Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Viral Literary Device

by | June 14, 2013 | 7 comments

In front of the Radley gate, Tim Johnson had made up what was left of his mind. He had finally turned himself around, to pursue his original course up our street. He made two steps forward, then stopped and raised his head. We saw his body go rigid.

With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a balltipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder. The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk in a brown-and-white heap. He didn’t know what hit him.

— as narrated by Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Rowlandson's Mad Dog in a Coffee House

Rowlandson’s Mad Dog in a Coffee House

Tim Johnson was a dog. As he approached the town, residents fled indoors as if the tenth plague of Egypt was coming upon them. 

Rabies is considered to be the oldest infectious disease known to man. As early as 2300 BC, death by dog bite resulted in a heavy fine for the animal’s owner. The dog star Sirius was considered to exert a malignant influence among ancient Greeks. The god Apollo had a son specifically charged with the prevention of rabies. Artemis, already consumed with  hunting and protecting women in childbirth, was given the task of healing rabies infections.

A goddess is never too busy.

 As rabies spread from the Mediterranean to Western Europe, a cure was still nowhere in sight. Rabies epidemics became common, resulting in wholesale dog butchery in the streets of London and Madrid (1760s). Human victims were common as well, their disease given the name of hydrophobia for their fear of water. Above all, rabies was known as a disease of terrorizing madness, particularly once the connection with saliva was established.

In 1883, Louis Pasteur successfully produced a vaccine from the spinal cord of an infected animal. His discovery was not a cure but a means of stopping the disease before it became deadly. By then, rabies had found its way into literature as a device symbolizing madness, and worse, an unstoppable evil.

Cujo by Stepehen King. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. To Kill a Mockingbird uses rabies as a symbol of racism, spread by one to infect the many.

Come here…Don’t you go near that dog, you understand? Don’t go near him, he’s just as dangerous dead as alive.”

We saw Zeebo drive up. He took a pitchfork from the back of the garbage truck and gingerly lifted Tim Johnson. He pitched the dog onto the truck, then poured something from a gallon jug on and around the spot where Tim fell.

“Don’t yawl come over here for a while…”

The herb Skullcap--reputed to cure the bite of a mad dog. (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 - photographer Joe Decrueyenere)

The herb Skullcap–reputed to cure the bite of a mad dog. (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 – photographer Joe Decrueyenere)


  1. Gerri Bowen

    That was another interesting post, Angelyn.

    • Angelyn

      Thanks so much, Gerri–

  2. Ella Quinn

    I’d really never noticed it. Interesting.

    • Angelyn

      I had no idea rabies had such symbolism behind it. Not sure if I’ll ever use it in a manuscript, though. thanks for stopping by–

  3. Ally Broadfield

    Very interesting. How did you get the idea for this topic? It’s sad that we’ve known about it for so long but there’s still no real cure or easy way to confirm rabies.

    • Angelyn

      Hi, Ally–I think I watched To Kill a Mockingbird once on TV. But the idea came from my great-aunt who remembered (this was in the country during the Great Depression) that her brother had to shoot all his hunting dogs because they had come in contact with a rabid dog. That winter they ate navy beans.

  4. Angelyn

    Yeah, I know–right?



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