In a novel deeply concerned with what it means to be free, animals represent the various forms of incarceration. The first animal we see is White Dog, a completely domesticated animal that relies completely on the family for sustenance. White Dog trusts the woman, his provider, so much that he offers no resistance when she kills him out of mercy. Here, White Dog represents many of the Japanese-Americans themselves, who trust the U.S. government so much that they consent to the injustice of being sent to the internment camps.
Unlike White Dog, the family’s caged bird does escape its imprisonment. It is the family’s domesticated pet, but the woman decides to releases the bird from its cage instead of killing it, because she knows it can survive in the wild. When she first lets it out, however, the bird refuses to be free, tapping on the windows to be let back in. Here, we see the psychological power of incarceration, and the feeling of safety and security that can come with imprisonment. The bird has internalized its status as a prisoner and does not want to give it up—the cage is comforting and familiar to it.
Finally, the wild mustangs that the children see on the desert plain represent complete liberty. Running across the plain, the wild animals revel in their freedom. Looking out the window, the boy admires and longs for that freedom as his family hurdles toward the prison camp. For the boy, the horses represent that ideal state of freedom, which he will long for throughout the novel but never attain.
Wild and Domesticated Animals Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
White Dog rolled over and looked up at her with his good eye. “Play dead,” she said. White Dog turned his head to the side and closed his eyes. His paws went limp. The woman picked up the large shovel that was leaning against the trunk of the tree. She lifted it high in the air with both hands and brought the blade down swiftly over his head…She picked up White dog and dropped him into the hole…She pulled off her gloves and looked at them. They were no longer white. She dropped them into the hole and picked up the shovel again. She filled the hole.
All summer long they had lived in the old horse stalls in the stables behind the racetrack. In the morning they had washed their faces in the long tin troughs and at night they had slept on mattresses stuffed with straw…On their first night there her brother had plucked the stiff horse hairs out of the freshly white-washed walls and run his fingers along the toothmarks on top of the double Dutch door where the wood was soft and worn.
She pulled back the shade…and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert…The dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof their passage. The girl lifted the shade and pulled her brother to the window and pressed his face gently to the glass and when he saw the mustangs…he let out a low moan that sounded like a cry of pain but was not. He watched the horses as they galloped toward the mountains and he said, very softly, “They are going away.” Then a soldier with a flashlight and a broom came walking down the aisle. The girl let the shade fall back against the glass and told the boy to return to his seat.