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Orwells Animal Farm Genre Untangled English Literature Essay

1751 words (7 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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Out of George Orwell’s repertoire many of his works can be described as somewhat ambiguous in terms of genre. For instance, Down and Out in Paris and London is a recount of his personal experiences flavoured with fictional elements, a semi-autobiography, but it is written in the objective voice of a report, article or documentary with additional sociographic speculations. Many of his essays linger on the boundaries of the short story, as well. Animal Farm is no exception of this Orwellian tendency to fuse different genres. It is often labelled as a dystopian allegorical novella or satire, but has been called a fable in the Aesopian tradition as well. In the present paper I will analyse Orwell’s work from the viewpoint of all these genres separately – keeping in mind of course, that the genres themselves overlap each other in some characteristics – and examine how Animal Farm functions as a dystopia, a satire and a fable.

While Animal Farm fits some of these characteristics it also lacks in others. It certainly portrays oppression in the form of a totalitarian centralized power, however, in contrast with some well known works strongly associated with the genre – including Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as well – it describes the process of how the utopian dream develops into the dystopian nightmare. Considering displacement it is not really in line with the dystopian trait either. It is for certain that the story takes place somewhere in the English countryside, we are even given the name of Willingdon and The Red Lion, an existing village and pub in East Sussex. Otherwise there is no special importance in the geographical location of the Farm, suggesting that it is not important where it takes place, and consequently, that it could happen anywhere. As for temporal coordinates they are even less specified or notable; the story is not tied to, and thus not ‘untied’ from any particular date or era. The story could have taken place yesterday just as well as a hundred years ago or in the distant future; it is not dissociated or displaced from either Orwell’s or today’s reader’s time. (Of course depending on the interpretation of the story, it does allude to the Stalinist regime and the Russian revolution but only externally as its mere allegory not internally to the novella’s fictional universe.) However, it could be argued that there is some kind of ‘displacement’, not in spatial or temporal terms but in the very nature of the story as a fantastic beast fable or ‘fairy story’ as Orwell called it. Its characters of talking animals who read and write and manage a farm on their own is surely not a picture of our everyday life. The feature Animal Farm most clearly adopts from the dystopian genre is the intention of warning. It warns of the danger of communist dictatorship and raises the attention as well of the existing conditions present at the time in the Soviet Union; or in a more general interpretation “the corrupting effect of power when exercised by anybody” [1] .

However, the element of warning or at least criticism of human vices or follies with the intention of improvement [2] is also representative of the satire. Although it is usually meant to be funny, its purpose is not just humor for its own sake but an attack on something the satirist strongly disapproves of and to persuade the reader (or viewer – depending on the medium) to strive for a solution to the problem presented, using the weapon of wit, irony, and caricature. [3] 

In Animal Farm the satirical irony emerges from Orwell’s style of narration and his use of the animal allegory. The narrative style he employs is characterized by simple language and light, objective even impersonal voice with the limited point of view of the enslaved animals. The plain language on the one hand is to reflect the naïve perception of the animals [4] , on the other this terse phrasing is “set in ironic juxtaposition…[to] the crassly elitist, manipulative, unintelligible, and circumlocutory discourse of the pigs, through which the fictitious passes off as factitious.” [5] Samir Elbarbary in his essay “Language as Theme in Animal Farm” even argues that the conscious “derangement” of language, and linguistic superiority which sustain the assumption of power, is one of the novella’s fundamental thematic concerns. Language and how language can influence or even determine the way people think is often a recurring theme in Orwell’s works, for example the idea of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and he even addresses the problem directly in essays, such as “Politics And The English Language”, in which he attests for simple uncomplicated language in scholarly and especially in political contexts. According to Elbarbary, in Animal Farm the revolution is, in a sense “a language-focused enterprise, a product of specifically aggressive linguistic energy, and language” [6] , which can efficiently control reality, is the source of the tragic outcome rather than its mere reflection. Those animals who have an underdeveloped language, are compleatly overpowered by the linguistic skill of the pigs; “their ensnarement is less a matter substance than of generic linguistic impotence and deficient semantic memory.” [7] 

Even thought the point of view of the narrator is limited (or at least it is more distant from the feelings or thoughts of the pigs than that of the other animals), the narration still implies more to the reader than the animals themselves are aware of. We understand the difference between the truth of a situation and what the characters know about it, while the characters remain ignorant of the discrepancy, which creates dramatic irony. For example when Squealer explains that the van in which Boxer was taken to the hospital formerly belonged to a horse slaughterer and that the veterinarian who now uses it did not have the time to paint over the horse slaughterer’s sign on its side, the narrator says: “The animals were enormously relieved to hear this.” [8] The reader however, can assume the truth right when the van appeared to carry the horse away.

Another level of satire is in the characterization. Orwell attributes easily recognisable human traits to animals, which remain absolute, that is they are character types rather than fully developed characters, without the ability to grow or change, “the animals shall stay both animal and human. It removes the possibility of very complex characterization.” [9] In the light of the parallel that can be drawn between the story and the Russian revolution, some characters are clear caricatures of exact historical figures (like Napoleon-Stalin, Snowball-Lenin) others of specific social groups or classes or even tools used to uphold dictatorship (e.g. Boxer-working class, Squealer-propaganda), creating a grotesque mirror image not just of the events but the figures involved in it, enhancing the validity of the satirical parallel.

The third genre considered here is the already mentioned beast fable. It is usually a brief tale that conveys a moral lesson, usually by giving human speech and manners to animals. It is a very old form of story related to folklore and proverbs, the fables in Europe descends from tales attributed to Aesop, a Greek slave in the 6th century BCE. The French fabulist La Fontaine revived the form in the 17th century with his witty verse adaptations of Greek fables. [10] The form can be associated with the satire as well as the beast fable is also used as a culturally universal satirical technique. It is basically the dramatic realization of a metaphor and satirists have always found this translation of metaphor to dramatic fact an extremely effective way of portraying the true nature of vice and folly.

As far as characters, style and language (its simplicity thus serving double causes) Animal Farm fits the criteria of the genre. According to Christopher Hollis the writer of the beast fable must throughout be successful in preserving a delicate and whimsical balance due to the overall absurdity of animals behaving and talking like humans and discussing complicated intellectual problems. He argues that Orwell is able to maintain this balance by avoiding any unnecessary explanation of the fantastic elements of the story in an otherwise realistic setting. [11] 

However if we take into account its length it is considerably longer than the traditional fable. In addition, some point out that its moral lesson is questionable or nonexistent as “it is impossible to attach a moral to any familiar sense to Animal Farm, where wickedness ends in triumph and virtue is utterly crushed.” [12] I do agree that there is no lesson to be learned in the fashion of for example The Tortoise and the Hare, however I believe that there are moral undertones embedded in the overall “message” of the novella, like power corrupts; it is a moral lesson without answers, or a moral tragedy of humankind.

In conclusion, Orwell’s Animal Farm seems to function best as a satire but he consciously incorporated techniques and elements of other literary forms, most elaborately of the beast fable, to use it as his satirical vehicle. As for the dystopia genre it seems to be a little farfetched to attach the term to Orwell’s novella, it is more like a “loud hee-haw at all who yearn for Utopia.” [13] 

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