Challenging Anthropomorphism in Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0








Throughout the history of story-telling, the fox has been represented in an anthropo- morphic way not only in early tales, mythologies, fables and oral stories, but also in contemporary literature and movies. The focus has often been directed at how its be- havioural attributes are to some extent similar to human characteristics, both positively and negatively (cf. Chadwick 1994, Uther 2006). Even in today’s popular culture, the fox is often used in an anthropomorphic way by giving him human characteristics, like intelligence and cunning. This literary treatment stands in contrast to his natural animal- istic behaviour as a predator, for which the fox is still negatively connoted (cf. Chadwick 1994: 75). One of the most recent examples which comes to mind is the Disney anima- tion movie Zootopia1 in which a rabbit police officer decides to work together with a fox not only to solve the case but also in order to be respected by other and stronger ani- mals at the police office. Such a relationship between a fox and a rabbit is of course only possible in the context of an anthropomorphic depiction of a movie, made to enter- tain children in the first place. Adults are well aware that under realistic, or rather bio- logical and natural, circumstances, the rabbit would be eaten by the fox.

The relationship between a human and a fox, a wild and non-domesticated animal, is certainly different from a relationship among human beings, or a human and a pet dog, or between a fox and a rabbit. However, the desire to maintain a closer relationship, even friendship, with wild non-human animals has increased over the last years and is being addressed in environmental and animal studies as well as in ecocriticism and literature (cf. Dywer 2012: 624).

In her award-winning2 short story, Mrs Fox (2013), Sarah Hall explores how the rela- tionship between a husband and his wife changes when she transmogrifies into a fox in “an act of will” (Hall 2013: 62). Hall focuses on the point of view of the husband and how he struggles to accept the reality of his beloved wife having transformed into a vixen.

The following paper will look at how Mrs Fox challenges anthropomorphism by applying animal characteristics to the female main character by physically turning her into a fox rather than applying human characteristics to an animal (cf. Garrad 2012: 206). I will start with a plot summary of Mrs Fox against the backdrop of the genre conven- tions of the short story. Furthermore, I will analyse selected passages of the transfor- mation and the new relationship between the husband and his fox wife with regard to a) theories and aspects of human - animal relationship, and b) how the new relationship between a human and a fox leads to a re-valuing of other species and the realisation of humans being part of nature and its species rather than being a superior species.



Mrs Fox starts with the husband thinking about his wife whom he loves deeply. Sarah Hall uses a homodiegetic narrator who is represented by the husband in a third-person point of view as the main character and, therefore, part of the story ( cf. Genette 1983: 149). The husband remains unknown throughout the story, except for his last name, Garnet. He gives some insight about his sexual desire towards his wife, Sophia, and their sexual relationship, because in his opinion “[t]he trick is to be able to bite, to speak in a voice not your own” (Hall 2013:48), to give it an animalistic touch. The couple does not have any children or pets, and lives in a house in a suburban area which once was heath. Moving to the climax of the short story, the narrator is worried about Sophia be- ing sick two mornings in a row. He even imagines her death which terrifies him, but he does not consider the possibility that she might be pregnant. To feel better, Sophia wants to take a walk on an early October morning. As they go further into the woods, Sophia starts to transmogrify into a fox, with her husband unbelieving and unable to prevent it. He carries his now vixen wife home, and soon realises that she is no longer a human with human needs, but a wild animal, a fox, which has other needs. He is dis- gusted by having to buy a living pigeon for her to eat (ibid. 63-4). Instead of keeping her as pet, he has to adjust to the new situation and decides to set her free. Time passes, and he starts to work again, telling his colleagues and the cleaner Esmé that Sophia has left him. One morning in Spring, he walks on the heath again and the fox, his former wife, appears and he follows her into the woods. At her den, four cubs are waiting for their mother and he finally realises that he must be the father, due to their sexual desire before Sophia’s transmogrification. She allows him to stay close to the cubs, more as a visitor or observer, rather than being physically involved in their play or her taking care of them.

The more often he visits the den and the cubs as they grow, he starts to worry about what might become of them, for “[t]he woods are temporary and the city is rapacious” (ibid. 73). Here, the narrator refers to the rapid growth of the city and the consequences of urbanisation. He still has hope that Sophia might return one day as his human wife, but he knows that his life without her as a fox has become meaningless, even though she probably never had belonged to him in the first place, as a human or a fox.

Throughout the plot, Hall has used characteristics typical for the genre of the short sto- ry. For once, Mrs Fox is written in a present tense and the story unfolds in a single- valent plot structure (cf. Pasco 1991: 418-19). Other characteristics shown through the plot are a missing introduction of the overall setting, the name of the husband, and the unknown city which urbanisation poses a threat to the woods in which the fox and her cubs are living. There is also no clear point in time at which the story starts. The reader can only conclude how many months have passed by knowing that Sophia has trans- mogrified into a fox at some point in October and that the husband has met her again in early Spring. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, this would be approximately the time for foxes to mate.

Due to the brevity of the short story (cf. Allende 1996, Pasco 1991), Hall focuses on her two main characters, the husband and Sophia, and especially on the husband’s point of view. She shows the couple and their characters by their actions and behaviour rather than just describing them.

The final characteristic I want to mention is a change and a new state which often, if not always, occur in a short story (cf. Allende 1996: 24, Pasco 1991: 419). In Mrs Fox, there are two major changes which result in new states. One is the physical change, the transmogrification, of Sophia into a fox. The other is the change of the husband’s state of mind and how he at the end of the short story can find happiness in a human - animal relationship with a fox rather than in the former relationship with Sophia as a human.


Anthropomorphism often tends to romanticise animals by crediting them, sometimes, with too many human characteristics and portraying them outside of their natural habi- tats and environments, as often seen in today’s animation movies. With regard to hu- man - animal interaction and researchers who have put themselves in situations, in which they function as an observer of animals in their natural environment, Vinciane Despret poses the question “is one putting himself in the animal’s shoes or, on the con- trary, does one actually put the animal in human shoes?” (Despret 2013: 56). The lack of direct communication through language and a way of thinking which relies on specu- lations about what an animal might, or might not, feel, say or do, is based on human experiences and research on animals. Such speculations often result in an overuse of anthropomorphic depictions of animals and a misrepresentation of animals (cf. McFar- land 2013: 153).

Sarah Hall’s Mrs Fox challenges such a romanticised anthropomorphic perspective by using a transmogrification of a woman into a vixen, and, therefore, changing the former relationship between the husband and his wife into a human - animal relationship. Furthermore, this physical change of appearance also provokes the husband to re-value nature and other species, especially the fox, which results in a newly found happiness in the represented human - animal relationship.


The first step of challenging anthropomorphism in Mrs Fox is the transmogrification of Sophia into a fox.

The transmogrification, or shape-shifting, of humans into animals can often be found in mythology and folklore, and constitutes another form of anthropomorphism. Hans-Jörg Uther discusses different types of narratives throughout history which have involved the fox, its meaning and also transmogrification (Uther 2006). Especially in Asian narra- tives the fox has played an important role, and Uther observes that Chinese narratives of women who would turn into foxes increased from the fourth century onwards (ibid. 140). In such stories, an old vixen would turn into a young and beautiful women to se- duce men to achieve immortality by depriving men of their life force (ibid.). Therefore, men’s attraction and their sexual desire for beautiful women forecasts their deaths. Sexual desire also plays an important role in Mrs Fox. Even though the husband does not wilfully seduce Sophia to turn her into a fox, their sexual relationship results in the beginning of her transmogrification by her getting pregnant.

Sarah Hall constructs the process of Sophia’s transmogrification in three steps, written in a chronological order of the plot structure. The first step is Sophia’s morning sickness which the husband does not consider as a sign of pregnancy. As Mrs Fox is written from the husbands point of view, the reader does not learn what Sophia’s thoughts or feelings about her sickness are.

The second step is the couple’s decision to take a walk on the morning of Sophia’s transmogrification. They leave the suburban area of their home behind and walk further into the woods, Sophia leading the way with quick steps and her husband following her.

The husband describes the nature around them as something that has yet been affected by the rapid growth of the city. Besides some birds, he does not seem to notice any other animals. He imagines Sophia’s death and is frightened by such thoughts, but apparently the way she moves indicates the opposite: “she is fit and healthy. Her body swings, full of energy” (Hall 2013: 53-54).

The final step of Sophia’s transmogrification is her physical change as she walks faster and starts to run after a jay which was flying nearby. The husband calls after her. When he catches up, he notices that something is different:

The bones have been recarved. Her lips are thin and her nose is dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened and her brows are drawn together, an expression he has never seen, a look that is almost craven. (ibid. 54)

Here, Sarah Hall starts to confront her readers with a new way of anthropomorphic thinking. The beginning of the transmogrification applies animalistic characteristics to a human and, therefore, changing Sophia’s physical appearance. The husband is confused and thinks that the morning light plays tricks with his mind. But the transmogrification is not finished yet, and Sophia is still in a process of change:

She has stepped out of her laced boots and is walking away. Now she is running again, on all fours, lower to earth, sleeker, fleeter. She is […] run- ning in the light of the reddening sun, the read of her hair and her coat fall- ing, the red of her fur and her body loosening. […] Holding behind her a sudden, brazen object, white-tipped. Her yellow scarf trails in the briar. All vestiges shed. […] She looks over her shoulder. Topaz eyes glinting. Scorched face. Vixen. (ibid. 55)

The physical characteristics of the fox can be compared to those of the red fox which can be found throughout Europe with typical red fur, a white-tipped tail and a small snout (cf. Encyclopædia Britannica). Joan V. Chadwick also comments on the ability of the fox to adapt to new habitats which often have been modified by humans and their exploitation of nature and environment in the need of new resources (Chadwick 1994: 71).

Sophia’s transmogrification is now complete, leaving her husband shocked and in dis- belief as he tries to understand what has happened right before his eyes. In an accu- rate description Hall has turned her female main character into a wild animal which can no longer communicate her thoughts and needs by a shared language with a human, her former husband.


By creating a realistic relationship between the husband and the fox which moves away from a pet-like relationship of, for example, a dog and his owner, Sarah Hall takes another step in challenging anthropomorphism.

While animals have held different positions in human lives throughout history, the rela- tionship between humans and animals has also changed along with their meaning (cf. Berger 1980). John Berger remarks that “[t]he practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness” (ibid. 14) offers humans not only a companionship, but also a way to reflect and reveal themselves which is not possible for humans among others. The pet resembles its owner, but the process of domestication also deprives the animal of their natural behaviour - they rely on their owner in almost every way (ibid.).

June Dywer points out that there are other characteristics that need to be considered when distinguishing a pet from other non-domesticated animals (cf. Dywer 2007: 76). She confirms some characteristics based on Keith Thomas’ description and adds fur- ther elements. Overall, humans see pets as an individual and treat them in a way which humans would want for themselves (ibid.). According to this, “pets […] are given names, allowed in the house, and never eaten” (Thomas 1983: 112-115). Furthermore, humans seek a deep connection with their pets by talking to them, touching them, mourning them, and caring about them (cf. Dywer 2007: 76). Problematic, on the other hand, Dywer states that humans have a tendency to treat wild animals also as domes- ticated pets which does not respect their actual needs and interests as non-companion animals. The treatment of wild animals as domesticated pets “presuppose[s] both a domestication and a reciprocal affection” that does not exist. (Dywer 2007: 74).

The treatment of a wild animal as a domesticated pet and the problems which arise from such a human - animal relationship can also be found in Mrs Fox. The husband thinks about the fox as “a thing from another realm that he has brought home to be- long” (Hall 2013: 62). He recognises her otherness, but at the same time disrespects it and her new needs. As time goes by and the husband lives together with the fox in the house, some characteristics of a human - pet relationship as mentioned above can no longer be ascribed:

He cannot speak to her anymore. She doesn’t understand and his voice sounds ridiculous to his own ears, a cacophany. She will not tolerate being in the same room for long. […] She wants what’s outside, she is becoming restive, growling, but he knows he cannot let her go. What would become of her, and, with her, his hope? (Hall 2013: 63)


1 For a review published in The Guardian, see < zootropolis-zoomania-review-disney>. [12.03.2016]

2 Mrs Fox has won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013. For reference of the BBC announcement, see <>. [11.03.2016]

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Challenging Anthropomorphism in Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox"
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Ecocriticism and Contemporary Fiction
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ISBN (Book)
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Ecocriticism, Sarah Hall, Anthropomorphism, English, Anglistik, Literatur
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Sarah Gahler (Author), 2016, Challenging Anthropomorphism in Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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