An Introduction to ‘Animal Farm’

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The beast fable

The critic C.S.Lewis once remarked that the qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral ‘is to know what it is, what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used’.  George Orwell, with nice irony, subtitled Animal Farm ‘A Fairy Tale’.  It is, in fact, an extended allegory.  As a literary term, allegory is not really difficult to grasp.  The writer of allegory describes a subject under the guise of another subject which has apt and suggestive resemblances to the first one.  The allegorical work conveys a meaning other than, and in addition to, the literal meaning.  If we read a story and conclude that beneath its surface meaning another meaning may be discovered and that the real point of the story resides in this other meaning, then we may safely conclude that we have been reading an allegory.  Even the least qualified reader of Animal Farm will no doubt reach such a conclusion.

Animal Farm is a special kind of allegory, the beast fable.  Most of us are familiar with this universal literary form through our reading of Aesop’s Fables.  Those who have read the Fourth Book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels will scarcely be surprised to learn that Swift’s talking horses are literary ancestors of Orwell’s talking farm animals.  A fable is a story designed to inculcate a moral about some aspect of human behaviour.  Sometimes (as in the case of Animal Farm) the moral or lesson is implicit in the story; sometimes it is explicitly stated in brief form at the end.  Like other writers of beast fables, Orwell uses animals and birds to represent the deeds and motives of human beings; like them, too, he has his moral lesson to enforce.

Satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution

Every account of Animal Farm traces the fairly obvious parallels between the characters and motives of Orwell’s animals and those of the human beings they represent.  It was immediately clear to his original readers (in the mid-1940’s) that Orwell had written a fairly explicit satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, a circumstance which made it difficult for him to find an English publisher.  The parallels are easily traced.  Major is Lenin, although since he dies before the rising, the identification is not exact.  Napoleon is Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky, whose quarrel with Stalin after Lenin’s death led to his expulsion from the Communist Party and from Russia.  Molly stands for those Russians who fled the country after 1917.  Boxer is an image of the loyal, uncomplaining proletariat, and Moses an unattractive representation of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The Battle of the Cowshed is clearly the Civil War that followed the 1917 Revolution; Western countries (Jones and his neighbours) sent troops to the aid of the dissenting White Russians.  The Battle of the Windmill is the German invasion of 1941.  Orwell pointed this out in a letter to his publisher.  He felt that at one point in the story he had been unfair to Stalin.  ‘All the animals including Napoleon,’ he wrote in the Windmill episode, ‘flung themselves on their faces.’  This he wanted altered to ‘All the animals except Napoleon flung themselves on their faces,’ pointing out that Stalin, after all, did remain in Moscow during the German invasion.

The moral lesson of the fable

So much for the main parallels between Orwell’s animals and their human counterparts.  What of the moral lesson of the fable?  His experiences during the Spanish Civil War and his close study of Russian politics made Orwell acutely conscious of what he called ‘the barbaric and undemocratic’ methods of Communist governments.  His main concern in Animal Farm was to make people in Western Europe see the Soviet regime for what it really was.

It appeared to him that since 1930 the USSR, far from moving towards socialism, showed clear signs of transforming itself into a hierarchical society in which the rulers (the pigs of the fable) were no more inclined than were the members of any other power elite to surrender their privileges.  Since it was the common view of Western European socialists that a genuinely socialist regime existed in Russia, Orwell saw it as one of his tasks to dispel this misunderstanding in a story that could easily be assimilated by almost anyone, and that would lend itself to easy translation into other languages.

At the end of Animal Farm it is impossible to distinguish the human beings from the pigs, the latter having entered heartily into commercial and social relations with their former enemies and abandoned the major slogan of the Revolution, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’  In his preface to the Ukranian edition, Orwell made an interesting (and perhaps surprising) comment on his ending.  A number of readers, he felt, might finish Animal Farm with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs (the Soviet power elite) and the humans (the Western capitalist leaders).  This,  he pointed out was not his intention.  On the contrary, he meant the book to end on a note of discord.  He wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference, which everybody thought, had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West.  ‘I personally,’ Orwell observed with satisfaction, ‘did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.’

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A novel of universal political truths

Some of the pleasure of reading Animal Farm lies in the reader’s gradual recognition of the parallels with modern Russian history.  The various identifications can be disclosed rather like the answers to a crossword puzzle, or chalked up on the blackboard like so many equations.  But the question arises: once we have made all the identifications what further interest are we likely to have in a work like Animal Farm?  It might be argued that even as an allegory of Soviet politics, the book has lost some of its original point, since Orwell clearly did not contemplate, for example, such developments as those associated with the Krushchev era, or the astonishing course taken by the Soviet system since the coming to power of Gorbachev in 1985.  Fortunately for Orwell’s reputation, his book is likely to attract readers long after the Russian experience has been forgotten, because it has large implications extending beyond the immediate circumstances of any single movement such as the Russian Revolution of 1917.   In several respects, Orwell’s fable embodies universal political truths.  What he describes is what happens sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent, to all revolutionary movements.  The modern Chinese theory of continuous revolution as a means of preserving intact the ideals of the first revolutionaries is an interesting recognition of the dangers (so convincingly illustrated in Animal Farm) which attended all large-scale efforts at the betterment of the human lot.  Orwell’s book is a comment on the failure, as he saw it, of the Russian Revolution to fulfil the expectations of those who saw it marking a new era of true socialist democracy.  But it can also be read as a disillusioned recognition of the apparently inevitable failure of every great reforming movement to preserve its original momentum.  The French Revolution began in unbounded hope for a better world and petered out in the Jacobin terror.

Limitations of the moral fable

In Animal Farm, as in all moral fables, the author starts off with his abstract truth or idea, and uses his story to illustrate this, to give it life.  All the elements in the story are necessarily subordinated to the pattern dictated by whatever precepts the author desires to enforce on the minds of his readers.  Even these bald statements about the literary genre to which Animal Farm belongs suggest its almost inevitable limitations.  The major landmarks of fiction are exploratory in character; their important discoveries about human life and conduct emerge with the progress of the story.  Writers like the Orwell of Animal Farm, on the other hand, give the impression of having made their discoveries before composing their works.  The problem for all those who write fiction to illustrate pre-conceived ideas is that they must force a disorderly mass of experience into conformity with these ideas, which results inevitably either in some falsification of experience, or in a radically simplified view of it.  Inconvenient facts tend to be rigorously excluded.  Orwell, however, in choosing to illustrate what seems to be a universal human experience, is exempt from charges of distortion, whatever may be said about the limitations of his fable.

Orwell was one of those fortunate writers who recognised his limitations, who knew what suited his special talents and what did not.  Readers of his other novels will quickly realise that he found it extremely difficult to breathe life into his characters, none of whom is really convincing or memorable.  There is a sense in which Orwell is not really a creative writer, but a brilliant publicist, journalist, and apologist for liberal causes, who used the conventional fictional framework for his special purposes.  If he could not create life-like characters in his novels, he could at any rate write a great political fable.  What gives Animal Farm its vitality is not the kind of imaginative power one associates with a great novelist.  Such imaginative power was not really needed in this kind of work.  Orwell’s mind was one, which, like Swift’s, often contemplated the great human questions in political terms; like Swift, he found the beast fable an admirable vehicle for political ideas.  The almost perfect correspondence in Animal Farm between form and content at once helps to explain its astonishing popular success and to ensure its survival as a minor classic.

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An Introduction to ‘Lord of the Flies’

 

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Background note…

Lord of the Flies was published in 1954 and in it, William Golding sets out to create a disturbing and dystopian view of the world – a social experiment that goes horribly wrong.  The bleak aftermath of the second war to blight the Twentieth Century is still being felt in Britain, Europe and the rest of the world in the early 1950’s.  Images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, along with personal war memories and experiences and other atrocities were still very raw in people’s minds.  This powerful novel can be included among other dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.  This genre of dystopian fiction represents the other extreme from Utopias, fictional representations of ideal political states or ways of life, the classical example here being St. Thomas More’s Utopia, a Latin work written in 1516.

Golding, as you will soon be aware, is very concerned with the pervasive influence of evil forces in our world, and he has few allusions about the counterbalancing forces of good.  It is possible to classify Lord of the Flies as a dystopian fable because in it Golding is casting a jaundiced eye on earlier and more optimistic variations on his theme, the best known of these being R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island.   Lord of the Flies was written as a kind of parody of The Coral Island and Golding makes specific reference to it in his novel.  A very brief comparison with Ballantyne’s book helps us see what Golding is attempting in Lord of the Flies.  In The Coral Island, Ballantyne shipwrecks a group of upright, solid, church-going British boys, and allows them to build a decent imitation of British civilisation in their new and primitive surroundings.  In Lord of the Flies, the shipwreck is now a plane wreck; the boys are still middle-class British Christians.  Even the names of three of Golding’s main characters are similar to those in Ballantyne – Golding’s three central characters – Ralph, Piggy and Jack – are caricatures of Ballantyne’s heroes .  The vital difference between the two novels, however, is that whereas Ballantyne’s is thoroughly optimistic in spirit and outcome, Golding’s outcomes are disillusioning and pessimistic.

The need for social order

Lord of the Flies is a very grim illustration of the kind of situation that, as Golding sees it, must inevitably arise if the sanctions and controls of society are abandoned.  In this kind of situation, the great majority of human beings (whether boys or men) will choose destructive courses.  There will be the few who will choose order, whose acts reflect human decency and goodness, but they will be outnumbered and defeated by the evil tendencies of the many.  The ethos of Ballantyne’s island was that of the boy-scout camp; on Golding’s the greater number of the boys choose to enact the roles of savages, painting themselves, wallowing in an orgy of animal slaughter, sinking into bestial habits, engaging in torture, murder and sacrifice to false gods.

Speaking of false gods prompts a reference to the significance of Golding’s title for the novel.  This refers to Beelzebub, traditionally the most debased and disgusting of all the devils.  The young British Christians, most of all the choirboys, instinctively chose him, rather than the Christian God as the object of their worship.  This choice bears fundamentally on Golding’s views on human nature.  Golding is, above all, a didactic writer and he is trying, therefore, to teach us a moral lesson here.  One of his primary purposes is to expose what he sees as the shallowness of optimistic theories (he would see them as illusions) about human nature.  At one level, his novel can be read as a strenuous rejection of humanistic theories of human perfection.  It enacts an unrepentant belief in the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin; the doctrine which teaches that the first sin of Adam, as the old Catechism put it, ‘darkened the understanding, weakened the will, and left us a strong inclination to evil’.

A pessimistic world view?

This traditional view sets Golding apart from many of the modern ‘trendy’ currents of thought.  Few of us have escaped the influence of the romantic view of childhood as a time of glorious innocence; the cult of the noble savage has, since Rousseau, enjoyed widespread support in all kinds of fiction.  It was a common Romantic assumption that man was potentially a noble, upright creature if only he could be freed from the fetters of a corrupt society.  Golding is having none of this!  Not for him the vision of the child emerging in clouds of glory, or the inherent nobility of the savage life.  What he finds instead, is that only the slightest push, or the removal of sanctions or firm restraints, is needed for children, as well as for men, to tumble into unfathomable depths of depravity.  In Lord of the Flies he is trying to show us with what frightening ease man and boy can throw off all his superficial decency (‘off you lendings’ in Lear’s version) and regress back to that primitive state where ‘chaos is come again.’

To return to categories and literary genres for a moment, Lord of the Flies is a fable.  As Golding himself points out, the writer of fables is a moralist: ‘he cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it’, very similar to the parables in the Gospels.  No matter how we look on this novel, however, it would be very difficult to describe Golding’s lesson here as a hopeful one.  For him, men are generally vicious, murderous and liable to extremes of self-degradation and animal behaviour.  What most forcibly strikes us as we read this novel is Golding’s intuition that, at best, civilising conventions and rules are passing things, but that what endures is man’s wild irrationality and his destructive urges.  A passing visit to Sky News or CNN or BBC News may confirm this for us on a daily basis!  Who would choose to live in Aleppo in Syria or the many cities in Iraq who have been condemned to untold barbarity in recent times?

 A realistic novel

Lord of the Flies has proved an extraordinary popular book, both from the point of view of general readership and among academics.  Golding may have conceived his novel as an allegory, but he is also a master of realistic fiction, and the book has a striking impact on the generality of young readers, for whom it is, here in Ireland as well as in Britain, a widely prescribed school text.  Golding was a teacher for a number of years, and has an instinctive understanding of, and feeling for, the characters and mannerisms of schoolboys.  One of the striking features of his method is his success in presenting his young characters in terms of idiom and linguistic habit (compare the under-educated, ill-spoken Piggy in this respect with Ralph and Jack).  The novel, for all its allegorical and symbolic overtones, is rooted firmly in real experience.  Physical sensations are admirably and tellingly rendered; the discomforts, unpleasantness, delights and other sensations associated with life on the island are evoked with astonishing realism.  The beautiful descriptions of island and sea are unforgettable.  Golding’s continuous success with the depiction of the physical realities of life, the rootedness of the book in the solid earth, is perhaps its most memorable feature for younger readers, most of whom, it is safe to suggest, can approach it on a realistic level without bothering unduly about its allegorical implications or its status as a moral fable.  Discussing the wider picture, the novel as fable or allegory or simply realistic novel with an eager English class, is one of the great joys and job satisfactions of the teacher of English Literature!

Symbolism

Academics have naturally tended to focus on the allegorical and symbolic features of the book, following Golding himself, who has strongly emphasised these in his critical comments.  There are numerous examples of symbols in the novel.  The shell or conch discovered by Ralph and Piggy has attracted a wide variety of such interpretations.  It is most obviously to be regarded as a symbol of the forces in the boys striving to uphold civilised standards and values.  The character of Simon attracts a good deal of symbolic weight also.  The pig’s head covered in flies is a symbol or sign of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies.  Simon’s hallucination of the monologue from the pig’s head is another symbolic feature.  But whatever importance one may attach to such matters, the vital consideration is that most of the episodes which obviously attract symbolic interpretations also work most successfully at a realistic level, which adds to the great appeal of the novel.

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Dream to nightmare

Golding has a remarkable gift for presenting abstract conceptions in compelling concrete terms.  One of the themes of the book that particularly appeals to younger readers is that it enacts a powerfully imagined version of the dream that most children cherish at one time or another of escaping from the restraints of a society controlled by adults.  What Golding does in Lord of the Flies is bring this dream to life.  But what he also does is to turn the dream into a virtual nightmare.  Escape from the stabilising forces of the adult world, instead of bringing about happiness, results in a riot of destructive individualism.  At the beginning, there is a vague, unsatisfactory sense of kinship and comradeship: Ralph and Jack, the two ‘mighty opposites’ of the later parts of the novel, can, at the beginning, look at each other ‘with a shy liking’.  The collapse of this sympathy, the breaking of most of the bonds of human kinship, is the stark reality which haunts Golding’s fable.  And even when the outside world comes to the rescue at the conclusion of the novel it only brings further reminders of disorder and war with the finding of the dead airman and the arrival of an armed warship.  There is little comfort, then, to be drawn from Golding’s dystopian novel: neither a ‘civilised’ environment nor the lack of it, seem to offer much hope of even limited perfection or happiness to human beings.

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English is in Terminal Decline…. Again!

 

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The concerns that English is difficult to learn and is  in decline is almost as old as the language itself.   The average schoolchild can hardly write, one author has recently warned. Well, not that recently perhaps. It was William Langland, author of “Piers Plowman“, who wrote that, “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.” He died in 1386.

English has been getting worse ever since. In 1387, Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk and historian, found the culprit in language mixing: “By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys apeyred and som useþ strange wlaffyng chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbyttyng.” That is to say (in case your Middle English is rusty) that English speakers had taken to “strange, articulate utterance, chattering, snarling and harsh teeth-gnashing”, bad habits he put down to the mixing together of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norman French.

The wailing throughout the history of the language, by people convinced that the end is nigh, can be a bit exhausting over a full survey. But it holds a lesson: language is not constant. Change is—and anxiety about change is constant too. Indeed, I believe that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies!  In 1577 Richard Stanihurst praised the English spoken by old English settlers in Ireland. Because of their distance from the mother country, they had not been affected by, “habits redolent of disgusting newness”.

A century later, in 1672, John Dryden, a poet and essayist, waxed especially operatic on the decline of English—and not just schoolboys’ English, but that of the greats:

It is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both. … [M]alice and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakspeare and Fletcher; and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense.

Another half-century on, another great writer was at the decline game, this time Jonathan Swift:

our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.

Swift’s only comfort was that French was declining nearly as rapidly as English. (That didn’t stop him from proposing an English academy, along the lines of the Académie Française, to stop the decline.)

Anxiety sells, and so warnings about the state of the language accelerated as dictionary-and grammar-book writers sought—and found—a mass market. Samuel Johnson hoped to give the language some stability, but realised that trying to stop change was like trying to “lash the wind”. But many of his contemporaries were not so generous. Robert Lowth, probably the most influential English grammarian of all time, began his 1762 book with a quotation from Cicero complaining about the rubbish Latin that the Roman statesman heard in the streets around him. Lowth went on to use examples from Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible as “false syntax” illustrating errors, complaining that even, “Our best authors have committed gross mistakes, for want of a due knowledge of English grammar.”

Perhaps the stern Victorians, at least, mastered English? They did not; the poet Arthur Hugh Clough complained in 1852 that, “Our own age is notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition.” Americans in their young republic were also already going into decline, too: Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric, found, “the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions” in 1879. Charles Henshaw Ward, another American, blamed the usual suspects, the school pupils, in 1917: “Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.”

Perhaps the greatest writer to be persuaded of declinism was George Orwell, who wrote in 1946 that, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.”  The essay in which he tried to stop the rot did little good, at least as far as his successors were concerned. Dwight McDonald wrote in his 1962 review of Webster’s third New International Dictionary about modern permissive attitudes, “debasing our language by rendering it less precise”. In 1973 “Newsweek” explained, “Why Johnny can’t write” on its cover. That same year, a young Lynne Truss finished school in England. She would go on to sound the alarm in what would become the modern stickler’s book-length battle-cry, 2003’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”.

This is in no way limited to English. I have just been sent a press release for a book called “Bin ich der einzigste hiere, wo Deutsch kann?” (“Am I the Only One Who Speaks German Here?”) with a few hard-to-translate mistakes in the German title. German has also been in decline for a while: 1974 saw the publication of Die Leiden der Jungen Wörter, “The Sorrows of Young Words” (a pun on Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, the “Sorrows of Young Werther”.) Even Jakob Grimm (1785-1863) thought that German had been more expressive and elegant hundreds of years before his time.

Have young people too lazy to learn to write been with us since the very beginning? A collection of proverbs in Sumerian—the world’s first written language—suggests that they have: “A junior scribe is too concerned with feeding his hunger,” contends one.  Another states: “He does not pay attention to the scribal art.”  It seems that the slovenly teenager, not to mention the purse-lipped schoolmaster, is at least 4,000 years old!

– based on article in The Economist

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