I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy

toucan 3

I told him not to go near that raccoon!

We are an amalgamation of family, friends, lovers, and their affection (or lack thereof). The narrator in Louise Erdrich’s “I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy” (The Seagull Reader) agrees – “Who I am is just the habit of what I always was, and who I’ll be is the result” (148). We truly are the product of our environment. Some of us are just luckier than others.

The narrator is pessimistic, cynical, and weathered. He’s lived a rough, neglectful life – and now he’s deeply scarred. In brief moments of revealing sensitivity, he says: “My parents. It’s not like I hate them or anything. I just can’t see them. I can close my eyes and form my sister’s face behind my eyelids, but not my parents’ faces. Where their eyes should meet mine, nothing” (150). His detached relationship with his parents suggests that even at a young age, he was fated for pain, and that emotional scars formed long ago. To Dawn, his ex-girlfriend, he says: “She will know things and I will still be the same person that I was the year before” (153). Change for him is not realistic. He’s the result of a dysfunctional environment, destined to repeat its cycle.

A stolen stuffed toucan (a Christmas gift for Dawn) causes the ripple. Though subtle, Erdrich’s inclusion of the toucan is intentional. In the pretext, we learn that Erdrich is part Chippewa, and in the tradition of many Native American groups, various totems are used as symbols. In this case, the toucan/bird totem explains the narrator’s choice to steal. According to the totem, the toucan represents communication and showmanship. Its colorful appearance and large bill indicates a strong desire to be seen and heard. The toucan may appear when you are craving attention. (http://healing.about.com/od/animaltotems/ig/Animal-Totems-Photo-Gallery/Toucan.htm)

The stolen toucan is the narrator’s desperate plea to be seen and heard; his craving for attention; his showmanship. Dysfunctional communication is his most accustomed means of expression. For him, it’s a normality to self-sabotage – automatic and natural. Without chaos, he has no means to act and react.

Mason Joseph Andrews, the baby, is also significant. He’s purity personified, a blank slate – and when juxtaposed against the narrator, analogies form: Light versus Dark, Innocence versus Corruption, Good versus Evil. “I have never seen a child this little before, so small that it is not a child yet. Its face is tiny and dark, almost reddish, or copper, and its fingers, splayed out against its cheeks, are the feet of a sparrow” (151). Again, totem symbolism is used. Sparrows instill dignity and empowerment, and aids in survival instincts by sharpening intuition to make proper choices. (http://www.starstuffs.com/animal_totems/dictionary_of_birds.html) Mason’s presence is to inspire and guide – a redeeming test. This struggle/conflict continues throughout the story.

“You little bastard you, what are you doing here” (153)! The narrator hopes to escape freely, but Mason compromises his plans, forcing him to question his action. “There is the baby. It is helpless, but does not seem so helpless” (154). Here, the narrator sees his lost potential. Though Mason is helpless alone in the car, he is not helpless in life because he’s still impressionable, and can be molded into someone great – the antithesis of the narrator. “Except, I do rip that dangle of toys off its seat and tie it on the aerial when I go out, and I do leave its blankets in there, never take any” (154). He didn’t have to do anything, but his humanity emerged – the goodness (from Mason?) that’s apparent and visible, but not fully attainable.

The conflict culminates here: “He’ll grow up, but already I am more to him than his own father because I taught him what I know about the cold. It sinks in, there to stay, doesn’t it? And people. They will leave you, no matter what you say there’s no return. There’s just the emptiness all around, and you in it, like singing up from the bottom of a well, like nothing else…” (154). The narrator’s hopeless, unable to fathom the goodness in life, in spite of Mason’s brief influence. The only way he knows how to deal with life, to get attention (or his interpretation of affection), is to become that mad dog that bites itself for sympathy. Though there’s mention of rehabilitation at the beginning of the story, the proof of his heartbreaking path is the thin ice that’s inside him: hard, cold, numbing, fragile, volatile, painful.

“I am not all that afraid. I never am and that’s my problem” (152). I love these lines! They’re very telling. On the one hand, it’s honest and vulnerable and pure. The narrator is expressing ownership – all contradictory attributes to his normal behavior. On the other hand, it’s validation of his sadness and pain and grief – and his brutal desensitization to them all. In these two lines, the struggle, the conflict, the internal battle of the narrator is beautifully and succinctly summed up.

This piece is another great, visceral read! And though I only touched on a few themes, several are mentioned: Alienation. Loneliness. Fate. Nature versus Nurture. Innocence versus Corruption. Good versus Evil. But maybe the biggest theme of all is love (or the need for love), and what lengths we’ll go to for that specific emotion, that comfort, that experience. I also have to wonder: Is the value of love truly as significant as the story believes?


17 Comments on “I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy”

  1. theblume says:

    I really like that you took the time to look up the meaning behind the Toucan. That makes much more sense now. I found it rather odd that he was getting her a stuffed Toucan for a gift when I was reading the story, but now I see that it reflects the his behavior and emotions. I thought this story taught a valuable lesson about how one bad decision can lead to many more; and escalate very quickly. Although he was making these decisions on purpose just trying to get someone to pay attention.

    • vonepho says:

      Your last sentence is great! It perfectly aligns with the title of the story. I think the only way he knows how to get attention is through his conditioned bad behavior – he doesn’t know how to do it in any other ways.

      • theblume says:

        He’s acting a lot like a child really. They behave badly when they start feeling neglected so that their parent will give them attention.

  2. carrieglovka says:

    I love that you explained the significance of the Toucan, thank you! I found it really interesting that the narrator makes the argument that his effect on the baby will instill a coldness that will stay with him always. It seems to me he is trying to establish a common connection between he and the baby. He is so wrong though, unlike the ones who abandoned the narrator, this baby has a mother who literally risks her life for her child. I found the most powerful image in the story to be that of the mother clinging on to the moving vehicle in attempting to save her child. “She is there on the trunk, hanging on by magnetics. I hear her shrieking in an inhuman desperate way that horrifies me. “

    • vonepho says:

      I love your analysis that he’s trying to establish a connection between him and the baby. I think it’s true. In a way, he’s falsely forming a sense of connection as a substitute for his lack of connection with his father/parents. And like you say, “he is so wrong” because the baby does have a loving mother, which will positively affect him. The narrator doesn’t grasp the concept of growing up in a loving environment. The baby is that projection, that transference, that desire that he wishes he had with his parents as a baby.

  3. I love that you brought the idea of totems into your post. This is definitely an area that I should have clued into, being that the author mainly writes about native Americans. Amazing insight into the way that each of the totems represent different facets of the Narrators life. I just assumed that the toucan was just a segue-way into his chivalric quest to win back his girlfriend. Great insight!

    • vonepho says:

      Thanks, Megan. It was really cool researching the totem allegories. This blog is probably the one I did the most research on – of course, because I felt it was necessary. It seems to have paid off.

  4. kbehre says:

    I really appreciate how you’ve delved into the difficulty of the text with your close reading and thematic analysis. I wanted to address your very interesting final question: “Is the value of love truly as significant as the story believes?” I wonder if perhaps when someone hasn’t fully experienced love, it is all that matters? There’s a ton of research on the brain-development-limiting effects of lack of attachment in infancy, for example. To be loved is to become ourselves.

    • vonepho says:

      I think it goes both ways. For someone who has fully experienced love, that need and comfort and craving continues. But for people who haven’t experienced much love, they too strongly crave it. However, their desire and intent and point of view is probably different because it comes from a place of desperation and insecurities; like that need for love is already peppered with negativity versus the positive place for people who constantly has love. But overall, I think for everyone, the need for love is all that matters.

      • I think you are both correct. Everyone, everywhere is searching for love and acceptance in different ways. I think though that it sometimes becomes an all-consuming thing for broken people. In this story I don’t think the Narrator even realizes that what he is desperately searching for is love.

      • vonepho says:

        Megan, I think you make a great point, pinpointing the value of love to a “broken” person. That’s probably Keri’s point, and I might have missed it. Accentuating this nuance and applying it to the overall scheme of love is smart and relevant. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Great close reading, I especially like the depth with which you’ve looked into the totem allegories. As for your last question, “Is the value of love truly as significant as the story believes?”, I would actually have to say no. I only mean that in the sense that the main character seems to be groping after the love he’s likely been after his whole life, and so has elevated it to the point of being on an unrealistic pedestal. I think in the moments he has with the baby, he perhaps gets closer to the heart of his moral quandary than he thinks.

    • vonepho says:

      The totem allegories are very popular. I’m glad you like them. And I love your response to my question. It’s from an interpretation I didn’t expect – which is always cool. If I’m understanding correctly, it’s like you’re saying that his purpose and motive for love is meaningless because the love that he’s searching for isn’t really there anymore, it’s non-existent; therefore, the value of that particular love/search for “empty” love is insignificant. Very neat analysis.

  6. Also, if you guys like Louise Erdrich’s style (I find it amazing) you should also check out her story “Saint Marie”. It’s the first thing I read by her and it’s just as visceral as this one.


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