As indicated by the title, ”A Boy and His Dog” is about the relationship between the two main characThrough Vic’s reversion to an animal state as a result of his environment and Blood’s acceleration to a highly evolved state as a result of genetic manipulation, Ellison makes a strong statement about the power of external and internal influences,” ters in the story, a teenager named Vic and his telepathic dog named Blood. Among the many unusual qualities of this story is the role-reversal that characterizes this human-canine relationship. Ellison inverts what the reader understands as the dynamic between a person and a dog, making the human the more impulsive character and the dog the more thoughtful one. The author’s use of inversion in the story reflects the dramatic changes that have taken place on Earth since the War demolished it physically, socially, and culturally. Ellison’s presentation of inversions also suggests that perhaps the present is not as stable as the reader might think. The relationship between Vic and Blood shows how something that is taken for granted in the present— the dynamics between people and their pets—might be inverted in the future.
Because Vic is human, the reader expects him to be levelheaded, dominant, caring, and intelligent. He should be Blood’s guide, providing for his needs and taking charge of navigating them through the human world. Instead, Vic is impulsive, instinctual, uneducated, and weakened by his base drives. Ellison relates Vic’s animal nature on the first page when Vic tells Blood to find him a woman because he needs sex. When Blood teases him, Vic is too blinded by his sexual drive to respond good-naturedly; he is mad at Blood for not immediately responding to his needs. For Vic, sex is not a mutual, loving act; it is rape, and his only concern is fulfilling his need, without regard for the woman he finds.
Vic is also violent, sometimes in reaction to being physically threatened, and sometimes in reaction to having his lifestyle threatened. He, Blood, and Quilla June are threatened by the presence of the roverpak in the YMCA, so Vic reacts by hiding and killing as many of them as he can. This is an example of the basic “fight or flight” instinct, and Vic never chooses flight. In his environment, there is no way to run away from a situation safely, so he has learned to respond to danger with violence. Later, when his carefree, roaming, crude lifestyle is threatened by the leaders of Topeka, he responds like a caged animal. In essence, he wants to return to his native habitat.
Blood, as a dog, could be expected to be an instinct-driven, submissive, and obedient creature who constantly seeks his master’s approval. Instead, Blood is the intelligent one in the relationship. He is educated, clever, clear-thinking, and wise. While Vic is impulsive and short-sighted, Blood is levelheaded and strategic, thinking through his plans and choices. He is Vic’s instructor, teaching him reading, math, history, and culture. Blood is more intuitive than Vic is, and he has a better understanding of their society.
Blood tries to act as Vic’s advisor. When Vic is irrational, Blood attempts to reason with him and guide him to make better decisions. He warns Vic that he does not trust Quilla June and that Vic should not pursue her underground. Although he is rational, Blood is also able to be fierce when necessary. His complex nature is best revealed in the scene in which he and Vic fight the roverpak at the YMCA. Blood attacks by going for the throat, but he also devises a plan to try to fool the roverpak into thinking they (Vic, Blood, and Quilla June) are all dead. I
n considering the role-reversal in the relationship between Vic and Blood, an important distinction must be made. Vic has reverted to an animallike state as a result of his environment, while Blood has evolved to a more rational state as a result of genetic engineering. Vic is genetically the same as present-day readers, but his extreme environment makes him very different. On the other hand, Blood is nothing like present-day dogs. He is evolved by design. Ellison supports the dynamics of the role-reversal in his characterization of Quilla June. Although she lives in a seemingly pleasant city underground, she has a very violent nature. Ellison makes the point that the artificiality of the picket fences and gumball machines of the recreated preWorld War I city can mask, but not erase, the horrors of the war that sent them all underground in the first place. The environment, then, is not restricted to the immediate and visible world, but includes the realities of the history that created it.
Through Vic’s reversion to an animal state as a result of his environment and Blood’s acceleration to a highly evolved state as a result of genetic manipulation, Ellison makes a strong statement about the power of external and internal influences. The story becomes a twist on the long-standing psychological debate about the dominance of “nature” or “nurture.” The debate most often centers on the question of whether nature (genetics) or nurture (environment) affects creatures more powerfully. Ellison’s story focuses more on the fact that neither alone is enough to yield a self-sufficient creature. These two characters are brought together because each needs the other. Neither is fully capable of functioning alone. In spite of his animal-like survival skills, Vic needs Blood to help warn him of danger and to provide intelligent counsel. And for all his intellect and keen sense of smell, Blood still needs Vic to find food for him and to care for his wounds.
Beyond the practical aspects of their relationship, Ellison demonstrates that the bond between Vic and Blood is forged in part by the same force that brings people and animals together today— loyalty. Even in the extreme environment and bizarre circumstances of the story’s dystopic setting, there is something vaguely familiar in the inverted relationship between Vic and Blood.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Harlan Ellison – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “A Boy and His Dog,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.