Animal Farm by George Orwell, Penguin Books, London, 2008, pp. 95, £8.99 (paperback)
For Bernard Leckning
When was it published? First published on 17 August 1945 in England. A mere 5 years before the author’s death.
Why was it published? The subtitle is curious: ‘A Fairy Story.’ According to Orwell scholar Peter Davison, Orwell had an ‘abiding fascination’ with fairy tales. It pays to reflect on this point, because there is something magical about animals learning to talk and taking over a farm; something that may be thematically far more interesting than (just) a political satire or allegorical tale of Stalinism.
Where is it critically located in Orwell’s oeuvre? Perhaps this book can be grouped with Nineteen Eighty-Four as works of science fiction? Considering it one of his finest achievements, Orwell was extremely proud of Animal Farm.
What is it supposed to mean in its historical context? A critique of socialism. The corrupting influence of power and authority. Every administration has an expiry date. The negative consequences for a society when a leader with the best intentions overstays their welcome, is an evident message in Orwell’s story. Hubris sets in. The folk-saying that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ resonates with the underlying theme of Animal Farm.
What was its critical reception at the time? According to Davison’s numbers, a total hit. His most popular work translated into myriad languages.
How does it stand up to scrutiny with the passage of time? Is it dated? Is it still relevant? The question of power will always be a core concern for any society (and indeed for any group of people). So in this sense Orwell’s story will remain relevant for a long while to come. In Animal Farm power is conceived as top down; something that is total and irresistible. The reality is that power is always resisted by repressed subjects. The idea that the subjugated animals (particularly the clever ones, such as Benjamin the donkey) would not try to fight back the cunning and resourceful pigs (Napolean and his henchman, Squealer) does not square off with the opening chapters of the book where the animals overthrow the original owner of Manor Farm, Mr Jones.
Orwell’s decision to end the story on such a glib note (with the pigs mimicking their former oppressors, standing on hind legs, drinking alcohol and wearing human clothes whilst the sheep, who symbolise the masses, blasphemously bleat ‘four legs good, two legs better’) is not satisfying. Rather than resolve the tension created by the structure of the narrative – in which a fresh uprising against the pigs would make sense – Orwell indulges in his pessimism about the capacity of the Everyman to achieve political consciousness.
What is the critical value of the work? Does it succeed in its aims and objectives as a work in its own right? It is, I believe, a beautiful thing. The chapters are short and succinct. The prose simple and clear. There is no excess here. One senses that Orwell does not want anything to cloud the meaning and potency of a work rapidly conceived and produced over the winter months of 1943-1944, when the tide of war was turning in the allied powers’ favour. As a work in its own right, it may have satisfied the author’s liberal and aesthetic impulses, but it did so at the cost of creating characters that are disappointingly one dimensional. For example, Napolean and Squealer never achieve full personalities. They are purely bad without a hint of feeling or emotion.
If Orwell wanted us to hate Napolean and Squealer, he had to create two characters that were incapable of eliciting sympathy and understanding. He succeeds. But only at the cost of creating cartoon characters that do little more than amuse, horrify, repulse (in other words, entertain) the reader. As for the other animals, they are portrayed as unfailingly stupid, mostly on account of their memories which always seem to fail them, thereby allowing Napolean to literally get away with murder.
‘No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.’ Somehow or other the last two words had slipped out of the animals’ memory. But they saw now that the Commandment had not been violated; for clearly there was good reason for killing the traitors who had leagued themselves with Snowball (61).
Indeed most of the animals are so stupid and gullible (for example ‘They were fine up standings beasts, willing workers and good comrades, but very stupid (85).’) that one senses in Orwell an underlying misanthropic tendency that finds its most lucid expression in the final lines of the book, where the respective visages of the humans and pigs become indistinguishable:
No question, now, what happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which (95).
Should we still read Orwell? How popular is it today? What is the quality of that popularity? Although it is a flawed book I do think we should read Animal Farm; for the way it entertainingly illustrates the dangerous tendencies of political idealism. Animal Farm is also rewarding on fronts other than the political. Besides being a work of magical realism, it anticipates contemporary debates on sustainability and animal rights. And it is beautifully written. Of course it is a popular book, but that does not mean people read it. Like Moby Dick and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, it is one of those must-have books in one’s private collection, that is prized and talked about, though seldom read, or read closely.
Animal Farm is a very grim and sometimes gory fairy tale without a fairy tale ending. For this reason, it may be more appropriate for mature aged readers. Because the chapters are mercifully short and the prose easy to understand, the book is also useful for students learning English as a second language.