How is the theme of Oppression represented across the three texts studied?
Oppression is a theme at the centre of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and Percy Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. The unjust and cruel treatment of unsuspecting masses by figures of authority is clearly identified as a problem in society for both authors. The theme of oppression presents itself through character representations, emotive language and the concept of inertia. Within Jean Genet’s ‘The Balcony’ these issues are also apparent helping to reveal the need for reform and revolution. Throughout all three texts, the theme of oppression is expressed through the break down in law and order, causing devastation and the subsequent oppression of the proletarian masses.
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The Russian Revolution parallels Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ through many aspects. The fable, written in 1945, is seen to be based on his opinion of events during the revolution such as the removal of the Tsar, the Russian dictatorship and the economic and social hardship that the proletarians had to endure. It’s important to understand Orwell’s contextual influences as this forms the basis of his novel. Chapter one commences with Mr Jones who “was too drunk to shut the pop-holes” to the hen-houses. This initial introduction to his character reveals his apathy towards his farm. By using “drunk” it infers that Mr Jones can’t live up to his responsibilities and consequently is drowning his sorrows by intoxicating himself in order to forget about his situation. Contextually, this drunkenness can be seen as Orwell’s parallel with the Tsar and his treatment of the Russian proletarians. Before his removal from power in 1917 the Tsar was unable to successfully rule and consequently this affected the citizens as they didn’t receive the basic resources that any person needs to survive. Undoubtedly, Orwell wanted to show this disregard for responsibility through Mr Jones as he was the owner of the farm and held the same responsibilities for his animals as the Tsar did for his people. One of the main grievances of society in Russia was his approach to the farming economy. He failed to upgrade the out of date farming system which allowed the peasants to be controlled by the rich land owners. Freedom of speech within Russia was highly restricted and during 1916 a raise in taxes caused the people to become desolate and poor. This mirrors the situation of the animals on the farm as without food the animals would struggle to survive demonstrating Orwell’s disgust at how the Tsar oppressed his people.
Similar to Orwell’s animosity at the events that occurred in Russia, Percy Shelley mirrors the outrage of the English people in response to the Peterloo Massacre during 1819. Many innocent victims were murdered for protesting for a reform of parliamentary representations and Shelley demonstrates this injustice in his poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. The first stanza opens with “As I lay asleep in Italy there came a voice from over sea” informing him about the massacre. With the events taking place in Manchester and the Narrator speaking from Italy, it reveals how enraged Shelley felt about the event. It is significant that the “voice” reached him in Italy as it confirms the extent of public outcry with the news of a massacre reaching across the world. The injustice of these people remains the featured tone throughout the poem and their oppression becomes the main focus for a reader.
Old major is used by Orwell to demonstrate the need for change and revolution due to oppression. Contextually this character can be seen as a parallel to the Communist Marxist, Karl Marx. Communism is the ideology that everyone should work for the good of the country and in turn profit equally from their hard labour. In retaliation to Mr Jones’ mistreatment of his animals Old Major decides to promote a revolution and overthrow their oppressor. He tells the animals that their “lives are miserable, laborious and short’. The rule of three is deliberately used by Orwell in order to convey the extent of their oppression. These emotive words are not what we would usually associate with life. “Miserable” suggesting that the animals are fed up and tired of life under Mr Jones because when someone’s miserable they have become tiresome of demoralising events or actions. “Laborious” infers that the work they do for the farm is not enjoyable anymore and they aren’t reaping the rewards of their hard work. Their lives are then deemed to be “short” which implies that they are over worked and will not live to their full life expectancy due to the terrible conditions they are forced to endure. Evidently, Old Major is an advocate for change and he symbolises a better life for the oppressed masses.
John Molyneux suggests that Orwell offers “a sympathetic investigation into the lives of the poor and the poorest” within Russia. On the face of it, it appears that Orwell was sympathetic but was it merely because he feared for the destruction of Socialism and the rise in a Totalitarian society or that he genuinely ‘sympathised’ with the oppressed Russians? Orwell does allow us to be sympathetic towards the animals on the farm through showing their desolate conditions. He determines that as readers we are aware that they are “unfed”, contextually referring to the famine in Russia, again this adds to the sympathy that is created as the reality of the situation becomes real for a reader. However, the politically motivated background of ‘Animal Farm’ leaves John Molyneux’s interpretation to question. The use of character representations, paralleling the figures of authority in Russia, infers that Orwell was more concerned about creating a cynical view of the rulers in Russia rather than a one sided “sympathetic investigation” into the poor Russians lives. Nevertheless the oppression of the proletarians is never questionable. The hardship identified by Orwell and his critics verifies his intention in demonstrating oppression at the centre of a Totalitarian society.
Similar to the sympathy evoked by Orwell this technique is used in ‘The Balcony’ by Jean Genet to create oppression for the prostitutes. The play was set in France in an unmade city during the 1950’s exploring the life of prostitutes in a brothel where men could explore their sexual fantasies and vent their frustration at the development of the revolution. Emotive language is used by Genet in order to portray the oppression they encounter from authoritative figures. In Scene One, the Bishop uses derogatory language in association with Irma’s position as a prostitute. He declares that she is a “slut”, a “bitch”, a “trollop” and a “tramp” all of which categorise Irma as a typical prostitute. By making Irma aware of her status as a prostitute it degrades her and makes her feel worthless. “This desire for status lies at the plays core” suggests Madeleine M.Schwartz. This statement is conceivable as the desire for status causes the clients of the brothel to pretend to be figures of authority. The need for power and feelings of worthlessness were common in brothels in the 1950’s as prostitutes were mainly lower class women similar to Irma who felt dejected by their positions and wanted it to change. As a result, characters such as the Bishop could manipulate these insecurities and oppress people who they believe are lesser than they are as it increases their importance and status. The idea presented by Schwartz is relatable to Animal Farm; characters such as the Bishop and Old Major are aware of their authority over the masses and use this to their advantage.
The difference between these two texts is that in ‘The Balcony’ the brothel presents an illusion of power and authority whereas in Animal Farm these themes are reality for the animals. The prostitutes even though this is their job, have a choice whether they stay in the situation of being degraded by their clients in their house of illusions. However, there is no escaping the oppression for the animals. Carmen, a prostitute in The Balcony, declares that “this world of illusions oppresses me”, the concept of an ‘illusion’ suggesting that she is engrossed in a world where deception is the cause of her oppression but she has the choice to leave. In contrast to this the animals of the farm aren’t under an illusion of power. Even Old Major is oppressed, by referring to him as “old” infers that he is slow and weak showing that he is susceptible to the cruelties around him. Even though he is seen as higher to the animals he inevitably would suffer from the corruption under Mr Jones. Contextually Orwell could be taking a direct attack at Communism by accusing the system of being “old” and outdated suggesting that Communism oppresses all of its followers.
The character of ‘Anarchy’ represents Shelley’s interpretation of the corruption and failings of the government under George III. The definition of Anarchy is ‘a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems’ this is an indication to the corruption of the government during the 1800’s and it indicates the harsh and oppressive qualities of the character ‘Anarchy’. Similarly to Shelley, Orwell uses characteristics in order to emphasise their intent at oppressing their victims. Squealer at one point in the novel “looked very sly”, he is Orwell’s symbolism of the Propaganda used in Russia during the dictatorship, by giving him a “sly” personality it infers that he cannot be trusted and will manipulate the other animals in order to obtain control. This reveals Orwell’s opinions on Russian Propaganda as he believed that it was used to control the population by false or exaggerative information. Similarly to Orwell, Shelley implies that as a result of parliamentary corruption society became manipulated through the confusion brought about by the ‘Anarchy’ that swept through the country. Both authors use analogies and characteristics as a way of communicating the experiences of the oppressed masses in different socities.
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The use of contextual experiences by George Orwell is also a literary device used by Percy Shelley within ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. He uses the experiences of the people in England during the early 19th century to demonstrate their oppression and his anger towards the massacre. Similar to the animals on the farm the people of England are being oppressed by figures of authority and are being denied their freedom of speech. Within the poem Shelley uses the mystical characterisation of an Image which arose like “a light”. By using “light” to symbolise the Image, Shelley could be inferring that the idea of a peaceful rebellion is the way forward for England and the end of oppression. Light throughout history has always been of comfort to people as it allows them to see what is going on around them. In order to make them realise their oppression Shelley’s use of the personified ‘Image’ as a way of helping the proletarians rise against their oppressors and take part in a peaceful rebellion. She states that “slavery” has “grown to an echo” of their own names; therefore, by comparing Englishmen to slaves it suggests that they don’t have any basic human rights. A slave holds no power, political influence or any control over their own lives. This symbolism reveals the extent of their oppression as a typical English citizen in the 19th century should have freedom of speech. Therefore Shelley is implying that by taking away a person’s freedom of expression and right to protest they might as well be slaves. However, the use of “grown” to demonstrate how they became symbolic of a slave creates the impression that they hadn’t always been this way and the ‘Image’ is there to help guide them in the right direction. The gradual exploitation by authoritative figures led to the decline in their own collective power as a society. The ‘Image’ however opens up opportunity for the people of England to realise their oppression and do something about it instead of standing by whilst they are oppressed. Accordingly this leads to the concept of Inertia and implies that the people of England are in this situation due to the oppression inflicted upon them by the rich. This theme materialises due to the oppression that the masses endure which creates another dimension to the problems throughout society.
The basis of inertia relates to ‘a tendency to nothing or to remain unchanged’ linking directly to the consequences of being oppressed which is relatable across the three texts. By ignoring their situations the victims allow oppressive authority figures to control their lives. A lack of enthusiasm and self-worth remains at the core of why they refuse to acknowledge the need to rebel and rise up against the people who oppress them. In ‘Animal Farm’ Orwell uses Boxer as a symbol for the proletariat in Russia. He can be seen as an exploited hard worker on the farm who continuously declares that “Napoleon is always right”. Orwell uses this symbolism to reveal the unintelligence of the workers and their incapacity to have their own views leading uncontrollably to their oppression. Shelley within ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ supports this and uses the symbolism of the ‘Image’ and its encouragement to try motivating the proletarians by declaring that “to hold no strong control over your own wills” is to be free from oppression. It’s evident that Shelley and Orwell recognise this inability to have freedom of speech without the need to stay within the constraints of their society. By not being able to have their own opinion the oppressed masses become anxious of rebelling and speaking out. When they are finally given a platform to improve their lives they feel unable to change it for themselves. This can be seen in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ when the masses are told to “Rise like lions after slumber” in an effort to motivate them. By using the imagery of a sleepy lion awaking from slumber Shelley creates the impression that the Englishmen are slow to react to changes around them perhaps as a result of a build-up from fear of repercussions. Again, Orwell presents this installation of fear by authoritative figures through the imagery of the dogs. The animals on the farm were “silent and terrified” after the dogs chased Snowball away. The brutality of these dogs is used to control the animals in every aspect of their lives. The dogs can be seen as Orwell’s symbolism of Stalin’s secret police, who like the dogs, installed fear into the proletariats making it difficult for them to speak out against their corrupted leader. Both Shelley and Orwell recognise this as a social defect that needed to be reformed either by motivation from other sources or by education.
Evidently, a lack of education becomes a tool of oppression in each of the texts. The pigs within ‘Animal Farm’, the personified politicians in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and the clients within ‘The Balcony’ all use their victim’s lack of education to their own advantages in order to establish their authority and create a divide between the rich and the poor. In ‘Animal Farm’ the gradual changes in the seven commandments demonstrate the pig’s ability to manipulate the other animals. Napoleon takes advantage of the animal’s illiteracy and adds small changes to the commandments in order to accommodate his hypocritical flaws. “No animal shall drink alcohol” was a rule created during the earlier part of Napoleons rule but had subsequently changed to “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess”. The animals noticed the change but instead of questioning it they simply declared that they had “remembered wrong”. Within ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ Shelley reinforces the need for education by using the symbolism of the Image that appeared to define freedom. She states that “Science, Poetry and Thought are thy lamps”. By referring to education as a “lamp” Shelley is inferring that education allows you to become aware of your surroundings, when you switch on a light things become clearer. Unlike the animals of the farm, the English people are given the tools they need to rebel and become aware of their situation. This is realised by Irma in ‘The Balcony’ as she reveals “modestly” that she has an education. This modesty displays a sense of pride that she, despite her occupation as a prostitute, has the ability to understand the situation of the revolution around her. Undoubtedly, education provides the masses with the ability to better them-selves and as a result it’s clear why oppressors want to prohibit this and remain in control.
Again, character representation is critical as it links directly to the contextual influences of each text. Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer the pigs within ‘Animal Farm’ can be seen as a representation of Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and the personification of Propaganda. Napoleon and Snowball were the leaders of the Communist Revolution in Russia. Castlereagh, Eldon and Anarchy within ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ represent the corrupted politicians in England at the time of the Massacre and the clients within ‘The Balcony’ take on the roles of figures of authority such as the General, the Judge and the Bishop in order to show their desire in having power giving them the chance to be the oppressors instead of being oppressed. Each of these characters tries to prevent the proletarian masses from receiving too much power as it would threaten their positions. As a result, characters such as Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer took precautions. After the removal of Mr Jones they apparently disposed of everything seen as “the mark of human beings” onto the rubbish heap. However, we later learn that the pigs “had taught themselves to read and write from an old spelling book” which belonged to Mr Jones. This gives the pigs an advantage over the other animals who couldn’t read as they would be able to manipulate and oppress them as a result of their difference in intelligence. Again in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ Shelley, within stanza 19, Shelley states that Anarchy “bowed and grinned to everyone, As well as if his education had cost him ten millions to the nation”. This infers that due to Anarchy’s apparent high level of education the action of him ‘bowing’ becomes significant. He cleverly allows the Englishmen to think that they are in control as by ‘bowing’ to them it indicates some level of respect and unity. As a reader we know that this is not the case as he “grinned” indicating that he only “bowed” in order to gain the trust of the people. Without realising it, the animals and the English proletarians have allowed themselves to be oppressed. They have wrongly given trust to manipulative figures who intend to use it for their own selfish gain and have ironically heightened their oppression.
Oppression is a theme identified by Orwell, Shelley and Genet as a fundamental issue within society and it is successfully presented through their text using effective literary devices. The use of contextual experiences from their time demonstrates their frustration at the inert attitudes of the masses. The inability to fight against their oppressors and the immense authority they gain from this is recognisable in each text as a method of control. It is clear that the need to reform and revolutionise society is ironically prevented by the proletarian’s lack of education and this situation all the more enhances their inescapable oppression.
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