Next in our reading series, let’s pick up an old dystopian classic, Animal Farm. This is not a children’s story, despite its moderately short length. Do not bother reading it to students without the background historical context. It is the perfect read directly after a study of communism! In the novel, a group of Farmer Jones’s farm animals, sick of neglect and mistreatment, revolt, throw off their oppressors and take over the farm, only to be even more oppressed from within their own ranks, in a far sneakier way. I loved my 9th grade daughter’s description of the book:
The animals of Manor Farm live a hard, tiring existence. They are worked hard all day, fed the bare minimum of food, and killed when the farmer, Jones, sees fit. Once Jones is ousted, the pigs, namely two called Napoleon and Snowball, swoop in and set up a government. While at first the society flourishes, the reader quickly observes the crumbling principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and the construction of a swine-filled oligarchy. By the end of the book most will wonder: Are the animals really any better off after Jones?
The most fun my students and I had with Animal Farm was identifying the characters and events in the book which, for the most part, relate directly to real life figures and events. They recognized Leon Trotsky right away, in the character of Snowball, the revolution leader that is edged out and is
written out of the farm’s history. We examined these amazing photographs to see how Trotsky, Stalin’s rival to succeed Lenin, was literally removed from Soviet history by altered photos.
We had to dig to find out who some of the less obvious characters were intended to represent. When we tried to figure out the historical correlation for the human intermediary, Mr. Whymper, we found some interesting options, most notably American journalist Lincoln Steffens. Steffens is remembered for this: after he had visited the USSR, he said, “I have seen the future and it works.” Whymper represented Americans duped by the communists or willing to embrace it for their own gain.
Another historical parallel my students found was when Napoleon (the Stalin figure) executes the “traitors”, one of them is a sheep that confesses to having hidden away some ears of corn and eaten them secretly. That scene was probably inspired by the very sad story of a young boy named Pavlik Morozov, growing up during the Russian Revolution, who reported his father to the police for hiding some food to feed his family.
At the height of the oppression the hens are forced to give up their eggs to be sold. At first they protest, until their rations are taken away. This passage was probably meant to mirror the drafting of Russian young men into the Russian army.
I asked my students to write an essay on whether the animals were better off before or after the revolution. While the answer may seem obvious initially, it is a historically significant question. Requiring them to think through all of the reasons the farm animals were better off, or even not better off, first from the book, and then its historic parallels, is an exercise in understanding a belief system that still permeates our world and colors our politics.
If you are using my Literature Study Guide (find it here for free) you will want to note that though this novel is written in the Modernism era, it does not necessarily reflect modernist thinking. Or even better, ask your students in the Socratic fashion: What literary movement is the novel written in? What literary movement does the author’s thinking and ideas reflect? What evidence can you show to support your statement?
Animal Farm is a high school must read. We are following up this year by reading The Communist Manifesto. But that is a future post. Right now I will leave you with the most famous line of the book as food for thought, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
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