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The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
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The Heart of a Dog (original 1925; edition 1997)

by Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Glenny

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1,692254,195 (3.83)61
Member:varwenea
Title:The Heart of a Dog
Authors:Mikhail Bulgakov
Other authors:Michael Glenny
Info:Harvill Press (1997), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
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Work details

Heart of a Dog by Mihail Bulgakov (1925)

  1. 30
    The Master and Margarita by Mihail Bulgakov (Daimyo)
  2. 00
    Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord by Olaf Stapledon (Michael.Rimmer)
    Michael.Rimmer: Both feature dogs endowed with human intelligence, though they seem to inhabit different ends of the moral spectrum.
  3. 00
    The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells (Michael.Rimmer)
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Bulgakov is author of The Master and Margarita, a brilliant satire of Soviet society based on the Devil and his cohorts coming to Moscow and turning the city and society upside down. Some will see A Dog’s Heart as satire too, but I agree with A.S.Byatt in the Foreward to the edition I have, that it is more than that: “it is a sharp and complicated moral fable, funny and profound…”. It is a fantasy and it is satirical, but it also strikes me as a meditation on the Soviet experiment, in particular the limitations to creating the New Soviet Man. Bulgakov once said that he felt a, “deep skepticism with regard to the revolutionary process taking place in my backward country and counterposed to it…love for the Great Revolution.” I think he is talking about more than just the transformation of the economy and power structures of society; it is relatively easy to destroy and re-arrange the trappings of society; much more difficult to effect real change in the human condition .

Professor Philipp Philippovich Preobrazhensky, with his junior colleague, Dr. Bormental, has a very active and very lucrative practice in what he calls “rejuvenation” which is focused on sexual rejuvenation in men and women, and sometimes involves the transplantation of animal glands (monkey ovaries in one case) into humans. The results are magical and people, even physically unattractive ones, turn into sexual tigers such that the Professor has to warn most of them to slow down; morals also suffer: adultery occurs and one man is in trouble for taking up with a fourteen year old girl---first hints that the effects of “rejuvenation” may be neither controllable, nor desirable. The Professor decides to extend his research by transplanting the testes and pituitary gland from a man into a dog; the operation is a success in that the dog survives and morphs into human form with speech, but also with unwanted human characteristics. The law of unforeseen consequences comes strongly into play and threatens to ruin the lives of Preobrazhensky and Bormental, already fighting against the currents of change in Soviet society.

The Professor realizes, at the end, that he has gone too far when, as researcher he, “instead of moving in parallel and in touch with nature, forces a question and lifts a curtain.” This reflects Bulgakov’s view that human nature must change by evolution, not revolution. The parallels to the Soviet experiment are clear: no matter how laudable the concepts of social and political equality, trying to enforce them through edicts and declarations flies in the face of “common sense and life experience”, ignores the strength of human penchants and frailties, and unleashes social and political forces susceptible to manipulation and abuse that negate the original impetus towards equality. As Preobrazhensky notes, “No one should be flogged…One can have an effect on men and on animals only by suggestion.” It should be noted that the Professor’s name comes from the word, preobrazheniye which means complete ‘transfiguration’, not simply rejuvenation; it is the former that is set loose by the Professor and, by extension, the Soviet experience.

The dog, Sharik, becomes the ‘man’ known as Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov. In the first half of the novel, i.e. until the operation, we see events either through a third person narrator, or through Sharik’s eyes and thoughts, in particular his immense sense of well-being after having been rescued from the streets by Preobrazhensky and given a life of warmth, security, affection, and food. After the operation, we have only the third person narrator; we no longer ‘hear’ Sharikov’s thoughts and can judge him only by his described attitudes and actions. Only at the very end of the novel, when Sharikov has again become Sharik, do we hear his thoughts, again, of having been, “simply incredibly lucky” to have ended up living in the fine apartment. The change of voice is interesting. We give no credit to animals for articulation of thoughts or feelings and yet they do learn fear and trust and do know security as opposed danger. We know humans articulate thoughts, but we have no access to interior monologues except as feelings or beliefs are expressed verbally or through actions (or through an omniscient narrator in a novel). Shakirov has no positive attributes: he is a liar, a thief, a manipulator, a would-be rapist, and a drunk; he is untrustworthy, secretive and a murderer. As Sharik the dog, he hates cats and very early in the novel we see his reaction of fear and hatred towards a tomcat. Not so unusual for a dog. Sharikov gets a job working for the municipality clearing stray cats off the streets, but what is significant is that he doesn’t just trap and remove them or kill them humanely: he kills by strangulation. This is a very personal and a very human action, not an animal one, and Sharikov positively enjoys it. It pegs Sharikov as morally inferior to Sharik as, by extension, are all those who inflict pain and abuse on fellow human beings. Bulgakov makes this very clear when Preobrazhensky cries out: “Consider that the whole horror lies in the fact that he already has not a dog’s, but a human heart. And the lousiest of all there are in nature!”

We are not privy to his thoughts, and Sharikov seems to function on a very base level of satisfying his needs and desires, but he is not happy, and one day he takes a razor and cuts his cheek so deeply that the Professor and Bormental have to stitch him up. If this is a cry for help, or at least a cry of unhappiness, it is lost in the maelstrom of his otherwise outrageous behaviour.

A number of moral questions arise in the evolution of Sharik into Sharikov and back again. We have a much finer sense of animal rights today than pertained in 1925, but Sharik is wrenched from his idyllic, comfortable and secure life into the conflicts of life as Sharikov. The Professor is convinced that Sharikov’s personality traits are remnants of the criminal mind of the man whose body parts were transplanted after he was murdered in a brawl. And so heredity is seen to play a defining role. This, of course, is nonsense, but at one time it was one of the most pernicious aspects of social control or manipulation in the Soviet Union where it could define employment or even life or death. The Professor and Bormental touch upon this in discussing their own backgrounds which are quite unsuitable in the new Soviet society: the former is the son of an archpriest, the latter’s father was a coroner in Vilno, so Bormental is not even Russian.

However, unpleasant as he is, Shakirov, even as a dog-man, is a sentient being and what right do the Professor and Bormental have to take that away from him, essentially to lobotomize him with no consent, largely because he has become an embarrassment and a terrible disruption in their lives? They are convinced, or they convince themselves, that he is irredeemable in his conflation of animal and base human instincts, but in fact, the world is full of Sarikovs who get there on their own human capabilities, without the excuse of any residual animal behaviours. Preobrazhensky touches on this at the end of the novel when he cries out, “I was concerned…with eugenics, with the improvement of the human species.” This is the rationale of the scientist who justifies any research as ’science’ and denies responsibility for subsequent social effects. Even Preobrazhesnky recognizes this when he says, “I have lost my way.” The irony is that he has tried, through science, to create a revolution rather than an evolution, which is exactly what he criticizes in the social experiment of the new Soviet regime. Of course, knowing the history of eugenics later in the twentieth century under the Nazis, one cannot help but feel a chill; the good Professor worked on a dog, not live human beings, but his is the first step in the guided “improvement of the human species.”
This is hardly what one might call a feminist novel, but Bulgakov does give us glimpses of his thoughts on male/female relations in society. Early in the novel, Sharik remarks on a young woman, a typist who has taken a lover in order to have some warmth, decent food, and entertainment; it is not a ‘loving’ relationship but more of a prostitution for her to survive, and even with this, “The upper part of her right lung’s not in order, and she’s got a lady’s disease because of the French business, they’ve deducted money from her at work, they’ve fed her tainted meat in the canteen…”, and in a cold, raging snow storm she has to wear “thin knickers; just a lacy semblance alone” to please her lover. In a finely tuned observation, a gust of wind flips up her flimsy skirt to reveal a “narrow strip of poorly laundered lace underwear.” Not only is the underwear impractical, the young woman cannot even afford, does not have the means, to launder it properly. And yet, while having nothing to offer, she at least has kind words for Sharik. And then, when Sharik first meets the Professor on the street, in the storm, he knows that Preobrazhensky is a “great man of global significance thanks to the male sex glands.” The hierarchies are clear. The only glimpse we have of an honest relationship is the Professor’s cook, Darya Petrovna with her boyfriend, a fireman, who says he doesn’t need any ‘rejuvenation’ because she is fiery enough for him!

There can be a danger of reading too much into too many parallels in a novel such as this one, but they do seem to leap out. Sharik is unhappy when he is put in a collar and he is ashamed when taken out for his first walk, but he soon, “got an excellent grasp of what a collar means in life”: envy of other dogs, and respect, even from a policeman and the doorman, that he would never have had in his past life, so Sharik decides that, “A collar’s just as good as a briefcase”! Dogs, and people, will accept controls in their lives in exchange for status and envy, security, food, warmth.

The parallels with the story of Faust are clear, and sometimes explicit, in the novel. A major difference is that whereas Faust sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge, Preobrazhensky is his own Devil. It is interesting to follow the descriptions or perceptions of the Professor; one of his rejuvenation clients calls him, “a magician and an enchanter”; Sharik sees him as “the divinity” because from him flows all that is good; during the operation he becomes the High Priest, but when the operation is over, the Professor himself feels like a “sated vampire” and when he decides to try to reverse the operation on Shakirov, Bulakov describes him as a “grey-haired Faust”. Bulgakov’s warning is clear: the Devil is not extraneous; he is us.

There is even a Faustian connection in the aria that the Professor sings snippets of throughout the story. It is from the poem, Don Juan, by A.K.Tolstoy, staged as a play and later put to music. Some critics have written that Tolstoy made his Don Juan closer to Faust, as a seeker of a higher ideal, than as a simple philanderer.

There are other, humourous barbs in the novel. One is the Professor’s strong advice, “not to talk over dinner about Bolshevism or about medicine. And—God preserve you—don’t read the Soviet newspapers before dinner.” He claims that clients who don’t read the newspapers feel splendid while those forced to read Pravda lost weight and suffered from diminished knee reflexes, poor appetite, depression. Small wonder the Soviet authorities would not allow Bulgakov to publish!

The most humourous exchanges are between the Professor and representatives of the Housing Committee. Preobrazhensky lives in the unheard-of splendor of a seven-room apartment, and he wants an eighth! This, at a time when housing conditions were supposed to be leveled and many apartments sheltered a number of families all sharing the one kitchen and bathroom. Sharik, the dog, witnesses the first clash between the Committee representatives and the Professor and he is clearly cheering for the latter; later, as Sharikov, he falls-in with the Chairman of the Committee, much to the Professor’s rage. A subsequent clash does not go so much in the Professor’s favour as he is forced to formally recognize Sharikov for registration purposes, but the Professor does emerge victorious in the end.
  John | Feb 26, 2014 |
This is really funny. Not quite on the level of Master and Margarita, but still pretty good.

A Soviet-era doctor, a cross between Pavlov, Lysenko, and Frankenstein, takes in a stray dog and transplants some 'vital human organs' into him. Much to his surprise, the dog begins to transform into a human being. The dog turns out to be a perfect scoundrel, tears up the furniture, swears a lot, hates manners, and promptly joins the animal control section of the local Communist Party, where he kills cats.

There is some deeper satire here about the whole Soviet apparatus, and their attempts to transform humanity, and all that. But this is really funny. I can imagine the original Russian is even better.

Master and Margarita is still my favorite Bulgakov, but this is fine, too. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Couldn't get into it. It's no M&M. ( )
  Carl_Hayes | Mar 28, 2013 |
I always find satires the most enjoyable when it’s simply fun to read, rather or not I know what the underlying subject is. The novella, “The Heart of a Dog”, is humorous, a bit outrageous, made me look up what a pituitary gland is (don’t ask me to explain it), and of course, gave a glance into the complexities of then Russian life. Completed in 1925, it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987, due to censorship.

‘Heart’ is an easy, fast read, if not for the educational pauses of my choosing, as I picked up bits of nuances of the Russian life then. Here are some samples:
- That horsemeat in sausages is acceptable, sold by the Moscow State Food Store.
- That ‘Dustmen’ is the lowest form of proletarian life.
- A lover keeps a typist in silk stockings but “he won’t just want to make the usual sort of love to her, he’ll make her do it the French way”. (Hmm, what is that exactly?)
- That Co-op is a ‘filthy store’, unfit for the gentleman that the Professor is.
- That the Professor is despised for using 7 rooms for himself (not entirely true since the cook and the housekeeper also lives there, and his business is operated from there as well), during a time when Moscow did not have sufficient housing.
- ‘Comrades’ has entered into daily salutation, which is rejected by the Professor, who prefers ‘Mister’, which in return, is rejected by the ‘Comrades’, which Sharikov barked, “I’m not mister – all the ‘misters’ are in Paris!”
- Communism means the equal division of property where Sharikov has an ‘entitlement of thirty-seven square feet’ in the apartment.

With communism, males and females are touted as equals, even though they never really are (and one can easily argue they still aren’t). Mr. Bulgakov blended in touches of this:
- From the Dog, Sharik, “You’ve a good lunch under your belt, haven’t you, you’re a world-famous figure thanks to male sex glands.”
- In a conversation between the Professor and the 4 members of the House Committee: “’Firstly, we’re not gentlemen, ‘ the youngest of them, with a face like a peach, said finally. ‘Secondly,’ Philip Philipovich interrupted him, ‘are you a man or a woman?’ The four were silent again and their mouths dropped open. This time the shock-haired young man pulled himself together. ‘What difference does it make, comrade?’ he asked proudly. ‘I’m a woman,’ confessed the peach-like youth, who was wearing a leather jerkin, and blushed heavily.”

Lastly, with the transplants of the human testes (and the pituitary gland) into Sharik, I’ll forever have a new image in my mind, the next time I hear the derogatory “Grow a pair” or “ball-busting” type of slams.

P.S. Note Mr. Bulgakov’s explicit use of ‘dog’ vs. ‘man’ and ‘Sharik’ vs. ‘Sharikov’ when he wants the reader to think of the character in the form of a dog vs. a man in the book.

Some quotes:

I simply laughed at this ‘you’re such an idiot’ speech from the Professor to Sharikov:
“But she slapped me across the mouth,’ whined Sharikov, ‘She can’t go doing that to me!”
“She slapped you because you pinched her on the bosom, ’shouted Bormenthal, knocking over a glass. ‘You stand there and…”
“You belong to the lowest possible stage of development,’ Philip Philipovich shouted him down. ‘You are still in the formative stage. You are intellectually weak, all your actions are purely bestial. Yet you allow yourself in the presence of two university-educated men to offer advice, with quite intolerable familiarity, on a cosmic scale and of quite cosmic stupidity, on the redistribution of wealth… and at the same time you eat toothpaste…”

This resonated with me, as it mirrors the concept of ‘problem solving’ that an engineers do. What problem are we trying to solve? In this case, it’s simply wrong to mess with nature.
“I quite agree with you. This, doctor, is what happens, when a researcher, instead of keeping in step with nature, tries to force the pace and lift the veil. Result – Sharikov……..”
“I would perform the most difficult feat of my whole career by transplanting Spinoza’s, or anyone else’s pituitary and turning a dog into a highly intelligent being. But what in heaven’s name for? That’s the point. Will you kindly tell me why one has to manufacture artificial Spinozas when some pleasant woman may produce a real one any day of the week?”
“Theoretically the experiment was interesting…… But what is its practical value?” ( )
1 vote varwenea | Feb 24, 2013 |
Magical Bulgakov:

http://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/an-old-favourite-a-dogs-...

The Aplin translation is definitely best! ( )
  kaggsy | Feb 15, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mihail Bulgakovprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aplin, HughTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bromfield, AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fondse, MarkoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ginsburg, MirraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glenny, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Henstra, FrisoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Melander, VivecaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802150594, Paperback)

This early novella from Mikhail Bulgakov, published in 1925, already shows the surreal comic genius that later produced The Master and Margarita, the writer's masterpiece. A kind of Frankenstein parable, Heart of a Dog is the story of a stray dog that gains a human intelligence after a prominent Moscow professor transplants human glands into the unfortunate canine's body.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:09 -0400)

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This hilarious, brilliantly inventive novel by the author of The Master and Margarita tells the story of a scroungy Moscow mongrel named Sharik. Thanks to the skills of a renowned Soviet scientist and the transplanted pituitary gland and testes of a petty criminal, Sharik is transformed into a lecherous, vulgar man who spouts Engels and inevitably finds his niche in the bureaucracy as the government official in charge of purging the city of cats.… (more)

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