Saturday, February 18, 2012

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

(*Readers be warned: there are spoilers in this review.  You should all have read Animal Farm by this point in your lives, so I’m not holding back.*)

Is there any author better at writing a scathing indictment of human society than George Orwell?  A lot of the time, I think not.  Orwell is best known for two works: 1984 and Animal Farm.  Both are dystopian fiction, and both are haunting in nature.  While I would dearly love to spend time writing about 1984, the topic of this review is Orwell’s other tour de force – Animal Farm.

I first read Animal Farm when I was 13 or 14.  I remember at the time being conscious of the Community under-tones, but I had yet to read 1984, so I was just being introduced to Orwell’s mastery of the dystopian technique.  Animal Farm is the story of the Manor Farm, the stereotypical English estate; however, the Manor farm is run by Mr. Jones, a drunk, and his band of lazy and uncaring farm-hands.  One day, after having not been fed, the animals revolt against the humans and drive them from the farm.  What follows is a period of contentment and cooperation, followed by regime change, followed by a return to the way things were.

I don’t know Russian history very well, so I’m not going to get the names right, but I do recognize the pattern of the 1917 Revolution in this book.  Orwell was a complex person, but I do know that he was a humanist who was deeply affected by the changes in pre-war Europe; Animal Farm reflects his personal experiences and beliefs on those events. 

Like all satire, there are multiple layers of metaphor and illusions in this work.  The most telling is role of the pigs on the farm.  Being cast as the smartest of the animals on the estate, the pigs are the only ones who can read and write well and who are able to strategize.  Very quickly into the Revolution, the pigs become the political power.  There are two factions led by Snowball and Napoleon.  Snowball is idealistic and, while he does take advantage of his power, he is working to better the lives of the animals.  Napoleon, however, is only interested in power.  (See?  Very Russia 1917.)  The names are clever: Snowball is trying to improve the lot of the animals for idealistic reasons – snow is white, and colour often associated with purity, even though snowballs can hurt.  Napoleon is the perfect name for the villain of an English tale – stepping beyond the obvious fact that England trounced Napoleon completely in 1815, Napoleon was also a johnny-come-lately to the power structure of Revolutionary France and had no real authority to set up an Empire on the backs of the French people.

While the pigs are in charge, aided by the dogs as a kind of brown-shirt force (and yes, I know I’m mixing my fascist metaphors now), the rest of the animals are cajoled, fooled and otherwise duped into believing that they are happy and that the Revolution was a successes and what they wanted.  When the pigs begin placing themselves above the other animals, the porcine spokes-pig, Squealer, offers excuses, explanations and rational which Dick Cheney would be proud of.  One of the tenants of the Revolution, that all animals are equal, was re-crafted to read that “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”  (You have undoubtedly heard that saying in the real world: much like the use of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘2+2=5’ from 1984 have become part of our zeitgeist, Orwell’s Animal Farm made contributions as well.)

Throughout the book, the reader becomes more and more uncomfortable with the changes enacted by Napoleon (who, btw, drives of Snowball and makes him the scapegoat for all ills experienced on the farm) as it becomes clearer and clearer that the pigs are abusing their power and forgetting the driving force behind the Revolution. 

In the final and worse act of breaking the faith with their fellow animals, the pigs redraft the Revolution’s slogan of “Four legs good, two legs bad” (chanted mindlessly at the drop of a hat by, who else, the sheep) to “Four legs good, two legs better.”  Under the guise of needing supplies the farm cannot produce, the pigs then break more tenants of the Revolution and commerce with man and accept paper money.  One evening, the non-pigs of the farm, hearing a ruckus in the farm house, peer through the windows to see the pigs drinking and playing cards with the men from the neighbouring farms.  The closing line of the book speaks eloquently to the situation and, in its role as a metaphor, to the Communist reality:

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.

The message of dystopian reality is clear: all Revolutions will eventually return to the point where they began.  Orwell plays the dystopian author’s best card – he leaves his reader without hope. 

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Quite frankly, if you haven’t already, I don’t know what’s been stopping you.  Clever, complex and haunting, Animal Farm is a piece of our Western literary heritage that can’t be ignored and should be read by one and all.  Once you’ve finished with this one, read 1984 (or read it again, as the case may be).  Both works are amazing, and illustrate why Orwell is one of the best at his craft.

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