Introducing Animal Farm to young writers
I love sharing George Orwell’s Animal Farm with students. What follows is an outline of how I introduced the novella’s first four chapters to my class over a two-week period during a November 2016 writing lesson.
Dystopian literature discussion
We began with a look at what constitutes dystopian literature, using the words of science fiction and fantasy editor, critic, and publisher John Joseph Adams to explain the term:
The roots of the word dystopia—dys– and –topia—are from the Ancient Greek for “bad” and “place,” and so we use the term to describe an unfavorable society in which to live. “Dystopia” is not a synonym for “post-apocalyptic”; it also is not a synonym for a bleak, or darkly imagined future. In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by any number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s individual freedom, and living under constant surveillance.
We defined key concepts such as post-apocalyptic and totalitarian and then discussed modern examples of dystopian literature, including Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Susanne Collins’s series The Hunger Games. In dystopian literature, the story is often unresolved: the dystopia remains at the conclusion. The hero, if there is one, may make an individual stand or do so within a group. The stand often fails, but gives hope to others. Sometimes this climax is the hero’s escape from the dystopia. Other times the hero fails to achieve anything and the dystopia continues as before. We may find this to be true in the case of Animal Farm or we may conclude that Animal Farm falls into a different genre altogether (fairy story, fable, allegory, satire, prophecy?). Orwell subtitled his novella “A Fairy Story.” He did not choose this sub-title lightly. A fairy story with a political purpose suggests a fable. We also defined allegory.
Orwell is one of the early dystopian authors. Although the genre pre-dates him, Orwell’s writings are some of the most famous and influential (ex., 1984). Animal Farm was published in 1945, in the same month that the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Japan near the end of World War II.
Introducing Orwell and chapters one through four
After a warm-up, question-and-answer session on Orwell’s background and introduction of the novella, we dove into understanding the setting (time and place) of the story. This included a brief lecture on the the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Karl Marx. Each time I teach this book I realize how much history is involved in understanding its meaning. It’s difficult to cover all of the complexities of this time frame in a one-hour lecture, so I try to give mini-talks each week that help illuminate one aspect of the back-story. We’ll be devoting the majority of our time to discussing the story and defining terms. Early exposure to these terms and concepts will lay the foundation for more mature, fruitful discussions down the road.
We had some fun introducing all of the characters and speculating about the historical counterpart for each. For instance, Napoleon the Pig is thought to be Leon Trotsky, and Snowball (the pig) represents Josef Stalin. Interestingly, Orwell had a tough time getting Animal Farm published. It wasn’t exactly cool at the time to be implying that Stalin was a pig. After all, Russia was an ally in the world war. Orwell was a socialist and fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civil War. During this experience, he quickly realized that the communists he was fighting for could be just as totalitarian and oppressive as the fascists he was fighting against. And that’s where Animal Farm comes in: it shows Stalin’s version of communism to be the exact opposite of socialist values—brutal, oppressive, and prone to inequality. Ultimately, Orwell was an individualist who emphasized honesty, freedom of choice, love of family, and tolerance for others.