Sunday, 12 September 2010

Animal Farm and Flowers for Algernon, by Baiden McCallum

Animal Farm and Flowers for Algernon
by Baiden McCallum 01POM

[written as a Grade 9 assignment for North Toronto Collegiate Institute in Spring 2010]


Our oral presentation is supposed to be around five minutes in length. The research I did for the presentation turned out to be much too much for five minutes (for better or worse, the research follows). In preparing the presentation I wanted to set out my ideas as fully as I could (I suppose to see where they led) and that meant taking a different approach from preparing just a five-minute presentation. I prepared the five-minute presentation but I also prepared this, which is what I based my five minutes on.

Animal Farm and Flowers for Algernon

This paper discusses two novels – George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon – in order to determine which book would make the better subject for study in Grade 9.

Similarities of Both Books

In some respects the books are similar, or at least have parallels. Neither is what would be called a realistic novel. Animal Farm is subtitled “A Fairy Story”. It has been called an allegory and a satire (more of which later). Flowers for Algernon is science fiction, which is sometimes referred to as speculative fiction.

Both books have been highly praised. Animal Farm makes most lists of the 20th century’s best novels. Flowers for Algernon has won several awards, both the novel and the short story from which the novel grew; the novel was filmed as Charly in 1968 starring Cliff Robertson, and has also been turned into a stage play (Flowers for Algernon by David Rogers), a stage musical (Charlie and Algernon by David Rogers and Charles Strouse), and a radio play (Flowers for Algernon, for BBC Radio 4).

Last and probably least, both novels feature animals: Animal Farm uses farm animals – pigs, horses, chickens, sheep – to carry the story; Algernon is a mouse, who is an important character in the novel.

Animal Farm – George Orwell (1903 – 1950)

Animal Farm, published in 1945, is an allegory. An allegory is defined as “when the events of a narrative obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena”. The events outside Animal Farm that the events inside Animal Farm refer to, obviously and continuously, are those concerning the October 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

In February 1917 the Russian Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne in favour of a provisional government, which in October 1917 was overthrown by the Bolshevik, or communist, government, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 – 1924), and aided by Joseph Stalin (1878 – 1953), who became leader of the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death. With the October Revolution the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (“SFSR”) was born, to be replaced in 1922 by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a socialist and workers’ state, referred to as the “Soviet Union” or the “USSR”. The Soviet Union was a Commonwealth of 15 autonomous republics, with the Russian SFSR as the largest and most dominant.

Like Animal Farm, there was a time when the Soviet Union “had been regarded, he [Mr. Pilkington of Foxwood] would not say with hostility, but perhaps with certain measure of misgiving” (p.125), he states with disingenuous tact to Napoleon. Both Animal Farm and the Soviet Union were in fact regarded by their neighbours with hostility – regards the Soviet Union with justifiable hostility in light of the Soviet’s aggressive expansionist policies and Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s, the latter depicted with vivid economy in Animal Farm (p.83):

They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown there since the expulsion of Jones [the farmer].

The allegory, the parallels to Soviet history, is clear in the broad outlines and in the particulars. In broad outline the animals, led by Napoleon and Snowball, revolt and drive Mr. Jones from his farm, take possession, and rename Manor Farm “Animal Farm”, creating a workers’ collective.

In the particulars the old Major, “the prize Middle White boar”, provides at the start of the novel the philosophical underpinnings for the farmyard Rebellion that follows; he talks of alienated labour taking control of the means of production – basic Karl Marx (1818 – 1883). States old Major (pp. 18, 20):

Our lives are miserable, laborious, and short [...] Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. [...] Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own.

Like Karl Marx, old Major did not live to see the Rebellion his teachings helped inspire. The Rebellion was effected by others – in this case, the smart pigs Napoleon and Snowball. Snowball appears to share characteristics with both Lenin and Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940). Like Lenin, Snowball is a spellbinding orator; just as Trotsky was opposed to the policies of Stalin, so Snowball was antagonistic to Napoleon, who (like Stalin to Trotsky) exiled Snowball from the Rebellion he was instrumental in creating. Napoleon is a depiction of Stalin.

The Battle of the Cowshed, in which the animals repelled an attack by Mr. Jones, occurred in October, reflecting the date of the Russian October Revolution.

Napoleon repeats in miniature Stalin’s Great Purge (or Great Terror) of the 1930s, in which it is estimated that under Stalin’s rule 950,000 to 1.2 million people were killed between 1937 and 1938. In fact the book is not so much a condemnation of communism or the Soviet Union as of Stalinism. According to Wikipedia, “Orwell described Animal Farm as his novel ‘contre Stalin’”.

By the end of the novel the animals’ “life, so far as they knew, was as it had always been. They were generally hungry, they slept on straw” (p.119). As Mr. Pilkington said, “the lower animals [i.e. other than pigs and their dogs] on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the country” (p. 125). The pigs by contrast had become indistinguishable from the humans the animals had rebelled against. The seventh and final of the commandments of Animalism was altered from “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (b. 1927)

Since we studied in class Flowers for Algernon, published 1966, I will not describe the plot in any detail but will leap right in with my response, which is not all that favourable.

Flowers for Algernon is profoundly negative in its outlook. Charlie’s mother protests that she wants “him to be like everyone else”, ignoring the reality of him. By the time she makes that statement (p.52), about a quarter of the way into the book, the irony is rich: it is clear that “everyone else” is despicable. Charlie’s elementary-school mates (e.g. Hymie Roth), his work mates (e.g. Joe Carp, Frank Reilly), his neighbourhood peers (the Howells Street gang) torment him. His sister, Norma, torments him. His father, in turn, slaps Norma when she torments Charlie. His mother strikes him for soiling himself, for wearing his sister’s clothes, for getting an erection – violence seems to be her natural response to frustration or annoyance. The husband of the woman in Central Park beat her on their wedding night: no explanation is given for him doing so. Violence, whether emotional or physical, is pervasive. Gimpy is a thief. Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur are interested in Charlie more as a means to advance their careers and enhance their reputations than as a person; he is, to them, a laboratory specimen.

Self-interest and cruelty are the two values most evident in “everyone else”, with some exceptions. Mr. Donner treats him decently but out of a sense of obligation to his now-deceased best friend, Charlie’s uncle Herman, rather than any affection for Charlie, and Mr. Donner easily abandons that obligation – and Charlie – when pressured by his, Mr. Donner’s, staff. Fannie Birden treats Charlie well but she functions mainly to chide others for not treating Charlie well, i.e. as a device to let the reader know (when Charlie doesn’t) that the others are out of bounds. But she, like Burt Seldon, does not present anything positive to counter the pervasive cruelty of others and is too minor a character to carry much weight. In fact she turns out to be an anti-intellectual, religious nut: “It was evil when Adam and eve ate from the tree of knowledge. It was evil…,” and so on (p.75). By the time Alice Kinnian starts to play a more central role (from teacher to love-interest to friend) it is too late for her decency to overcome the poisoned atmosphere of the book.

The most telling scene in the book is Charlie’s encounter with the pregnant woman in Central Park. It is telling because it serves no real purpose in the narrative, either in advancing the plot or in revealing Charlie’s psychology. Its gratuitousness and ugliness can only be interpreted as revealing the author’s psychology: his unfocussed disgust at everything and everybody – the sex the woman offers Charlie and the way she offers it, without affection, without intimacy, without pleasure, without even knowing the person she is offering it to, is unpleasant in the extreme; the story of her violent husband confirms what we have already witnessed – that everyone is cruel to everyone, not just the Charlies of the world, and cruel for no particular reason.

Keyes cannot see any positive values in people, in the world – no love, no selflessness, no generosity, no loyalty; people act from only stunted, twisted, ignoble emotions or motives.  The latter are of course what the novel deplores; but at the same time the novel does not show us that anything else exists or can exist. There is no point in criticising something if you can’t show that something else may be nearby. The novel wallows in its own gloominess.

The Preferred Book

Flowers for Algernon is moving book; it is much loved; it touches our hearts. Animal Farm touches our minds and our sense of righteous indignation. Both books are worth studying, though I much prefer Animal Farm. In the end I prefer it because its scope is a larger: it leads us more into the world – into history, into politics, into active engagement with the world.

There are several relatively recent figures who have had a major influence on the way contemporary societies think and act. These would include Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and (for all the wrong reasons) Adolf Hitler, as well as others.

Arguably pre-eminent among these is Karl Marx, whose teachings, especially as set out in Manifesto of the Communist Party (1948) (with Friedrich Engels) and Das Kapital (1867), have affected a large part of the world, including Vietnam, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Laos, and numerous others. Before its dissolution in 1991 the Soviet Union was the largest and most powerful communist country – its landmass occupied one-sixth of the earth’s surface and incorporated what have now become some fifteen separate countries – that had been influenced by Marx.

Rather than attempt to summarize Marxism I will quote from the Wikipedia article on  Marxism:

Marxism is a particular political philosophy, economic and sociological world view based upon a materialist interpretation of history, a Marxist analysis of capitalism, a theory of social change, and an atheist view of human liberation derived from the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The three primary aspects of Marxism are: [...]

2. The critique of capitalism – Marx argues that in capitalist society, an economic minority (the bourgeoisie) dominate and exploit the working class (proletariat) majority. Marx argues that capitalism is exploitative, specifically the way in which unpaid labor (surplus value) is extracted from the working class (the labor theory of value), extending and critiquing the work of earlier political economists on value. He argued that while the production process is socialized, ownership remains in the hands of the bourgeoisie. This forms the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society. Without the elimination of the fetter of the private ownership of the means of production, human society is unable to achieve further development.

3. Advocacy of proletarian revolution – In order to overcome the fetters of private property the working class must seize political power internationally through a social revolution and expropriate the capitalist classes around the world and place the productive capacities of society into collective ownership. Upon this, material foundation classes would be abolished and the material basis for all forms of inequality between humankind would dissolve.

Marxism as a political philosophy has been discredited through no fault of its own – by the murderous actions of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, and others who call themselves Marxists. Of course blaming Marx for the excesses of Stalin is like blaming Christ for the Spanish Inquisition.

Marxism, or communism or socialism, has always been one of the great bogeymen in the United States, which seems to think that anything that hints at government intervention is an attempt to deprive the citizens of their god-given right to exploit whomever and whatever (which now includes the environment) in the pursuit of money and power (see for example Wall Street, the movie). A good example is the recent turmoil over President Obama’s health-care reform proposals, where his attempt to give health care to those who do not have it was compared to Hitler’s T4 Program.

The following excerpt is from an article by Nancy Spannaus entitled “Hitler’s T4 Program Revived in Obama’s Healthcare ‘Reform’”:

In July of 1939, a conference of medical professionals was held in Berlin, Germany. [...] The subject? What would be the criteria for determining what patients would be considered to have “lives unworthy to be lived,” and what was the most “practical and cheap” manner of removing them from being burdens on the health care system – by death.

Thus, the bureaucratic machine began to be cranked up for what is known as Adolf Hitler’s program of genocide through “euthanasia,” a program which killed hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Germans, and eventually millions of Jews and non-Germans as well. [...]

If that sounds familiar, it should. For the proposals which the Obama Administration has currently put on the table, follow them in virtual lockstep.

Obama’s health-care reform is seen as socialist and socialism is by definition evil, and all evil is absolute; there are no gradations: if a person is evil, that person is the equivalent of Hitler. The nonsense of this logic, and where it leads – to Obama’s so-called death panels – would be immediately dismissed as insane by any reasonable person were the nonsense not so widely accepted (which does not, I suppose, prove that it is not insane).

Marxism sets out some of the most powerful political ideas of the modern world, and has affected a significant portion of the world’s population. Marx’s ideas have become more rather than less urgent with the passage of time, with, one should say, the greater entrenchment of capitalism, with all its brutality and excesses. Child workers are exploited in Vietnam so North Americans can wear trendy sneakers and feel smug about “just doing it”. The environment is being raped to the extent that we are now in the midst of one of Earth’s major extinctions – the sixth great extinction – surpassing the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction of the dinosaurs, and as punishment for aiding this extinction British Petroleum made only billions of dollars in profit last fiscal quarter.

Something serious and drastic needs to be done. Marx’s ideas may be the ideas most worth exploring as an alternative to the capitalism that is quickly bringing the earth in the form we know it to an ugly end. They may not provide the answers but they are worth exploring, and to the best of my knowledge they are not explored in high school. Animal Farm is a means of introducing that exploration, and engaging students in the political process.

But Animal Farm is more than just a political tract; it is a darn good tale, told in a straightforward manner using plain language. It has all the thrills and chills any fifteen-year-old student could ask for. It has war and violence (the Battle of the Cowshed, the Battle of the Windmill), it has pathos (Boxer, whose motto is “I will work harder”, on whose work ethic everyone depended, who when he was too old to work was unceremoniously taken to the glue factory), it has deceit and treachery (Mr. Frederick of Foxwood bought Animal Farm’s wood with forged bank-notes), and it has sex (Napoleon has piglets with four different sows).


If my preference can be summed up in a sentence is it that Flowers for Algernon passively accepts defeat, whereas Animal Farm rages against the very idea of defeat. Charlie wants to join a world that isn’t worth joining. Its soul is corrupt. Charlie joins the world for a while and then the book sends him back to the bliss of obliviousness, shrugging its shoulders hopelessly, saying, in effect, that’s the way life is – despicable, corrupt. Animal Farm contains a controlled fury at a world that would send a noble worker like Boxer to the glue factory after a life of devotion to the cause, that would subvert a noble ideal such as “All animals are equal” and a noble effort like the Rebellion that tries to enact that ideal. In Animal Farm, unlike Algernon, it is not the world that does this, it is not Life that is worthless, corrupt – it is a specific form of social organization and the corrupt people (Napoleon) who corrupt that organization.

Daniel Keyes suggests the way of getting through this life is to bury our heads ostrich-like and ignore the world’s problems; George Orwell suggests we identify the problems and act upon them. Keyes urges us to retreat from life; Orwell urges us to charge at it. The question is, which is the better approach for Grade 9?

- Baiden McCallum

Obviously I did not come up with everything in this paper by myself. I am more familiar with Groucho Marx than Karl Marx. My father gave me some names and ideas and directions to pursue, which I did, mostly on Wikipedia. Since a lot of the information did not come from me, I tried to document where it did come from. [Since footnotes did not transport to this blog, the documentation is unfortunately absent.]

Can’t hear the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughter-sons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

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