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Literature / Heart of a Dog

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"The whole horror of the situation is that he now has a human heart, not a dog's heart. And about the rottenest heart in all creation!"

A 1925 novella by Mikhail Bulgakov, about a dog turned by Russian scientists into a human and back. As it was typical of blatantly anti-Soviet works, it was not published in the Soviet Union until Perestroika in 1987.

The narration begins from the perspective of a sickly stray dog freezing to death on the streets of Moscow. The dog is adopted by Professor Filipp Preobrazhensky, a brilliant surgeon who specializes in rejuvenation operations, for an impending experiment, and gradually heals in his absurdly spacious (by Soviet standards) seven-room apartment that also serves as his clinic. However, just as the dog, nicknamed Sharik (a common Russian dog name), begins to acclimatize, it is taken to an unexpected operation by Preobrashenzky and his assistant Dr. Bormental, who implant it with the pituitary gland and testicles of a recently deceased criminal.

While it is meant to be a rejuvenation experiment, unexpectedly to the doctors, Sharik's dog features gradually fade away and he transforms into a man, who, with the encouragement of the house-manager Shvonder, adopts the weird name Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, paralleling absurd "revolutionary" names that were popular in the first few years after the October Revolution. Preobrazhensky wants nothing to do with his creation, constantly belittles Sharikov for his rudeness and simple-mindedness, and forces him to seek support elsewhere, which Shvonder is all too eager to provide. Dealing with Sharikov's whims and transgressions eventually occupies so much of Preobrazhensky's attention that he is forced to practically abandon his surgery work. In the end, after Sharikov's attempt to sic secret police on him, Preobrazhensky turns Sharikov back into a dog.

Critics usually interpret Heart of a Dog as a Take That! against the "New Soviet Man" archetype that the Bolsheviks were quick to invoke, depicting Sharikov (and Shvonder, who parallels him in many aspects) as a realistic result of the revolution, embodying its worst qualities; the kind of uncultured collaborationist simpleton that Bulgakov detested.

The book was adapted in 1988 by Vladimir Bortko into a highly successful film, which followed the original text very closely. Bortko later went on to direct a TV miniseries adaptation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The film and stage adaptations tend to exaggerate the brutality and uncouth behavior of the 1920s Communists (and Sharikov's as well), while Bulgakov in the original text pokes fun at the good guys just as quickly as he does at the bad ones. For example, the girl typist who complains of the poor food and miserable wages in the stage version appears to be just a victim of widespread poverty, while in the original text she has to cope with poor food and an indifferent lover because she had spent most of her wages on cinema tickets.
  • Age Insecurity: One of Preobrazhensky's patients is a woman involved with a much younger man, and she desperately claims to be younger than she is. At first, when Preobrazhensky asks her about her age, she replies "Well, forty? five", then, at his further prompting, says "Fifty-one". Preobrazhensky's assistant Bormental estimates her real age as probably fifty-four or fifty-five.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Invoked. One of Shvonder's subordinates is a woman dressed as a man, not for the sake of cross-dressing, but because revolutionary fashion was extremely uniform and unisex at that time. So when Preobrazjensky asks her if she's a man or woman, she, naturally, takes it as an insult, part of his disgraceful reactionary ideas of an "old world" where men and women were unequal (or just, you know, to him being a jerkass).
  • Author Tract: Preobrazhensky's "counter-revolutionary" speeches. Bulgakov was not a big fan of the regime, and this trait often bled into his protagonists. In particular, he blames the ruin and decay that plagues the country on the Soviet citizens themselves.
    "I'll tell you what it is: if instead of operating every evening I were to start a glee club in my apartment, that would mean that I was on the road to ruin. If when I go to the lavatory I don't pee, if you'll excuse the expression, into the bowl but on to the floor instead and if Zina and Darya Petrovna were to do the same thing, the lavatory would be ruined. Ruin, therefore, is not caused by lavatories but it's something that starts in people's heads. So when these clowns start shouting 'Stop the ruin!' — I laugh! I swear to you, I find it laughable! Every one of them needs to hit himself on the back of the head and then when he has knocked all the hallucinations out of himself and gets on with sweeping out backyards — which is his real job — all this ruin will automatically disappear. You can't serve two gods! You can't sweep the dirt out of the tram tracks and settle the fate of the Spanish beggars at the same time! No one can ever manage it, doctor — and above all it can't be done by people who are two hundred years behind the rest of Europe and who so far can't even manage to do up their own fly-buttons properly!"
  • Body Horror: Sharikov's dog-to-human transformation is described in disturbing detail.
  • Diabolical Dog Catcher: Well, dog and cat exterminator. A job Sharikov takes to with a relish.
  • Dirty Old Man: One of Preobrazhensky's clients is one.
    "Would you believe it, professor - hordes of naked girls every night. I am absolutely entranced. You're a magician.'"
  • Disproportionate Retribution: At the end of the book Preobrazhensky "downgrades" Sharikov to a dog— effectively murdering him. Yes, Sharikov was a deeply unpleasant man, he drank, lied, debauched, pilfered and sexually harassed women, but none of that warrants death. And yes, he wrote a letter to the authorities about Preobrazhensky's anti-Soviet views (which the "good" doctor was always extremely vocal about), but, despite what some might believe, a single baseless report was not nearly enough to warrant any penitary actions. Two witnesses had to overhear him actually saying something for the police to even sanction an investigation. In addition, Preobrazhensky and Bormental were considering murdering Sharikov long before the letter incident happened.
  • Dr. Jerk: Preobrazhensky is brilliant surgeon, but he's also an arrogant and self-indulgent hedonist, who holds the surrounding "vulgar" world in utter contempt.
  • Eccentric Exterminator: Sharikov, once he gets assigned to rid Moscow of stray cats.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Among Sharikov’s first words, there is a fish market sign pronounced backwards. Bormental concludes it must have something to do with the structure of nerves in a dog’s eye. In fact, Sharik simply read the sign from the end because there was always a militia man standing under the beginning.
  • Genre Blind: Preobrazhensky utterly fails to see how he's reenacting the plots of Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau (see below).
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Preobrazhensky and Bormental.
  • Gone Horribly Right
  • Homage: To Frankenstein (scientist creates a new humanoid entity who is embittered toward his creator for not giving him affection) and to The Island of Doctor Moreau (scientist uplifts at least one animal, but the creations are still ruled by their animal instincts).
  • Humanity Ensues
  • Insufferable Genius: Preobrazhensky is a very arrogant man.
  • Jerkass: Protagonist (Preobrazhensky) and his antagonists (Sharikov and Shvonder) are jerks.
  • Manchild: Literally. Sharikov is technically several months old. He acts accordingly.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Preobrazhensky stems from the Russian word from "transfiguration", which is what the professor does to his patients and to Sharik.
    • "Poligraf Poligrafovich" means "Rotogravure, son of Rotogravure". The name is a parody of similarly nonsensical revolution-themed names that were popular for naming Soviet children around that time.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Schvonder. He's only obstructive to Preobrazhensky, though. To Sharikov and to the rest of the residents, he's downright helpful.
  • The Professor: Preobrazhensky, obviously.
  • Parental Neglect: Probrazhensky never shows an ounce of love or care for his own creation, but only scorn and sarcasm, which, surprisingly for nobody except him, leads to a retaliation.
  • Stock Animal Name: The dog's name, Sharik, is commonly given to smaller dogs in Russia.
  • Ultimate Job Security: Preobrazhensky gets away with regularly flipping off the house committee, lives technically alone in seven rooms while most of his contemporaries barely get one, spits out blatantly anti-Soviet views and nostalgically longs for the cultured old times. He can afford it because not only is he really good at his job, the authorities use his surgery services as well, and he's not above pressing his clients into protecting him by witholding treatment.
    "You know, professor," said the girl with a deep sigh, "if you weren't world-famous and if you weren't being protected by certain people in the most disgusting way," (the fair youth tugged at the hem of her jerkin, but she brushed him away), "which we propose to investigate, you should be arrested."
  • While Rome Burns: Despite Preobrazhenskiy's seething diatribe about "ruin in the heads", the undeniable fact is that he does live in times of post-war ruin, scarcity and turmoil, and the attempts to "annex" a couple of rooms out of his obscenely huge apartment are made out of sheer necessity for living space for relocated people, rather than greed. He doesn't care.

The Bortko film adaptation provides the above tropes, plus: