I’m going to assume you have read this book.
Probably in high school.
Even if your English teacher was not the best teacher you ever had, you probably got most of what there is to get in Animal Farm. It’s a straightforward book; Mr. Orwell makes sure that everyone understands his point. While the communist revolution may have started well, may have even brought peace, prosperity and equality for a while, Stalin soon seized power and destroyed all that was good about it.
I’m a firm believer that Mr. Orwell’s best work can be found in his non-fiction; there’s nothing in Animal Farm to compare with Homage to Catalonia or essays like “Shooting an Elephant”, but the story is still a good one, the critique of Stalinism is still a damning indictment and, unfortunately, Animal Farm still has a message relevant to our time. Even for those of us who never lived under Stalin.
Consider three examples:
1. In Animal Farm there is a pig named Squealer who has, as his sole function, the job of convincing all the other animals that what their leader, Napoleon, the evil pig who represents Stalin, is doing is the right thing to do. Squealer must face the animals and lie to them, cajole them, convince them that what they saw with their own eyes or lived through themselves, is not what really happened. Squealer is Napoleon’s spin-meister, the media pig who corrects the story and tells everyone what “really” is true. This keeps the animals from questioning their society, keeps them working from day to day without raising objection to how they are treated by those above them. Squealer is the agent who convinces everyone not to question the status quo. He must make everyone believe that the pigs should eat better food while working much less than they do.
2. The dedicated, devoted worker Boxer, a draft horse, gives his all for the cause. Whenever anything goes wrong, Boxer takes it upon himself to work harder, to get up earlier than before, work later, do more than his fare share, all he is capable of doing, to make sure that the job gets done and done as well as it can be. Boxer never complains about the effort he puts into his work, never holds anyone else’s lack of effort against them, never questions those in charge. He has faith that his work will be rewarded one day with retirement to the pasture set aside for him and for others where he can peacefully live out his old age. Instead, when he has worked himself so hard he can no longer do much of anything, he finds the retirement pasture has been given over to growing wheat for the production of beer drunk only by the pigs in charge and he is sold to a glue factory.
3. By the novel’s end a few pigs are living the high life while the rest of the animals gain nothing from their labor. They are told that they are better off than they were before under the oppressive farmer, and many of them still believe it, but the readers know this is not so. The pigs are better off, surely, but the rest of the animals suffer to make this possible.
Darn that George Orwell.
I first ran this review on my old blog back in September of 2011. Lately, there has been an uptick in sales of Orwell’s 1984 which I’m sure you’ve heard about. I think this is a mistake. I think Animal Farm is really the book we should be reading now, if we should be reading Orwell. Reading my review above, I’ve come to conclude that we’re not dealing with another Big Brother but with a Napoleon, a greedy, egocentric pig who will sell us all out to make himself and those like him even fatter than they already are.
Okay, that’s a little cynical, and I do try to avoid politics here, but that’s what I think.