I used to watch the movie A Dog of Flanders when I was a little kid. I liked it because the dog from Disney’s Old Yeller played the part of Pastrache, but I disliked it because Pastrache was mistreated. How children evaluate movies!
Ever since Pastrache, the shaggy black Fleming dog, came to live with them, Nello and his grandfather have felt nothing but love and trust for the huge dog. Although poor, the three of them live happily together in their tiny cottage living off the meager penance Nello and Pastrache earn by peddling milk in the village.
But Nello has no wish to be a farmer – what he loves is art! Painting! The glorious intricacies of the masters’ works! He has even entered a painting into a local contest. If he wins, he will receive two hundred francs!
But before the winners can be announced, tragedy strikes. Baas Crogez, the wealthy miller, accuses Nello of setting fire to his windmill! And then, Nello’s grandfather and protector dies!
Will Nello’s reputation be forever stained by Baas Cogez’s accusation? Will Nello and Patrasche be able to survive the cold winter by themselves? And will Nello triumph at the art contest he so desperately longs to win?
Alright, I’m not even going to bother about avoiding spoilers. THE KID AND DOG DIE! Yes, I did just descend to the realm of all caps. Even after the pure sappiness of the story, I wasn’t prepared to meet with the heroic martyr in its finale. Nello and Pastrache both die before any one ever apologizes to them or realizes how wrong they were to treat them cruelly. He dies knowing that he lost the art contest. But then, as soon as he dies, every one realizes that they should forgive him, and an art expert arrives saying that Nello was a genius of great talent.
Aside from the sappy ending, A Dog of Flanders displayed a level of unrealism that went beyond the level of idealism. I’m talking Nello did not make a single mistake. Not never. He’s perfectly perfect the whole story. Let’s see, how does Ouida describe him? As having “dark, grave, tender eyes, and a lovely bloom upon his face, and fair locks that clustered to his throat.” [pgs. 14-15]
So, from Ouida’s description of Nello, and her record of his conversations, I had guessed that he was about ten years old. Imagine my shock to discover that he was fifteen! Yet his speech, his thoughts are so simplistic and melodramatic! Get this, coming from a fifteen year old upon being pitied for his poverty.
“Nay, I am rich,” murmured Nello; and in his innocence he thought so – rich with the imperishable powers that are mightier than the might of kings. And he went and stood by the door of the hut in the quiet autumn night, and watched the stars troop by and the tall poplars bend and shiver in the wind. All the casements of the mill-house were lighted, and every now and then the notes of the flute come to him. The tears fell down his cheeks, for he was but a child, yet he smiled, for he said to himself, “In the future!” He stayed there until all was quite still and dark, then he and Patrasche went within and slept together, long and deeply, side by side.” [pgs. 38-39]
Or how about this one?
When the morning broke over the white, chill earth it was the morning of Christmas Eve. With a shudder, Nello clasped close to him his only friend, while his tears fell hot and fast on the dog’s frank forehead. “Let us go, Patrasche – dear, dear Patrasche,” he murmured. “We will not wait to be kicked out: let us go.” [pg. 52]
Pastrache is ascribed all of the character, intelligence, understanding, and virtue of the best of men. He understands everything that takes place (except Nello’s fascination with Rubens’ art) and makes complex decisions based off of these occurrences. He is staunch in his loyalty to Nello, and amongst Nello’s fickle friends is the only to remain true.
I found the religious aspect of this story to be disturbing. Ouida seems to take delight in referring to ordinary things in terms of the divine. For example, on one page she refers to Pastrache as Nello and his grandfather’s ‘alpha and omega’.
But far more serious is the almost deified role she ascribes to the artist Rubens, “whose genius” she says, “is too near us for us aright to measure its divinity.” [pg. 26]
Speaking of Rubens, Ouida says,
And the greatness of the mighty Master sill rests upon Antwerp, and wherever we turn in its narrow streets his glory lies therein, so that all mean things are thereby transfigured; and as we pace slowly through the winding ways, and by the edge of the stagnant water, and through the noisome courts, his spirit abides with us, and the heroic beauty of his visions is about us, and the stones that once felt his footsteps and bore his shadow seem to arise and speak of him with living voices. For the city which is the tomb of Rubens still lives to us through him, and him alone.
It is so quiet there by that great white sepulcher – so quiet, save only when the organ peals and the choir cries aloud the Salve Regina or the Kyrie Eleison. Sure no artist ever had a greater gravestone than that pure marble sanctuary gives to him in the heart of his birthplace in the chancel of St. Jacques.
Without Rubens, what were Antwerp? A dirty, dusky, bustling mart, which no man would ever care to look upon save the traders who do business on its wharves. With Rubens, to the whole world of men it is a sacred name, a sacred soil, a Bethlehem where a god of Art saw light, a Golgotha where a god of Art lies dead.
O nations! Closely should you treasure your great men, for by them alone will the future know of you. Flanders in her generations has been wise. In his life she glorified this greatest of her sons, and in his death she magnifies his name. But her wisdom is very rare.” [pg. 20-21]
And later, speaking of Nello,
The whole soul of the little Ardennois thrilled and stirred with an absorbing passion for Art. Going on his ways through the old city in the early days before the sun or the people had risen, Nello, who looked only a little peasant-boy, with a great dog drawing milk to sell from door to door, was in a heaven of dreams whereof Rubens was the god. Nello, cold and hungry, with stockingless feet in wooden shoes, and the winter winds blowing among his curls and lifting his poor thin garments, was in a rapture of meditation, wherein all that he saw was the beautiful fair face of the Mary of the Assumption, with the waves of her golden hair lying upon her shoulders, and the light of an eternal sun shining down upon her brow. Nello, reared in poverty, and buffeted by fortune, and untaught in letters, and unheeded by men, had the compensation or the curse which is called Genius. [pgs. 24-25]
Ouida later writes that Nello could be heard murmuring “all manner of timid, pathetic prayers to the spirit of the great Master” meaning Rubens. He is also “full of heroical worship” for Rubens, imagining a day when he shall give all credit for his talent to Rubens.
Nello has an obsession with Rubens’ art, and when in the end he sees two of Rubens’ works, he cries out, “O God, it is enough!” and promptly dies.
On several occasions, luck, fate, or fortune is thanked instead of the Lord.
One of the opening scenes – the one in which we are introduced to Pastrache and learn of his background – is violent.
Happily for Patrasche – or unhappily – he was very strong: he came of an iron race, long born and bred to such cruel travail; so that he did not die, but managed to drag on a wretched existence under the brutal burdens, the scarifying lashes, the hunger, the thirst, the blows, the curses, and the exhaustion which are the only wages with which the Flemings repay the most patient and laborious of all their four-footed victims. One day, after two years of this long and deadly agony, Patrasche was going on as usual along one of the straight, dusty, unlovely roads that lead to the city of Rubens. It was full midsummer, and very warm. His cart was very heavy, piled high with goods in metal and in earthenware. His owner sauntered on without noticing him otherwise than by the crack of the whip as it curled round his quivering loins. The Brabantois had paused to drink beer himself at every wayside house, but he had forbidden Patrasche to stop a moment for a draught from the canal. Going along thus, in the full sun, on a scorching highway, having eaten nothing for twenty-four hours, and, which was far worse to him, not having tasted water for near twelve, being blind with dust, sore with blows, and stupefied with the merciless weight which dragged upon his loins, Patrasche, for once, staggered and foamed a little at the mouth, and fell.
He fell in the middle of the white, dusty road, in the full glare of the sun; he was sick unto death, and motionless. His master gave him the only medicine in his pharmacy – kicks and oaths and blows with a cudgel of oak, which had been often the only food and drink, the only wage and reward, ever offered to him. But Patrasche was beyond the reach of any torture or of any curses. Patrasche lay, dead to all appearances, down in the white powder of the summer dust. After a while, finding it useless to assail his ribs with punishment and his ears with maledictions, the Brabantois – deeming life gone in him, or going so nearly that his carcass was forever useless, unless indeed some one should strip it of the skin for gloves – cursed him fiercely in farewell, struck off the leathern bands of the harness, kicked his body heavily aside into the grass, and, groaning and muttering in savage wrath, pushed the cart lazily along the road up-hill, and left the dying dog there for the ants to sting and for the crows to pick.
It was the last day before Kermesse away at Louvain, and the Brabantois was in haste to reach the fair and get a good place for his truck of brass wares. He was in fierce wrath, because Patrasche had been a strong and much-enduring animal, and because he himself had now the hard task of pushing his charette all the way to Louvain. But to stay to look after Patrasche never entered his thoughts: the beast was dying and useless, and he would steal, to replace him, the first large dog that he found wandering alone out of sight of its master. Patrasche had cost him nothing, or next to nothing, and for two long, cruel years he had made him toil ceaselessly in his service from sunrise to sunset, through summer and winter, in fair weather and foul.
He had got a fair use and a good profit out of Patrasche: being human, he was wise, and left the dog to draw his last breath alone in the ditch, and have his bloodshot eyes plucked out as they might be by the birds, whilst he himself went on his way to beg and to steal, to eat and to drink, to dance and to sing, in the mirth at Louvain. A dying dog, a dog of the cart – why should he waste hourse over its agonies at peril of losing a handful of copper coins, at peril of a shout of laughter? [pgs. 6-8]
Conclusion. In short, I didn’t like this book very much – I found it to be both depressing and starry-eyed (all at the same time!?!), as well as almost blasphemous. The main character was neither manly nor heroic, but lived in a fairytale-ish world. But don’t let my impressions influence you. (:
Review © 2013 Laura Verret