Dreams of the Animals

by Margaret Atwood

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

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 first two lines about the animals dreaming “mostly” of other animals, the speaker catalogues a series of “exceptions.” What distinguishes the silver fox, the armadillo, and the iguana from the mole, frog, fish, and bird is their captive state. The fox is in a roadside zoo; the armadillo is caged near a train station; and the iguana is in the window of a “petshop.” In this state the fox’s dreams are violent (“their necks bitten”), and the armadillo and iguana are beyond reason and sanity. In fact, the armadillo “no longer dreams/ but is insane when waking.” While people can be judged insane, animals are not traditionally regarded as insane; they are more often described as “crazed,” a word that is more appropriate to their appearance than to their mental state. Animals can only be insane if they were once sane—the enclosure has affected not only their bodies but also their minds.

In the case of the iguana, imprisonment has destroyed the animal’s mind: The caged environment of “water-dish and sawdust” reduced the “royal-eyed” iguana to dreaming only of “sawdust,” the residue after humankind has used nature for its own purposes. By removing animals from their habitats in order to exploit them financially (as pets to be sold or as objects to be exhibited for profit), humans have destroyed the minds of “dumb animals.” Destruction of this magnitude can only be accomplished if the destroyers regard their victims as “less” than themselves.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

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 in an aviary. The ambiguity may also suggest the extent of human enclosure of animals.

Atwood also uses alliteration with the iguana—“crested, royal-eyed, ruling”—but the tone here is mock heroic because the “kingdom” that the iguana ironically rules is one of “water-dish and sawdust.” The dish suggests the extent to which the animal has been made dependent upon humans, and the sawdust, with the “dust” it includes, suggests the biblical phrase “ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” apocalyptic images that permeate Procedures for Underground. The circumscribed kingdom is not appropriate for a royal ruler with a crest.

The poem is almost equally divided between idyllic dreams and more problematic ones, and the division is visually apparent because the “exceptions” and the parenthetical verse paragraph about the laboratory animals are indented. In effect, the reader encounters reassuring material about the nature of animal dreams, but that material is undermined, subverted by evidence of how humans have exploited animals and dehumanized themselves in the process. By ending the poem with “dreams of sawdust,” the only one-line verse paragraph in the poem, Atwood reiterates her notion that the potential that lies within animals has been reduced to fragments by humans who have lost their prized “humanity” in the process.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79

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.

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