No Indecent Language Here!: Language and Control in Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog

Erik Laursen, University of Utah

Most scholarship on Heart of a Dog has been concerned with exploring the novella’s literary influences or explaining the work as an allegory for the revolution. In this paper, I will instead argue that two trends of cultural thinkers in the 1920s are attacked in the novella. One group has been labeled by Katerina Clark as "promethean linguists," those 1920s cultural revolutionaries who believed that speech reflected thought and that, if speech were to be changed, the human mind could also be transformed. The other group are those who believed that a person’s living environment could change their mental processes; changing the construction of living quarters would change the construction of the human mind. Homo Sovieticus could be created not with Dr. Frankenstein’s scalpel, but with grammar and vocabulary, ten square meters in a communal apartment, and the abolition of the private dining room.

Professor Preobrazhenskii inserts the hypophysis of Klim Chugunkin, an alcoholic and criminal, into the brain of Sharik, a stray dog. Although the brain is the focus of Preobrazhenskii’s eugenics research, his experiment changes neither the human nor the canine mind. The tendencies of Klim are merely transferred to the dog’s body, which is "humanized." Sharikov, the resulting creature, is crude, vulgar, and self-interested. Professor Preobrazhenskii and the house committee chair Comrade Shvonder begin separate campaigns to transform Sharikov into what each believes a fully-formed human being should be; both consider the boundaries of the apartment, Sharikov’s Lamarckian environment, to be crucial to this metamorphosis. Preobrazhenskii tries to change the dog-man’s mind not with science (he expects the dog to die after the operation) but with rigid rules and boundaries, culture and etiquette, and especially with "civilized" language; he believes that in his apartment, where boundaries and roles are firmly defined and reflected in language, the dog-man should transform into a "civilized" human being. Comrade Shvonder, on the other hand, believes that by breaking these boundaries, communalizing the professor’s apartment, and providing the dog-man with a Soviet-sanctioned name, new forms of address, and ten square meters, he can transform him into a free and selfless human being. Despite their efforts, the dog-man is unchanged by either the practitioner of eugenics (Preobrazhenskii) or the proponent of communism (Shvonder). Many interpretations present the novella as a battle between good (the professor) and evil (Shvonder/Sharikov). But I will argue that Heart of a Dog is an attack on both the communist and the "hater of the proletariat." Through the battle over the professor’s apartment and the parallel battle over the mind of the professor’s "monster," the novella attacks the long-held belief of the Russian intelligentsia that they were capable of so easily changing hearts and minds.