To those who haven’t read Animal Farm by George Orwell: beware! Spoilers are fair game in this post and its comments.
Having finished Animal Farm (my first Orwell), I find myself of two minds. I do feel it’s a good book, worthy its “classic” status and of its wide reading base. Intellectually, I found it quite interesting. However–and I think this was intended–there isn’t much depth to the story in terms of plot intricacies or character development. It’s not the sort of tale one gets swept away in, and because of that, Animal Farm isn’t destined to live amongst my favorites.
I think Animal Farm was much more interesting to me than it would otherwise have been because of the little bit of background I read about Orwell before tackling the novel. I suppose a thorough knowledge of the actual historical events Animal Farm represents would have added interest as well; but lacking that, I turned to the author. Of particular interest to me was how Orwell’s position was (deliberately?) misrepresented in order to make Animal Farm serve purposes it wasn’t intended to serve. The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition, written by Julian Symons:
“Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were used not only as anti-Soviet but also anti-Socialist propaganda and their author acclaimed, particularly in the United States, as a one-time Socialist who had seen and repented of his errors. Often what he had said or written was unscrupulously treated. The preface to a Signet paperback edition, published in 1956, which sold several million copies, quoted Orwell’s statement: ‘Every line I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism’. It then omitted the rest of the sentence: ‘and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.'” (p. xvii)
That’s quite a difference. I read somewhere that many people believed the defeat of the animals at the end of Animal Farm meant Orwell was saying socialism would fail. I wonder how these people could possibly think Orwell portrayed the triumph of the human/pig alliance as a good thing and the defeat of the other animals as right.
There’s a (kind of long) passage in chapter VII which, to me, exemplifies what I understand to be Orwell’s point. From it I get that human rule is worse than the present conditions, though none of the animals expected the path they set out upon in the beginning to go so terribly awry, a sentiment I believe echoes Orwell’s own belief:
“As Clover looked down the hillside her eyes filled with tears. If she could have spoken her thoughts, it would have been to say that this was not what they had aimed at when they had set themselves years ago to work for the overthrow of the human race. These scenes of terror and slaughter were not what they had looked forward to on that night when old Major first stirred them to rebellion. If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak, as she had protected the lost brood of ducklings with her foreleg on the night of Major’s speech. Instead–she did not know why–they had come to a time when no one dated speak his mind, when fierce growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes. There was no thought of rebellion or disobedience in her mind She knew that even as things were they were far better off than they had been in the days of Jones, and that before all else it was needful to prevent the return of the human beings. Whatever happened she would remain faithful, work hard, carry out the orders that were given to her, and accept the leadership of Napoleon. But still, it was not for this that she and all the other animals had hoped and toiled. It was not for this that they had built the windmill and faced the pellets of Jones’s gun. Such were her thoughts, though she lacked the words to express them.” (p. 56-57)
Switching gears a bit: I was interested to read that the novel’s original title was Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, but the subtitle was dropped for the 1946 US publication and never added back. I’m glad that for once I read the introduction before I read the book, because looking at Animal Farm as a fable put me in a different mind frame than I would’ve been in had I been expecting the sort of novel I’m used to. It read, to me, like an extended Aesop’s fable. And, indeed, a quick Googling of “fable definition” turns up the following:
Noun: 1. A short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral
Granted, Animal Farm isn’t as short as some fables, but it’s much shorter than your typical novel. And the other two characteristics–animal characters and a moral–are definitely present.
Overall? I’m glad I read it. As a novel, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it much, but as a fable, and with a bit of background on Orwell mixed in, I found it a quick and interesting read. (By the way, if you’re looking for more, Wikipedia’s article on Animal Farm is quite extensive, including a character list and more.)