on 12 December 2000
Since its publication in 1946 Animal Farm has been hailed as one of the most influential pieces of fictional political writing in the twentieth century, an accolade that the novel thoroughly deserves. The first time I read it was as an A Level student studying the Russian Revolution. I was amazed at how simply but effectively Orwell delivered such a powerful message. In a career spanning many brilliant works, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Road To Wigan Pier and Coming Up For Air, this is quite simply one of his best. The book centres around the themes of revolution and how communist ideals of justice and equality give way to totalitarianism. Using a farm and its inhabitants to represent the places and main characters of the time, it tells the story of the Russian Bolshevik revolution. Orwell explores the evils of power, money, propaganda and terror to bring us a shocking tale of greed and tyranny.
The story revolves around a group of mistreated farm animals who fight for control of their home. The farm's prize pig, Old Major, insights revolution when he tells all the animals of a dream he had about how "the Earth will be when Man has vanished." The animals confront their exploitative human owners and force them out of Manor Farm. They then set up their own society renaming it "Animal Farm". A new set of laws they are to abide by is then decided on and these are written as seven commandments, the most important being that "all animals are equal." Unfortunately this commandment is the first to go when Old Major dies and the intelligent Pigs take over. The new leaders succumb to the temptations that power provides and become dictators of the farm. What ensues is a vivid description of how power corrupts and leaves the animals in no better a position then when they were under the rule of the humans.
Orwell paints a masterfully bleak picture of Soviet Communism and the fat cats (or pigs in this case) of the twentieth century. One amazing thing about the novel is that we can easily relate things that happen in Animal Farm to events that have occurred since the book was published. The air of prophecy in Orwell's writing is eerily apparent. This however, is by no means the story's only plus. As well as the stark political message we also get a completely engrossing story. The satire is compelling but at the same time it is quite easy to feel compassion for some of the characters in Animal Farm. The vast majority of people who have read the book cannot help but feel sympathy and respect for Boxer the work-hoarse as he strives to do the best he can for his fellow citizens. Boxer is not used in Orwell's novel to represent a single person, but to represent a group of people, in this case the tireless workers caught in a totalitarian regime. The animals in the book and their main characteristics are often used in this way. For example the growling dogs are used to represent some sort of secret police that would terrorise the people. Orwell has said that he often wrote because there was some lie or injustice he wanted to expose. This is the main reason he used the literary technique of allegory in Animal Farm. It works because it allows Orwell to bring our attention to those events during the Russian revolution that concerned him the most. His feelings on Stalin's cruel regime are not hidden, suggested, or argued about, they are there for all to see. Orwell is quoted as saying that he had tried to write "less picturesquely and more exactly" and this is precisely the case. He uses a distinctively straightforward and simple style to create a very linear tale. This makes everything seem almost light, but at the same time it is effective and powerful. The end result of Orwell's prose style is a brilliant piece of bitter political satire, crossed with remarkably accurate historical allegory, that still manages to remain serious and deliver a telling reminder of how revolution went wrong. There is no wonder this novel is considered world wide to be a real classic of the twentieth century. True appreciation of the book does come with an understanding of the Russian revolution but those without can still interpret its message, which continues to be relevant to this day. I cannot recommend this book enough, I thoroughly enjoyed every page.
on 17 September 2015
'Animal Farm' is subtitled 'A Fairy Story', and like any good European fairy story, this one features a number of grotesque characters and folk villains brought to life in animal form. Yet in truth, 'Animal Farm' is not a fairy story at all (though as explained below, it reads like one and has many of the genre's literary elements). It is more properly considered an allegory. Like Orwell's magnum opus, 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', 'Animal Farm' is a critique of the politics of Orwell's time: in this case, specifically what became known as ‘Russian Communism’. For the first edition, published in 1945, Orwell himself wrote this of 'Animal Farm':
"It is the history of a revolution that went wrong - and of the excellent excuses that were forthcoming at every step for the perversion of the original doctrine."
Orwell recognised that the Soviet Union was essentially a lie: based on a fake ideology and a corruption of true communism and socialism. This insight forms the subtext of his allegorical critique, but the story also resembles a ‘fairy tale’ in a literary sense. In ‘Animal Farm’ the animals can talk, and in common with the fairy tale tradition, it is ‘animal wisdom’, not human wisdom, that is central to the story’s message. Orwell even gives the animals’ fictitious collective ideology a name – Animalism. What is less clear is Orwell’s own attitude to the true goals and ideas of naïve Animalism (which is allegorical to true socialism and communism). Orwell possibly thought there was something fairy tale-like about the notion that the animals can live together under some kind of self-government of democratic ownership, and if so, ‘Animal Farm’ could be seen as a rejection of socialism/communism itself. Or it may be that Orwell believed the fairy tale to be Stalin’s Russia and the utopian image that some Leftists in Britain and elsewhere in the West ascribed to it. My guess would be a combination of the two, and I am not convinced that Orwell properly understood socialism. It’s likely that ‘Animal Farm’ (and indeed ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’) was really a critique of Stalinism rather than Bolshevism/state-socialism per se. Orwell was not attacking the Russian Revolution itself, which he probably thought might lead to a human form of Animalism; he was really attacking what he saw as its corruption under Stalin.
The quote of Orwell that I reproduce above lends credence to this interpretation, as does the following from Orwell’s preface to the Ukranian edition of the book. In reference to the uncritical enthusiasm for Stalin’s Russia among 1940s British intellectuals, Orwell opines:
“This has caused great harm to the Socialist movement in England, and had serious consequences for English foreign policy. Indeed, in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.”
Like its literary cousin, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, ‘Animal Farm’ is emphatically a pro-socialist work (at least, 'socialism' as Orwell understood it). But there are also more general lessons about revolution here. A crucial moment in the plot comes when the animals realise that the Rebellion was for the benefit of its leaders, not the animals collectively, who largely remain ignorant and illiterate and dependent on their pig-guardians. Orwell's message is that a true revolution must involve a raising of popular consciousness, otherwise it is merely a swapping of leader personalities. Now to the story.
The plot unfolds at a place called Manor Farm, which is run by Mr. Jones, who (along with Mrs. Jones) I suppose is meant to represent the royal family overthrown during the Russian Revolution. It is not explained how or why, but the animals seem to have had a political awakening, though some are more politically conscious than others. One day they decide to revolt and take over the farm. This is only a small part of the story, because the main concern of Orwell is what happens when the animals have to live together under apparent self-government. One thing that people do not often comment on when discussing ‘Animal Farm’ is the way that Orwell socially classifies the animals according to their innate differences, in a way that echoes Huxley’s novel ‘Brave New World’.
Typically the interpretation applied to ‘Animal Farm’ is that these differences are social, but this does not, and cannot, fit with the use of animals to tell the story and I have often wondered whether the exploitation of innate differences in the capabilities of the different animals was intentional on Orwell’s part or just an accident. Whatever is the case, it is undeniable that these differences between the animals, and the distinctive characteristics of each type of animal, are pivotal to the dynamic of the story and cause most of the tension and drama and do seem to convey a message that Orwell might not have intended: that human beings are themselves different and unequal and that these differences might have some basis in the social groups that humans form and in the sub-consciousness of people. Orwell might have been merely stating a fact when he had one of his animal characters change a written commandment of the Rebellion from “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.
‘Animal Farm’ is a story rich with social and political allegory, right down to the minutest plot detail. Volumes could be written on that subject alone. Here I’ll just concentrate on one or two of the major character selections. The pigs are the cleverest of the animals and teachers of the other animals in the ways of Animalism. They form the leadership of the Rebellion. The pigs then govern the animals, betraying the original ideals of the revolution. They can be regarded as the Bolsheviks of the story. They teach themselves to read and write and then elucidate the principles of Animalism in a series of written commandments that change over time. It is this theme of change in ‘Animal Farm’ that forms an important part of the story. Initially Animalism is idealistic. Major, a large pig who appears at the beginning of the story, is an allegorical composite of Karl Marx and Vladmir Lenin, whom Orwell, in his naivety about socialism, probably saw as representing much the same ideas ideologically and praxically. Major represents Animalism in its stage of purity, almost as a religious faith, prior to any practical application. He sets out the vision, which Napoleon and Snowball, then apply. They are the two cleverest pigs and leaders of the Rebellion, but they do not entire share the same outlook on how Animalism might work in practice. Napoleon is the ‘Stalin’ figure, whereas Snowball seems to represent Trotsky. It is Napoleon who brutally twists naïve Animalism into an ideology of raw power, inducing the animals to shift their loyalty from noble ideas to an institution and their Leader, ‘Comrade Napoleon’. Napoleon succeeds largely because he is able to rely on the poor memory and passivity and cowardice of the animals, in that they either do not remember how things once were, or refuse to act on this knowledge or simply remain ignorant of the contradictions and double-standards around them. What assists is the clever use of simplified language by the ruling pigs, which enables them to set the parameters of the animals’ thoughts about their social environment. Simple slogans can also be changed quite easily in significant ways. These are themes that Orwell takes up to great effect in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, and is a recurring theme in politics today. Gore Vidal once described the body of politics of his native country as the ‘United States of Amnesia’, a reference to how the population can be simply manipulated by allowing past events to escape down the memory hole.
Some of the allegorical identities are a little more obvious. Squealer represents the Russian media, who were complicit with Stalin’s brutal regime. The greater majority of the animals represent the working class, Orwell’s clear point being that the capitalist social relations of production continued to exist within the Soviet Union, notwithstanding the ‘revolution’, with a capitalist class and a working class, the latter represented by the majority of the animals. However, there are nuances among these majority animals: while the sheep represent the masses and the horses also represent the loyal working class, the status of the birds and hens is less clear. The hens, responsible for egg-laying, which is seen as an important part of production at the farm, represent the farmers who were dispossessed and starved during the enforced collectivisation of the agricultural sector in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1940. Meanwhile, Moses, the black raven, represents religion. Although the pigs are contemptuous of what Moses preaches to the animals, they nevertheless allow him to remain on the farm and even sustain him “…with an allowance of a gill of beer a day.” The dogs represent the security apparatus of the repressive Soviet state.
I always enjoy re-reading ‘Animal Farm’ – it’s one of those works that you don’t tire of, and I like that it has a rustic, English feel to it. Orwell is my favourite writer, mostly I think because he is that most English of authors and able to articulate an English sense of radicalism and socialism. He also has a very plain writing style, which makes his works accessible to almost anyone. He now has a reputation as a sort of left-intellectuals’ writer, but he was in reality a populist and deserves to better-known among the ordinary public than he is. That said, you probably do need some level of political literacy to enjoy ‘Animal Farm’ properly. It can’t be read at face value as just a ‘story’ or indeed a fairy tale. You need to have some understanding of Orwell’s agenda to fully appreciate and enjoy the book, so some background reading on Orwell, his political ideas and the historical period might enhance your experience of ‘Animal Farm’ - if political theory and similar subject matter are new to you. Particular historical areas covered in ‘Animal Farm’ include the Russian Revolution of 1917; the Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s; the Soviet famine of 1932-33; the Great Purge of 1936 to 1938; the German occupation of the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944; the Teheran Conference of 1943, between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin; and the remainder of the Second World War in Europe. Areas of political theory dealt with especially include the differences between Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism respectively.
The edition I read contains an introductory note by Peter Davison, not Malcolm Bradbury. There is also an English translated preface to the Ukranian edition (Appendix II), written by Orwell himself, which I quote from above. There is additionally Orwell’s preface to the first edition (Appendix I), which was not included at the time. This is titled ‘The Freedom of the Press’ and is a critique of the ‘Russomania’ [Orwell’s phrase] that existed among the ‘intelligentsia’ when ‘Animal Farm’ was published. Orwell’s contention is that it was pro-Stalinist feeling that led to soft censorship of the book among publishers, on one occasion at the urging of the Ministry of Information. This censorship took the form of refusals to accept the book or requests for significant changes. This preface is quite an eye-opener, revealing the sycophantic attitudes to the Soviet Union among British intellectuals of the 1940s. Some parts of the preface that discuss the censorious attitudes of the modern Left could almost have been written today. The following passage I think sums up Orwell’s message and resonates with our time:
“One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal. Over and above the familiar Marxist claim that ‘bourgeois liberty’ is an illusion, there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought. This argument was used, for instance, to justify the Russian purges….These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.”
on 15 August 2014
I wanted to read this book because when I was at school I'm pretty sure my English class was the only group that didn't study it, and I always felt a little left out! I felt I was missing out on something not only great, but also something that everyone would understand references to.. but me!
Going into this story, I knew the gist of it, and after reading the first chapter, I know it was going to be a quick read. I know why they read it in year 8 - it is such a simple political allegory to follow! However, the simplicity of the text is not to be criticized, because it actually highlights Orwell's genius! To be able to so concisely write about revolution (with particular reference to the Soviet revolution) and yet make it comprehensible to people of varying reading age/ability, backgrounds, and education is remarkable. This is a story with a point - a warning - about particular aspects of revolution, totalitarianism and fascism, and yet both a 10 year old and a 60 year old can get message through the same enjoyment. Like the book or not, it should be recognized for that great feat at least.
I did enjoy it, a lot. The accompanying appendixes were also interesting - an insight into what Orwell thought about the censorship of his novella at the early stages of publication, and about literary censorship in general - as well as an interesting personal foreword that Orwell wrote for editions for displaced Ukrainians living in camps in Germany.
The introduction by Malcolm Bradbury and the Notes on a Text by Peter Davison were both interesting insights to the reception of the novel, as well as some of the author's thoughts and commentary about the text. Well worth a read, though I chose to read it afterwards because there were a couple of spoilers.
Overall, really good, and I will certainly read more Orwell in the future. It turns out I really did miss out all those years ago!