My Family and Other Animals follows the English Durrell family as they make their home on the Greek island of Corfu, beginning when the narrator, Gerry, is ten years old. Gerry is extremely interested in the natural world and treats Corfu as both a playground in which he can conduct his observations of plants and animals, as well as almost a character in its own right. In this way, the novel positions the Durrell family's existence in Corfu as being intrinsically tied up with nature, suggesting that the natural world is an inescapable part of life—and, further, that coexisting within the natural world means that one must not try too hard to tame it, instead accepting the natural world for what it is.
Much of Gerry's narration centers on his descriptions of what he observes in his garden or in the course of his adventures around Corfu, from the life cycles of earwigs and mantises to the mating habits of tortoises. Many chapters also open with a lengthy description of the changing seasons, which in most cases appear to dictate the course of human life on the island to a much greater degree than human-centric events like holidays. This intense focus on the natural world—both as something that Gerry happily immerses himself in and as something that affects everyone else, regardless of their feelings about it—situates the natural world as something intrinsically connected to the people that inhabit it. It's worth noting that this interconnectedness between the natural world and the manmade world is something that, for the most part, only Gerry and a select few others find charming. Others, and particularly his oldest brother, Larry, strive to keep the Durrell house slightly more tame with varying degrees of success and a great deal of hilarity.
Mother and Margo are generally either supportive or nonchalant about Gerry's insistence on bringing various animals into the Durrell household, while Larry and Gerry's other older brother, Leslie, more often find Gerry's hobby anywhere from obnoxious to dangerous, depending on the animals in question. Some of Gerry's more exotic pets, such as Achilles the tortoise and Quasimodo the dove, become beloved members of the Durrell household. The family's general acceptance of these pets reinforces Gerry's belief that the natural world is wonderful and capable of providing both companionship and interest to the lives of humans, as well as reinforces his belief that humans should endeavor to live harmoniously in and amongst nature. However, it's also important to recognize that tortoises and doves are relatively easy animals to live with, especially compared to some of the other animals Gerry brings into the house. At one point, Leslie has the intense misfortune of unwittingly opening a matchbox only to discover a captured (and then forgotten) mother scorpion and her babies, while the pair of magpies known affectionately as the Magenpies promptly destroys, among other things, Larry's room and his beloved manuscript.
The destructive (and in some cases dangerous) natures of some of Gerry's pets, as well as his family's disinterest in living closely with them, does several things. First, it differentiates Gerry from the rest of his family, as he's the only one who is truly interested in living with and understanding both his pets and the natural world. Though the rest of his family certainly enjoys the natural world, they overwhelmingly present an example of humans either dominating over nature (as in the case of Leslie, who loves to hunt) or enjoying the splendor of Corfu when the mood strikes (as Margo does with her sunbathing habit). This suggests that though there are a number of ways to exist within the natural world, Gerry's is the only one that seeks to discover a true sense of understanding with the natural world. In addition, the personalities and habits of some of Gerry's pets suggest that their tameness is debatable, which in turn shows that the natural world, as interesting and delightful as it may be, isn't something that humans can fully control and domesticate. The Durrells take many of Gerry's pets, including the exotic ones, back to England with them at the end of the novel. This decision suggests that the animals are considered to be a part of the family, even if they're still undeniably wild animals. On the train back to England, Mother's offense and annoyance when an official in Switzerland notes on her travel form that she's traveling with a "circus and staff" suggests that, annoyance with Gerry aside, the natural world is very much a part of the Durrell family—and that the human members of the family must endeavor to live alongside and support the natural world.
The Natural World ThemeTracker
The Natural World Quotes in My Family and Other Animals
The notice read: "BEWAR—EARWIG NEST—QUIAT PLESE." It was only remarkable in that the two correctly spelled words were biological ones.
"He appears to have only one interest," said Larry bitterly, "and that's this awful urge to fill things with animal life. I don't think he ought to be encouraged in that. Life is fraught with danger as it is. I went to light a cigarette only this morning and a damn great bumblebee flew out of the box."
From my point of view, however, the most important thing was that we devoted some of our time to natural history, and George meticulously and carefully taught me how to observe and how to note down observations in a diary. At once my enthusiastic but haphazard interest in nature became focused, for I found that by writing things down I could learn and remember much more.
First, since he was obviously a scientist of considerable repute (and I could have told this by his beard), he was to me a person of great importance. In fact he was the only person I had met until now who seemed to share my enthusiasm for zoology. Secondly, I was extremely flattered to find that he treated me and talked to me exactly as though I were his own age.
I toyed with the idea that it may have found itself without a pair of clean wing-cases to put on that morning and had to borrow its younger brother's pair, but I eventually decided that this idea, however enchanting, could not be described as scientific.
I grew very fond of these scorpions. I found them to be pleasant, unassuming creatures with, on the whole, the most charming habits.
Since no one had bothered to explain things to him, Roger was under the mistaken impression that the family were being attacked, and that it was his duty to defend them. As Lugaretzia was the only stranger in the room, he came to the logical conclusion that she must be the responsible party, so he bit her in the ankle.
While I was at work on my masterpiece...Peter and Margo would take a stroll in the sunken garden to look at the flowers. To my surprise, they had both suddenly become very botanically minded.
For a week or so the wind played with the island, patting it, stroking it, humming to itself among the bare branches. Then there was a lull, a few days' strange calm; suddenly, when you least expected it, the wind would be back. But it was a changed wind, a mad, hooting, bellowing wind that leaped down on the island and tried to blow it into the sea.
I was not, however, the least impressed by this last bit of information; I had met a number of people who professed to be interested in birds, and who had turned out (after careful questioning) to be charlatans who did not know what a hoopoe looked like...
"Most people say that as one gets older one believes nothing and is surprised at nothing, so that one becomes more receptive to ideas. Nonsense! All the old people I know have had their minds locked up like grey, scaly oysters since they were in their teens."
"I assure you the house is a death-trap. Every conceivable nook and cranny is stuffed with malignant faunae waiting to pounce...A simple, innocuous action like lighting a cigarette is fraught with danger. Even the sanctity of my bedroom is not respected. First, I was attacked by a scorpion...Now we have snakes in the bath and huge flocks of albatrosses flapping around the house, making noises like defective plumbing."