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Animal Farm Literature Study

December 10, 2008

Monday, we wrapped up our reading and discussion of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. (Click the link for a summary of the book and discussion of the characters.) Here is a video on the historical symbolism in Animal Farm. I watched it with the kids after our discussion, because I wanted them to draw their own conclusions rather than having them spoon fed to us.

For our discussion, I used the chapter on this novel in Deconstructing Penguins as a model. I took out the pictures and character summaries the kids had done for each major character in this book. Then we spread them out on the coffee table.

I talked to them about Animal Farm being considered an allegory for the outcome of the Russian Revolution. In explaining the concept of allegory, I mentioned how Aslan represents Christ in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They grasped that immediately.

I outlined what I knew about the Russian Revolution, which didn’t take long. 😉 I mentioned the condition of the serfs under the old feudal system, Karl Marx’s ideas, the overthrow of the tsar, the failed Menshevek Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. We talked about Stalin’s reign of terror and the way people lived in the Soviet Union during my lifetime. People lived in terror of the government, and party leaders owned cars and private homes while workers lived in over-crowded apartments and stood in line for bread and toilet paper.

I had a friend in college whose grandmother was from Poland. She spent her life waiting in line for meager food rations. After she immigrated to the U.S., she walked into a grocery store. Seeing the unimaginable abundance — shelves loaded with food of all kinds — she burst into tears. Whenever I am tempted to complain about, well, ANYTHING, I remember her.

James and Sarah didn’t have any difficulty connecting some of the characters in Animal Farm to the historical figures I mentioned. For example, Farmer Jones is the tsar, Snowball is Trotsky, and Napoleon is Stalin. They had no trouble seeing that Moses, the silly raven who sat on Farmer Jones’ shoulder with his stories of eternal life on Sugarcandy mountain, represented the church, and they understood what that implied about Orwell’s view of religion. We talked a bit about the church’s role in history.

I think it’s important to distinguish between the historical role of organized religion in helping maintain an unjust social hierarchy, including the divine right of kings and all that, and the spiritual truth that churches can offer. It’s also worthwhile to look at how the role of organized religion has changed. I did an interesting research project in college on the Catholic church’s role in Latin America — it went from holding down the “lower” classes to being a champion of the poor.

We also talked a little but about Orwell’s atheism and socialism and his view of humanity and of history. Sarah thought Orwell’s view of human history was bleak — it was inevitable that tyranny was going to win out. Borrowing a page from Deconstructing Penguins, I guided them to think about whether any basically good characters could have triumphed over Napoleon and established a truly fair and equal society. After all, Orwell was a socialist himself; would he write a book saying that a socialist revolution was wholly hopeless?

“Was there any animal — besides the pigs — who could read? Was anyone else as intelligent as the pigs?” They realized that Benjamin the donkey was. However, he refused to involve himself in animal politics, just saying cryptically that “donkeys live a long time.” He didn’t take a stand until it was too late. The kids realized that Benjamin represented “the smart people” — the intellectuals. Orwell saw them putting themselves above politics and refusing to use their education, and their ability to think critically and write persuasively, to improve the world.

Sarah said hesitantly, “Benjamin is Daddy.” She was referring to the fact that Matt, who is a very intelligent, good man, chooses not to vote. In a nutshell he doesn’t see any politicians as being worth it, and he doesn’t foresee any real change in our system. He and I debate about that a lot.

Of course, Benjamin could have been killed, in a second, by the pigs’ “secret police” — the dogs Napoleon had trained to do his bidding. Again, I took a page from Deconstructing Penguins. I asked, “Is there anyone the dogs were afraid of?” James immediately said, “Boxer.” He referred to the part of the story where the powerful workhorse, Boxer, accidentally stepped on a dog and sent them all running with their tails between their legs. Boxer didn’t understand what was happening on Animal Farm, but Benjamin did. The two of them together could have been an unbeatable team.

That’s why I love this book and couldn’t wait to share it with my kids. It’s not for it’s dark view of human nature, though there’s a grain of truth there. It’s for the underlying message of hope and of the responsibility we all have to be educated as best we can, be thoughtful citizens, and have the courage to take a stand.

In talking about this responsibility, we also returned to the subject of Stalin’s dictatorship and segued into Nazi Germany. I mentioned this poem:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

by Friedrich Gustav Martin Niemöller

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