10 — Speaking otherwise: Literature, protest and politics
In ancient Greek the word allegory meant to speak otherwise, a characteristic of both politics and literature. Allegories are stories that are coherent on the literal level, while at the same time creating meaning on a second level. In this learning sequence the students explore how texts operating on an allegorical level can protest about specific social issues. Allegory is a powerful medium for exploring complex ideas.The students will analyse allegories in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm and contemporary texts, as well as generating their own allegories.
Activity 1: George Orwell’s Animal Farm – an allegory?
Canadian author Margaret Atwood, in her essay ‘Orwell and Me’, written on the centenary of Orwell’s birth, said that when she read Animal Farm she was ‘horrified by this book ... The fate of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the sheep so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust.’ It could be said that Orwell’s Animal Farm is essentially a protest about, or a lament for, those who place their faith in revolutions.
Tell the students that allegories often:
- represent political situations
- are about a problem that needs to be conceptualised and analysed (for example, it might explore moral ideas or historical events)
- operate as structural organisers for telling stories.
Working in groups, the students develop a chart that maps the story of Animal Farm against events and characters of the Russian revolution. Through class discussion, expand from this to show how Animal Farm:
- sheds light on the dangers associated with having independent ideas, as well as the potential for power to corrupt
- laments those who place their faith in revolutions
- uses incongruity and irony to represent its concerns
- illustrates how propaganda operates to repress independence
- is a protest about a protest.
Activity 2: Satire and protest
In this activity the students explore how two texts have represented the 2005 Cronulla riots. Students will look at the video excerpts and read the program transcript of ABC TV’s Four Corners episode ‘Riot and Revenge’. This could be a jigsaw activity where groups research different sections of the web page and report back to the class. The students will also view the Tropfest film Between the Flags, which is a gentle parody of the riots.
Distribute a character wheel to the students to use for analysis. An image search on the web will produce a wide range of possible organisers like character wheels. Divide the class into two halves and allocate each group one of the two characters. Using a character wheel, they could analyse and evaluate elements such as:
- the development of the characters
- the role of humour
- the effects of incongruity, irony and parody in characterisation.
Discuss, on the basis of these findings, how this satire aims to restructure personal, political and social relationships. In what ways does this film speak otherwise to viewers?
Activity 3: George Orwell’s Animal Farm – a fairy tale?
Fairy tales also speak otherwise to readers and viewers. George Orwell referred to Animal Farm as a fairy tale. The origins of the fairy tale are firmly rooted in the oral traditions, imaginations and activities of ordinary, everyday people. Angela Carter notes in her book Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales that the fairy tale ‘records the real lives of the anonymous poor with sometimes uncomfortable fidelity’. So, too, does Animal Farm. In this activity students create their own allegory by:
- recording three major events in their lives that have been defining for them: who was involved, the setting, the significance of the event and what this event symbolised; they could draw on scenarios from school, work or families
- inventing a symbolic system to represent characters, places and actions, the students bring to class a photograph of something symbolic, a vivid memory, as a stimulus for writing. Remind them that:
- characters may have symbolic or even incongruous names
- symbols layer meaning, appeal to the emotions of the reader and may be ironic
- allegories may be interpreted literally and figuratively.
- analysing the characters in the photograph again through the use of a character wheel and developing allegories for the situation
- presenting these allegories, using the original photo as the focus text.