Animals trod, swim, fly, gallop in many of the books we read, dive into the depths of our childhood comforts as plushies, growl and grunt throughout long traditional activities like hunting. They play countless roles in our lives, but they are hardly ever seen as themselves in their own environment. In opposition to the usage of animals as tropes and metaphors for human characteristics, Margaret Atwood writes the poem “The Animals Reject their Names and Things Return to Their Origins.” She subverts the form of poetry that continues to shape and solidify the role of animals in literary tradition by using it to alternatively lend the animal characters a different voice; it is a voice that protests their stereotypical roles in fairy tales and other works, such as the role of a “surrogate for human demons” or a “shape-changer.”
The first animal voice in the poem is a bear that renounces the use or value of metaphor, and then claims an identity that is “not like a man.” Instead, the bear is “nameless” and prefers to go by “a growl,” refusing to have its soul carved “in stone.” This animal refuses to be trophies from hunts as heads nailed to the living room walls or spread as rugs before a fireplace; it refuses to be the classic bedtime plush or a circus animal balancing a plate on its snout or a symbol of bravery. It wants to simply attend its normal day-to-day affairs, eating salmon or maneuvering the woods, without the responsibility of the layers of roles and ideas in which we dress it up.
It is easy for us to glide through our days not having to accord much recognition to the vastly varying individual lives of animals. This issue is especially prevalent in the kitchen and around dinner tables, where we often dine on appetizing dishes, our thoughts grumbling in harmony to the smells of roasted turkey or sizzling omelets. At a young age we are disassociated from the repulsive process of the complex system of food production. We are actively discouraged to separate the eggs we eat in the morning from the chickens they came from; we are never informed of the process of caging chickens for their entire lives and breeding them to the point where they will produce excessive amounts of eggs but as a result will be incapable of moving around freely and without pain. When we bite into bacon, we delight in the way it pleases our taste buds; we do not see the images of pigs crated up from birth to giving birth to finally the end of their slow, miserable deaths. They never see the light of day, let alone are they permitted to move around its crate as compact as it is.
To widen our perception of the gap even further between our conceptions of animals and their actual daily reality, Atwood shrinks the distance between animals and the products in which they are involved, with imagery in lines such as sweaters wounding “back into their balls of wool, which rolled bleating out into the meadows” or “the violins wailing into their own wood and sinew and vanished into the trees.” This imagery extends beyond animal life to life of things in general, until Adam “returned to mud and mud itself became lava,” and eventually all the pieces in the universe would swirl “like fluorescent bathwater down a non-existent wormhole.”
By the end of the poem, Atwood denies the attachment of any moral to this fable about animals, although fables are indeed created to illuminate the human condition anyway. She addresses the audience and then proceeds to wipe out our existence as well. We often expect some sort of moral that walks us back to human culture and society, to some center of humanity itself, but this poem moves past that and traces existence back to a silent void where language is powerless, to experience itself, and then to what was not or to whatever preceded existence. And in this attempt to subvert the power of language, Atwood must ironically use language and renders it quite powerful. In denying a moral to this poem, she expresses the issue of expectations, ideology, and language often used to create and shape moral lessons. Sometimes it is refreshing, sometimes chilling, to pause and think about the origins of things, whether it be about animal tropes in literature or the ingredients in your bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich. Other times, it is beautiful to just feel the naked sound, free of any stitches of significance, of these very words you hear in your head as your eyes glide to the end of this sentence.