Saturday, March 20, 2021

Animal Farm by George Orwell


Like many teenagers, I was diametrically opposed to the literary fiction foisted upon me by teachers I hated. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books I read in high school that I actually enjoyed: this is one of them. I read a lot of what people consider "junk" on this website but I spent two years reading most of the classics. My go-to stance on the subject is that reading some books over others doesn't make you a smarter human being, but even if you don't like the classics, you should probably at least give the Cliff Notes a look-over just so you understand the literary references when they're mentioned in other books. ANIMAL FARM in particular is mentioned a lot in other books and the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution is such an important moment in global history that it's important to understand why it happened, and reading this book makes it so much easier to understand the timeline.

I've seen some people saying that they chose to read this book without taking into account the historical context but since this is both an allegory and a roman à clef, this is one of the few novels where it really isn't possible to separate it from its broader context. As a "talking animal" book, I will admit it is not the best (if that's what you want, I'd recommend RATS OF NIMH or WATERSHIP DOWN instead), although I do think the animals have pretty strong characters. I will never not cry at the final scene with Boxer and Benjamin. It's like chopping onions.

ANIMAL FARM is about a farm called "Manor Farm" that is lorded over by Mr. Jones (an allegory for Czar Nicholas II). After Old Major (Karl Marx) gives his vision for a future in which animals are free and work together to achieve common goals together without the yoke of tyranny, the animals find and take an opportunity to rebel and claim the farm as their own, renaming it "Animal Farm." (Hence the title.) At first, everyone is happy. The gambol and skip around the fields, burn the bridles and the whips, and rejoice in their brotherhood, their comradeship. These are the glory days when all seems possible.

The animals possess various degrees of intelligence, with the pigs and the dogs being among the smartest and the geese and the sheep and the chickens being the stupidest. Two pigs take charge, Snowball and Napoleon, who represent Trotsky and Stalin, respectively. When Snowball runs off, this is meant to represent Trotsky fleeing from Russia, but he was later assassinated in Mexico (with an ice-axe-- yikes!), which is never mentioned in the book. Likewise, Czar Nicholas was assassinated with a gunshot to the head, but Jones, his allegory, is only run off. Perhaps because the alternative was deemed too brutal. I suppose there are only so many gory murders one can stomach in a 100-page short story.

Squealer goes around telling the other animals warped versions of reality to reflect the pigs' constant edits to the original Animal Farm tenets to benefit themselves. He represents the U.S.S.R. propaganda, Pravda, and all of the other organs that disseminated propaganda at this time. Ironically, pravda means "truth" in Russian when the things that it was reporting often reflected anything but.

The farm animals represent various strata within the construction of the new Soviet society. Boxer and Clover, the draft horses, represent the proletariat, or the working class. Boxer's ultimate demise at the hands of the pigs represents how the working class suffered under the Czar and continued to suffer under the Communists, some dying in poverty believing their conditions would better. Mollie represents the White Russians of the former noble class who fled with their jewels after the fall of the Czar (which is why she takes off so early in the book). Benjamin represents the intellectuals. The dogs represented the KGB, or the secret police. The pigs represent the Communist party, in general. At one point, when the chickens revolt, they represent the farmers in Ukraine (called "kulaks"), which resulted in the holodomor. Stalin starved peasant farmers into a widespread famine with executions and impossibly high grain quotas. It is now considered an act of genocide by many governments. The execution of the chickens by Napoleon is combined with the death of the four dissenting pigs, who represent Bolsheviks who were killed by Stalin in what is called the Great Purge.

The two neighboring farmers, Pilkington and Frederick, represent the United Kingdom and the allies and Germany, respectively. Since much of the events in the book take place during WWII, "Germany" as it is portrayed here is probably meant to be an allegory for Hitler and his interactions with the Soviet government during WWII.

At the end of the book, when the animals see the pigs with the humans and cannot tell them apart, it is meant to show that they did not cast of the yoke of oppression after all, but merely traded one oppressor for another. It's one of the most chilling endings in literary fiction that I remember reading because it's so powerful, and honestly, the fact that Orwell does all of this in less than one hundred pages is truly amazing. For some reason, I remembered this being a longer story than it was, but my edition clocked in at just shy of one hundred pages. Despite this, it reads as being a complete story, regardless, and I definitely recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars

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