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Literature / Old Yeller

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Notice the lack of wolves...

"Old Yeller was a hunter,
A rarin', tearin' hunter.
In any chase, he knew just how to run!
And when he hunted trouble,
He always found it double,
And that's when Old Yeller had fun!"
—from the Title Theme Tune to Disney's Film of the Book

Old Yeller is a 1956 novel by Fred Gipson about a boy and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas, adapted the following year into a live-action Disney film directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Fess Parker, Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and Chuck Connors.

15-year-old Travis Coates is the new-made man of the house while his father is away on a cattle drive. Then the wilderness blows a stray "yeller" dog into his life whom he initially distrusts... until Old Yeller saves his little brother Arliss from a Mama Bear (kids shouldn't play with bear cubs). The two become inseparable partners, hunting and facing the dangers of The Wild West together, until tragedy forces Travis to make his hardest decision.

If, by some miracle, you don't know the punchline yet, tread lightly through this page...


Warning, spoilers are ahead, but most people already know what they are.

The novel and Disney film contain examples of:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Inverted. In the film version, it's confirmed that Yeller has contracted rabies and putting him down is sad but necessary as the only safe and humane thing to do for both dog and family. In the book Travis puts him down immediately, knowing rabies is inevitable, but suffering the pang of destroying the dog before he has visibly sickened.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In the book, Travis shoots Yeller immediately after the fight with the wolf, knowing he will inevitably contract rabies, and the scene takes up less than a page. In the film, he delays the inevitable for two weeks, hoping Yeller won't become rabid, and shoots him only when it's clear that he has.
  • All Dogs Are Purebred: In the book, Travis finds a random stray who happens to be a purebred Original Mountain Cur.
    • Averted in the film, where he is a Mastador (half Mastiff, half Labrador Retriever).
  • Bears Are Bad News: Arliss messes with bear cubs, attracting a Mama Bear.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Little Arliss eventually starts believing he really is the clever hunter he boasted of being, which gets him in serious trouble when he tries to catch a bear cub.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Old Yeller dies after Travis is forced to shoot him for contracting rabies, but at the very end the family adopts Old Yeller's puppy son.
  • A Boy and His X: Travis and Yeller become a working partnership, though even when he comes to respect the dog, it takes him a while to move on to real affection.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Arliss brings a lot of trouble on himself, and Travis and their mother have to save him more than once.
  • Children Are Innocent: Arliss carelessly puts himself in dangerous situations, mostly because he's too young to understand the danger.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: Travis matures over the course of the story, finally crossing over from a child to a man when he must shoot the dog he has come to love.
  • Cub Cues Protective Parent: Arliss plays around with and tries to catch a bear cub, resulting is a rather displeased mother bear showing up. This bear might have killed Arliss had not Yeller been there to fight the bear off.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Travis ends up having to shoot Old Yeller due to rabies.
  • Determined Homesteader's Wife: She cooks and cleans, works the farm, is able to handle a gun, settles disputes between Travis and Arliss, and doesn't bat an eye at stitching a wound shut.
  • Disappeared Dad: Not dead, but gone on a cattle drive until the end of the story. This means Travis is responsible for the ranch and his family until he returns.
  • Face–Monster Turn: Old Yeller, thanks to the rabies he contacts.
  • The Film of the Book: The Disney adaptation is just as well known as the book, possibly more so.
  • Happily Adopted: Non-human example. Old Yeller is so ingrained into the family that by the time his rightful owner shows up, even he sees that Old Yeller is better off with them than with him.
  • The Hero Dies: After all he's been through, Yeller dies of a Mercy Kill after he fends off a rabid wolf.
  • Heroic Dog: Yeller won't stand down to save his family from any threat, even if it has a negative impact on him.
  • Hope Spot: In the movie, Yeller is quarantined to see whether he will catch rabies. After some lingering days where he seems healthy, he finally succumbs, forcing Travis to shoot him.
  • Mercy Kill: In the book and the film, Travis shoots Yeller to save him from a lingering death by rabies.
  • Mood Whiplash: Poor Yeller, having to be shot for contracting rabies... Hey, look! Papa has come home!
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Old Yeller protects the family from a rabid wolf, only for him to turn rabid as a result of getting bitten. The family is forced to put him down.
  • Oblivious to Love: Lisbeth Searcy has an obviously crush on Travis, who either doesn't notice or doesn't care. At least not until the third book, anyway. They are said to be married there.
  • Privacy by Distraction: Mom asks Arliss to get her a horned toad, so he won't be present while she's dressing the injury that a boar gave to Old Yeller.
  • Promotion to Parent: Travis becomes 'man' of the house while his father is gone, assuming the responsibility to protect the ranch from threats, hunt to put food on the table, and keep Arliss out of trouble.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Downplayed somewhat, but being able to "man up" and shoot Yeller to protect the others is portrayed as Travis's introduction to adult responsibility, though the emphasis is not so much on the act of killing, but on the fact that Travis took responsibility for Yeller of his own volition, signifying his coming-of-age into adulthood.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Yeller's son Savage Sam takes his father's place in the family.
  • Savage Wolves: The Downer Ending is brought about by a rabid wolf whom Yeller fights and drives away from the family, contracting rabies himself. Justified as it's remarked that no ordinary wolf would act as it did, meaning it had to be rabid.
  • Seldom-Seen Species: Yeller in the book is an American hunting dog breed known as the "Original Mountain Cur".
  • Shoot the Dog: The climactic act of the book — Travis destroying Yeller — is the Trope Namer.
  • Spin-Offspring: Savage Sam: Son of Old Yeller — also filmed by Disney, although deviating more strongly from its novel than the first film did.
  • Zombie Infectee: The reason Yeller must die, substituting "rabies" (or "hydrophobia" as it was called in both book and movie) for "zombie".


Video Example(s):


Old Yeller


How well does it match the trope?

4.92 (12 votes)

Example of:

Main / MercyKill

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