25 pages 50 minutes read

Stephen Crane

A Dark Brown Dog

Fiction | Short Story | Middle Grade | Published in 1901

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Dark Brown Dog”

A Dark Brown Dog” by American author and poet Stephen Crane is an allegorical short story that follows the tumultuous and tragic relationship between a boy and his dog. Writing within the genre of literary Realism, and as a pioneer specifically of Naturalism, Crane comments on the complexities and complications of the post-Civil War, Jim Crow-era United States. This short piece wrestles with questions of subjugation versus liberation and violence as power, utilizing the dog’s experience and relationships to illustrate the power imbalance between recently emancipated African Americans and white people. While “A Dark Brown Dog” was first written in 1893, it was not published until eight years later, in 1901, in Cosmopolitan.

This guide refers to the version of the text that is freely available online at AmericanLiterature.org

Content Warning: This guide discusses animal cruelty; domestic violence; and the history of the enslavement of African Americans and anti-Black racism, including segregation and lynching.

A third-person omniscient narrator describes a child, alone and aimless, on a city street. The day is warm and lazy. A small brown dog with a rope around its neck tentatively approaches the boy, tripping on the end of the rope as it walks. The child extends a hand, and the two begin to interact playfully. As the child pets the dog, the dog grows joyful and rambunctious. Fearful the dog will topple him, the child hits the dog.

The dog, deeply upset by the child’s blow, lays down “in despair at the child’s feet” (Paragraph 5). As the child scolds the dog and hits him again, the dog rolls to expose his belly, demonstrating submission. This unusual position amuses the child. The dog, certain he must’ve committed some serious offense that warranted the child striking him, sustains the position by way of apology: the dog “wriggled contritely and showed his repentance in every way that was in his power” (Paragraph 6).

The child, growing bored of the dog, begins to walk home. The dog follows. On realizing the dog is following, the child verbally berates the dog and, when that fails, begins to hit the dog again. Once more, the dog responds with submission: the dog “lay down and prayed until the child had finished” (Paragraph 9). This pattern—the pair walking, the child hitting the dog, the dog waiting until the child has finished, and then the pair resuming their walk—continues until the child arrives home. The dog makes a final bid to gain the child’s attention, but in a fit of shame, trips on the rope around his neck.

The child sits on his doorstep and again plays with the dog: “[T]he two had another interview” (12). The dog rouses its energy and performs to the best of its ability, eager to “please the child” (Paragraph 12). The effort works. The child finally sees some value in the dog and greedily snatches the rope, dragging the dog inside. Though the dog tries to keep up at first, the climb is difficult, and as the child’s excitement grows, the dog starts to panic. The child, his strength proving greater, nonetheless pulls the dog into his home.

The house is empty, and, for a short time, the child plays affectionately with the dog, who “instantly accepted” (Paragraph 15) the positive attention. When part of the child’s family arrives home, however, they are infuriated and disgusted by the dog’s presence. The child hugs the dog, defending him. In the midst of the fight, the father enters, home from work and in an especially foul mood. On learning the situation, the father allows the dog to stay—albeit solely to cause strife: He knows it will “amaze and anger everybody” (Paragraph 18). The child and the dog go to a corner of the room and continue to play.

The child and the dog continue to form a deeper bond, and the child affords the dog some protection, defending the animal against mistreatment. Once, in his efforts, the child was struck in the head by a saucepan as the father raised it against the dog. Since that event, the family has grown more careful in their abuse. When the child is present, they do nothing against the dog to avoid setting off a crying fit. Simultaneously, the dog has learned to avoid abuse to an extent: he “grew very skillful in avoiding missiles and feet” (Paragraph 19). However, the child “could not always be near” (Paragraph 22). When the child sleeps, for example, the dog would howl “a song of infinite lowliness and despair” (Paragraph 21), and the family would chase and hit him.

Despite their closeness, sometimes the child also hits the dog. The dog accepts these beatings as deserved—it “always accepted these thrashings with an air of admitted guilt” (Paragraph 22)—and forgives the child immediately after. When distressed, the child seeks the dog out for comfort, and the dog freely offers sympathy.

The dog never gains traction with any other family members, and his fear irritates them. Though the family enjoyed underfeeding the dog for a time, the child learns to ensure the dog eats—at least most of the time. When the child fails, the dog has become resourceful enough to find scraps.

Under these conditions, the dog “prospered” (Paragraph 24): He develops an impressive bark, and he stops howling at night. Though the dog sometimes has nightmares, encountering “huge flaming dogs who threatened him” (Paragraph 26), his devotion to the child intensifies, growing absolute.

One day, however, the father of the family returns home intoxicated. He grows violent: He “held carnival with the cooking utensils, the furniture and his wife” (30). When the child and dog enter the scene, the child immediately understands the danger: “[T]he child’s practiced eye instantly noted his father’s state” (Paragraph 29). Accordingly, the child takes refuge under the table. The dog, blissfully unaware of the danger of the father’s rage, assumes the child is merely playing. The father, spotting the dog, strikes it with a coffeepot and kicks it in the side. Stunned and terrified, the dog cries out. The child screams and emerges, running toward the dog “valiantly […] like a knight” (Paragraph 31). However, the dog yields entirely, and, rather than attempt escape, it offers its belly, praying once again.

The father, unmoved and callous, decides to have a bit of fun by throwing the dog out the window. He lifts the dog by the leg, swings the animal around his head, and flings the dog through the window. Various neighbors react with surprise, shouting and dropping things, with children “whooping” (Paragraph 33).

The dog falls five stories from the window to crash onto the roof of a shed. The child, still in his home “burst into a long, dirgelike cry” (Paragraph 34). He hurries down, albeit forced by his small size to take the many stairs carefully, “backward, one step at a time” (Paragraph 37). When his family finally comes for him, they find him sitting next to the dog’s body.