Book Review: Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

Book Review

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This is a book review on Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. Mikhail Bulgakov’s 20th-century novel The Heart of a Dog is at a basic level a retelling of the story that Mary Shelly crafted at the beginning of the 19th century about a scientist named Frankenstein and the monster that he created in his quest to blur the distinction between technology and humanity, between creation and imitation.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s 20th-century novel The Heart of a Dog is at a basic level a retelling of the story that Mary Shelly crafted at the beginning of the 19th century about a scientist named Frankenstein and the monster that he created in his quest to blur the distinction between technology and humanity, between creation and imitation. Or perhaps one could argue that Bulgakov’s novel is not so much a revisitation of Shelley’s work as simply a reworking of the underlying tale that Shelley wove so beautifully. For the basic story that both authors addressed must be considered to be one of the most elemental of all stories, told in one version or another since people first sat around fires in make-shift camps and began to use the vocal gifts that set us, as humans apart from other species. Bulgakov asks us, in this tale of a man and his dog, what it means to be human, and what actions we can take to set us beyond the pale of our entire species.

Bulgakov’s book is also an anti-Communist and anti-Soviet tract (it is hardly surprising when one reads this work how little of the writer’s output was published during his lifetime or in his own country while the Soviet regime was still in power). The story looks at the work of a medical professor, whose name in Russian is a pun on the name of Pavlov, a great Russian scientist who worked with dogs and whose most important contribution to science is the idea that animals – including people – can be trained to do a great many things if the stakes are sufficient and the training goes on for long enough. The professor adopts a stray dog who has been beaten and kicked, scalded with boiling water and starved until he is on the point of dying from starvation. The professor takes him in and feeds him, is kind to him. The dog gains weight, gains health, and even begins to trust the professor. This is a mistake, for the professor is not a kindly country doctor but the typical mad scientist who injects people with hormones to rejuvenate them and to allow those with wealth in Soviet society to live longer and so absorb more of the resources of the state and its people.

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