Ariel Dorfman was born in Buenos Aires on May 6, 1942, the son of Adolf Dorfman, who was born in Odessa, Ukraine and became a prominent Argentine professor of economics and the author of Historia de la Industria Argentina, and Fanny Zelicovich Dorfman, whose roots were Romanian-Moldovan Jews. Shortly after his birth, they moved to the United States and then, in 1954, moved to Chile. He attended and later worked as a professor at the University of Chile, marrying Angélica Malinarich in 1966 and becoming a Chilean citizen in 1967. From 1968 to 1969, he attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley and then returned to Chile. From 1970 to 1973, Dorfman served as a cultural advisor to president Salvador Allende. During this time he wrote, with Armand Mattelart, a critique of North American cultural imperialism, How to Read Donald Duck.
Dorfman was supposed to do the night shift at the La Moneda presidential palace the night before the Pinochet coup, but he had unknowingly swapped his shift with his friend Claudio Jimeno.Forced to leave Chile in 1973, after the coup by General Augusto Pinochet leading to the suicide of President Salvador Allende, he subsequently lived in Paris, Amsterdam, and Washington, D.C. Since 1985 he has taught at Duke University, where he is currently Walter Hines Page Research Professor of Literature and Professor of Latin American Studies. Since the restoration of democracy in Chile, in 1990, he and his wife Angélica have divided their time between Santiago and the United States.