25.06.2020 in Book Review

Analysis on the Book “We the Animals” by Justin Torres


The aim of the paper lies in investigating the idea and the theme of the novel “We are Animals”. “It will discuss the characters of the book, highlighting their dissimilarity from other members of society. The work will focus on a general book summary, along with some literary elements that will support the thesis. The investigation will also be dedicated to exploring the argument through the specific lens of literary criticism. Consequently, the key theme of the work is a deep analysis of the characters and plot, clarifying the significance of the language of the book, its elements, and mood.

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Book Summary

The novel is written by American writer whose father is Puerto Rican and mother has Italian and Irish roots. The main characters of the book are the narrator and his older brothers Manny and Joey, their white mother, “Ma”, and “Paps”, children’s father. It is quite miniature in length; however, the reader is filled with sympathy and compassion for the kids from the very beginning of the text. Based on Torres’ personal experience, the book describes the story of three brothers who live like animals because of neglect and family abuse. The book contains a number of brief chapters moving through a span of nearly half a dozen years. Simple language used by the author occasionally rises to a keening lyricality. Each chapter has a title which captures small and certain situations in the life of the narrator: “Seven” is about the birthday of the narrator and the age at which boys are grown-up. Moreover, ‘Heritage’ represents the scene when Paps teaches their boys to dance salsa, while ‘The Night I Was Made’ finishes the protagonist’s real transformation into a homosexual. The novel ‘We the Animals’ by Justin Torres centers around three brothers who live in their own, alienated, forsaken world, devoid of God and man. “We were brothers, boys, three little kings”; they were the Three Musketeers, the Three Bears, the Three Stooges, and even the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They see and experience in their young life more than any kid should see. Three brothers are trying to survive when father beats them black and blue and when they see everything macho about him that Ma cannot resist.They are those who have no values and goals; they keep living day-to-day without being aware of the future.


To my mind, the title of the book ‘We the Animals’ reflects the novel’s tone, language, and Torres himself claimed that ‘it is a little wild, it is a little out of control, but by the end of the book, I wanted people to realize that these characters are […] human. “We the Animals marks the debut of […] new voice in American Literature. In an intense […] story, concentrated prose goes down hot like strong liquor. His beautifully flawed characters worked their way into my heart […] and have been there ever since.” − Tayari Jones claims. The book shows the other side of the coin, when people try to act humanly, in beautiful way even in tough conditions. Although the story is “semi-autobiographical” (the author was raised in biracial working-class family), it is largely based on the life story of many people, and the reader can undoubtedly find himself in the story or learn something new.

The story takes place in a rural New York town in a family with a Puerto Rican father and a white mother. Overworked parents cannot manage to provide their kids with food, ordinary clothes, love, and care. Children do not have at their beck a vast number of toys: they usually play in an outboard motorboat made from milk bottle caps and foam plastic. They are overworked and indifferent, those who try to scratch along, however, the bog, full of problems, is sucking the couple under.

Characters as literary elements


The story is narrated from the first person by the youngest of the three children, 6-years-old boy, who eventually breaks away from the rest of the family. The unnamed protagonist communicates events in a manner that the reader understands the thirst of the boys for everything. Every member does not accept any differences of the narrator and Pa tries to fix the boy up. Nonetheless, it is not odd that the existence of unhealthy environment not only hurts the protagonist, he also reevaluates the situations and changes during the whole story. The youngest boy does not tend to take initiative in many situations, he prefers to be the viewer, but not a participant. Suddenly, sensitivity and bookishness of the narrator puts unwanted distance between him and his brothers. The younger brother’s personal experience of separation is heard in his inner reflection, “Maybe there was no there boy like me, anywhere”. He reveals his homosexuality and hides this self-discovery from his family. The boy shares his thoughts only in a journal where he describes graphically all sexual fantasies. Before long he figures out that “we” (three brothers) mutates into “they” and “I”: “They called me a faggot, a pest, left me black and blue, but they were gentler with me than they were with each other. And everyone in the neighborhood knew: they’d bleed for me, my brothers, had bled for me [. . .] They smelled my difference − my […] pansy scent. […] They hated me for my […] grades, for my white ways”. It is probable that the pain inflicted on one another by the members of the family is often supported by fun and join, which provides cohesion. However, the narrator considers to be separated and isolated from this group. All in all, the narrator expresses most clearly the key theme of the paper: his task lies in demonstrating a result of parents’ indifference and abuse. The narrator represents controversial meaning of love: family unity and the moments of expressing of true love drop to nothing, their nature and stereotypical viewpoints prevail over understanding of specific features of the youngest son and brother.

Minor characters

Two older brothers

They are alike to pack of wolves who crave after more food, more growth and more warmth. Since their childhood, the boys are brought up in neglected atmosphere where it is every man for himself. At the same time they belong completely to one another and the reader along with the protagonist, experiences the period of family unity and then profound alienation drains out. The life of brothers becomes more complex and troubled, especially when the youngest son’s differences from others become more evident. Predominantly two brothers, who should take hard lack of toys and fun, maintain that “we’re nothing more than a fistful of seed that God tossed into the mud and horseshit”. Therefore, “half-breeds” break new but wild grounds and find their own ways to play. Being important literary elements, brothers represent animal instincts; they are not aware of basic rules and morals. At first they say and then they think about their words. Such people affect society and their behavior looks like one of primitive tribes.

Ma and Paps

Ma rather has the air of detachment than affectionate ones. She looks bushed and worn-out; Ma is always disheveled and disoriented this woman cannot match generally accepted mother´s love with such harsh and insulting words heard from her sons. Torres reflects the isolation of a woman trying, and failing, to do what is right and make every effort for well-being of her kids; the day after a rape by her husband, she drives the kids away and asks them what she should do: “We can go home, but we don’t have to. We don’t ever have to go home again. We can leave him. We can do that”. The woman is really confused because that is out of her power always suffer from her husband’s sharp temper and unbearable behavior. “We should have killed that fucking woman… Taken her keys and driven off”, Manny grunts and when the narrator tries to understand whom he wants to kill – a woman or mother – big brother answers that it makes no odds. The reader sees that boys are growing in misogyny and anger, they do not express sympathy with the woman, which gave them birth. Before long Ma adds: “I need you to tell me what to do”, however, it is impossible to get through to children’s heart. In addition, Paps is back and he is not beating them as much, so they have missed him already; all in all, everything casts back when when she can think of no place to go. Paps was a real animal with dark and rosy complexion. His driving force was the body, instincts and massive shoulders. Cast-iron discipline and up-and-downers seems to be a tool which can harden off brothers physically, but they know there is something Paps wants to teach them: “Our […] butt cheeks were tore up: red, […] leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting”. Nonetheless, father’s brutality is not the only trait of his character: he gives the boys a loving bath before turning his attention to his wife, he is teaching his wife and youngest boy to swim by abandoning them in water. So, Ma and Paps live in their own world, separately though, demonstrating both love and abuse. They do not care where are their kids, what they are doing, how they are talking. These characters demonstrate indifference of parents, they set bad example for boys, and, as a result, society “accepts” other neglected and mistreated outcasts. The couple cannot resolve issues and live together amicably, everyone prefers to make thunder, chasing each other, tumbling furniture. The screams and curses reach the ears of their children and, finally, one of them gets in car and leaves. The boys realize that the only remedy is to shout, use obscene language and resort to force. The brothers are not members of society where children are practiced in habits of obedience or taught to be earnest pupils.

Figurative Language. “Animals” like a Metaphor

The chapter “Other Locusts” confirms and explains the title of the novel: the brothers got into Old Man’s garden, they “tasted and trampled and laid waste”. “Animals. Locusts” – the only words which the Man says. Then the Old calls them invaders, maradeurs, scavengers and the devil’s army on earth. The Old Man finally adds that the boys are on lam saying again and again “castaways, fugitives, punks, city slickers, and bastards”. Old Man tells the brothers that, “What the locust swarm left, the great locusts have eaten, what the […] locusts have left, the young locusts have eaten, […] what the young locusts have left, other […] have eaten,” leaving the story’s youngest to interiorly ponder the great locusts. The young locusts seems to be characterize the opposition of wealth and poverty, “what’s wrong with them, why do they come last, and what’s left for them to eat?”. This person shows brothers’ savagery, emphasizes their cruelty and misery, external and internal. When Manny and Joey start to fight “in their worst way”, the narrator remembers when their Ma tends to whisper “stop, stop, stop” to Paps. The author possibly recalls the moments when the woman tried to defend herself from fiendish drubbing or commitment of a rape. “Animals”, said Old Man, “animals”: the phrase which emphasizes the theme and idea of the novel. He was the only one member of society represented in the text and the author shows the viewpoint of “disinterested party”. This element, more specifically, the word ‘animals’ is definitely the thing which explains the title, it creates the plot and book building.

Literary Theory

There are no doubts, the novel reflects past and modern values of contemporaneous society, where children should incorporate such prevalent issue as devaluation of black or interracial people. Interracial group identification frequently becomes intangible and children grow up with feeling that they are alone, marginal, or isolated. Interracial children may experience the clash of cultures rather intensely, so assuming they are Puerto Rican means neglecting socially idealized concepts about family and race, and also being discriminated.

Some of the techniques of psychoanalysis are often used in interpretation of literature. This criticism often disregards verbal surface of the text and focuses on Freudian motifs. He claimed that infantile sexuality exists which begins through child’s relationships with mother in infancy. It is considered that children want to eliminate the father and become mother’s partner. Accordingly to the text, children are raising in the environment of domestic violence (the father “told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out.”), without having no standards and ultimate goals. Moreover, such unhealthy atmosphere provokes children’s misunderstanding of communication between parents and kids; uncovered sexual relationships affect kid’s deep and correct understanding of the words ‘love’ and ‘sex’. They are not aware of such feeling as love: “What if he is having a heart attack?” Manny asked; “What heart?” said Ma. Improved and correct communication about sex and its demonstration usually causes fewer sexual risk behaviors among adolescents. Ma had not no experience in ‘good talking’ with her parents about contraception which could help her to establish individual values and to make healthy decisions. She trusted Paps who persuaded her that the girl would not become pregnant, and as a result, early maternity greatly influenced their ability to raise children with attention and care. Eventually, the boys, while having a bath, cower in silent awe and confusion as their parents begin to make love in front of their children. The author describes how Paps dive his hand into brassiere and touches Ma’s breast. It is unlikely that parents can bring up a good, mentally sane person in the environment of permissiveness when she should watch episodes which must be left behind the scenes. Consequently, two older brothers lead dissolute way of life which does not have significant importance for them. The youngest one switches over male sex and contents himself in the night “he was made”. Probably, there is a phenomenon of displacement, whereby one person is represented by another: the narrator is the embodiment of the author who could get through such situation in his life.

The conclusion of “We the Animal” is open-ended and there is no happy end. Torres describes the necessity of the person of finding the real escape in stark realities of life. The reader sees the distinctly animalistic qualities of the family: boys are growing up, they are changing, and everything in their life requires some soul-searching. As a result, the pack does not accept too radical differences and expels the ‘outcast’ from the group. The boy’s sexual awareness leads to exposure, where ‘Everything easy between me and my brothers and my mother and my father was lost.’

In conclusion, a deep analysis of the characters and plot helped to clarify significance of language of the book, its elements and mood. The narrator, being an important literary element, considers to be separated and isolated from this united group. Unhealthy environment not only hurts the protagonist, he also reevaluates the situations, changes during the whole story, and hides his homosexuality from the family. Such minor characters as brothers break new but wild grounds and find their own ways to play: they are fierce, cruel and their behavior looks like ones of primitive tribes. Ma and Paps cannot resolve issues and live together amicably, everyone prefers to make thunder, chasing each other, tumbling furniture. Then boys realize that the only remedy is to shout, use obscene language and resort to force. Old Man sees brothers’ savagery, emphasizes their cruelty and misery, external and internal. The truth is shown through his eyes. Finally, there is a phenomenon of displacement, whereby the narrator is the embodiment of the author who could get through such situation in his life. Unhealthy atmosphere provokes children’s misunderstanding of communication between parents and kids; two older brothers lead dissolute way of life which does not have significant importance for them. The youngest one switches over male sex and contents himself in the night “he was made”.

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