“Who is it to say, then, that the hen did not speak?” J.M. Coetzee uses this sentence to frame the ethical argument of the valuation of life regardless of its host. Structurally the phrase takes on a poignant stance due to its brief nature while proceeded by longer extended sentences. This switches the tone of the reading quite drastically simply by being explicit. The sentence is somehow clarifying by wrapping the argument up, but by being a question is inherently open-ended in comparison to making a statement.
Additionally, the vocabulary the author uses adds another dimension. By using the verb “speak’ inside the sentence the connection between man and the rest of the animal kingdom the author develops in the earlier part of the novel is reintroduced. We typically do not say that any creature outside of the human being truly speaks. Vocalization is common, but the idea of speaking is so innately tied to the ancestral growth of human beings that we forget our communication is relative. The way in which we speak compared to dogs is no different from the way birds would speak to elephants. All included can recognize the process of vocalization, but the term “speaking” seems to be transcendent to the world of man when used to describe animals. In a way, it feels almost dimonic.
The phrase at the beginning of the sentence becomes in a way a contradiction to the definition of a question. Typically, an inquiry would lend itself to being debated from different angles, being pried open and explored in depth. However, this phrasing forces the reader to feel inclined to hold their tongue rather than express doubt in fear of being considered illogical. “Who is to say” is offered in this scenario as a challenge. A challenge to redefine all that is held as Truth and the process of making connections. I do not believe that the author does this out of spite. It is not added in as to make the reader feel inferior. A question of this nature paired with the stalwart explanation in the text leading up to it would mean in order to counter, would have to be understood in great detail and undergone an extensive amount of thought. In this way, the author has accomplished his goal of introspective exploration regarding the ethical and innate rights to life of all beings with a single well written sentence.