The Velveteen Rabbit
by Margery Williams
What's an "It Narrative"? I'm glad you asked. One of the more uncommon forms of fictional narratives, an It Narrative, sometimes known as an Object Narrative, is characterised by a voice or perspective which in real life is accepted as impossible, being made available through fiction. Clear as mud? Let me put it another way. In the real world, if cats or dogs or plants or pencil sharpeners have human-like thoughts and feelings beyond basic instinct, we don't know they do, and don't know what they are.
But through the magic of the creative imagination, many authors have brought objects and animals to animation, breathed life and thoughts, hopes and dreams and opinions, editorial insight and even evil into them.
The It Narrative as a literary form came into fashion in mid to late 18th-century England. It originated as a serious device to allow writers, through personification, to present outside observation or criticism of human beings and society from a social perspective without introducing a main human character's moralistic standpoint. The literary device also relieved the reader of the assumptions and notions that a human character's class, gender or social standing carried along with it. Particularly in times of great social turmoil or upheaval, a narrator could be seen as unreliable merely by virtue of his or her station in life (particularly in relation to that of the reader or author). So writers turned to non-human narrators and perspectives.
An excellent example is Charles Johnstone's novel Chrysal, first published in 1760. Subtitled "Or, The Adventures of a Guinea", the novel is told from the point of view of a gold coin as it circulates from hand to hand and country to country. Another well-known example is The History of Pompey the Little: Or, the Life an Adventures of a Lap-Dog by Francis Coventry which was published nine years earlier in 1751, and tells the story of a lap-dog's journey from owner to owner, observing all the way.
Technically, to qualify as an It Narrative in the purest sense of the phrase, the object or animal should be the main character and narrator of the story. But over time, the genre has come to encompass - or at least be lumped-in with - stories in which the object or animal is merely a key figure or character in the book, and stories in which an inanimate object or animal becomes sentient and able to be heard or understood.
Many authors have used this tool as a means to illustrate the magic of childhood, by having inanimate but beloved objects owned by children come to life - either in the child's imagination (we think), or eventually, in reality (we are told). One example is Bill Watterson's much celebrated comic strip Calvin and Hobbes
, which ran for 10 years from 1985 to 1995. The strip's titular characters are Calvin, a six-year-old boy, and Hobbes, his stuffed tiger. Hobbes is Calvin's constant companion, best friend, co-pilot, confidante and more, and in the panels populated only by Calvin and Hobbes, Hobbes appears to the reader as a walking, breathing, living tiger (though he walks upright, talks, and is more fuzzy than fierce). In the panels in which other characters such as the neighbor girl Susie or Calvin's parents are present, Hobbes is clearly drawn as a stuffed toy. Watterson always successfully blurred the lines between reality and Calvin's imagination, in funny or touching ways - we see Calvin looking concerned and crestfallen while his mother sews a tear in Hobbes' fabric (and handing her the scissors as if handing a scalpel to a surgeon); and once we see the "real" Hobbes emerge from the clothes dryer to the amusement of Calvin, who makes fun of his staticky fur.
Other children's stories have featured toys that, even while inanimate, possessed consciousness and longed to be real. In the Margery Williams' classic story The Velveteen Rabbit
, the plush bunny, overlooked at first in favour of shinier toys, becomes the little boy's go-to toy, and is eventually made real through love and the help of a fairy, and lives in the woods with other real rabbits. The boy in the story who had loved the toy so well sees the rabbit one day, and notes how much it looks like his old toy, but never knows it really was. In the 19th-century Italian novel The Adventures of Pinocchio
by Carlo Collodi, a wooden puppet is aware of his essence and longs to become a real boy. Through a series of moral lessons and unfortunate adventures, he eventually learns the value of virtue, hard work and trustworthiness, and is made real.
In some stories allowing the read to know an animals perspective, the animals still retain their basic, realistic animal nature. In Richard Adams' novel Watership Down,
the rabbits are still very much rabbits - they dig warrens, eat clover and the like. Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain
is told entirely from the perspective of the family dog, Enzo, in his own voice, but he does not talk, wear clothes, or do anything a real dog cannot - the reader's experience simply takes place through the observational perspective of the pup.
In what is more simply a case of anthropomorphism, many fictional stories go beyond simply allowing the reader to explore what might be on the mind of our animal friends, to imbuing them with humanistic traits - cats, dogs, horses and even insects have often expressed themselves as eloquently as humans in some stories. Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach
is one example - the world inside the oversized stone fruit is populated by talking insects as diverse as any group of humans you could hope to meet. They bicker and nag each other, argue and sing. Charlotte's Web
is another tale of animal anthropomorphism - when the humans aren't around, the animals have conversations. Charlotte even reads and writes in English, as we see when she spins words into her web.
Regardless of reason and origin, personification and anthropomorphism are writing tools we've all come across while reading, and it's interesting to see the everyday objects and animals around us, struck dumb by reality, given a voice and a chance to speak.
Enjoy this list of objects and animals brought to life in fiction.