Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

In Atwood’s fiction and poetry, animals play a significant role. Two years before Procedures for Underground appeared, Atwood published The Animals in That Country, in which she writes of anthropomorphic characters, those who are given animal characteristics. Procedures for Underground is saturated with poems about animals; the first poem in the volume is entitled “Eden Is a Zoo,” which relates animals to memory and dream, the focus of “Dreams of the Animals.” Among her writings are accounts of her visits to the zoo in Toronto, which makes her feel “nervous” because she feels that when animals are contained in an environment more suited to inanimate objects the animals go mad or die. In fact, the process of becoming inanimate is the process of dying.

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“Dreams of the Animals” does describe the effects of enclosure, but it also, through the inclusion of the laboratory animals, condemns the use of animals for experimentation. The poem is certainly contemporary, for animal rights are being debated in terms of raising animals, wearing furs, and testing perfumes. What is unusual about the poem is that readers are given the animals’ perspective and that humans are seen as monsters. Atwood suggests that humans and animals are interdependent and that when animals become objects, people are likewise reduced in terms of their humanity.

Procedures for Underground is also about the underworld, suggesting the existence of two worlds, one the material “real” one and one a psychic world, from which the real world can be seen differently. That is, readers see a familiar world of animals, but there is another way of regarding that world, of subverting it, and that subversive view forces readers to reevaluate assumptions they have about the nature of humans and animals. In the poem, the subversion occurs in the indented lines or the parenthetical ones, suggesting that the ideas are afterthoughts that cannot be repressed or delayed: The colon that begins line 7 would logically be placed after the end of line 4 or line 6; its position in line 7 stresses the break in thought.

The speaker, who is inseparable from Atwood, states one thing—animals dream mostly about other animals—but then undercuts that assertion. Atwood thereby deconstructs her readers’ illusions and exposes them as superficial, self-serving, and egocentric. The poem itself is, as the title of the book implies, a procedure, a process necessary for an “underground,” subterranean, subversive view of what readers see as their real world.

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