The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Margaret Atwood’s “Dreams of the Animals” consists of several verse paragraphs that explore the nature of animal “dreams” and force readers to reexamine their ideas about what distinguishes humans from animals. By assuming that animals do, in fact, dream, Atwood obliterates traditional beliefs about their mental and intellectual limitations and makes them quite human. The notion that animals “mostlydream/ of other animals each according to its own kind” has a biblical ring and does seem to suggest that animal dreams lack the complexity and range of human ones. After all, moles dream of “mole smells,” and frogs dream of “green and golden/ frogs.”

Atwood, however, includes an indented parenthetical verse paragraph that states that some animals have “nightmares” of impending death; the ability to imagine, to anticipate what might happen, is a far cry from behavior modification, of merely reacting because of conditioning. The speaker describes the dreams of moles, frogs, fish, and birds. For the most part, the dreams are idyllic, but two dreams extend the range of animal dreams. The fish dream of “defence, attack meaningful/ patterns,” and the birds dream of “territories/ enclosed by singing.” The first dream connotes stratagems, and the second, acquisitions; both are usually associated with human behavior.

Halfway through the poem the dreams turn sour: “Sometimes the animals dream of evil.” After repeating...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In order to demonstrate the relationship between humans and animals, Atwood early on portrays humans as threatening creatures seen from the point of view of “certain mice and small rodents,” whose nightmares contain “a huge pink/ shape with five claws descending.” This nightmare suggests a laboratory setting complete with human investigator (“pink/ shape”) and laboratory animals. From the perspective of the animals, the hand of the scientist, ostensibly conducting research for humankind’s benefit, seems like “five claws.” In effect, rather than personifying animals, as is often the case in literature, the speaker has robbed the scientist of his humanity and likened him to an animal, thereby raising a question about what constitutes “animal behavior.”

The poem also explores the nature of the animal kingdom by comparing the “meaningful/ patterns” of the fish with the patterned “figure eights” run repeatedly by the caged armadillo, “its piglet feet pattering.” The alliteration, which slows the pace and stresses the importance of the phrase, calls attention to “pattering,” which, because of its likeness to the earlier “patterns,” contrasts animals free in nature with those enclosed by humans. The possibility also exists that the “red and black/ striped fish” may be tropical fish enclosed within an aquarium, just as the birds, which dream of enclosing territories by singing, may be “enclosed” by netting or wire...

(The entire section is 430 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998.

Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto, Ontario: Sumach Press, 1993.

Nischik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.

Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Wilson, Sharon, Thomas Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, eds. Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.