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Reading Buddies Wrap-Up: “Animal Farm” by George Orwell

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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:

Animal Farm by George Orwell (cover)“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.)

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  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I also don’t really know a lot of the history behind this book, but I do remember scenes in it very concretely. It’s not a feel good book for sure, but I think I do want to read it again to see what I get out of it. Great review, Erin!

    • Erin

      It’s a really quick read–I was surprised! I think it’d be an interesting one to read at different points in your life, to see how your reaction to and understanding of it changes.

  • http://www.eclectic-eccentric.com Trisha

    I read this a long, long time ago in either late middle school or early high school, and I remember enjoying it. Of course, I also had no freaking clue at the time that the story was supposed to be all allegorical and the such not. I read it as a straight up fable, a moral tale. I wonder how I would feel reading it now…..

    • Erin

      It works as a plain old fable, though, which is cool! Though as an adult I was rather fascinated by the extra layer a bit of knowledge about Orwell added.

  • http://homeofaimala.blogspot.com/ Amy

    This is a book I want to read again to see how it sits with me now. I read it back in high school and, even though I read it for class, we treated it as a fable. I think before I read it I’ll do a little research on Orwell, he’s a fascinating man anyway, and on the history behind it. I enjoyed your review, especially with the bit of Orwell that you included…very interesting!

    • Erin

      Definitely a good little book to revisit, I think. I bet it’s one of those books that’s different depending on when you read it, how much background knowledge you have, and so on.

  • http://www.writersrest.com Lindsay Edmunds

    I just finished Animal Farm myself and really appreciated your thoughtful review. It was obvious from reading the Wikipedia article that this little book made lot of people in high places very uncomfortable. It is powerful in the way a fable can be.

    The poignant thing was that the suffering of the animals was real, their revolt was justified, and their idea of a better way to run the farm was infused with high ideals. A scapegoat on whom everything is blamed, the weaseling words, the outright lies, the decadence of the leaders, their growing reliance on threats — all are sadly familiar.

    I read this book in high school and was too young to get much out of it.

    • Erin

      Thanks for sharing some preliminary thoughts. I’m looking forward to discussing this one with the group next week!

  • http://loveyalit.com Em (Love YA Lit)

    I read this in high school and then re-read (via audiobook) as an adult a year or two ago. I remembered very little between readings, except that I had liked it as a teen. As an adult, the parts that struck me the most were (SPOILERS) Boxer being taken away in the truck and the very last scene (ok maybe the spoiler alert wasn’t so necessary). The Boxer scene left me in tears.

    • Erin

      Yes, the Boxer scene was heartbreaking! And the end, so disheartening.

  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    God, it’s been ages since I read this. I remember finding it extremely humorous in high school — is that meant to be the case, or was I a dumb kid?

    • Erin

      There are definitely parts that are humorous! Though I bet if you read it again now you’d find parts much darker than you did in high school.

  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    I read this one fairly recently and only knew part of the background of the story. I’m sure I would have gained much more had I known more about Orwell and his ideologies. I still have 1984 on the shelf to read so perhaps before I tackle that one I’ll take some time to learn more about Orwell. Overall I enjoyed the book, though.

    • Erin

      I’m guessing I’ll get to 1984 eventually! I have no idea how much Orwell’s ideologies played into that one, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they figure rather heavily.