What does the different extent of literacy amongst the animals reveal about their character traits?

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

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Orwell draws a fairly strong link between literacy and power.  For the animals, the more that one learns to read and write, the greater level of power they are able to hold amongst the animals.  For example, the pigs are the first ones to become literate.  The result of this is that pigs like Snowball are able to organize the farm into committees, develop battle plans, and envision and construct the windmill.  Napoleon uses his own position of literacy to develop strict hierarchic relationships between he and the other animals, in which pigs rule and everyone else is subservient.  Squealer is able to use his powers of literacy to "spin" what the pigs' government is doing to the animals without the animals understanding the full implications of what is being done or without comprehsion of how they need to coalesce and rebel.  In each of these cases, the primary motivation of each pig is a character trait revealed through literacy.  Accordingly, the animals that lack the ability to read and write are constantly dependent on those who are literate.  Clover is one of the oldest and most senior animals on the farm, but she is incapable of understanding what is happening unless it is interpreted by another.  Her dependence is a character trait determined by her lack of literacy.  Muriel, an animal who is fairly literate, is relegated to the periphery, an example of how her own literacy is seen as a threat.  At the end of the narrative, she dies.  Benjamin is literate, but has disengaged from any type of social activism due to his own cynicism.  He only realizes too late the danger of his withdrawal when he is the first to read that Boxer, his friend, is being taken to his death.  His character trait of withdrawal and cynicism is stunted when literacy enables him to understand how much of a dangerous position it is to be cynical in matters of civic activism.

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