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Social criticism in literature

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.

Source: Essay UK -

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