Dog Writes Man: Lacanian Psychoanalysis of Stickeen the Dog

by Matt Goldberg


“A creature needs some reference to the beyond of Language, to a pact, to a commitment which constitutes him, strictly speaking, as an other, a reference included in the general or, to be more exact, universal system of interhuman symbols. No love can be functionally realisable in the human community, save by means of a specific pact, which, whatever the form it takes, always tends to become isolated off into a specific function, at one and the same time within language and outside of it” (Freud Papers 174).

“Stickeen” by John Muir recounts the author’s compelling experience treading through the icy Alaskan wilderness in 1880. The short story further addresses the narrator’s fascination with his four-legged canine companion, Stickeen, who serves as a guide and a source of motivation for the narrator derived from the dog’s tenacity to continue on despite all obstacles of emanate danger.  During the climax of the story, the narrator and Stickeen are forced to cross an inevitable glacial pass in order to avoid impending doom and return to camp alive.  When Stickeen loses his courage, surprisingly enough it is the narrator with enough encouragement for both who wills the dog to cross the path and to eventual safety.  However, it’s the pact that arises, the bond that is formed within the two characters after their near-death experience that gives this short story its life. Similar to the relationship between a father and his child, the characters bind their trust in one another through their life or death experiences, but also through Language.  This essay seeks to psychoanalyze the character Stickeen while further exploring the similarities between Stickeen’s immersions into Language to that of a human child. By applying Jacques Lacan’s theories of The Real, The Symbolic and Imaginary Orders, we’ll be able to effectively compare Stickeen’s developing psyche with that of a child’s.

What is so fascinating about this kind of exploration is that the character Stickeen is, in fact, a dog.  Not a human—a dog.  Yet, the mere fact that Stickeen is a canine, instead of another type of animal, for instance, makes Lacanian psychoanalysis on the character applicable. This is due to the kind of mutual-exclusion that’s developed between dog and man that both made these furry creatures “man’s best friend” and makes resilient efforts to keep it that way.   

Despite this work being literature, and like all literature—the piece aims to invest its subjects with a human interest—Stickeen’s ability to comprehend his human masters words isn’t far from the truth. For example, “As dog owners, we take for granted that we can point to a ball or toy and our dog will bound off to get it. But the ability of dogs to read human gestures is remarkable. This ability accounts for the extraordinary communication we have with our dogs. Dogs are remarkably similar to human infants in the way they pay attention to us” (Woods). Whether it’s our dependency on our canine’s ability to follow directions (i.e. “Roll over” or “play dead”) it can be suggested that a dog’s involvement with language, and therefore the dog’s psyche, isn’t far from our very own.

 For Lacan, the human psyche is divided into three major concepts that control our lives and desires that correlate roughly to the three main moments in a subject’s development.  In broadest terms, they are: The Real, The Imaginary Order and The Symbolic Order (or the “big other”) and since a child begins with The Real, we’ll start there as well. As Dino Felluga of Purdue University describes it, The Real corresponds to our neo-natal state of nature from which our entrance into language, a state where there is nothing but need, has forever served us. However, a baby seeks to satisfy those needs with no sense for any separation between itself and the external world or the world of others.  For this reason, Lacan sometimes represents this state of nature as a time of fullness or completeness that is subsequently lost through the entrance into language. In a sense, The Real is the time in our lives when we are our primordial selves—our real, animalistic beings—the time when we are no different than any other mammal. Essentially, “The Real is impossible,” as Lacan was fond of saying, because we cannot express it in language—our very involvement or entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the Real.

             For Stickeen, the only difference between his entrance into the Real and our own is that, as an animal, the dog is inseparable from the Real because he cannot speak—he has no verbal language and therefore, no comprehension of culture and society. However, this does not remove the fact that Stickeen does comprehend the narrator’s commands. For example, during the climax of the story, when Stickeen and the narrator are forced to cross the glacier or they will surely die, the narrator exclaims, “I warned him that if he went back to the woods the wolves would kill him, and finished by urging him once more by words and gestures to come on, come on. . . He knew very well what I meant.”1

Although it is true that Muir makes his dog act like a human being under the press of great danger, the action is not the kind that involves reason; it only implies sense perception, and the instinct of self-preservation (Burroughs). Stickeen is therefore only presented as human through language, obviously, but only on the foundation of one central emotion: fear. For instance, the narrator reveals, “his [Stickeen’s] looks and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as I would to a frightened boy.”1 The narrator’s instigation of Stickeen’s entrance into language correlates to Lacan’s theory of the Name-of-the-Father, or simply, the laws and restrictions that control both ones desires and the rules of communication. Through recognition of the Name-of-the-Father the subject is able to enter into a community of others. In this case, the narrator would, of course, be seen as “the Father.” Although there isn’t a naming occurrence here, (the narrator does not begin his relationship with Stickeen by giving him a name the way a father begins his relationship with his child through language in the naming process) the narrator begins his relationship with Stickeen through language by talking to the dog as if he were a child and accepting (in himself) that Stickeen can, not only comprehend the narrator, but speak back to him. Despite this fact, the dog’s emotions quickly advance from fear to need. Yet, this isn’t quite different from a child’s instinctual need for individuality. A child does not depart from the Real to the Imaginary systematically. A child does not develop its own psyche purposefully; it does so instinctually in order to survive. Similarly, Stickeen accepts language as an instinctual means to satisfy his own need of survival. Nevertheless, it is at the next stage, what Lacan calls the Imaginary Order, when a subject departs from primal need to instinctual demand.

Whereas need can be fulfilled, “demand” is, by definition, unsatisfiable. The Imaginary Order in a human psyche, for example, is when a child begins to recognize that its body is separate from the world and its mother and therefore, begins to feel anxiety that is caused by a sense of loss (Felluga). The child realizes it is different than everyone else and therefore dependent on its mother for survival. Stickeen realizes he is dependent on the narrator when the two continue to struggle to find a place to cross the deathly glacier. The narrator does his best to forge paw-holds for the dog to help him, but ultimately knows that only Stickeen can make himself cross. For example, the narrator says:

I called again and again in a reassuring tone to come on and fear nothing; that he could come if he would only try. He would hush for a moment, look down again at the bridge, and shout his unshakable conviction that he could never, never come that way: then lie back in despair, as if howling, “O-o-oh! What a place! No-o-o, I can never go-o-o down there!”1

Now fully involved with language, through fear, Stickeen demands to place himself back into the Real, re-enter himself to the stage where primal needs are at the forefront and therefore become the primordial being that is now lost with the entrance of language. The dog is willing to enter language in order to survive, but once he realizes that he is not as capable of survival as the narrator, the dog demands to somehow revoke his new understanding of language and go back to being, well, just a dog. As Lacan denotes, “the difference between “demand” and “desire”, which is the function of [the next stage] the symbolic order, is simply the acknowledgement of language, law, and community in the latter; the demand of the imaginary does not proceed beyond a dyadic relation between the self and the object one wants to make a part of oneself” (Purdue). With this being said, it is important to denote that, according to Lacan, the imaginary and symbolic are intertwined and work in tension with the Real.

Whereas the Real concerns need and the Imaginary concerns demand, the Symbolic most definitely concerns desire. “The fact that our fantasies always fail before the Real, for example, ensures that we continue to desire; desire in the symbolic order could, in fact, be said to be our way to avoid coming into full contact with the Real, so that desire is ultimately most interested not in obtaining the object of desire, but, rather, in reproducing itself” (Felluga). Stickeen’s desire is ultimately to survive, despite how reluctant the dog is to actually attempt to cross the glacier. No matter how much the dog desires to reenter the Real at an attempt to somehow neglect the idea of having to cross the glacier, as Felluga says, desire is not interested in actually obtaining such desire, but creating it itself. This is the point when Stickeen realizes that he must cross the glacier. For example, the narrator reveals:

 His natural composure and courage had vanished utterly in a tumultuous storm of fear… But in this dismal, merciless abyss lay the shadow of death, and his heart-rending cries might well have called Heaven to his help. Perhaps they did. So hidden before, he was now transparent, and one could see the workings of his heart and mind like the movements of a clock out of its case. His voice and gestures, hopes and fears, were so perfectly human that none could mistake them; while he seemed to understand every word of mine. . . It seemed impossible to get him to venture.1

Despite his reluctancy and self-proclaimed inefficiency to actually cross, Stickeen, with help from the narrator’s commands, shifts his desire from surviving (by help from some supernatural entity like “heaven”) to surviving on his own accord by crossing the glacier himself. Similarly, by entering the Symbolic Order (with it’s laws and images for self perfection), a child effectively separates itself from the materiality of its own bodily desires; the human effectively choses culture over nature. That law, for Lacan, is “identical to an order of Language,” specifically, what he terms the Symbolic Order with its support from the conjured symbol: “Name-of-the-Father.”

In Stickeen’s case, the dog choses culture over nature, in that, he knows that without the motivating words of the narrator, the dog would never be able to cross (without physical help from the narrator or something else). Like a human child, Stickeen ultimately decides that the Real is not obtainable for survival and thus, has to accept language in order to survive. Both Stickeen’s entrance into language and his desires to, at first revoke language, and then ultimately accept it is done completely unconsciously and instinctually. However, Lacan would denote that even our unconscious desires are organized by a linguistic system. Therefore, in a sense, our desires are never properly our own. Instead, our desires are created through fantasies that are caught up in cultural ideologies. As Slavojik Zizek puts it, “through fantasy, we learn how to desire” (Felluga). Since fantasy is, by definition, un-real, our desires rely more on a lack of desire, rather than a determination to fulfill such desire.

Stickeen’s desire is to survive, of course, but it is his lack of desire to cross the glacier (survive) that ultimately allows him to cross. For example, we see Stickeen wrestling within himself while looking down at the gulf and moaning his fears aloud to the narrator, “he only lay down and moaned ill utter hopeless misery.”1 However, it is that lack of the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire. When we realize our desires, we then come to understand the falsity of such desires and therefore feel that reaching those desires is a must. “To come too close to our object of desire threatens to uncover the lack that is, in fact, necessary for our desire to persist, so that, ultimately, desire is most interested not in fully attaining the object of desire but in keeping our distance, thus allowing desire to persist” (Felluga). Because desire is articulated through fantasy, it is driven by its own impossibility. Since Stickeen feels that crossing the glacier is impossible, the impossibilities of the act create a much stronger desire to actually survive. Furthermore, now that Stickeen has accepted language as being more important (to survival) than nature, the dog once again choses language when he wills himself to cross:

[A]s if counting and measuring one-two-three , holding himself steady against the gusty wind, and giving separate attention to each little step, he gained the foot of the cliff. . . Here he halted in dead silence. . . Then suddenly up he came in a springy rush, hooking his paws into the steps and notches so quickly that I could not see how it was done, and whizzed past my head, safe at last!1

Whether it was intentional or not, John Muir seems to have an eerie ability in this story to personify Stickeen’s psyche so well that it actually follows the same structure of a human child. It remains unknown whether or not the author was well familiar with the theories of Freud, the similarities between the structure of the human psyche and Stickeen’s psyche is striking. It is also interesting to realize that Lacan was born just eight years prior to the publication of “Stickeen.” If anything, “Stickeen” is a commentary on collaboration. A child cannot survive without its parents, the way a Stickeen could not survive without the narrator. A child cannot live (in society) without its relationship to language. Despite this being a piece reflected on the psyche of one subject, the pact that is formed between the narrator and Stickeen is what most significantly comments on the strength of many over the strength of one. The narrator leaves us with one more reiteration on what can be done if we only stick together when he says,  “Thereafter Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side. . . And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, “Wasn't that an awful time we had together on the glacier?”1 However, it seems pertinent to comment on the irony of a writer who built his entire career on the notion of preservation to compose a story in which the hero is language (rather than nature). Then again, where would John Muir be without words?

Works Cited

Burroughs, John. "Ways of Nature." Gutenberg, October 13, 2009.

Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Lacan: On the Structure of the Psyche.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Jan 31, 2011. Purdue U. April 4, 2013. <>.

Lacan, Jacques. Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1. Trans. John Forrester. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1991.

Muir, John. Stickeen: The Story of a Dog. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909. Web. <>

Verhaeghe, P. (1998). Causation and Destitution of a Pre-ontological Non-entity: On the Lacanian Subject, in: Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London, Rebus press, pp. 164-189 (New York: State University of New York Press).

Woods, Brian Hare and Vanessa. "Opinion: We Didn't Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 03 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.













{C}{C}{C}{C}[1]{C}{C}{C}{C}  Identifies a quote from the short story analyzed in this essay, “Stickeen: The Story of a Dog” by John Muir