Here’s a starter for 10 – what is the point of literature?
- A) To record human emotions and themes
- B) To entertain and stimulate minds
- C) To teach moral lessons about life
- D) There is no ‘value’ – stop trying to justify l-its existence and let l-it be…
In fact, all the answers above could work, perspective depending.
While Aesthetes like Oscar Wilde and Dante Gabriel Rossetti would probably not pick C), many literary writers have shown a tendency to use literature as a forum for moral discussion, with some even seeing it as a vehicle for didactic instruction about ‘humanistic matters’ (Tolstoy, I’m looking at you).
While there’s certainly a case for being anti-moralistic in literary writing (and ironically, a moral case at that), ‘art for art’s sake’ purism is unlikely to gain prominence among most writers – especially fiction writers, whose second nature so often compels them to tell stories and convey ‘deeper’ meanings.
This is also why, throughout history, we’ve seen novels, films and even artworks take the form of allegories, especially during periods of socio-political upheaval.
From Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Orwell’s Animal Farm, allegorical stories have taken centre stage in the literary line-up. A lot of us would also have grown up reading Aesop’s fables, which are essentially allegories for kids.
Counterintuitive as it may sound, then, most people – secular and religious alike – crave some sort of moral or spiritual guidance in written form, whether it be delivered through fiction or scripture.
Whoever decided that the Bible would be a compendium of parables (i.e. biblical allegories) definitely knew a thing or two about what would appeal and convert.
What is an allegory? What is a fable?
To start, let’s look at the definition(s):
A story, play, poem, picture, or other work in which the characters and events represent particular qualities or ideas that relate to morals, religion or politics (CED)
A story or painting in which the characters, images, and/or events act as symbols. The symbolism in an allegory can be interpreted to have a deeper meaning… [which] illustrates a moral or spiritual truth, or political or historical situation (literarydevices.com)
A short story that tells a general truth or is only partly based on fact (CED)
A short piece of fiction that features animals in the role of the protagonist and usually includes or illustrates a moral (literarydevices.com)
In other words, a fable is a short allegory which features talking animals as main characters. Fables also tend to be ‘preachier’ than allegories in general, because while fables are always about making a moral point, allegories can be broader in their scope of concern to include not just moral lessons, but also political ideologies, humanistic values, spiritual messages etc.
Oh, and animals don’t necessarily have to feature in allegories (but I wouldn’t mind if they did – animals can be nicer to read about than humans, most of the time…)
One of the most interesting formal traits of allegory is the leverage of nuance it gives writers, especially when they’re writing about controversial or sensitive messages. This can also be handy if a writer fears political persecution or public ostracization.
So, in a somewhat ironic twist, the allegory enables writers to say whatever they want to say as long as they, well, aren’t actually saying it. In a way, then, allegorical expression is a good way to circumvent censorship – provided that one’s target readership understands the comparative parallels and symbolic subtleties.
Comparing an unlikely pair of allegories: George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
In this post, we’ll be analysing George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm (1945), and an allegorical section from Jeannette Winterson’s novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985).
By the way, a quick note on the structure of allegories: allegorical moments can show up as part of the narrative in a largely non-allegorical work of fiction.
Simply put, a novel doesn’t have to be generically categorised as an allegory in order to contain allegorical elements, if that makes sense.
Depending on one’s country and culture, both Animal Farm and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit could be regarded as ‘sensitive’ books. If you live in an authoritarian country with strict censorship laws, perhaps a pointed critique of Stalinism wouldn’t be at the top of your school’s reading list; and if you go to a deeply conservative school, then a fictional memoir about a lesbian teenager’s struggles against evangelical biases is unlikely to be a set text.
In the case of Animal Farm, characterising a Stanlinesque tyrant as a pig named after a French emperor may seem more like a recipe for satire than a warning about too much power, and perhaps it’s a bit of both, but by couching the gravity of the subject matter in fable-like disguise, Orwell opens up the possibility for his book to reach societies where the grip of authoritarianism remains strong, as allegorical subtlety is one possible – though not always effective – way for literature to slip through the radar of censorship.
I find it amusing that certain book lists categorise Animal Farm as ‘children’s literature’, because the essence of this work isn’t very ‘child-like’ at all, whatever ‘child-like’ means in terms of literary content (and the question of what children should be ‘exposed’ to is an altogether separate, but interesting, topic which I will discuss in a future post. For now, if this is of interest to you, check out Margaret Atwood’s essay ‘Origins of Stories’ here).
Despite being of a rather different thematic register, Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit is similarly ‘controversial’ and feather-ruffling (again, context depending). Some schools in the United Kingdom have designated it as a GCSE English text, and I see that as a wonderful testament to literary access as the first step towards cultivating empathy and dispelling bigotry.
I wonder, though, what conservative or evangelical strongholds (in some parts of the American South, for instance) would think about teaching this novel, and if it’s ever possible for same-sex relationships to be taught in an open-minded way in these areas, notwithstanding the less open-minded attitudes held by the surrounding community?
Reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “Silent and terrified”
In my previous post on ‘1984’, I point out the irony of ‘Orwellian’ meaning ‘of or like a totalitarian dystopia’, given Orwell’s lifelong anti-totalitarianism stance as a vocal democratic socialist.
In his lucid, honest essay ‘Why I Write’, the author argues that in times of political turbulence, no serious writer can create meaningful prose without engaging with the political energies they found themselves in.
Out of the four ‘reasons’ that Orwell attributes to authorship, “political purpose” is the one that he believes is furthest from his ‘natural self’, but as a child of WWII, he was “forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer”, or a writer who had to find ways to convey the political in the artistic – “to make political writing into an art”.
Animal Farm, as a dark satire of autocratic rule wrapped up in the pastoral guise of “a fairy story” (which is, bizarrely, the book’s original subtitle), is perhaps the most iconic crystallisation of this impulse to meld politics with art, and a testament to the possibility of doing so in a non-propagandistic, non-didactic way. And there’s an argument to be made that what enabled Orwell to pull this stint off is his use of the fable structure.
In this book, a group of farm animals stage a coup against their human owner, the farmer Mr Jones, who mistreats and neglects them. After they drive him out, they take over the property and rename it “Animal Farm”.
Two young pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, initially co-command over the other animals, but they soon fall out over ideological differences. Napoleon wins out, and purges Snowball from the farm.
Scholars have associated Napoleon with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and Snowball with Leon Trotsky – one of Stalin’s comrade-turned-enemies, whose open criticism of Stalinism eventually led to his exile from the USSR.
In a psychologically vivid moment that lays bare the jealousy, ill-will and maliciousness in power struggles, Orwell paints Snowball’s purge as the inevitable tragedy of keeping authoritarian instincts unchecked.
In Chapter 5, Napoleon and Snowball make their respective cases for building windmills on or bringing electricity to the farm. While Napoleon vetoes electricity right off the bat, Snowball manages to charm the animals into seeing the benefits of having electricity in their lives – only to be swiftly chased out by Napoleon’s vicious dogs when his rival realizes the threat of his eloquence.
Like humans, Napoleon and Snowball are able to speak, intimidate and persuade through rhetoric, and we see the sinews of their personalities through the minutiae of their speech and actions –
… Snowball sparing to his feet, and shouting down the sheep, who had begun bleating again, broke into a passionate appeal in favour of the windmill. Until now the animals had been about equally divided in their sympathies, but in a moment Snowball’s eloquence had carried them away. In glowing sentences he painted a picture of Animal Farm as it might be when sordid labour was lifted from the animals’ backs… By the time he had finished speaking [about why electricity should be brought to the farm and how it would increase the animals’ standard of living]. There was no doubt as to which way the vote would go. But just at this moment Napoleon stood up and, casting a peculiar sidelong look at Snowball, uttered a high-pitched whimper of a kind no one had ever heard him utter before.
Snowball, with his talent for oratory charm, is clearly the representative of democracy, and his orientation towards the animals’ well-being is a reflection of his socialist ideals.
On the other hand, Napoleon’s sinister reticence and silent terror are characteristic of the tyrannical temperament.
By casting Snowball as a white pig and Napoleon as a black boar, Orwell sharpens the allegorical symbolism of democracy as a leaven for good (in general), and totalitarianism as a source of evil.
It’s also interesting that while Orwell applies anthropomorphism to the two pigs, he doesn’t personify the dogs that attack Snowball.
The implication, perhaps, is that lackeys who blindly follow and execute the will of tyrannical masters behave less like humans than beasts –
At [Napoleon’s whimpering] there was a terrible baying sound outside, and nine enormous dogs wearing brass-studded collars came bounding into the barn. They dashed straight for Snowball, who only sprang from his place just in time to escape their snapping jaws. In a moment he was out of the door and they were after him.
This also shows that the most ostensibly violent agents in any state are never the ones calling the shots (like Napoleon), but instead, are the pawns who unthinkingly carry out the orders of those from above. The fact that the dogs aren’t given the power to think like humans is reinforced by a simile in a later sentence –
Though not yet full-grown, they were huge dogs, and as fierce-looking as wolves.
Compared to a more aggressive version of their same kind, these canine ‘executors’ are only useful insofar as they embody enough violence and threat for the powerful to exploit.
And what about the rest of the animals, who represent the general public?
Too amazed and frightened to speak, all the animals crowded through the door to watch the chase…
After Snowball is chased out of the farm –
Silent and terrified, the animals crept back into the barn… In spite of the shock that Snowball’s expulsion had given them, the animals were dismayed by this announcement. Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments…
From feeling “too amazed and frightened” to being cowered into “terrified…silence”, the farm animals are mirror images of most people in the world, who would rather stay mute than voice out their thoughts, lest they rock the proverbial boat and jeopardize their own safety.
And that’s not all: we secretly relish in the spectacle of the purge, like “the animals [who] crowded through the door to watch the chase” – even though we know it’s unjust. In this brief allegorical vignette, then, Orwell shows us a blunt truth: totalitarian regimes and their existence aren’t simply the creation of one tyrant.
Tyrants rise to power on the shoulders of their enablers, so without stooges to carry out orders (the dogs) and witnesses to stay silent on the sidelines (the farm animals), they have no power. But unfortunately, we’ve seen throughout history that time and again, humans give in to their baser instincts, and in turn, breed the grounds for autocratic rule to take hold.
Reading Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit: “Better to find a new place now”
Published in 1985, Oranges is a fictional autobiography (oxymoronic as that may sound) about a young girl’s childhood in a Pentecostalist household, and her gradual awakening as a lesbian teenager living in an unaccepting, bigoted community in Accrington, Lancashire.
Adopted by a dyed-in-the-wool, Pentecostalist mother whose Christian beliefs are Old Testament to the T, the protagonist Jeannette is taught from a young age that God and Scripture are all that matter in life, while individual desires are sinful and shameful.
Despite having internalized much of her mother’s doctrinal beliefs, Jeannette soon realizes that she cannot live her life in constant denial of her identity – and part of her identity is being a lesbian.
Of course, homosexuality is anathema to her deeply Christian mother, who disowns Jeannette after discovering her daughter’s relationship with another girl in the community.
As a result, Jeannette leaves home and tries to strike out on her own by working odd gigs, a period in which she sees the world and her place in it from a different, sobering – but liberating – vantage.
Despite the triumph she gains from achieving independence and protecting her identity, there’s a sense of melancholy in the fact that blind bigotry towards a woman’s sexuality should fracture family and community ties.
One of Winterson’s triumphs in this book is her refusal to put anger at the core of the narrative’s emotional timbre.
Instead, she encourages – ever so subtly – her readers to feel the incredible sadness that comes out of the willful ignorance, calcified tenets and ‘herd mentality’ of Jeannette’s evangelical community.
Specifically, wee Winterson’s compassion for her character in the final chapter of the novel (titled ‘Ruth’, after the Old Testament ‘Book of Ruth’), which interweaves the main plot – Jeannette, once adopted by a controlling mother, is now banished from the family home for loving another woman – with an allegorical subplot – a girl named Winnet Stonejar, once kidnapped and ‘adopted’ by a sorcerer, is also banished from the kingdom for loving a boy her father doesn’t approve of.
The immediate parallels are clear, but what’s most striking about the allegorical moments (Winnet’s story) is that they function as the emotional valves for the main narrative.
Throughout the novel, Jeannette doesn’t show much of her emotions, despite the incredible amount of pain, sorrow and confusion she must feel from the repudiation and betrayal of her family, friends and community.
In Winnet’s tale, however, we see all of these sentiments come to light, and the vulnerabilities of a lost, rejected soul are brought to the fore through a series of allegorical parallels between the protagonist Jeannette and her fantastical counterpart Winnet (also interesting that their names rhyme).
For instance, Jeannette’s evangelical upbringing is compared to “the training of wizards” –
The training of wizards is a very difficult thing. Wizards have to spend years standing in a chalk circle until they can manage without it. They push out their power bit by bit, first within their hearts, then within their bodies, then within their immediate circle. It is not possible to control the outside of yourself until you have mastered your breathing space. It is not possible to change anything until you understand the substance you wish to chance. Of course people mutilate and modify, but these are fallen powers, and to change something you do not understand is the true nature of evil.
Having been ‘trained’ for years in the Old Testament doctrine, Jeannette would naturally fear the ‘outside world’ – that scary world beyond her tight-knitted, insular Pentecostalist community. To overcome this fear, however, she must – like the wizards who “have to spend years standing in a chalk circle until they can manage without it” – immerse herself in an imprisoning environment (a real-life ‘chalk circle’).
The reference to people “mutila[ting] and modify[ing]”, and their wish to “change something [they] do not understand” hints at both Jeanette’s mother and the church, and exposes the cruelty of their believe in the sinful ‘unnaturalness’ of Jeannette’s homosexuality.
Their bigotry is evil, but not once does Jeanette express this in the main narrative, which suggests the strong emotional attachment she still holds for her immediate circle – despite their shunning of her.
Absent an outright verbal revolt ventriloquized through Jeannette’s voice, the subtlety of an allegorical subplot allows Winterson to express her view of the close-minded and bigoted among us.
Equally, Jeanette doesn’t ever open up about being an adopted child, nor does she ever share her thoughts about why she was taken in by her mother in the first place.
Was it done out of love for common humanity?
Or did the decision stem from a more sinister motive to control or convert?
Again, this confusion, while buried in the main plot of Jeannette’s world, finds its reflective outlet in the subplot via Winnet’s thoughts. Winnet is initially sceptical about the sorcerer’s intentions to adopt her, but after she becomes his ‘daughter’ for some time, she notices that she no longer questions her origins, or considers if she truly wants to be held captive role-playing as someone else’s child:
This was only the beginning of Winnet’s adventure at the castle, but as she stayed there, a curious thing happened. She forgot how she had come there, or what she had done before. She believed she had always been in the castle, and that she was the sorcerer’s daughter. He told her she was. That she had no mother, but had been specially entrusted to his care by a powerful spirit. Winnet felt this to be true, and besides, where else could she possibly wish to live?
This mindset of never questioning one’s guardian, or that sense of feeling compelled gratitude to a vague, but all-powerful, “spirit”, is a fundamentally religious instinct, which Jeannette has been conditioned to accept since youth.
The rhetorical question – “where else could she possibly wish to live?” – reveals Winnet (and Jeannette’s) deep desire for escape, but Winnet is at first cowered into inaction by fear of the unknown.
It’s not that Winnet really wants to stay with the sorcerer, or that Jeannette truly enjoyed her years of being on the receiving end of enforced proselytizing – these characters have nowhere to go, or rather, have been conditioned to think they have nowhere to go.
So they stay.
Like Stockholm syndrome victims.
Until they can’t take it anymore.
And this is what happens when Jeannette’s lesbian identity is exposed by her believer-mother, and when Winnet’s clandestine love for a boy is discovered by her sorcerer-father:
“I’m frightened,” said the boy [who’s Winnet’s lover].
“No need,” said Winnet, kissing him.
By sundown the hall had filled with people and animals. Some of the animals were gifts to the sorcerer for his own farm, others had just wandered in. By midnight, the wine had caused everyone to forget all but the moment, and the sorcerer was making his customary speech. He promised a good harvest again next year, and good health for his friends. To the young men leaving the village that year, he gave a shield, or a knife, or a bow. To the young women, determined to seek their own living, he gave a falcon, or a dog, or ring. “Let each protect each according to their needs.” For the sorcerer knew the ways of travellers. Finally his face grew heavy, as he told of a terrible blight come to the land. “It lies in one of you,” he warned them, watching them ripple with alarm. “He must be cast out.” And the sorcerer laid his hand on the boy’s neck.
“This boy has spoiled my daughter.”
“No,” shouted Winnet, jumping up in alarm. “He’s my friend.”
But no one heard her. They bound the boy and threw him into the darkest room in the deepest part of the castle, where he might have lain forever if Winnet hadn’t set him loose by her own arts. “Now go to him,” she told the boy, as he stood blinking against her torch,” and deny me. Blame me for whatever you like, you cannot stand by me, for you cannot stand against him.” The boy went pale and wept, but Winnet shoved him up the stairs, and in the morning she heard he had done as she intended.
“Daughter, you have disgraced me,” said the sorcerer, “and I have no more use for you. You must leave.”
Winnet could not ask forgiveness when she was innocent, but she did ask to stay.
This scene, by the way, is a condensed parallel for what happens in the main plot: Jeanette’s relationship with Melanie, her lover, is discovered, and as a result, she’s deemed to have “disgraced” her mother and asked to leave the family.
The passage then goes on to explore the courage that one needs in the face of rejection and injustice – especially, when they come from those so close to you:
“If you stay, you will stay in the village and care for the goats. I leave you to make up your own mind.” He was gone. Winnet was about to burst into tears when she felt a light pecking at her shoulder. It was Abednego, the raven she loved. He hopped up beside her ear.
“You won’t lose your power you know, you’ll use it differently, that’s all.”
“How do you know?” Winnet sniffed.
“Sorcerers can’t take their gifts back, ever, it says so in the book.”
“And what if I stay?”
“You will find yourself destroyed by grief. All you know will be around you, and at the same time far from you. Better to find a new place now.”
Winnet thought about this, while the raven balanced patiently on her shoulder.
“Will you come with me?”
“I can’t, I’m bound here, but take this.” The raven flew down and, as far as Winnet could see, started vomiting on the flags. Then he rearranged his feathers, and dropped a rough brown pebble into her hand.
“Thank you,” said Winnet. “What is it?”
“It’s my heart.”
“But it’s made of stone.”
“I know,” the raven replied sadly. “You see I chose to stay, oh, a long time ago, and my heart grew thick with sorrow, and finally set. It will remind you.”
This is a moment ripe with allegorical symbolism.
In the final moments of the penultimate chapter (which precedes the ‘Ruth’ chapter with the Winnet allegory), we see Jeannette making the decision to move out and leave her mother.
The protagonist confesses that she “in fact was scared to death”, and would have to support herself “driving an ice-cream van on Sundays” and take on extra work, but in spite of this fear, she chooses the ambiguity of freedom over the suffocation of dogma-masquerading-as-protection.
Contrary to Jeanette’s steely nonchalance when she tells her mother she’s moving out (“I breezed in to my mother with more bravado than courage”), Winnet’s confession to the raven Abednego is much more fragile, emotional and unguarded, which is, of course, what Jeannette would probably like to have shown had there been an empathetic Abednego in her life.
But the raven’s ‘heart-of-stone’ also confirms that leaving (for both Winnet and Jeannette) is ultimately the right thing to do, because the alternative would be to give up on life itself, and to deny who they really are, what they really feel, and how they really wish to live.
Reading or studying other novels? Check out my posts below!
- What is the unreliable narrator? Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ and Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ to find out
- What is enumeration? Reading Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’
- Why you should read Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go‘
- What Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ shows us about pain
- Why George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is such a timeless novel