Mark Twain has been called ‘the father of the American novel’ mainly because of his Huckleberry Finn, a book which among other things deals with slavery and hence with prejudice. A Dog’s Tale, written at the end of his life, is also about prejudice of a kind, the inability to see animals as ‘God’s creatures’ like us, and especially an inability to understand their pain. Mark Twain wrote strongly against vivisection.
This story is like a fairy story, especially at the beginning, mainly because the animal speaks and is a character in it. But it’s also a story with a moral. The dog, Aileen, knows a lot more about ‘how to live’ than does the intellectual professor. And Aileen’s mother knows more about teaching too, since she sees teaching as a matter of showing an example. She and Aileen have learnt how, whereas the professor and his colleagues have learn that.
Much is made of language in the story because living well has very little to do with knowing long bookish words. Aileen’s mother finds long words fun. They provide her with entertainment. She plays with their sounds almost as a poet would. She plays other people, too, through her often joking sometimes mischievous invention of meanings of long words. It doesn’t matter to her that she’s ‘wrong’ because the etymological aspects of life don’t matter.
Words, of course, distinguish humans from animals. And there is a sadness in the telling when Aileen hears but doesn’t understand the plans for killing her puppy as an experiment and for the good of humanity. Language comes to the fore again when we hear the way the professor speaks about the now blinded and dying puppy: nothing but celebration because he was right.
Twain suggests that there’s something fundamental about living unselfishly as Aileen has been brought up to. The humans can be cajoled into being good through fear of hellfire and hope of heaven. The animals have no hope of an afterlife and yet still, Twain suggests, love and unselfishness are worth having for their own sake.