‘The animals in that country’ by Margaret Atwood is the title piece of Atwood’s 1986 collection The Animals In That Country. It was her fifth collection to date but has now become one of fourteen she’s published since 1961. This collection is noted for its exploration of human behaviour and celebration of the natural world, two themes ever-present in Atwood’s prose and verse.
The poem is divided into uneven stanzas ranging in length from two to five lines. A reader should also take note of the set of indented lines with which Atwood concludes the poem. These lines have been separated from the preceding section as they mark a return to the real world. They lay out the reality of modern life, providing an impactful contrast to Atwood’s hopeful vision of the future.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there is a place, a “country,” in which animals have human faces. This place is noted for its lack of distinction between human and non-human animals. Here, the foxes are not hunted, the cats are “ceremonial” and the bulls are allowed to die valiant deaths. All creatures can flourish and reach their highest potential.
Analysis of The animals in that country
In the opening couplet of this piece the speaker begins with a striking line. She jumps straight into the description of the country mentioned in the title and what sets its apart from other places on earth. She states that it is a place in which the,
have the faces of people.
This crafted, surrealistic line should immediately stimulate one’s imagination. It is clear from the start that the place being described is fictional. Atwood has created a new world in which animals are considered as multifaceted and important as humans are. It is interesting to note that this has been done by making them more human. The entire concept is a statement on ingrained ideologies of value and worth.
In the next couplet the speaker brings up “ceremonial / cats.” She takes what is a normal sight, cats on the street, and elevates it to a new level. It is an event to see them move by one another. They are regal, self-possessed, and existing in happy disregard of humanity. There is also the use of alteration in these lines. The “s” sound appears in “cats,” “ceremonial,” “streets” and “possessing.” It is as if these words are sliding by one another, as the cats might.
The next three lines speak on the relationship between frequently hunted animals, like foxes, and the hunters themselves. Rather than killing these creatures, the hunters have developed a “tapestry of manners.” They are as dimensional in their respect as a tapestry is in thread types and colors. The fox is able to go about its life, “politely,” doing harm to no one, and the hunters stand “fixed.”
In the next stanza, which contains five lines, the speaker moves on to describe the valiant death of a bull. Rather than the pitiful defeats seen within bullfighting rings, they are,
With blood and given
An elegant death
The speaker sees this as being the ideal end for an animal as powerful and magnificent as a bull. There should be “trumpets” sounding the bull’s name. His memory should become a “heraldic brand” that no one forgets. This is a reference to a type of crest displayed by powerful families.
The following lines give extra detail to the bull’s demise. It is not a pretty one, but it is poignant in its imagery. The speaker describes how the animal rolls in the “sand, a sword in his heart.” It is interesting to note the role that humanity is still playing here. This world is not void of human presence, everything is just being seen differently.
The sword suddenly feels heroic and the “blue mouth” human. The teeth belong to “a man.” This small addition to the text is unnerving. Like the animals with human faces, it takes recognizable characteristics to make one care about another living creature.
Within the next four lines the speaker moves on to discuss the “wolves.” They are deep within the wooded forests, keeping to themselves. The animals have no interest in the affairs of humans and now, humans do not hunt them down. These wolves “hold” conversation with one another. This speaks to their intelligence, a feature that is clear in our own modern world. It is something that increases the general fear of wolves.
These lands are said to be “thick…with legend.” The animals have a deep history here they can now take part in. Packs can roam as they always should have. Here is yet again another reference to history and ancestry. This, in combination with the “heraldic brand” and the use of words such as “tapestry” and “embroidered” give this piece a sense of the historical. Atwood wanted the text to tap into the long and complicated history of non-human animals and bring it to the forefront of the reader’s mind.
Here, the speaker is going back through the various elements she touched on and reiterating them in a different way. These lines stand as an important contrast to the ones which came before it.
Rather than speaking further on the imagined world, Atwood’s speaker returns the reader to the world known today. She is making her points as clear as possible to those entrenched in the ideological practices of contemporary life.
The country of the reader contains “animals” with the “faces of animals.” Here, the clearest “flash” a human being gets of another living creature is through the headlights of a car. The animal is either fleeing successfully or unsuccessfully across the road. The latter is the most likely. Here, animal deaths are not “elegant” like the bull’s was.
Atwood concludes with the impactful statement:
They have the faces of
In the modern world, animals are passed over. They mean nothing at all. This is all due to humankind’s inability to see worth in that which does not resemble itself.