and when he perceived that it would amaze and anger everybody if such a dog were allowed to remain, he decided that it should be so.”
“[The Dog] would display strategic ability of a high order, dodging, feinting and scuttling about among the furniture. He could force three or four people armed with brooms, sticks and handfuls of coal, to use all their ingenuity to get in a blow. And even when they did, it was seldom that they could do him a serious injury or leave any imprint.”
"When misfortune came upon the child, and his troubles overwhelmed him, he would often crawl under the table and lay his small distressed head on the dog's back. The dog was ever sympathetic. It is not to be supposed that at such times he took occasion to refer to the unjust beatings his friend, when provoked, had administered to him."
"The scene of their companionship was a kingdom governed by this terrible potentate, the child; but neither criticism nor rebellion ever lived for an instant in the heart of the one subject. Down in the mystic, hidden fields of his little dog-soul bloomed flowers of love and fidelity and perfect faith."
"Here the child, uttering loud cries, came valiantly forth like a knight. The father of the family paid no attention to these calls of the child, but advanced with glee upon the dog."
"A woman watering plants in an opposite window gave an involuntary shout and dropped a flower-pot. A man in another window leaned perilously out to watch the flight of the dog. A woman, who had been hanging out clothes in a yard, began to caper wildly...children ran whooping."
"It took him a long time to reach the alley, because his size compelled him to go downstairs backward, one step at a time, and holding with both hands to the step above."
1. Describe the story on its second level: an allegorical social criticism of the Reconstruction Era in the South. Who or what do the characters represent?
2. What does the leash symbolize? Why does the child assume it is a stray, rather than separated from its owner?
3. Relate the role of master and servant to the Child and the dog in this story.
4. Consider and comment on this quote by Frederick Douglass in relation to the story:
"Sometimes I have feared that, in some wild paroxysm of rage, the white race, forgetful of the claims of humanity and the precepts of the Christian religion, will proceed to slaughter the negro in wholesale...for the white people do not easily tolerate the presence among them of a race more prosperous than themselves. The negro as a poor ignorant creature does not contradict the race pride of the white race. He is more a source of amusement to that race than an object of resentment."
5. Describe the historical context of the Reconstruction Amendments, how Crane represents the small child's attempted protection (Federal legislation or amendments) as not enough to overcome the more powerful violence and hatred from the Jim Crow laws in the South (represented by the father).
6. Describe the symbolism of the Dog's reluctance to follow The Child up the stairs-- does this symbolize African-Americans' reluctance, or sense of foreboding that something bad might happen?
7. Explain the symbolism of the child's guardianship of the Dog, and the dog's actions to attempt to be liked, and yet show subservience. How is this symbolic of conditions for African Americans in Southern States during the Reconstruction period?
8. Consider why the dog just doesn't leave, or why he tolerates the abuse? Compare that to abused slaves, unsure of their new roles as freedmen.
9. There's an expression, "It's a dog's life" which actually used to mean being treated poorly, beaten, abused, abandoned. Discuss changed societal norms about expected treatment of pets in modern times versus accepted treatment in the late 19th century. is there a parallel you can draw to modern African Americans' status versus their circumstances as newly freed slaves?
10. Crane delivers a dark and difficult story to read. It makes us mad considering how anyone would tolerate treating another living creature in such a manner. The dog's tragic end seemed so avoidable. Re-write the story with a less tragic ending (and interpret its parallels as a social criticism of treatment of subjugated minorities).
Essay Question: As much as conditions have improved since Reconstruction and Crane's telling of this story, how does this story make you think about current societal "wrongs" that still need remedy? Write your own allegorical social criticism.
Compare the rich symbolism and other literary devices in A Dark Brown Dog with these other works:
The Dog, a story about dog psychology, how dogs like to have their day's work, more conscientious than most humans.
Many Thousand Gone, sung by slaves fleeing their plantations heading to safe harbor in Union Army camps during the Civil War.
Infographics of African American Life, 1900, interpret the chart comparing the proportion of freemen and slaves among African Americans, and the map showing their concentration in the Southern United States.
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