Justin Torres

We The Animals

  • 53-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 19 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with an MFA in Creative Writing
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We The Animals Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 53-page guide for “We The Animals” by Justin Torres includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 19 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Zoomorphism and Animalistic Behavior and Racial Identity.

Plot Summary

We The Animals is the 2011 debut novel by Justin Torres. The book tells the story of three brothers living in upstate New York and is narrated in the first person by the youngest brother, who goes unnamed. In this summary, he will be called “the narrator.” The novel is structured in nineteen vignettes that function as windows onto the lives of the brothers and their family.

The first chapter, “We Wanted More,” underscores the titular theme. The boys—Manny, Joel and the narrator—are hungry, destructive little animals who will stop at nothing to get the things they need and want. The chapter suggests that they are modeling their behavior after their father, Paps, who is a brutal, muscular beast himself, a dealer of spankings and other, worse punishments. The ensuing chapters provide an introduction of sorts, outlining ideas of birth and growth. Ma notices that the boys are playing a game where they hit a ketchup bottle, and then her lotion bottles, with a mallet, spraying each other with a strange mixture of condiment and cream. She notes that they look like they did when they came out of her covered in placenta. She wants to be born, too, and they help her by exploding the ketchup all over her. She screams and they cheer. They have helped her to come into the world. 

While Ma is being born, or reborn, into the family, Paps teaches the brothers about their cultural heritage through dance. They jive to Tito Puente in the kitchen. He dances with each of them, grabbing their arms and pulling them through his legs. Through stereotypes about how people from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds dance, Paps shows the boys what groups they are not a part of. When they are unable to mambo like him, the boys learn they are mutts. Neither Puerto Rican, nor white, they are between cultures.

Though Paps can display passion and joy, he can also turn violent. This is on display when Ma is laid up in her room for days with severe cuts and swelling to her face. Though Paps tells the boys that the dentist hit her to loosen up her teeth for a procedure, her reaction to the brothers makes it apparent that it was Paps who did the hitting. It happens to be the narrator’s birthday, and she asks him if he will remain 6 forever, because 7-year-olds will leave her, and eventually turn into men like Paps.

Paps takes the family out to a lake near their house. Manny and Joel easily take to the water, but the narrator and Ma don’t know how to swim, so Paps carries them in to the lake. He then decides to let go of them; Ma flails and flails, scratching them both and almost drowning the narrator. In these moments, the narrator is able to face his fear and learn to swim.

Readers learn that Ma was 14 when she had Manny and Paps was 16. If the narrator is now 7, that makes his parents 21 and 23. When Paps leaves for a while, Ma goes into a state of depression, not eating and not feeding her sons. The boys scrounge for food and eat out of an old man’s garden. Though Ma begins to feed the boys small bowls of soup, she is still in a state of depression; when Paps calls, she won’t answer the phone. 

Once Paps is back, things seem better for a while. The boys are given a bath and watch their parents kiss. They also get to take their frustrations out on them by slapping and kicking them; Ma and Paps give them a free pass to get it all out. Things look up when Paps gets a new job, but then he loses it because he must bring the boys to work with him and a coworker catches them coming out of the building with blankets. 

One evening, Paps forces Ma to go upstairs to have sex with him. Though her expression pleads for help, all the boys can do is watch her be shoved into the bedroom. Later, Ma takes the boys to a park. The narrator notices that their belongings are packed in garbage bags that sit in the truck bed. After a day of playing aimlessly, she asks them whether they want to leave Paps. They don’t have an answer for her and she goes home. 

In an attempt to escape his life, Paps digs a hole in the backyard. All of the characters spend time lying in it, looking for some outlet for their depression and aimlessness. At the same time that the family is experiencing such upheaval, the narrator is dealing with his own changes. It becomes increasingly apparent that the narrator is different from his brothers. He is softer, kinder, and lacks a killer instinct. When his father leaves him at a museum near Niagara Falls for hours, the narrator dances in front of a projector showing a film about the Falls, pretending that he is a merman dancing the water. His father sees his dance and contemplates it for the whole car ride home. He tells that narrator that his thought while he was watching him was about how pretty the narrator was. It confuses Paps to think this way about his son, but that’s the only way he can describe it. 

As the boys grow older, the narrator distinguishes himself from his brothers by being a better student, more intelligent, and more well-spoken. Though they still defend him, they are growing apart. His brothers will be normal townies, while the narrator aspires to more. He journals about his resentment of his family, as well as his fantasies about having sex with men in the bus station bathroom. On the last night the brothers are together, he leaves them in disgust and goes to the bus station. He has sex for the first time with a male bus driver in the back of a bus. He is ecstatic, but comes home to find that Ma has read his journal, as has the rest of his family. They are horrified and he lashes out, punching and scratching them. When everyone tries to de-escalate the situation, the narrator makes it worse. He tests their love for him to see how strong it really is.

After the narrator’s outburst, Paps doesn’t leave his side. He bathes the narrator and gets him ready for what is to come. The narrator ends up in a “zoo,” a metaphor/euphemism for a mental health facility. Every patient seems to be his or her own species of animal. Though he is popular there, the narrator wants to leave and be an adult.

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Chapters 1-3