What central theme do Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451 share, and how do the authors use plot, characterization, allusion, and irony to convey it?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A shared theme in Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451 is that when authority abuses the power it has over citizens, it is up to the body politic to fight back and demonstrate resistance.  When citizens fail to take action, it emboldens the aggressiveness of authority figures.  Both works speak to this condition of power and its countervailing force of defiance.  While both works take different avenues to get to this point, it becomes clear that this becomes a shared end message of both works.

Bradbury uses irony in a very deliberate manner to construct the thematic condition of power and resistance.  The premise of the "firemen" is an ironic use of the term.  Given how society sees firemen as helpful and benevolent, and reflective of propping up the safety of society, Bradbury employs irony in the firemen in his novel.  The "firemen" in the novel see themselves as guardians of public safety.  They see their role in burning books as one that protects society from the "dangerous" conditions of literature: "We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone made equal . . . A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind."  Bradbury is able to use irony in the mere description of the firemen as individuals who represent authority usurping the right to think from the people.  In seizing and burning books, authority is shown to abuse its power.  Irony is one way in which this theme is evident, almost begging the need to oppose such blatant and wonton abuse of power. The allusions that Bradbury employs helps to enhance this thematic condition of authority's abuse of power.  

In using literary allusions to books that are being burned, Bradbury shows an ironic demonstration of authority's abuse of power:  "It's fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That's our official slogan."  It is not accidental that this literature is challenging to authority and radical in its desire to establish individual voice over all other concerns.  Beatty himself alludes to literature in his justification for public safety:  "Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo.  Burn it.  White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it."  In these allusions, Bradbury shows how the scope of literature that meant to encourage public discourse and dissent were the targets of authority.  Authority used its power to suppress books that fostered critical thinking and reflection about the world and one' place in it.  The use of allusion is deliberate in the enhancement of the novel's theme.

The novel's plot depicts how power is abused and the means through which individuals must take action against such encroachment.  The plot of the novel centers on Guy Montag's evolution from tool of authority to its antagonistic dissenter.  Guy starts off as a fireman, and thinks that his job represents "good work."  However, over time and through moments in which he is able to peer into the life of things, he recognizes that what he is doing must cease.  His awareness of his own condition as the agent of action helps to illuminate the dynamic of both oppression and resistance.  Bradbury advances the plot in accordance to his development of Montag's characterization.  His awareness of both the abuse of authoritarian power and his own need to resist it is facilitated by the impressions he has of the people around him.  Clarisse and Faber represent voices of resistance while Beatty and the mechanical hound embody the forces of authority's abuse, while Mildred is the sad result of what happens when authority is not resisted when it abuses its power.  The development of Guy's characterization is one where it becomes clear that the only suitable response to the abuse of power that authority perpetrates is to actively resist it by any means necessary.  The emergence of Guy as one who served authority to one who rebels against it helps to enhance this theme.

Bradbury asserts that individual action can result in forming active and effective resistance against authority's abuses of power.  Orwell takes a much more tragic view of this condition. For Orwell, individual resistance is necessary to stop the abuse of power that authority perpetrates.  While there is much in way of struggle and pain in the process, Orwell concludes that it is necessary. The option of being silent as authority progresses in abusing power is not something that he finds acceptable.  Thus, while Bradbury asserts a positive view of individual freedom in the face of oppression, Orwell concedes that there is going to be struggle present.  However, it becomes clear that Orwell feels that the struggle is the only option.

Irony is present in Animal Farm.  A good argument can be made that Orwell uses irony in the way he has the animals talk to one another.  Orwell envisions the animals talking and communicating.   In doing so, it goes against the reader's expectations and proves to be ironic.  The critical scene in which both pigs compete for the voice of the farm has ironic humor, considering that the two most eloquent voices belong to the pigs.  Within this, Orwell demonstrates that power and change is possible when authority abuses its power.  There is a certain irony in seeing the animals overthrow the humans who abused them only to see the pigs and the dogs become abusers themselves.  The ending scene in which the animals cannot tell the difference between the pigs and humans is ironic in that the pigs have become the very thing that they promised not to become.  This use of irony shows how the abuse of power is present in any and all governments.  Citizens must be on guard against such encroachment.  Failure to activate voice at these points results in disaster.

The plot of the narrative displays the theme of power's abuse and the need to take action.  The humans begin in the position of power, abusing the animals as the means of consolidating their power.  The result from this is Old Major's dream of Animalism that inspires the animals to collectivize in displaying power over the abuse of the human authority.  When they overthrow the humans, the animals move into the position of power with the pigs running the government while the dogs provide protection.  The pigs end up becoming the new power brokers, and recognize the need to tighten their control over the animals to prevent another uprising.  The ending of the novel features the pigs and the humans enjoying their ill begotten fruits of power, reflecting how Orwell believes that while authority will suppress in a violent manner, human resistance is the only option when confronted with such a situation.

The characterizations that Orwell offers is an example of the dynamic of power that authority displays.  Napoleon starts off as a revolutionary.  He is a key member of the Animalist movement that Old Major starts.  When the new government is formed, Napoleon is part of the triad of leadership with Snowball and Squealer.  However, almost instinctually, Napoleon takes the puppies and keeps them apart from the other animals in order to raise his own protective police force.  This characterization represents how power seeks to gain control and consolidate it over the body politic.  By the same light, Boxer's characterization demonstrates the failure in not asking questions and becoming a voice of dissent to any government.  Boxer's strength is unparalleled, but his trusting nature in that "Comrade Napoleon is always right" and "I will work harder" prevents him from getting the education in literacy and becoming more politically aware.  It culminates in him not being able to read that the van that came to take him away was taking him to his death.  When Orwell describes Boxer's final moments, it speaks to how individuals have to be ready to take action throughout their lives against government.  If one fails to do so, it becomes harder to activate such a condition when it is sorely needed:

But a moment later his [Boxer's] face disappeared from the window and there was the sound of a tremendous  drumming of hoofs inside the van. He was trying to kick his way out. The  time had been when a few kicks from Boxer's hoofs would have smashed the  van to matchwood. But alas! his strength had left him; and in a few  moments the sound of drumming hoofs grew fainter and died away.

Orwell's characterization of Boxer proves that individuals must always be ready and able to take action against authority when boundaries are overstepped. Blindly trusting authority as Boxer does is not a recipe for human happiness.

Orwell uses historical allusion in constructing his narrative.  The characters in the narrative represent different figures in Russian History. The philosophy of Animalism is an allusion to Communism. For example, Old Major can represent Lenin or Marx as the visionary who did not live long enough to see his vision corrupted by those who inherited his legacy.  Snowball is an allusion to Trotsky, while Napoleon represents an allusion to Stalin.  Squealer represents the state run media of the Soviet Union, while Boxer represents the trusting masses and Farmer Jones is the Czar.  Orwell even writes himself into his own historical allusion in the form of the cynic Benjamin, the intellectual who recognizes what is happening but whose disinterest has rendered him voiceless when agency is sorely needed.  The historical allusion of the narrative is what makes it so compelling in its statement about the abuse of authority's power, only because it is so very relevant in light of how Russian history advanced.

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