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. 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 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.
This Post is written for Day#24 of NaBloPoMo which challenges you to a blog post every single day in November. This is a great opportunity to publish posts daily, meet other bloggers, and try something new.
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