Animal Farm

by George Orwell

Cover image

Publisher: Signet Classics
Copyright: 1946
Printing: August 1959
Format: Mass market
Pages: 128

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Animal Farm opens with a clandestine meeting of the animals of Manor Farm after the owner, Mr. Jones, goes to bed drunk. Old Major, a boar, had a dream that he wanted to relate to all of the animals. His dream was of a farm governed by the animals, without Mr. Jones and other humans stealing all of their work, where all the animals were free and equal and worked to support themselves instead of their masters. Old Major dies before his vision is seen, but two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, take up the cause, flesh out his vision, and convince the animals that it's possible. The next time Jones lashes out with cruelty, the animals rebel, drive him and his wife off the farm, and take it over for themselves.

At first, the rebellion is an amazing success. The farm animals are giddy with joy and quickly change how everything is done on the farm. Seven basic principles are drawn up and painted on the side of the shed, the animals do their tasks with far more efficiency than possible before and work more collectively, the harvest is the best they've ever seen, and everyone has more food and more leisure. The only sign of the trouble to come is that the pigs don't seem to do much of the physical work, instead saying that they're the best ones to do the organizing and directing. But slowly, the pigs take more and more control, the principles begin to change conveniently, times get worse, and Napoleon slowly seizes control.

It's always a bit odd to review a book that nearly everyone has already read in high school (and probably has written a book report on). It's particularly odd to admit that this is one's first reading, as my idiosyncratic literature education missed Animal Farm and I'd never gotten around to reading it afterwards. But this is a fascinating book to read as an adult, particularly against the backdrop of reading Orwell's collected non-fiction writings including his own commentary on the purpose of the book and his feelings while writing it.

To warn, I consider the basic plot arc and tone of Animal Farm to be so much a part of our culture as to be beyond spoilers and therefore comment in more depth on later parts of the book than I normally would. If you haven't yet read the book and want to avoid all spoilers, you should stop reading here.

Animal Farm is, of course, a satirical allegory, very specifically of the Russian Revolution and of Stalin (Napoleon in the book), but more generally of revolution, the idealism of utopias, and the way in which people take control of societies founded on principles of equality. Several of the characters and settings have obvious specific mappings: Mr. Jones is Tsar Nicholas II, the farm itself is Russia, the neighboring farms are neighboring countries (particularly Pinchfield, representing Germany, and Foxwood, representing the Allies), old Major is Marx (with perhaps a bit of Lenin), Napoleon as mentioned is Stalin, Snowball is Trotsky, and Squealer is Pravda and the Russian government propaganda in general. But many of the other characters represent broader classes of people or even ideas, and the story reads wonderfully as both a specific satire and a general commentary on revolution and government.

On the first reading, of specific satire, it's well-done and more detailed than one might realize without reading background material and perhaps some keys to the mappings (the Wikipedia article is mediocre but somewhat helpful). The negotiations and treaties and betrayals of the lead-in to World War II are all here, as are Stalin's purges, the famines, the creeping re-establishment of capitalism in the farm's external dealings, and a brilliant closing scene that captures the Tehran Conference and even the post-war confrontation between Stalin and the United States. The conflict between Napoleon and Snowball and Napoleon's subsequent use of Snowball throughout the rest of the book is a viciously sharp attack on the Stalinist vilification of Trotsky and tactic of blaming Trotskyites for everything, something that Orwell talks about at length in other books. Animal Farm is a remarkable history lesson in miniature, the sort that prods one to go look up facts rather than teaching them directly.

But for me, it's the broader reading that makes the book, and while there are multiple facets to Orwell's allegorical portrayal, I think the heart of the story is Boxer and Benjamin.

Boxer is one of the farm's two cart-horses, the hardest worker and the strongest animal on the farm. He isn't particularly intelligent, but he's steady and determined. In the revolution, Boxer is the true believer. Early on, he takes as his motto "I will work harder," and puts his heart and soul into making the farm a success. Later, when times get rougher, he sadly adds "Napoleon is always right," setting aside his doubts and redoubling his efforts.

Benjamin, on the other hand, is the farm donkey. He's cantankerous and ill-tempered, cynical, and the oldest animal on the farm. He refuses to take a position on the revolution and is entirely unaffected by the patriotic fervor the other animals. He simply continues on working at the same pace he always has, staying out of politics, not commenting even when the pigs start changing the rules. Benjamin is the disaffected cynic, certain that "life would go on as it always had gone on — that is, badly."

Benjamin is, of course, right. Benjamin is the knowing voice of the reader who's familiar with the Russian Revolution, of the author who knows how badly things will turn out, of the political cynic who is nearly always right. But Benjamin is not the sympathetic character in Animal Farm. Boxer is. Benjamin may most closely match the knowledge and feeling of the reader, but it's hard to read this book without partly wanting to be Boxer. Wanting to believe, wanting to work towards a greater goal and a larger good, wanting to think that by main force, dedication, and sheer effort, the world can become a better place. And in a beautifully poignant commentary on politics, Orwell paints Boxer and Benjamin as close friends, a friendship of entirely opposite personalities but deep mutual respect. Benjamin is proven right, but Benjamin cares more about Boxer than about being right, which is a key to the tragedy of the book.

Animal Farm is not, at its core, an attack on utopias or even on communism; that reading is far too simplistic. Old Major, for example, is portrayed positively throughout the book. Orwell was a committed socialist. And that, I think, is why he could write this book and give it this much power. Animal Farm is the story of betrayal of ideals, of the way leaders in general and Stalin in particular can hijack a longing for a better world and turn it into a different tool of oppression. If it were written by someone who believed only in free-market capitalism, it would be a polemic. It's Boxer and the desire to believe that gives it all of its emotional depth, making it a tragedy.

I could go on at even greater length: there are so many analogies in this book that are worth taking apart and analyzing. A major theme here, as in 1984, is the destruction of history, the ability to rewrite people's memories through persuasion and persistent repetition. The general illiteracy of the animals helps significantly, leaving the reader to imagine what might be different if Boxer could read and had a better memory. And I haven't mentioned Mollie, or the elections, or the way Snowball is the opposition but is still complicit in the initial seizure of power by the pigs. Suffice it to say that if you've not yet read this book, I highly recommend it, and if you have but remember it only dimly, it's worth reading again.

I do have to say one final word about the framing of this book, and with it, about the attempts of various political orthodoxies to claim Orwell for themselves. The version of this book I read is a 1959 Signet Classics edition with an introduction by C.M. Woodhouse taken from the Times Literary Supplement in 1954. This is a mere nine and four years, respectively, after Orwell's death, but already you can see the process of recasting and respinning Orwell's beliefs begin in the author bio at the start of the book:

He was essentially a political writer who wrote of his own times, a man of intense feelings and fierce hates. He hated intellectuals, although he was a literary critic. He hated the Communists, although he had served in the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. He hated leftists, although he was a Socialist.

Notice how Orwell's political convictions, which from his non-fiction writing are clearly based on thought, detailed analysis, and specific policy positions as well as moral beliefs, are instead attributed to passion and emotion. They're described as "intense," as "hates," and worked around a little so that the free-market anti-socialist capitalist can feel that Orwell is on their side, really, and where he isn't, it's just a sad excess of feeling. It's a deft sidelining and belittling of his extensively-argued political beliefs and advocacy in order to claim him for an audience that he largely disagreed with.

I have a current printing of 1984 with a copyright date of 1977; its bio of Orwell, while recognizably based on the same original biography, amazingly manages to avoid the words "Communist," "Socialist," or "leftist" entirely; from it alone, you could believe Orwell was a Randian libertarian if you wanted.

The introduction continues this sort of deftly twisted praise and dodging of Orwell's beliefs, claiming him wholeheartedly for the anti-Communist cause (which isn't wholly unjustified insofar as Communism was redefined to mean Stalinism), but then avoiding any of his other inconvenient beliefs. The most glaring part of Woodhouse's introduction to me was the canonization of Churchill that he engages in alongside his discussion of Animal Farm. The contrast to Orwell's own beliefs is startling. Woodhouse, to be sure, carefully never puts his words in Orwell's mouth, but the constant juxtaposition could easily create the impression, for one who hadn't just read Orwell's own writings on the topic, that Orwell would agree with this glowing praise of Churchill as the man who won the war. Orwell's own opinion of Churchill, as a gifted orator but only marginally better than Chamberlain as a politician and firmly on the wrong side politically, doesn't fit with the already-established mythology.

I think Orwell's portrayal in Animal Farm of the manipulation of history is too easy; the point he's making is valid, but the techniques presented are simplified and more effective than they would be, the risk somewhat overstated. But it's hard to argue that position strongly when one reads the rewriting of history that takes place in the framing of his own books, a rewriting that allows Orwell to be a darling of right-wing advocates of capitalism who argue on Wikipedia that there's no way he could be a socialist.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-11-16

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