Social Criticism in Literature
Many authors receive their inspiration for writing their
literature from outside sources. The idea for a story could come from
family, personal experiences, history, or even their own creativity.
For authors that choose to write a book based on historical events,
the inspiration might come from their particular viewpoint on the
event that they want to dramatize. George Orwell and Charles Dickens
wrote Animal Farm and A Tale of Two Cities, respectively, to express
their disillusionment with society and human nature. Animal Farm,
written in 1944, is a book that tells the animal fable of a farm in
which the farm animals revolt against their human masters. It is an
example of social criticism in literature in which Orwell satirized
the events in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. He
anthropomorphises the animals, and alludes each one to a counterpart
in Russian history. A Tale of Two Cities also typifies this kind of
literature. Besides the central theme of love, is another prevalent
theme, that of a revolution gone bad. He shows us that, unfortunately,
human nature causes us to be vengeful and, for some of us, overly
ambitious. Both these books are similar in that both describe how,
even with the best of intentions, our ambitions get the best of
us. Both authors also demonstrate that violence and the Machiavellian
attitude of "the ends justifying the means" are deplorable.
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm, ". . . to discredit the Soviet
system by showing its inhumanity and its back-sliding from ideals [he]
valued . . ."(Gardner, 106) Orwell noted that " there exists in
England almost no literature of disillusionment with the Soviet
Union.' Instead, that country is viewed either with ignorant
disapproval' or with uncritical admiration.'"(Gardner, 96) The
basic synopsis is this: Old Major, an old boar in Manor Farm, tells
the other animals of his dream of "animalism": " . . . Only get
rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own. Almost
overnight we would become rich and free.'" (Orwell, 10) The other
animals take this utopian idea to heart, and one day actually do
revolt and drive the humans out. Two pigs emerge as leaders: Napoleon
and Snowball. They constantly argued, but one day, due to a difference
over plans to build a windmill, Napoleon exiled Snowball. Almost
immediately, Napoleon established a totalitarian government. Soon, the
pigs began to get special favours, until finally, they were
indistinguishable from humans to the other animals. Immediately the
reader can begin to draw parallels between the book's characters and
the government in 1917-44 Russia. For example, Old Major, who invented
the idea of "animalism," is seen as representing Karl Marx, the
creator of communism. Snowball represents Trotsky, a Russian leader
after the revolution. He was driven out by Napoleon, who represents
Stalin, the most powerful figure in the country. Napoleon then
proceeded to remove the freedoms of the animals, and established a
dictatorship, under the public veil of "animalism." Pigs represent the
ruling class because of their stereotype: dirty animals with
insatiable appetites. Boxer, the overworked, incredibly strong, dumb
horse represents the common worker in Russia. The two surrounding
farms represent two of the countries on the global stage with Russia
at the time, Germany and England.
Orwell begins his book by criticizing the capitalists and ruling
elite, who are represented in Animal Farm by Mr. Jones, the farmer. He
is shown as a negligent drunk, who constantly starved his animals.
"His character is already established as self-indulgent and uncaring."
(King, 8) Orwell shows us how, "if only animals became aware of their
strength, we should have no power over them, and that men exploit
animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat."
(Gardner, 97) What was established in Russia after the Bolshevik
Revolution was not true communism ("animalism"), which Orwell approved
of, where the people owned all the factories and land. Rather, "state
communism" was established, where a central government owned them.
Orwell thought that such a political system, "state communism," was
open to exploitation by its leaders. Napoleon, after gaining complete
control, did anything he wished - reserved the best for the pigs, and
treated the animals cruelly. The animals could not do anything, unless
they again realized their strength in numbers against their own kind.
Unfortunately, they were too stupid to realize this and accepted the
"status quo." It began when the milk and apples were appropriated to
the pigs, and continued to when the pigs could drink and sleep on
beds, until finally the pigs were the "human masters" to the rest of
the animals. Orwell criticized Germany, representing it as Pinchfield
Farm, which betrayed Animal Farm by paying for lumber with counterfeit
money. In real life, this represents the Soviet-Germany non-aggression
pact during World War II which Germany eventually broke. Eventually,
towards the end of the story, the term, "absolute power corrupts
absolutely," is proven, as the pigs, who retained all the privileges
for themselves, have evolved into a different caste from the other
animals. Orwell's implication is that "real" communism cannot exist in
the countries which claim to be communist. The ruling class -
politicians - own everything and ironically are therefore in total
A Tale of Two Cities is a love story which chronicles the lives of
Charles Darnay, a Frenchman who renounced his link with the
aristocracy, and Sydney Carton, a wastrel who lived in England. Both
these characters fall in love with Lucie Manette, the daughter of Dr.
Alexandre Manette, unjustly imprisoned in France for 17 years. Though
Lucie marries Darnay, Carton still loves her and in the end, gives his
life to save Darnay for her. Dickens, who was fascinated with French
history, especially the French Revolution, begins by criticizing the
aristocrats' treatment of the poor people of France. In the seventh
chapter of book two, the Monsieur the Marquis had accidentally driven
his carriage over a young child, killing him. Instead of worrying
about the child's welfare, the Monsieur's reaction was to worry about
his horses: "One or the other of you is for ever in the way. How
do I know what injury you have done to my horses."(Dickens, 111) He
deemed their lives inferior and insignificant, as illustrated when he
threw a gold coin to the child's devastated father as compensation.
The Monsieur the Marquis revealed his true sentiments to his nephew:
"Repression is the only lasting philosophy. . . fear and slavery, my
friend, will keep the dogs obedient to the whip. . ."(Dickens, 123)
Dickens makes it abundantly obvious that the aristocrats are to meet
doom, with symbolic references to fate and death. For instance, as the
Monsieur the Marquis rides through the country, a glowing red
sunset appeared over him, signifying his bloody death. In the words of
the author, ". . . the sun and the Marquis going down together. .
."(Dickens, 114) Madame Defarge's knitting is also a symbol of
impending doom, as she records the names of all those who are to die
when the revolution takes place.
Dickens also expresses his disillusionment with some of the
outcomes of the French Revolution. He believed that the people did
not just liberate themselves, but also took vengeance towards the
aristocracy. This is confirmed in the conversation between the
revolutionaries: " Well, well, but one must stop somewhere. After all,
the question is still where?' At extermination,' said
madame."(Dickens, 341) Madame Defarge embodies this attitude, as she
wants to have Charles Darnay killed, not because he has done something
wrong, but because he is related to the Evr‚monde family, which killed
her relative. Though "Dickens seems almost to regard violence as the
one way to bring about social change,"(Lucas,288) he then began to
denounce the actions taken by some of the revolutionaries. The
citizens let their righteous cause turn into vengefulness. Even
servants and maids to the aristocrats were beheaded, although they had
not really done anything wrong.
Animal Farm and A Tale of Two Cities were written to express their
authors' disenchantment with the state of evolution of human nature.
They seem to be saying, that even when we begin with honourable
intentions, there will be some of us who will let their base instincts
take control. Orwell, in Animal Farm portrays this nature by parodying
events in real history. Given the right conditions, those events could
happen anywhere - a leader becoming overly ambitious, to the point of
harming his people for morepower. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens
examines the inner soul, and shares with us how people are driven to
the valley of human emotions, where desperation and anger reign, and
what could happen afterwards if we let these emotions build up inside.
Every human being is capable of becoming a ruthless, opportunistic
being like Napoleon or Madame Defarge, if placed in the right place,
at the right time.
King, Martin. Students' Guide to Animal Farm.
Scotland: Tynron Press, 1989.
Lucas, John. The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens' Novels.
London: N.P., N.D.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm.
London: Penguin Books, 1985.
Shelden, Michael. Orwell: The Authorised Biography.
London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1992.
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