For our last literary analysis of the year we tackled George Orwell’s Animal Farm (see the earlier ones here, here, and here). This turned out to be a particularly good choice since we had studied both the American and French Revolutions in our homeschool this year.
My oldest picked up early on in our reading of the book that this was a thinly veiled commentary on a real revolution. Unfortunately, the one he picked was the French Revolution. We have not studied the Russian Revolution yet so that was not on his radar. And I do think the kids couldn’t see much past the name Napoleon (the main pig character for most of the story).
This did, however, give us a good place to start our discussion. I opened it up by telling them that Orwell had intended to comment on the Russian Revolution and posed the question of how the book might apply to all, or at least many, revolutions. To start with this was meant as a rhetorical question; we would return to it at the end of our discussion.
Form there we moved to the notes I had made from our guide book, Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.
I gave background information on the Russian Revolution (see notes below for details). We talked about which characters corresponded to which historical figures or groups. We also talked about what people in a monarchy (like under the tsars in Russia) can do if they don’t like how they are being ruled (answer: not much). We talked about why the author used animals as the main characters and why he used different species. We also reviewed what an allegory is and talked about how this book fit that definition. Compared to our previous literary attempts, the most surprising thing this time was that we followed my notes almost exactly and that the kids gave the expected answers (based on Deconstructing).
We then moved on to ask who the protagonist was. My youngest made a play for Snowball, at least at the beginning, but they all pretty quickly agreed on Napoleon. His being a bad guy was no obstacle in their minds. They also agreed pretty readily that the action he was advancing was his own aggrandisement (okay, no one used the word “aggrandisement”), contrary to the action he said he was pushing forward (equality for animals). Identifying the antagonist was a problem, however. The fact tat we couldn’t identify one character who successfully opposed Napoleon led us to some important conclusions. Like that nobody stood up to him. My youngest again was pretty quick to see that Boxer could have because he had the strength to do so. They even realized on their own that he was not afraid of the dogs (aka the secret police), just as Deconstructing had said. With just a little prompting, they also saw that Benjamin had the brains to know what was going on but that he just didn’t care enough to interfere, but that if he had and had gotten Boxer on his side they could have done something.
Lastly we asked what the author was trying to communicate. The consensus was “you shouldn’t trust your government.” I thought this was a slightly interesting twist on things. I expected more along the lines of “if you see something, say something.” But I guess I am raising a crop of little radicals ;).
Finally, to wrap things up, I returned to the revolutions we have studied. We talked about the French and Russian Revolutions and how they did have a lot in common – noble ideals, followed by lots of bloodshed and one guy who is supposed to rule alongside others but ends up seizing power all for himself. Then I asked why the American Revolution turned out differently. The two conclusions we arrived at were that our distance from the motherland and the (former) king helped and that George Washington’s character was pivotal. Seriously, the more I study, the more I am impressed with this guy. He could so easily have made himself a dictator; many expected him to and assumed he would, but he did not.
Here then are the questions and notes I had to go on in leading the discussion:
- This story is about Russia in 1917 when the country was ruled by a tsar. What is a tsar? (ans: a king).
- Is a king elected? (no)
- Can a king’s subjects tell him what to do or ask for a new king? (no)
- The tsar in 1917 was rich but didn’t do any work. Who is that like? (Farmer Jones; there are a lot of clear-cut answers in this book; that, I suppose, is the nature of allegory)
- What if the tsar was mistreating people? How could they make him stop?
- A group called the Bolsheviks rallied the poor, kicked out the tsar and declared Russia free and all Russians equal. Read p. 77 of Deconstructing to them re the events that followed.
- Why did Orwell use all different animals and not just pigs? (to represent different groups in society)
- Who did Moses the Raven represent? What is Sugar Candy mountain? (the church, heaven)
- Who did Boxer represent? (workers) Benjamin? (intellectuals)
- Define intellectuals – see Deconstructing p.78. The key point here is that they were theoretical thinkers and didn’t contribute much practically.
- This is an allegory. What is that? Where have we seen that before? (Perhaps you have read Pilgrim’s Progress or others you can refer to.)
- Why does the author use animals instead of people?
- Who is the protagonist? What action is he trying to move forward?
- Who is the antagonist?
- Does good triumph in this book?
- What is the moral?
- Why couldn’t the other animals stop Napoleon?
- Why did the author write this book?
- Is there anybody who knew what was going on? (Benjamin) What could/should he have done?
And that’s Animal Farm. I hope to do more books next school year and to incorporate other ideas as well, like those I am getting from How to Read Literature like a Professor.