Curriculum Vital

    The Education Umbrella Guide to Animal Farm

    This introduction is part of the Education Umbrella Guide to Animal Farm, which contains a summary and analysis of every chapter, as well as character profiles and classroom activities.

    George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in British-ruled India in 1903. After moving to England aged five and completing school at Eton, Orwell returned to the land of his birth. From 1922 to 1927 he worked in Burma as an officer with the Indian Imperial Police. As well as providing the inspiration for his novel Burmese Days, Orwell's time in Burma shaped his dislike of class and empire and kindled his sympathy with oppressed peoples.

    After returning to England Orwell moved to London and began deliberately living as a tramp. After two years in various London workhouses he moved to Paris and again and chose to live in poverty. He described both experiences in his book Down and Out in Paris and London. Prior to publishing the book, the man then still known as Eric Blair changed his name to George Orwell in order to avoid embarrassing his family. He chose 'Orwell' after the Orwell river in Sussex.

    In 1936 Orwell left his home in the south of England and travelled north to investigate the living and working conditions of the working classes in Lancashire and Yorkshire. His research led him to write The Road to Wigan Pier. One of the most famous chapters of the book describes the horrific conditions in coal mines.

    Later that same year began the event that would greatly influence Animal Farm and Orwell's life, the Spanish Civil War. On paper the war was between the elected government of the Spanish Second Republic and the fascist, pro-monarchy Nationalists. However, soon after arriving in Spain in December 1936 to fight against the fascists, Orwell discovered that the situation was much more complex. The anti-fascist forces were a combustible mix of republicans, communists, Marxists, Trotskyists, trade unionists and anarchists. In Barcelona he witnessed vicious in-fighting between different factions that were, in theory, on the same side. After being shot in the throat by a sniper and severely wounded, Orwell eventually had to flee Spain when the Communists, loyal to the Soviet Union (then ruled by Joseph Stalin), turned against the Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), with which Orwell had fought and which was now regarded as Trotskyist. When he returned to England Orwell wrote a book about his experiences in Spain called Homage to Catalonia.

    Orwell began writing Animal Farm in 1943. Although it can be read as an allegory for the way power corrupts even the most well-meaning revolutionaries, the book is also an account of the 1917 October Revolution in what was then Tsarist Russia, and the rivalry between Joseph Stalin, who would eventually become supreme leader of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and his political rival, Leon Trotsky, a ruthless and dynamic socialist and soldier. Every character in the book represents a real person or group of people. 

    Despite the significance of Animal Farm, Orwell struggled to find a publisherThe reason was simple: the USSR at that time was still an important ally of Britain in the fight against Germany in World War II. Orwell's unflattering portrayal of Joseph Stalin (represented by a pig named Napoleon) and the Russian Communist Party would be deeply problematic for this fragile and uneasy alliance. 

    In his preface to the book, titled 'The freedom of the press', Orwell writes: 

    At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable.

    Fortunately, Orwell did eventually find a publisher. What's more, as he predicts in the story, the alliance between Britain and the USSR would not last.

    Further reading

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    Guide to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

    Clash of the Titans: Antony Beevor's The Second World War and Max Hastings' All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945

    Book review: Red Shadow, by Paul Dowswell

    Book review: The Penguin History of Modern Russia, by Robert Service

    Book review: Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner

    Think on these things: A comparison of Christopher Hitchens' 'God Is Not Great' and Peter Hitchens' 'The Rage Against God'

    Lesson plan: 'Less Nonsense', by Sir Alan Herbert – 'In 1940, when we bore the brunt, / We could have done, boys, with a Second Front.'

    Lesson plan: 'The Morning After' by Tony Harrison – 'The Rising Sun was blackened on those flames.'

    Lesson plan: 'September 3rd 1939: Bournemouth' by Anthony Thwaite – 'My summer ends and term begins next week.'