The Dog in the Manger

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The story and metaphor of "The Dog in the Manger" derives from an old Greek fable which has been transmitted in several different versions. Interpreted variously over the centuries, the metaphor is now used to speak of those who spitefully prevent others from having something that they themselves have no use for. Although the story was ascribed to Aesop's Fables in the 15th century, there is no ancient source that does so.

Greek origin

The short form of the fable as cited by Laura Gibbs[1] is: There was a dog lying in a manger who did not eat the grain but who nevertheless prevented the horse from being able to eat anything either. It is twice used by the 2nd century CE Greek writer Lucian: in "Remarks addressed to an illiterate book-fancier"[2] and in his play "Timon the Misanthrope".[3] One other contemporary poetic source is a paederastic epigram by Straton of Sardis in the Greek Anthology.[4]

At roughly the same time an alternative version of the fable is alluded to in Saying 102 of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas that involves oxen rather than a horse. Jesus said, "Woe to the Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he let the oxen eat".[5] Assuming that this gospel is not an original document, the saying seems to be an adaptation of criticism of the Pharisees in the canonical Gospel of Matthew (23.13): Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces; you do not enter yourselves, nor will you let others enter.

Later use in Europe

File:Dog in the manger.jpg
American children's illustration, 1880

The fable does not appear in any of the traditional collections of Aesop's Fables and is not attributed to him until Steinhöwel's Esopus (c.1476). There it appears as illustrating a moral proposition: 'People frequently begrudge something to others that they themselves cannot enjoy. Even though it does them no good, they won't let others have it. Listen to a fable about such an event. There was a wicked dog lying in a manger full of hay. When the cattle came and wanted to eat, the dog barred their way, baring his teeth. The cattle said to the dog, "You are being very unfair by begrudging us something we need which is useless to you. Dogs don't eat hay, but you will not let us near it." The fable shows that it is not easy to avoid envy; with some effort you can try to escape its effects, but it never goes away entirely.'

An English reference is found a century earlier in John Gower's Confessio Amantis (c.1390):

Though it be not the hound's habit
To eat chaff, yet will he warn off
An ox that commeth to the barn
Thereof to take up any food. (Book II, 1.84)

Although a horse figures in some allusions by later writers, the ox is the preferred beast in Renaissance emblem books. It appears as such in a Latin poem by Hieronymus Osius (1564),[6] in the Latin prose version of Arnold Freitag (1579)[7] and in the English poem by Geoffrey Whitney (1586).[8]

All these authors follow Steinhöwel in interpreting the fable as an example of envy, but later on the dog's behaviour is seen as malicious, a reading made very clear in Roger L'Estrange's pithy version: 'A churlish envious Cur was gotten into a manger, and there lay growling and snarling to keep the Provender. The Dog eat none himself, and yet rather ventur’d the starving his own Carcase than he would suffer any Thing to be the better for’t. THE MORAL. Envy pretends to no other Happiness than what it derives from the Misery of other People, and will rather eat nothing itself than not to starve those that would.'[9] Samuel Croxall echoes L'Estrange's observation in Fables of Aesop and Others (1722). 'The stronger the passion is, the greater torment he endures; and subjects himself to a continual real pain, by only wishing ill to others.'[10] It is with this understanding that the idiom of 'a dog in a manger' is most often used currently. However, a recent study has noted that it seems to be falling out of use, in America at least, concluding that 'the majority of [respondents] do not know it or even recall ever having heard it'.[11]

The sexual reading

One of Lucian's allusions to the fable gives it a metaphorically sexual slant: 'You used to say that they acted absurdly in that they loved you to excess, yet did not dare to enjoy you when they might, and instead of giving free rein to their passion when it lay in their power to do so, they kept watch and ward, looking fixedly at the seal and the bolt; for they thought it enjoyment enough, not that they were able to enjoy you themselves, but that they were shutting out everyone else from a share in the enjoyment, like the dog in the manger that neither ate the barley herself nor permitted the hungry horse to eat it.' (Timon the Misanthrope)

In the 1687 Francis Barlow edition of the fables, Aphra Behn similarly sums up the sexual politics of the idiom: 'Thus aged lovers with young beautys live,/ Keepe off the joys they want the power to give.' It was of exactly such a situation involving a eunuch and his slaveboys that Straton had complained in the Greek anthology. The idiom is also applied to occasions of heterosexual jealousy, as for example in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, where it arises during an argument between Catherine Linton and Isabella Linton over Isabella's love for Heathcliff,[12] or during a climactic confrontation in Charlotte Brontë's Villette.[13] Other authors of the 19th century coined neologisms from the idiom, such as Anthony Trollope's 'manger-dogishness' in Framley Parsonage[14] and elsewhere the adjectives 'dog-in-the-mangery' and 'dog-in-the-mangerish'.[15]

Lope de Vega also adapted a Spanish version of the story to produce his play El Perro del Hortelano (The Gardener's Dog, 1618). De Vega's title relates to the parallel European idiom current in Dutch, Danish, German, French, Portuguese and Italian as well. It refers to a variant story in which a gardener sets his dog to guard his cabbages (or lettuces). After the gardener's death the dog continues to forbid people access to the beds, giving rise to the simile 'He's like the gardener's dog that eats no cabbage and won't let others either' or, for short, 'playing the gardener's dog' (faire le chien du jardinier).[16]

Artistic use

An 1899 theatre poster for the farce by Charles Hale Hoyt.

Popular artistic allusions to the fable, or the idiom arising from it, were especially common during the 19th century. Where Lope de Vega had adapted the theme to a problem play in the 17th century, the Belgian composer Albert Grisar used it as the basis for his one-act comic opera of 1855, Le chien du jardinier.[17] It was also taken up in the USA by the successful writer of farces, Charles Hale Hoyt, in one of the last of his productions. A horse rather than the more common ox figures on the 1899 poster for this. The play was later to be made into a short comedy film in 1917 by the Selig Polyscope Company.

In Britain artistic preference was for the anecdotal and the sentimental during the 19th century, especially among genre artists, and they found the fable and its applications ideal for their purposes. Two of these set the example, later followed by Gustave Doré in France, of adapting the title to human examples of the behaviour indicated by the fable. In 1826, the print-maker, Thomas Lord Busby (active 1804–37), showed a dyspeptic man eyeing a huge dinner while hungry beggars and an importunate dog look on. Thomas Webster also exhibited a picture with the title "The Dog in the Manger" at the Society of British Artists in 1830. Of this a reviewer remarked that 'The strong sentiment of disgust and anger which is excited, while contemplating the selfishness of the spoiled and currish urchin in Mr Webster’s clever little work, is sufficient proof of his success' (London Literary Gazette, March 27, 1830, p. 211).

The theme recommended itself to animal painters as well and can be found in the work of several regional artists. The most successful of these was Walter Hunt (1861–1941), whose "Dog in the Manger" was bought by the Chantrey Bequest in 1885 and is now in Tate Britain.[18] Other treatments include ones by the Scottish artist Edwin Douglas (1848–1914) and by the Sussex painter Henry W. Bodle (1915). The latter shows two calves looking apprehensively at a puppy curled asleep in their hay basket.[19] An outdoor scene of a dog and calves peering at each other by Claude Cardon (fl.1890–1915) has been alternatively titled "Curiosity" and "The Dog in the Manger".[20]

Twentieth century American illustrations include a print by E. E. Cummings, now in the University of Texas collection (67.75.18).[21] There is also a watercolour of the fable by Gerson Goldhaber that illustrates his wife Judith's Sonnets from Aesop.[22]


  1. "163. THE DOG IN THE MANGER (Laura Gibbs, translator)". Retrieved 2010-08-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The Works of Lucian of Samosata". 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2010-08-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Loeb edition, p.342, available at
  4. Puerilities, translated by Daryl Hine, Princeton University, 2001, Epigram 236
  5. "Gospel of Thomas (Lambdin Translation) – The Nag Hammadi Library". Retrieved 2010-08-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Fabulae Aesopi carmine elegiaco redditae, poem 67
  7. Mythologia Ethica pp.68–9
  8. Choice of Emblemes, page 184
  9. "76. A DOG IN A MANGER (Sir Roger L'Estrange)". Retrieved 2010-08-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Page 219, copy on Google Books
  11. Wolfgang Mieder, "The dog in the manger": The rise and decline in popularity of a proverb and a fable. Midwestern Folklore: Journal of the Hoosier Folklore Society, 2011, 37.1: 1–44. An abstract of his study is available in FOAFTales Newsletter 78, April 2011, ISSN 1026-1001
  12. Chapter 10, p.59
  13. Brontë, Charlotte (1853). "XXXVIII—Cloud". Villette. Edited by Herbert Rosengarten & Margaret Smith. Annotated by Tim Dolin. Oxford University Press (published 2008). pp. 447–448.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Page 122
  15. Oxford English Dictionary
  16. Emanuel Strauss: Concise Dictionary of European Proverbs, London, 1998, proverb 1036
  17. The score is available at
  18. There is another version in Glasgow Art Gallery. An idea of what it looks like can be gained from Hunt's similar “Calves Feeding”,
  20. "Dog in the Manger by Claude Cardon". Retrieved 2010-08-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "E. E. Cummings: An Inventory of His Art Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center". Retrieved 2010-08-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Judith Goldhaber (2004). Sonnets from Aesop. Berkeley, CA: Ribbonweed Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 978-0-9761554-0-9. Retrieved 9 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

  • 19th century book illustrations of "The Dog in the Stable" online
  • 16th–20th century book illustrations of "The Dog in the Manger" online