In Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, there is a bizarre scene where Henry's dog, Erasmus, gets rabies and attacks Henry's cat, Mendelssohn. Because of this, both characters need to be killed: Mendelssohn because of the injury sustained in the attack and Erasmus because he has rabies.

What's bizarre about the scene is that although the vet claims the dog had rabies, there is virtually no logical explanation for how the dog could have gotten rabies. From page 161:

How their dog, who was supposed to have been vaccinated, caught rabies, which turned out to be the diagnosis, was a question that neither the vet nor the shelter were they had got him could answer. There are all kinds of wild animals in big cities that have rabies, he was told. Worse even: the plague. But proper sanitary conditions prevent the spread of these diseases and they don't normally jump to pets. Perhaps the vaccine had failed. Henry wondered if Erasmus could have contracted rabies at the taxidermist's store. The notion was ridiculous; nonetheless, it trotted in his head.

The even stranger thing is that the death of Erasmus and Mendelssohn, although clearly important to Henry, is not mentioned once later in the book. The mystery is never resolved.

I have two questions about the scene. First, on a practical note, is there ever a conclusive explanation for why Erasmus gets rabies? (It's very possible that the explanation is intentionally mysterious). Second, what is the meaning of this scene, and how does it contribute to the message of the rest of the book? I expect answers to answer both questions, in large part because they are interrelated; you can't answer one without considering the other. In other words, if your answer is just that this scene represents an improbable event, you also have to explain why this improbable event is such an important scene in the novel.

1 Answer 1


I honestly have no practical explanation as to why or how Erasmus could have contracted rabies, except for research I found on Wikipedia that said dogs are the most common animal worldwide affected by rabies. It also said over 99% of cases in countries with infected dogs are caused by dog bites, which would explain how Mendelssohn got the disease; Erasmus bit her. It could have been something like a bat bite, but I think it likely came from the taxidermy shop. Erasmus spent a lot of time with Henry in the taxidermy shop, and Henry has the notion in the book that that could have been the cause. I read that the virus can spread through exposure to infected bears, domestic farm animals, groundhogs, weasels, & other carnivores. However, none of the animals in the taxidermy shop were alive. It could have had something to do with the chemicals in the shop, but I really don't know. I think it's meant to be a mystery.

As for your second question, this is something that I only realized long after finishing the book. The book is about two animals, a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. The plight faced by them and countless other animals is used to symbolize the destruction and devastation of the Holocaust. I believe Erasmus and Mendelssohn are used symbolically, that their deaths are used to symbolize the deaths of Beatrice and Virgil, as well as countless other animal deaths and, on a larger scale, the deaths of the Holocaust. Henry has a personal experience of losing two beloved animals, which parallels the experience in the taxidermist's story and allows him to relate to the animal deaths in the play. This enables him to further understand the Holocaust connection and realize the importance of preserving that story through creative fiction.

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