Animal Deaths in Washington Irving’s “A Tour on the Prairies” and their Colonialist implications

In Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Priaries, the deaths of animals are depicted in a way that alludes to the notion of colonial exploitation of virgin lands and native peoples. In the chapter entitled “A Bee Hunt,” Irving describes the process that the white settlers carry out in order to collect the prized, honey-soaked beehives from the habitats of these airborne insects. He emphasizes the sense of purpose and right of domination exhibited by the bee hunters, stating that they “plied their axes vigorously at the foot of the tree to level it with the ground,” (Irving, 52). Here, the reader can easily draw an imaginary parallel to early British colonialists furiously tearing away at the natural landscape as they work to construct new (and potentially profitable) settlements.

At the same time, the writer characterizes the animals as innocent victims who could not have possibly anticipated their demise at the hands of these foreign beings. He also notes that these animals possess certain noble aspects that are to be admired, indicating that he might hold similar feelings about the Native Americans, who were similarly victimized by white men.  The bees in the narrative met a similar fate—as their once “industrious community” was overtaken by the axe of alien aggressors.

Irving outlines the factor of profitability on the behalf of the hunters, writing that “Every stark bee-hunter was to be seen with a rich morsel in his hand, dripping about his fingers, and disappearing as rapidly as a cream tart before the holiday appetite of a schoolboy,” (Irving, 53). Such wording evokes in the reader’s mind the images and emotionality associated with claiming a well-deserved prize of say, a stuffed animal after a successful day at the carnival—it all seems to be a game with an objective (victory) for these white settlers, who think little of the inhabitants of the habitat that they disturb.

The writer goes on to indulge his feelings of guilt upon his own killing of a buffalo, perhaps to assuage them by having expressed them on paper. Initially, he describes these mammoth creatures with awe, wonderment and terror, again much like an observant white settler might articulate a memory of encountering Indians for the first time. After all is said and done and Irving has fired several shots into the buffalo, which agonizes in pain as it dies, he expresses great remorse. “It seemed as if I had inflicted pain in proportion to the bulk of my victim, and as if there were a hundred-fold greater waste of life than there would have been in the destruction of an animal of inferior size,” he writes (Irving, 178). The reader can only guess that this is a form of apologetic foreshadowing for the magnitude of destruction inflicted upon the natives by colonialist white settlers.

Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. 50-54, 171-179. Print.

One response to this post.

  1. Dear Rebsheppard,

    I think you are very creative in connecting Washington Irving’s “A Tour on the Prairies” with the idea of colonial exploitation. On page 109 Irving says, “ I regretted the departure of the Osage for his own sake, for we should have cherished him throughout the expedition, and I am convinced, from the munificent spirit of his patron, he would have returned to his tribe laden with wealth of beds and trinkets and Indian blankets.” Reading this made me think about how many of the white settlers must have felt similarly; to realize in the end that they maybe should have fostered the Native Americans culture instead of belittling it.
    In addition, Washington Irving does exemplify distress by saying “it seemed as if I had inflicted pain in proportion to the bulk of my victim, and as if there were a hundred – fold greater waste of life than there would have been in the destruction of an animal of inferior size.” (pg 117) Even though Irving was talking about the buffalo, white settlers subconsciously could have felt the same way because simply by taking the land of the Native Americans and forcing them to a specific location, the settlers could inflict pain onto them.
    To add on to what you said, I found this sentence very interesting “my pistol for once proved true” (pg 117) because the theme of violence seems to still solve problems in literature. Growing up we are told “violence does not solve anything.” However, adults, especially while colonizing sought to brutishly have their way even if the only resort and the last resort was using a riffle. Irving ending the life of the buffalo with his pistol and took it out of his misery. I can’t imagine how many Native Americans suffered through these times and were “put out of their misery” by being shot…

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