George Orwell, author of 1984.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Allegories are similar to metaphors: in both the author uses one subject to represent another, seemingly unrelated, subject. However, unlike metaphors, which are generally short and contained within a few lines, an allegory extends its representation over the course of an entire story, novel, or poem. This lesson plan will introduce students to the concept of allegory by using George Orwell’s widely read novella, Animal Farm, which is available online through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
Allegory can be found both in literature and in the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture. Like metaphors, allegories utilize one subject as if it were analogous to another, seemingly unrelated, subject. Unlike metaphors, the representational image is more detailed and is sustained throughout the length of a story, novel, or poem. Allegories are generally understood as rhetorical, and, as a form of rhetoric, are generally designed to persuade their audience. More information about allegories and rhetoric is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
In this lesson students will focus on George Orwell’s Animal Farm as an example of this rhetorical device, as it is perhaps the most widely read allegory in the middle school and high school classrooms. Orwell’s 1945 novella is an allegorical indictment of tyranny which utilizes the historical events and players of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent rise of Stalin as a cautionary tale. This lesson can be taught in conjunction with a close reading of the text, or it can be used to introduce the concept of allegory. Other well known allegorical texts include Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Review and bookmark the web pages containing definitions for allegory and rhetoric, as well as the text of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all of which are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
In addition, students will be introduced to some of the main figures and events in the history of the Soviet Union. At the time when Animal Farm was published in the 1940s the rule of Stalin and events in Eastern Europe and in the Ukraine and Georgia would have been familiar to the average reader. This background knowledge will help to make the allegorical structure of Orwell’s novella clear to students. An overview of the history of the Soviet Union is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. This lesson plan can be adapted to expand on history and social studies lessons which focus on this time period.
George Orwell’s 1945 novella, Animal Farm, is the story of an animal revolution. The animal residents of Manor Farm, spurred on by the dream of the pig, Old Major, decide they will change their “miserable, laborious, and short” lives. They overthrow Mr. Jones, their master, and take over the management of the farm. Rather than living under the heel of their human master, the animals of Manor Farm decide that they will take control of the products of their labor, working for the good of the farm and other animals, rather than for the good of humans.
How is this story allegorical? You may provide your own definition of allegory, or you can ask your students to read the definition of allegory that is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. If an allegory is “a figurative representation conveying a meaning other than and in addition to the literal,” then what is the additional or alternative meaning contained in Orwell’s story of animal rebellion?
Many of the events at Manor Farm are closely linked to political events in Russia during the first half of the twentieth century. The rebellion by the working animals of the farm against the oppressive human farmer who lives off the fruits of their labor is directly analogous to the Russian Revolution of 1917 in which workers and peasants revolted against a feudal system in which feudal lords lived luxuriously from the toil of the peasants who farmed on their lands. If your students are not already familiar with some of the main events of Russian history from the turn of the twentieth century to the end of World War II, you may wish to have them read an overview of the history of the Soviet Union available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
Ask students to answer the following questions about the events that take place on the Manor Farm, and how they are an allegorical retelling of the events from the Russian Revolution to the end of World War II in Russia. These questions are available in a PDF worksheet.
Many of the characters in Animal Farm are clearly meant to represent historical figures. The human inspiration for Orwell’s fictional characters can often be found in the characters’ parallel actions, and sometimes even in their names. As an important structural component of the novella as an allegorical tale, each of the characters in the story is representative of players in the historical narrative the story represents.
After discussing with the class the trajectory of the Russian revolution and subsequent Communist Party fracturing, ask students to work in pairs to fill in the following PDF chart on the characters of Animal Farm. This chart can also be completed as an online activity. If students are less familiar with the historical context, or if this lesson is not being taught in conjunction with a close reading of the Orwell text, you may prefer to work on completing this chart together as a class. A teacher rubric for this chart is available in .pdf format.
Once students have filled out their charts ask them to think about the names of each of the characters. What importance and symbolism is contained in Orwell’s choice of names? Draw their attention to Napoleon and Boxer in particular.
Finally, ask students to answer the following questions:
Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, are often cited as works that are designed to show the weaknesses of Communism. These works took aim at the Soviet Union, however Orwell’s larger target was tyranny, in whatever form it appeared. He was as much concerned with the repression of rights and the injustice of the economic system in his own England as he was about Stalinist Russia.
As an allegorical tale about the dangers of tyranny, Orwell’s Animal Farm uses the story of Napoleon, Snowball, and Boxer as a form of rhetoric. Rhetoric can be understood as the use of language to persuade an audience of a belief or point of view. In the case of Animal Farm, Orwell is using the story of Manor Farm’s animal rebellion to caution people against the encroachment of tyranny. More information on rhetoric can be found through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
Ask students to contemplate the use of rhetoric in Animal Farm. Have them answer the following questions, either as part of a class discussion, or by completing this PDF worksheet.
Ask students to gather together their answers to the questions posed throughout this lesson, which they should then use as the basis for writing a short essay answer the following questions:
Martin Niemoller was a church pastor in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. He shifted from an early support of Hitler to being very outspoken against the Nazi agenda and practices. He was arrested and held in concentration camps throughout World War II, and barely escaped execution. He is now perhaps best known for his cautionary poem:
In Germany they came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Ask students to compare Niemoller’s cautionary poem with Orwell’s allegorical story of the Manor Farm. How are their messages similar or different? How is the method of delivering those message similar or different?
2 class periods