Before I start into Animal Farm I just want to mention that I bought Dawn of War 2 this week, for any of you who enjoy computer games, and it is great. Something that I have been missing in strategy games is actual strategy. Dawn of War 2‘s campaign is a real-time strategy (rts) that avoids the builder approach common to such games. Instead you are given a unit of soldiers (or several units) and a set of objectives to complete. Strategy and tactics then become very necessary for success in the game, things like cover, suppressing fire, and unit cohesion, generally ignored in most rts games, become necessary for success in the game. Ok, that’s my short plug for Dawn of War 2, on to Animal Farm.
In my opinion Animal Farm* is the best of the firmly dystopian novels, it combines the common dystopian theme about the danger of the quest for utopia with a strong message about the unavoidable corruption of human nature. In this case it is the corruption of human nature which causes the quest for utopia to become so dangerous. In fact the very danger in the quest is that in attempting to attain, or create, utopia the wickedness of human nature will inevitably turn that utopia into a pit of shallowness and sin. The subtlety with which George Orwell bring us to his point is masterful and an excellent example of one of the best ways to insert social commentary into fiction.
In short summary the novel revolves around a smallish farm where the animals plot a revolution against their human masters. As this revolution goes forward the leaders of the revolution, the pigs, slowly become more and more corrupt. One of the clearest moments of this escalation is late in the novel when the seventh, and most important, maxim of the animals “All animals are created equal” is ammended to say “All animals are created equal but some are more equal than others”. Other maxims are ammended as well as the pigs take on more and more of the trappings of humanity until finally, at the end of the book, they become human themselves.
Animal farm is an excellent example of how to actually DO social commentary in fiction. The slow progression of the rebellion coincides with the subtle corruption of the pigs, which is predominantly shown in their increasing desire for human luxuries and vices. The nature of the pigs corruption is shown most clearly in their greed. Orwell portrays the insidious nature of avarice extremely well in this novel and shows how easily in can overwhelm the mind. More over he exposes how natural it is for a man to fall into its trap.
In general there are two ways to insert social commentary into fiction, the blunt approach and the subtle approach. Starship Troopers, which I spoke of in an earlier post, takes the blunt approach, while the story in interesting the characters serve primarily as either spokesmen for Heinlein’s political leanings or talking points to highlight a specific problem which he sees. The blunt approach to social commentary can be very effective, however it sacrifices the integrity of the story in order to preserve the commentary therein.
Animal Farm, while clearly commenting on certain, specific dangers which Orwell saw in his world** does not insert its commentary into the story through dialog by certain key individuals (see Rico, Dubios, and Zim in Starship Troopers) but is instead exemplified through the growth of the characters themselves. Much as I love Starship Troopers I cannot argue that Animal Farm does a better job of inserting its social commentary into the story itself. The only danger in this, more subtle, approach is that some of your audience will likely fail to understand the societal points which you are trying to make. For instance the days of the USSR are long over and many modern readers could not rightly be faulted for failing to see the comparisons in Animal Farm which would have been more obvious at the time of its writing. However the book will stand consistently as a warning of the inherent evils of man and the dangers they bring to any attempt to create utopia.
Orwell’s subtle presentation of corruption in Animal Farm can serve as a model for anyone attempting to write social commentary, as well as a legitimate warning to anyone in a position of authority. The difficult nature of this type of work is well captured in Animal Farm and so, while not being perfect, it stands as a shining example of social commentary in fiction.
Homeschool Ideas: Add a reading of Animal Farm into your history class during the period of World War II and the Cold War. Ask your children to see if they can find the similarities between the animal revolutionaries in the novel and the rise of Soviet Russia.
*While one of the major themes of Animal Farm is the moral danger involved in fomenting revolution this is not a point which I wish to address in my limited space. While I do not intend to deny its importance I have little to say on the subject and intend to focus on those issues presented in Animal Farm upon which I feel qualified to comment.
**Most predominantly the book was focused on Russia at the time of its writing and some commentators have pointed out how closely Napoleon and Snowball correspond with Stalin and Lenin.