Analyzing Characterization for Social Themes: When Orwell subtitled the novella “a fairy story,” he did so not because the text contains unreal creatures or magical events, but because of the flat, stereotypical characters within. The text captures the complexities of the Russian Revolution in storybook characters whose actions and motivations can be understood by readers who otherwise lack specific knowledge about that period’s history. Taking as his inspiration the simplicity and clarity of Aesop’s fables, Orwell communicates the dangers of the rise of a totalitarian dictator from the midst of a social revolution to the masses.
- For discussion: Have students compare and contrast Boxer and Napoleon as character foils. What are their different motivations, means, and ends? What does each character reveal about the role of the individual in society?
- For discussion: Extend this line of questioning to secondary characters, such as Mollie, Old Major, Mr. Pilkington and Mr. Frederick.
- For discussion: Ask students to brainstorm other historical examples that fit the characters in the book. Do the themes that they have drawn from the text apply to these other examples?
Rhetoric and the Role of Propaganda: One of Animal Farm’s frequent accolades is that it distills many years of socio-historic understanding into an easy-to-understand fable. From Old Major’s speech through Napoleon’s ascension to power, students can trace the tools modern tyrannies use to control populations. Of these tools, the most notable is the use of propaganda: biased, incorrect, or incomplete information disseminated with a specific end in mind. Through the intellectual gradient that exists among the animals, the pigs manipulate the shared history of the animal revolution for their own ends. In reading Animal Farm, students have the opportunity to study the rhetoric the pigs use to take power and the rhetoric Orwell uses to criticize the abuses of a totalitarian government.
- For discussion: As students read, have them examine the scenes in which the pigs give the other animals new information about the revolution. What rhetorical devices do Squealer, Napoleon, and the pigs use to manipulate the animals to act against their best interest? What information do they add? How does this new information affect the other animals?
- For discussion: How do the animals, other than the pigs, share information among themselves? Who do they consider credible or unreliable? Why?
- For discussion: Ask students to consider the moral complexity of Squealer’s character. To what extent is he at fault for Napoleon’s rise to power? Is he culpable for the failure of the revolution, or is he justified in acting in his own self-interest?
- For discussion: Engage students in a close reading of chapter 7, particularly the scene in which many animals confess to acting against Animal Farm and are slaughtered. Are these confessions authentic? Are they lies? Are these animals being coerced into confession? How can students tell the difference? To what extent does the truth of these confessions matter?
- For discussion: Some have argued that Animal Farm itself is an example of anti-communist propaganda. Invite students to share the extent to which they agree or disagree with this view and why.
- For discussion: What could the animals have done to have preserved the events of the revolution with greater verisimilitude? Invite students to give advice to the animals. Further, consider recording a memorable class event, challenging students to try to remember the event during the following class session accurately. Then, compare the class’ memory with the recording.
Self-Interest and Social Order: After the revolution on Manor Farm, the animals are united in organizing their farm around new principles and divide resources equally amongst...
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themselves. As Napoleon manipulates the tenets of their new social order for his own gain, many characters exhibit a willingness to act against their own best interests: Boxer works himself into exhaustion; the sheep overpower meaningful discussion among the animals; the farm animals labor on in the hope of arriving one day at Sugarcandy Mountain, without any evidence of its existence. Though the novel reveals the ease with which the informed can manipulate the ignorant, it also reveals the complex matrix of choices involved in group living.
- For discussion: Which animals in the text are selfish? Which animals are willing to make sacrifices for others? Which animals seem indifferent to the success of Animal Farm? Why?
- For discussion: Consider the animals that are willing to make sacrifices for others. What motivates them to act against their own self-interest? What benefits do they gain from helping others? Are the benefits worth the sacrifice?
- For discussion: Many of the animals make sacrifices for the farm knowing that they will be allowed to retire to a pasture when they are older. How does the return of Moses the raven complicate their sacrifices? How does the promise of retirement compare to that of Sugarcandy Mountain?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Personified Animals Seem Childish: Many students will be familiar with personified animals though children’s stories and films. Some may roll their eyes when asked to read a similar story in high school.
- What to do: Remind students that there is a reason fables are effective instructional stories for young children. By reducing complex relationships to symbolic animals, those relationships become much easier to understand. Ask them to share with a partner or the class stories they experienced as children that were instructional. Use this discussion as an opportunity to discuss the value of fables.
- What to do: Invite students to read the first two paragraphs before you introduce the text. When students read that Mr. Jones “was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes,” most students will be convinced that they aren’t reading a children’s story.
- What to do: Provide students with the historical context surrounding the Russian revolution, the rise of Hitler's Nazi party, or other examples of dictators who gain power to rule over a country. With this context in mind, tell students that Orwell uses personified animals in the context of a fable to make these historical examples more accessible to readers.
The Story Is Moralistic: Though Animal Farm is a work of fiction, Orwell had specific intentions in writing it and crafted the story from a known historical antecedent, the Russian Revolution. This can lead many students to think it is a closed text—in other words, not open for interpretation.
- What to do: Invite students to consider the motivations of different characters over the course of the text. Though the novel conveys a clear warning against tyranny, by comparing and contrasting the motivations of different characters, students can explore the complex choices made by individuals that culminate in tyranny.
- What to do: Invite students to compare the novel to historical examples other than the Russian Revolution, evaluating whether or not Animal Farm accurately represents the relevant events. With myriad examples at hand, students can assess the universality of the themes in the text.
The Main Characters Are All Male: Despite the critical role that women played in instigating and defending the Russian Revolution, the key actors in Animal Farm are all male. Further, the notable female characters in the text that receive the most narrative attention, Clover and Mollie, draw on stereotypes that characterize women as passive and vain, respectively.
- What to do: Compare Clover and Mollie. As the two female characters who receive the most attention in the story, how are they alike? How are they different? Is there evidence to suggest that either one is empowered? Why or why not?
- What to do: Invite students to research and discuss the role women played in World War I and the Russian Revolution. Introduce students to figures such as Maria Bochkareva, who enlisted in World War I and led battalions of women into the fray. Remind students that it was the tens of thousands of women who gathered for Women’s Day Protests in March of 1917 that lead to the overthrow of the czar.
- What to do: Study the behavior of the hens. Does their femininity affect their experiences on Animal Farm? How? How do their actions compare to those of Clover or Mollie?
The Text Conveys a Grim View of Social Order: Students will likely be quick to point out the dark, even hopeless tone of the story, embodied by Benjamin’s wisdom: “. . . life would go on as it had always gone on—that is, badly.” For some, Orwell’s Animal Farm suggests that average citizens don’t have the intellect to protect themselves from an oppressive government and that revolutions fought to ensure social equality inevitably result in violent dictatorship.
- What to do: Ask students to consider the extent to which humans are necessarily a hierarchical species. Must there be a lowest rung on the social ladder? In the text, what characteristics put an individual on the bottom? Compare the text to social orders students are familiar with, within their school community or society at large.
- What to do: Remind students that just because Animal Farm illustrates a threatening social order doesn’t mean that it is the only social order available. Invite students to consider what the animals could have done to prevent Napoleon’s rise to power, or ask students to think creatively about alternate sequences of events and endings.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Animal Farm
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
- Focus on morally ambiguous characters. Though certain characters, such as Boxer and Napoleon, are easily read as “good” and “bad,” consider analyzing the secondary characters who inhabit a more ambiguous space. Is Mollie justified in abandoning the farm? Is Moses the raven acting in his own self-interest by describing Sugarcandy Mountain, or is giving the other animals hope an act of mercy? Can the dogs be held morally accountable for their actions?
- Focus on pride as a motif in the text. The animals all feel immense pride in their victory over Mr. Jones. How does this pride motivate the animals going forward? Why do the animals continue to help the pigs fool the humans into thinking Animal Farm is a success? Invite students to consider the ways in which pride works for and against the animals’ livelihood.
- Focus on the role of religion in society. Gradually, the animals form religion. They put Old Major’s head on a stake in reverence, and after the reappearance of Moses the raven, they hope for an afterlife more pleasant than the present. Does religion help or hinder the individual animals? Does it help or hinder the success of Animal Farm at large?
- Focus on the condemnation of corrupt governments. In the final chapter, Napoleon celebrates with other humans. Mr. Pilkington, who represents Western governments, praises Animal Farm and observes that while the pigs have the lower animals to contend with, the humans have their lower classes. To what extent is Animal Farm a critique of all governments who abuse their power, rather than simply a criticism of communism?
- Focus on the narrator. Ask students to consider the reliability of the narrative voice in the text. What can they infer about the narrator? To what extent is the narrator reliable or biased? Discourage students from equating the narrative voice directly with George Orwell by comparing the narrative voice in the text with selections from his non-fiction essays.