Killing Animals for Dinner: Alistair MacLeod, Marcel Proust

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way, the first book of In Search of Lost Time. Penguin edition translated by Lydia Davis.


MacLeod, Alistair. “Second Spring,” found in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories. M&S 1992 (1986).


Pardon the lack of the accent in Francoise's name; I don't know the keyboard shortcut.


From Swann’s Way:

“Francoise, having no help now, was late. When I arrived downstairs she was busy in the scullery that opened out into the poultry yard, killing a chicken which, by its desperate and quite natural resistance, but accompanied by Francoise, beside herself as she tried to split its neck under the ear, with cries of “Vile creature! Vile creature!,” put the saintly gentleness and unction of our servant a little less in evidence than it should, at dinner the next day, by its skin embroidered with gold like a chasuble and and its precious juice drained from a ciborium. When it was dead, Francoise collected the blood, which flowed without drowning her resentment, had another fit of anger, and looking at her enemy’s cadaver, said one last time, “Vile creature!” I went back upstairs trembling all over; I wanted them to dismiss Francoise immediately. But who would have prepared me such cozy hot-water bottles, such fragrant coffee, and even… those chickens? And in fact, everyone had had to make this cowardly calculation, just as I had. For my aunt Leonie knew – as I did not yet know – that Francoise, who would for her daughter, for her nephews, have given her life without a murmur, was singularly hard-hearted toward other people.” (124-125)


One could readily compare the characterisation of the servant Francoise to the meat farmers of “Second Spring.” I’ll offer a couple of pull-quotes here, but you’d do better to read the whole short story with an eye toward how social class orbits animal slaughter. You might also look to the ways in which roughness/refinement, appetite/need, pleasure/self-control are set in dialogue.


From "Second Spring":

“By July first, which always seemed unbelievably soon, the haying season which would ensure their winter’s survival would begin. During the summer months while the animals would grow sleek and fat and haughty, we, their human owners, would grow thin and burned and irritable; rising often before sunrise and working sometimes until after dark. Only the work horses seemed to share our drudgery and weight loss, the burns from their collars and chafings caused by their rubbing traces corresponding to the blisters and calluses upon our hands. Sometimes at night we would rub ourselves with diluted horse liniment to alleviate the sprains and bruises which we accumulated during the day.


Throughout this season, as I said, the animals of summer grew strong and free. Only the milk cows were brought to the barn twice daily for their milking and even they took on an air of independence that bordered close to arrogance. The others grazed openly and heedlessly through the long days of their summer vacation. From the tops of our hay wagons we could see them, especially on the hottest days, lying on the sandy beaches which separated their pastures from the sea or dangerously close to the rocky edge of the sea cliff’s fall. It was always cooler near the sea and there was always a slight breeze and they were not bothered there by the flies that tormented inland animals. Throughout the working days of summer we spent little time ourselves beside or within the turquoise sea.” (59-60)


MacLeod’s description of the work rhythms of the year continues into “the fall,” when “we would reduce the population that had so flourished through the long, hot summer days.” (61) Re: the sale of lambs: “We would hear their indignant bleatings as the trucks took them permanently from the single environment of their one and only summer. Sounds of angered indignation tinged with the very real sound of fear. Later the cheques we had exchanged for them would come and we, in our turn, would enter a phase of rejuvenation and hopeful, though temporary, self-confidence.” (61-62). MacLeod goes on to give a vivid and detailed description of the animals that the farmers butcher themselves rather than selling them “to more distant killing stations.” (62)


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