Veganizing the Great Works—the “Classics”—of Literature

By Shelley Harrison

Vegans may be surrounded by speciesism in the real world…

Unless vegans retire from society altogether to embrace a hermit-like existence, they are, at least for now, likely to be bombarded on a daily and hourly basis with pro-violence propaganda.  From television advertisements to billboards, radio jingles to social media news feeds, material promoting animal abuse and exploitation floods virtually every nook and cranny of modern society.  Even in the workplace or in a school, university, or religious setting, vegans are generally surrounded by people eating corpses, wearing dead-body parts, and otherwise engaging in activities rooted in violence against other animals.

But that doesn’t require tolerating speciesism in fiction….

While subjection to speciesism may be required by physical and political forces in the real world, no such necessity holds in imaginary worlds.  The author, editor, and publisher of a story, a play, a novel, a poem, a song, a movie script, a video game, or some other piece of literature wield plenary power over the manufactured universe in which that piece is set.  If we want readers and viewers to escape from speciesism, even just for a little while and even just in their imaginations, we can enable that escape by keeping speciesism and animal exploitation out of literature altogether.  This end can be achieved both (i) by writing new works that are, from the outset, free from anthropocentric and speciesist content and (ii) by editing existing works to meet that criterion.

Such “veganizing” of a work of literature, whether new or old, offers at least three separate benefits.  First may be called the “sanctuary” benefit.  This benefit is the one already mentioned, namely, that of temporarily escaping from ubiquitous speciesist violence.  Retreating to a place of sanity and non-violence can allow vegans and animal rights activists a moment of rest and recuperation that the regular world rarely affords.  Such a refuge may help the vegan be more able to cope with the psychological blows inherent in life under the violence-based paradigm when she or he returns to it.

Do note, however, that In Defense of Animals offers an animal activist helpline at (800) 705-0425 for vegan activists who may need some assistance in this regard.

The second benefit may be called the “visionary” benefit.  Bringing about change may be especially difficult without the opportunity to see what a post-change world would look like, but there appears to be no fully vegan nation, city, or even town that one can visit today.  In the absence of such a real-world example, fiction can serve a powerful gap-filling function by presenting a vision of how different things could be; this recognition underlies the “Mythology and Fantasy Literature for Activists” series published in the Humane Herald.  For example, through a work of fiction, exactly such a vegan nation, city, village, or other setting can be visited, witnessed, and explored in and through the mind of an imaginative individual.  Spending time in such an environment gives the individual an opportunity to practice and rehearse seeing, living in, and relating to a world in which peace and respect for others is the norm rather than the exception, perhaps thereby making connections and gaining insights that would otherwise have been unavailable.

The third benefit may be called the “cultivation” benefit.  All humans grow up in some sort of culture, and our habits, beliefs, values, and views of the world are, of course, shaped in part by that culture.  When literature tacitly tolerates, legitimizes, and even embraces speciesism, anthropocentrism, cruelty, violence, and faunacide as “normal,” the readers and viewers of such literature can be expected, after repeated exposure, to become desensitized to, if not to participate in, the necrovory and bestiality that she or he witnesses.  This denaturing of the human mind can be avoided by allowing readers and viewers access to literature that is free from such content and that serves instead to cultivate intelligence, awareness, and empathy.  Perhaps a rating system, analogous to that used by the Motion Picture Association of America (rating movies as “G,” “PG,” “R,” etc.), can be established so that veganized works can be rated “VG” for “vegan.”

But activists need not wait for such a formal “Rated-VG” system to be instituted:  per the steps and provisional principles offered below, veganization of the world’s great works—the “classics”—of literature can be done today.

Photo by Dakota Corbin (Unsplash)

Toward a Veganized-Classics Library

Classic works of literature are not only landmarks of a culture but also, by virtue of their elevated status and influence, makers of culture.  And these works—those that are fiction, anyway—are set in imaginary worlds of human creation.  Thus, these great works of fiction can, just like new works, be veganized, and such veganization can, in turn, provide all the above-described benefits.

Toward that end, an initial set of steps and principles for use in veganizing a classic work is proposed below.  The hope is that, over time, a rich body—indeed, a full library—of veganized classics can be made available so that those who wish to read the classics but who do not wish to be subjected to anthropocentric and speciesist content can enjoy the former without the latter.  Additionally, in order to demonstrate the viability of such an endeavor, the entire text of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) has been veganized pursuant to these steps and principles.  The resulting work, The Scarlet Letter—Veganized, is being prepared for publication through The Humane Herald.

Writers and editors who wish to get involved in veganizing the classics are encouraged to make use of and elaborate upon these basic steps and initial principles for veganizing a work of literature.

Veganizing a Classic Work of Literature:  Basic Steps

  1. Choose a work.  The work chosen should be one that:
  • other people may actually want to read: the process of veganizing a work takes time, effort, and thought, and this investment should be made toward a work that others will appreciate;
  • is in the public domain: veganizing a work that is still protected by copyright law would likely be an infringement of the author’s intellectual property rights, if done without permission; and
  • is written in a language of which the veganizer has—or is willing to develop—a solid command: recognizing which words, phrases, and concepts need veganizing requires a good understanding of the language of the text.
  1. Read the work.  In the age of Google and Wikipedia, many people have come to believe that all things can be accomplished through a search query.  This mindset might lend itself to simply searching a given text—perhaps even writing a find-and-replace algorithm—for obvious non-vegan words and phrases, such as “meat,” “dairy,” “leather,” and the like.  This approach will, unfortunately, not work for effectively veganizing a classic.  Creative writers, particularly those who write works that become classics, have an almost infinite capacity to express a given concept through language that somehow varies from the conventional way of expressing that concept.  This creativity is part of what makes a great work “great.”  The veganizer will actually have to read the work to be veganized, patiently and attentively, in order to find those passages that require veganizing.  The veganizer will have to read the book also so that she or he can, when necessary, replace speciesist content with content that remains true to the vocabulary, style, tone, voice, and subject matter of the original work, a topic which is discussed in greater detail in the “Principles” section below.
  2. Veganize the work.  Download a plain-text copy of the full text of the work from a public-domain source, such as Project Gutenberg.  Open that document in your favorite word processor and begin veganizing.  Identify each passage that needs to be veganized and then either remove or, preferably, replace those passages with content that meets veganizing criteria such as those described in the “Principles” section below.
  3. Make the work available to others.  Once a text has been fully veganized, that veganized text can be made available for others to read either electronically or in print.  Upload the work to a blog or personal website to make the text available in electronic form to internet visitors.  Providing the veganized work in multiple file formats—HTML, PDF, Kindle, or other—will enable potential readers to choose their preferred manner of reading.  Alternately, or additionally, arrange with a publisher—whether in the traditional or self-publishing model—to make the work available in print form for those readers who prefer that medium.

Initial Principles for Veganizing a Classic Work of Literature

Establishing an adequate set of veganizing principles and best practices will require some time and will be, to a degree, an ongoing process of experimentation and refinement.  Here are some starting points:

If possible, the entire text should be veganized—but not abridged.  The purpose of veganizing a classic differs from that of producing an “abridged version.”  Many readers do not read “abridged versions” of classic texts; when reading a great work, one seeks to read it in the form that the author of that great work intended, not in a form that an editor—living in a different era—wished to see.  Yes, summaries and adaptations have a valuable place and function in literature.  But a summary or adaptation cannot satisfy the demand for a fully veganized version of the entire text of a classic.

Image from Pixabay

Speciesism should be identified and addressed in all its forms.  Necrovory appears, at some point, in many classic works of literature.  For instance, in the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (1843), the characters in one scene eat the dead body of a goose.  Such content is easily identified as being in need of veganization.

But the speciesism embedded in other passages may easily escape recognition without some patient reflection.  For instance, the same Dickens work includes a scene in which “carts” are “driven by farmers.”  Since the text was published in 1843, these carts are almost certainly being pulled by horses, mules, or other animals:  the days of automobiles were still a long way away.  This text would, therefore, probably need to be veganized:  a high-functioning reader—one for whom written passages become vivid mental images—will instantly imagine and recognize the slave-drawn cart for what it is, even though the slaves themselves are not explicitly named in the passage itself.  Whether to edit, delete, or leave intact this type of passage may be a judgment call, since the speciesism is implied rather than expressed.  But when the implication is almost unavoidable, the best choice would probably be to veganize that passage.

Veganizing doesn’t require removing all depictions of animals, animal-related imagery, or animal-related names, vocabulary, or metaphorical or symbolic content.  The mere inclusion of animals who are not human in a work does not, by itself, present an instance of speciesism, just as the mere inclusion of, say, older people does not, by itself, present an instance of ageism.  For instance, a human character in a novel could behold a herd of deer without desiring, believing, or even tolerating the idea that those deer should be subjected to violence and exploitation.  Vegan humans are free to appreciate the beauty and peoplehood of other species, and that freedom of appreciation can be thoroughly exercised in literature.  Meanwhile, mere inclusion of a word, phrase, metaphor, or symbol that pertains to an animal is not, by itself, anthropocentric or speciesist.  For instance, a character in a novel may be affectionately called “Bunny.”  Bestowing on one’s beloved child a name that evokes the wonder of rabbits probably does not indicate any desire for exploiting and killing them; indeed, if anything such a term of affection may indicate one’s reverence for the inherent dignity and beauty of rabbits.  As in applying other principles described herein, inclusion or exclusion of animal-related terms and depictions depends on the meaning, manner, and intent of presentation.

Photo by Annie Spratt (Unsplash)

The vocabulary, style, tone, voice, and other artistic, cultural, and temporal features of the work should be preserved.  If a word, phrase, or entire passage needs to be veganized through replacement rather than simply removed—and removal should be a disfavored option, because it violates the entire-work principle above—, then the replacement text should conform as much as possible to the features of the rest of the work.  For instance, replacement text should not include any anachronistic language.  Thus, for example, the word “vegan,” coined in the early 1940s, should not be injected into any work that predates that coinage.  Similarly, replacement text should not include any technological or cultural near-impossibility:  tofu, for instance, while vegan, would probably not be an appropriate substitute for a non-vegan food item in the aforementioned Dickens’ novel, which was set in early 19th-century London.  Tofu doesn’t appear, in the present author’s knowledge, elsewhere in Dickens’ work, and it is unlikely to have been in common usage in that part of the world during the relevant time period.  Ideally, no word, phrase, or concept should be used in replacement text if that word, phrase, or concept does not appear elsewhere in the given original text or, at a minimum, in the work of the given author.

If a term allows two interpretations or meanings, one vegan and one not, leave it.  Many words for food or clothing—such as “food” or “clothing” or “dinner” or “shirt”—can include all kinds of vegan and non-vegan items.  Such words should be left unaltered.  The veganizer need not particularize an item in order to make the “vegan-ness” of that item express instead of implied.  For example, a veganizer need not add a word to clarify that a given character’s shirt is a “cotton shirt.”  In short, the default practice should be to edit or delete, when necessary, but not to add content.

When integral to the story itself, a speciesist passage may have to remain in non-veganized form.  Occasionally, a classic work may include a passage in which an act of cruelty committed against an animal is integral to the story.  For instance, the horse-beating passage in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is a significant moment in the book.  To veganize this passage would probably, in effect, remove its function from the story—beating, say, a rug is simply not a meaningful analog to beating a living creature—, and removing this passage from the story would, in effect, result in an “abridged version” of the story.  Thus, such a passage may have to be left intact if an otherwise veganized, full-text version of the work is to be made available.

Meanwhile, some works may be so deeply entangled with speciesist violence that to veganize them would be to rewrite them altogether.  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) would probably fall into this category, i.e., needing to be rewritten—which is a separate, but interesting and desirable, prong for veganizing the great works.  Discussion of that approach will need to be left to a future article.

Consider addressing other forms of otherism.  Humans are animals and are certainly protected under the principles of ahimsa and veganism to the full extent that all other animals are.  In initial efforts at veganizing the text of a classic, the present author was therefore tempted to “feminize” the text also—to remove or edit passages that may tend to reinforce sex- and gender-related stereotypes—and otherwise to neutralize passages that may tend to perpetuate other stereotypes.  Doing so would enable the resulting text to serve the “sanctuary” function quite well.  However, one reason to read the classics is to get a sense of what life was like then and thereby see how things have or haven’t changed.  Removing human-against-human forms of otherism would make such comparison impossible.  In some cases, removing otherism—for instance, removing human slavery from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)—would essentially destroy the work, thereby defeating the purpose of the veganized-classics endeavor altogether.  Thus, while full de-otherizing is a promising option to explore, veganizing, for present purposes, may need to be limited to addressing inter-species—not intra-species—exploitation and stereotyping.

Looking ahead

Literature lies close to the front line of the “intellectual battle” in which the animal-emancipation movement is now engaged.  Deploying a full library of veganized classics and great works of literature may, like vegan literary criticism generally, have a significant impact on this front.


Photo by Alexandra Kirr (Unsplash)