Cover image for The lives of animals
The lives of animals
Coetzee, J. M., 1940-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
127 pages ; 25 cm.
Reading Level:
1210 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV4708 .L57 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HV4708 .L57 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The idea of human cruelty to animals so consumes novelist Elizabeth Costello in her later years that she can no longer look another person in the eye: humans, especially meat-eating ones, seem to her to be conspirators in a crime of stupefying magnitude taking place on farms and in slaughterhouses, factories, and laboratories across the world.

Costello's son, a physics professor, admires her literary achievements, but dreads his mother's lecturing on animal rights at the college where he teaches. His colleagues resist her argument that human reason is overrated and that the inability to reason does not diminish the value of life; his wife denounces his mother's vegetarianism as a form of moral superiority.

At the dinner that follows her first lecture, the guests confront Costello with a range of sympathetic and skeptical reactions to issues of animal rights, touching on broad philosophical, anthropological, and religious perspectives. Painfully for her son, Elizabeth Costello seems offensive and flaky, but--dare he admit it?--strangely on target.

Here the internationally renowned writer J. M. Coetzee uses fiction to present a powerfully moving discussion of animal rights in all their complexity. He draws us into Elizabeth Costello's own sense of mortality, her compassion for animals, and her alienation from humans, even from her own family. In his fable, presented as a Tanner Lecture sponsored by the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, Coetzee immerses us in a drama reflecting the real-life situation at hand: a writer delivering a lecture on an emotionally charged issue at a prestigious university. Literature, philosophy, performance, and deep human conviction--Coetzee brings all these elements into play.

As in the story of Elizabeth Costello, the Tanner Lecture is followed by responses treating the reader to a variety of perspectives, delivered by leading thinkers in different fields. Coetzee's text is accompanied by an introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann and responsive essays by religion scholar Wendy Doniger, primatologist Barbara Smuts, literary theorist Marjorie Garber, and moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation. Together the lecture-fable and the essays explore the palpable social consequences of uncompromising moral conflict and confrontation.

Author Notes

J.M. Coetzee's full name is John Michael Coetzee. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940, Coetzee is a writer and critic who uses the political situation in his homeland as a backdrop for many of his novels. Coetzee published his first work of fiction, Dusklands, in 1974.

Another book, Boyhood, loosely chronicles an unhappy time in Coetzee's childhood when his family moved from Cape Town to the more remote and unenlightened city of Worcester. Other Coetzee novels are In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians. Coetzee's critical works include White Writing and Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship.

Coetzee is a two-time recipient of the Booker Prize and in 2003, he won the Nobel Literature Award.

(Bowker Author Biography) J. M. Coetzee's books include "Boyhood", "Dusklands", "In the Heart of the Country", "Waiting for the Barbarians", "Life & Times of Michael K", "Foe", & "The Master of Petersburg". A professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town, Coetzee has won many literary awards, including the CNA Prize (South Africa's premier literary award), the Booker Prize (twice), the Prix Etranger Femina, the Jerusalem Prize, the Lannan Literary Award, & The Irish Times International Fiction Prize.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Fictional character Elizabeth Costello (or is it Coetzee himself?) gives two lectures at the same college where her estranged son also teaches. Instead of lecturing on the areas in which she is expert (literature and literary criticism), she delivers emotional and often confusing diatribes on the "crime" of human abuse of animals, especially slaughtering them for food. Even when she comes close to providing an argument that might make sense, such as the view of an animal fighting for its own life, she drops that idea abruptly and makes odd links with philosophical thinking and offensive comparisons of animal slaughter to such events as the Holocaust. Costello comes across as a caring but alienated human being who might have found in animals the loyalty and devotion she could not find in family. Her respondents are an interesting mix, the strongest being Ms. Smuts, who perhaps effectively makes the argument Costello could not--that animals do think and feel, if on a different level. For Coetzee fans and others interested in the links between philosophy, reason, and the rights of nonhumans. (Reviewed March 15, 1999)0691004439Marlene Chamberlain

Publisher's Weekly Review

The audience of the 1997-98 Tanner Lectures at Princeton probably expected South African novelist Coetzee to deliver a pair of formal essays similar to those on censorship he presented in Giving Offence. Instead, he gave his listeners fiction: a philosophical narrative about an imaginary feminist novelist, Elizabeth Costello, and the lectures she reads at the fictional Appleton College on the subject of animal rights. Platonic in structure and coolly tight-lipped in style, Coetzee's two stories, "The Philosophers and the Animals" and "The Poets and the Animals," mirror the sometimes acrimonious exchanges in academic debate. While Coetzee is on Costello's side, he does not make her infallible; she is not only uncompromising and sometimes rude, but also an extremist in her antirationalism and an occasionally muddled reasoner. The Appleton professors score intellectual points off her even as she implores them to open their hearts to animals. Coetzee's fictional gambit makes it awkward for the real-life scholars who respond to him in the ultimate section of the book, "Reflections." The criticisms of literary critic Marjorie Garber, bioethicist Peter Singer, religious scholar Wendy Doniger and primatologist Barbara Smuts seem redundant after the overdetermined self-criticism of the novel. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Are vegetarians trying to save animals or are they trying to save themselves? Is vegetarianism about changing the world or escaping from it? These are the questions raised by the acclaimed novelist and critic J. M. Coetzee in his wonderfully inventive and yet inconclusive book. It consists of Coetzee's Tanner Lectures, given at Princeton University in 1997-98, but these are no ordinary lectures. Instead, Coetzee tells the story of a fictitious novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who has been invited to give two lectures at Appleton College. She surprises her audience by talking about the rights of animals rather than literature. To make matters more complicated, the book then concludes with responses to Coetzee's lectures from four scholars who have written extensively about animals: Wendy Doniger, Peter Singer, Marjorie Garber, and Barbara Smuts. This is postmodern metafiction at its best, but like most examples of this genre, it is hard to tell where the author himself is to be found. Readers, however, will enjoy the effort of trying to figure out both where they stand on animal rights and how they interpret this fascinating work. Recommended enthusiastically for all libraries and all readership levels. S. H. Webb; Wabash College

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 3
The Philosophers and the Animalsp. 15
The Poets and the Animalsp. 47
Reflectionsp. 72
Marjorie Garberp. 73
Peter Singerp. 85
Wendy Donigerp. 93
Barbara Smutsp. 107
Contributorsp. 121
Indexp. 123