The Lives of Animals by J. M. Coetzee
  • Title: The Lives of Animals
  • Subtitle: The University Center for Human Values Series Book 43
  • Author(s): J. M. Coetzee
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Year: 2016-10-04
  • ISBN-10: 0691173907
  • ISBN-13: 9780691173900


The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee is a thought-provoking collection of two thought-provoking essays that explore the complex human-animal relationship. In the first essay, titled “The Philosophers and the Animals,” Coetzee presents a fictional lecture in which a renowned novelist, Elizabeth Costello, delivers a stirring speech challenging the ethical implications of human attitudes and treatment towards animals. She argues that animals should not be seen as mere objects for human consumption or amusement, highlighting the moral responsibility society has towards them. In the second essay, “The Poets and the Animals,” Coetzee further delves into these themes, revealing the deep connection between poetry and empathy for non-human creatures.

Coetzee’s exploration of the human-animal relationship in “The Lives of Animals” raises profound questions about our ethical standards and how we perceive and treat other species. Through the character of Elizabeth Costello, he presents a provocative argument against the commodification and exploitation of animals, challenging readers to reconsider their own beliefs and actions. Coetzee’s writing is masterful, weaving fiction and philosophy seamlessly to create a compelling narrative that engages both the heart and the mind. “The Lives of Animals” is a profound and poignant exploration of the moral dimensions of our treatment of animals, heralding a call for greater compassion and empathy towards the diverse creatures that share our world.


Book Review

A Profound Exploration of the Human-Animal Connection: "The Lives of Animals" by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee’s “The Lives of Animals” is a captivating and thought-provoking book that challenges our ethical stance on the treatment of animals. Through the use of two essays, Coetzee intertwines fiction and philosophy to delve into the complex relationship between humans and animals, provoking readers to reevaluate their perspectives on the moral responsibilities we have towards other species.

The first essay, “The Philosophers and the Animals,” introduces the fictional character Elizabeth Costello, a celebrated novelist, who presents a lecture questioning the domination and exploitation of animals by humans. Through her powerful words, Costello argues that animals possess emotions, desires, and an inherent worth that should not be disregarded. Ample evidence is provided within the narrative to support her arguments. For instance, Costello explores the painful existence of factory-farmed animals, highlighting the atrocious conditions they are subjected to for the sake of human consumption. Coetzee artfully depicts these harrowing scenes, forcing readers to confront the stark reality of industrial farming and the ethical duty we bear towards these sentient beings.

Additionally, Costello brings attention to the oft-ignored issue of animal testing. She raises important questions about the arbitrary boundaries between humans and animals, asking why it is acceptable to subject animals to suffering in the name of medical progress. Coetzee’s portrayal of Costello’s impassioned plea for the recognition of animals as deserving of compassion and respect compels readers to reflect on the fundamental values that underpin our society.

“The Poets and the Animals,” the second essay in the book, delves deeper into the connection between poetry and empathy for non-human creatures. Coetzee argues that poetry has the capacity to awaken our emotions and bring us closer to understanding the lives of animals. Through the analysis of various poets and their works, he demonstrates how poetry serves as a vehicle for empathy, allowing us to experience the world through the eyes of other species. This connection between poetry and empathy is beautifully exemplified through Coetzee’s own eloquent prose, as he seamlessly weaves philosophical discourse with evocative descriptions.

One of the strengths of “The Lives of Animals” lies in Coetzee’s ability to craft characters that embody the complexities and contradictions surrounding the animal-human relationship. Elizabeth Costello, as a fictional character, becomes a lens through which Coetzee explores these ideas. Her impassioned arguments challenge the reader to reconcile their own beliefs with the uncomfortable realities of animal suffering. By employing a fictional character, Coetzee provides a level of distance and objectivity, stimulating critical thought and allowing readers to engage with the material on a personal level.

In addition to its philosophical depth, Coetzee’s writing style is both insightful and affecting. He uses vivid imagery and poignant prose to capture the emotions and experiences of animal beings. For example, Coetzee’s description of a gorilla, confined in a zoo, yearning for freedom, is particularly haunting and serves as a powerful reminder of the inherent injustice of captivity and exploitation.

The Lives of Animals” is a timely and important work that challenges common assumptions about animals and highlights the moral responsibility we have towards them. Coetzee’s ability to seamlessly blend fiction with philosophical reflection makes this book an engaging and thought-provoking read. It prompts us to confront uncomfortable truths about our treatment of animals, urging us to reflect on the choices we make as individuals and as a society.

In conclusion, “The Lives of Animals” is a profound exploration of the human-animal connection. J.M. Coetzee’s masterful storytelling, compelling arguments, and evocative prose create a rich and compelling narrative that prompts readers to reevaluate their own relationship with animals. By presenting a fictional lecture and examining the inherent link between poetry and empathy, Coetzee challenges us to reflect on our treatment of animals and consider how we can build a more compassionate world. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in ethics, philosophy, and the intricate tapestry of human-animal interactions.


Through the lens of fiction and philosophy, I delve into the lives of animals. Join me in questioning the morality of our treatment towards fellow creatures, prompting reflection on ethical considerations.

Key Ideas

The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee explores several key ideas surrounding the human-animal relationship and the moral responsibilities we have towards other species. Some of the key ideas in the book include:

  1. Animal rights and ethical treatment Coetzee challenges the dominant notion that animals are mere objects for human use and consumption. Through the character of Elizabeth Costello, he argues for the recognition of animals as sentient beings with inherent worth and moral value. Coetzee presents compelling evidence of the suffering experienced by animals in various contexts, such as factory farming and animal testing, urging readers to reassess their ethical stance on these issues.

  2. The boundaries between humans and animals Coetzee raises thought-provoking questions about the arbitrary boundaries we draw between humans and animals. He questions why humans consider themselves superior and are able to justify their dominance and exploitation of non-human creatures. By blurring these boundaries, Coetzee challenges readers to reconsider their relationships with animals and recognize the shared experiences and capacity for emotions across species.

  3. Empathy and poetry Coetzee explores the power of poetry and empathy in connecting with non-human creatures. Through the character of Elizabeth Costello, he argues that poetry has the ability to bridge the gap between humans and animals, allowing us to gain a deeper understanding of their lives and experiences. Coetzee delves into various poetic works, demonstrating how they evoke emotional resonance and foster empathy for other species.

  4. Literature as a medium for ethical inquiry Coetzee employs literature as a means to engage with ethical questions and encourage critical reflection. He uses fictional characters and scenarios to present philosophical arguments, inviting readers to consider different perspectives and challenge their preconceived notions. Through the voice of Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee presents a touchstone for exploring and questioning the status quo surrounding human-animal dynamics.

Overall, “The Lives of Animals” confronts readers with uncomfortable truths about the treatment of animals, calling for a greater recognition of their rights and a reconsideration of our ethical responsibilities. Coetzee’s exploration of the multifaceted dimensions of the human-animal relationship challenges us to engage in a deeper examination of our own beliefs and actions, urging us to strive for a more compassionate world.


Target Audience

The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee is a book that appeals to a diverse audience due to its exploration of profound ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the human-animal relationship. It is recommended reading for the following audiences:

  • Animal rights activists and advocates Coetzee’s work directly addresses the ethical treatment of animals, making it a crucial read for those engaged in animal rights activism. The book offers insights and arguments that can be used to further advocate for the fair treatment of animals in various spheres.

  • Philosophers and ethicists Coetzee’s blend of fiction and philosophy will resonate with those interested in ethical theory and moral philosophy. “The Lives of Animals” offers a nuanced exploration of the moral responsibilities we have towards animals and raises important questions about our treatment of them, inviting philosophical reflection and discussion.

  • English literature and humanities scholars Coetzee’s book weaves together literature, philosophy, and critical analysis, making it an engaging read for scholars interested in interdisciplinary approaches. The book presents an opportunity for literary analysis and invites deeper exploration of themes such as empathy, ethics, and the role of literature in ethical inquiry.

  • Environmentalists and conservationists Coetzee’s examination of our relationship with animals extends beyond ethical concerns, touching upon the interdependence of species and the impact of human actions on the environment. Environmentalists and conservationists will find value in the book’s broader implications for biodiversity conservation and ecological sustainability.

  • General readers interested in thought-provoking literature While the book delves into philosophical themes, it remains accessible to general readers who are seeking engaging and thought-provoking literature. Coetzee’s masterful storytelling and the fictional elements of the book make it an engaging and captivating read, regardless of prior knowledge or specific interest in the subject matter.

In conclusion, “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee is recommended reading for a broad range of audiences, including animal rights activists, philosophers, scholars in the humanities, environmentalists, and general readers seeking thought-provoking literature. It offers a profound exploration of ethical questions, making it an essential work for those interested in the human-animal relationship, moral philosophy, and interdisciplinary approaches to literature and philosophy.

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