Dystopian Literature Discussion
We kicked off our first class of the new session with a look at what constitutes dystopian literature. According to American science fiction and fantasy editor, critic, and publisher, John Joseph Adams:
“The roots of the word dystopia—dys- and -topia—are from the Ancient Greek for “bad” and “place,” and so we use the term to describe an unfavorable society in which to live. “Dystopia” is not a synonym for “post-apocalyptic”; it also is not a synonym for a bleak, or darkly imagined future. In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by any number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s individual freedom, and living under constant surveillance.”
We defined key terms such as post-apocalyptic and totalitarian and discussed modern examples of dystopian literature such as Lois Lowry's The Giver and Susanne Collins's series, The Hunger Games. In dystopian literature, the story is often unresolved. Often the dystopia is not brought down. The hero (if there is one) may make their individual stand (or with a group) and often fails, but gives hope to others in the dystopia. Sometimes this climax is the hero's escape from the dystopia. Other times the hero fails to achieve anything and the dystopia continues as before. We may find this to be true in the case of Animal Farm or we may find that Animal Farm falls into a different genre (fairy story, fable, allegory, satire, prophecy?). George Orwell subtitled his novella "A Fairy Story." Orwell did not choose this sub-title lightly. A fairy story with a political purpose suggests a fable. We also defined allegory.
George Orwell is one of the original dystopian authors, although the genre pre-dates him, Orwell’s writings are some of the most famous and influential (ex., 1984). Animal Farm was published in 1945, in the same month that the US dropped the bomb on Japan in WWII.
Introducing the Author and Novel and Chapters 1-4
After a warm-up Q & A session on our author's background and introducing the novella, we dove into understanding the setting (time and place) of the story. This included a very brief lecture on the topic of the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Karl Marx. Every time I teach this book I realize how much history is involved in understanding its meaning. It's difficult to cover all of the complexities of this time frame in our one hour lectures, so I try to give mini-talks each week that help illuminate one aspect of the back-story. We'll be devoting the majority of our time to discussing the story and defining terms. Early exposure to these terms and concepts will lay the foundation for more mature, fruitful discussions down the road.
We had some fun introducing all of the characters and finding out the historical counterpart for each one. For instance, Napoleon the Pig is thought to be Leon Trotsky, and Snowball (the pig) represents Josef Stalin. Interestingly enough, Orwell had a tough time getting Animal Farm published. It wasn't exactly cool at the time to be inferring that Stalin was a pig. After all, Russia was an ally in WWII. George Orwell was a socialist that fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civill War. During this experience, Orwell quickly realized that the communists he was fighting for could be just as totalitarian and oppressive as the fascists he was fighting against. And that's where Animal Farm comes in: it shows Stalin's version of communism as the exact opposite of socialist values—as a brutal, oppressive, and unequal regime. Ultimately, Orwell was an individualist that emphasized honesty, freedom of choice, love of family, and tolerance for others.
Preparing for High School Writing
Last week we began a couple of exercises in preparation for high school writing. This next five weeks will be a review of thesis and proofs. In the spring we'll pick up with open and closed form writing (exploratory and expository) and write a few of each. Next week we'll do an exercise that aims to ask two compelling questions that can be answered in the form of a thesis statement (with the option to use the idea for a final essay).
As usual, I ran out of time! Students should make sure they are completing all of the weekly homework (not just the homework they are asked to submit), including Active Reading Charts, discussion questions, and vocabulary glossary. Sometimes we can't get to everything in class; please don't neglect the self-study aspect of this course.
This is a forum where you can ask questions about your writing projects. We'll do our best to answer them or post helpful links to get you pointed in the right direction. Occasionally we may feature exceptional pieces of writing, such as poems or short stories/essays. To ask a question or to submit a piece for consideration, please email your question or writing piece to: