Animal Farm by George Orwell

“Fake news” and “alternative facts”…

🙂 🙂 🙂

animal-farm-2Inspired by a dream had by Old Major, the white boar, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

Of course, this fable is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. First published in 1945, Orwell apparently wrote it as a warning to the nations of the Allies, who had been united with the USSR in fighting Nazi Germany and who therefore had been motivated to overlook some of the horrors going on under Stalin. He also felt there were many in the West who were happy to fool themselves that the USSR was a successful experiment in socialism, so he wanted to draw attention to the fact that the regime had become totalitarian, with a hierarchical power structure that Orwell saw as not altogether dissimilar to the power structures in the capitalist Western democracies, with an entrenched ruling class putting its own interests first. (All of this is paraphrased from Orwell’s own introduction to the Ukranian edition of the book, which is reproduced as an appendix in my Penguin Modern Classics edition.)

animal-farm-poster

I first read this as a school text, when I was about thirteen, I think. I remembered it as having rather blown me away at the time, but truthfully because of the Boxer storyline rather than the politics. At that time – the early ’70s – here in the UK, public opinion had largely caught up with Orwell’s interpretation of the regime, and the USSR was seen by the majority as evil and scary, with it and the US facing off against each other over Europe’s head, each building bigger and bigger weapons. (There was a fairly significant minority view, too, that the USSR was indeed successfully socialist and a good thing, and that anyway, whether it was or wasn’t, pacifism and unilateral disarmament were the way to go.) So the message of the book wasn’t really shocking or new as it may have been to those first readers back just after WW2.

animal-farm-boxer

Now, another 40 years on, older, possibly more knowledgeable and certainly more critical, I found I had some issues with Orwell’s portrayal.

The reason Orwell gives for the pigs becoming the leaders is their intelligence. The other animals are fundamentally stupid. Is that, then, Orwell’s view of the leadership and people of the USSR? Are the leaders all brainy while the proles are basically thick? It’s not simply that the other animals are uneducated – in the first flush of enthusiasm after the rebellion, all are given the opportunity to learn to read, but only the pigs and the donkey succeed. Poor old Boxer the horse, the backbone of the revolution, hardworking and utterly loyal, never manages to get past ABCD in learning the alphabet. I fear it smacks of a kind of utterly misplaced intellectual elitism to me, a suggestion that those who become totalitarian dictators do it through superior intelligence. Later, the pigs resort to intimidation, misinformation and propaganda, but not till after the intelligence/stupidity divide has allowed them to take a stranglehold on power. But there’s another aspect to it too, which sat uneasily with me. In this fable, all intelligent animals become corrupt despots, while stupidity seems to equal loyalty and a sense of fairplay and sacrifice.

Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter...???
Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter…???

My second problem is with the idea that the pigs become more humanlike as they become more corrupt. Assuming Farmer Jones represents Czarist Russia, then OK – I can go along with that for the sake of the fable. But if you factor in the other humans on neighbouring farms, with whom the pigs sometimes form alliances and at other times fight, then presumably these other farms represent the countries neighbouring the USSR. So, if the humans in the allegory represent corrupt leadership, the message seems to be that all leaders of all forms of government are corrupt and abuse their proletariat just as much as the USSR does. Even if for the sake of argument one accepts this as true (which I struggle to do even hypothetically), I can’t help but feel it means Orwell undoes his own argument about the unique corruption of power in the USSR. If democratic governments are just as bad as totalitarian ones, then… what’s the point he’s trying to make? Orwell says in his introduction that he didn’t mean for the pigs and humans to appear to fully reconcile at the end, and indeed they don’t, but they have become so similar that it’s hard to say which ones are the more morally or politically acceptable.

animal-farm-all-animals-equal

The book foreshadows the idea of “double-think”, later developed much more effectively and credibly in 1984, as the founding principles of the regime change over time while Squealer, the regime’s spokespig, blatantly denies the truth of the past, and disseminates the new “truth” through regime propaganda. (But at least Orwell doesn’t have the pigs go completely over the credibility line by claiming, for example, that Snowball the pig can’t be the leader because he was born on a foreign farm, or perhaps that Napoleon the pig would have won the popular vote if only five million illegal pigs hadn’t voted for his opponent… 😉 )

In summary, I really preferred the book when I was twelve, when the simplified allegory and emotional appeal of Boxer’s story worked better for me. My adult self found it a bit too simplistic and reliant on the reader not making any serious critical analysis of the underlying messages, when it all begins to lack coherence. An interesting and cautionary re-read though, especially in this troubled time of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

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Book 1 in the RRR Challenge

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70 thoughts on “Animal Farm by George Orwell

  1. I know what you mean about the ‘elitism’ of the clever pigs, although I suppose the Soviet way of dealing with any other clever people was to silence them via gulags or assisted suicides or the like. And you are probably right that Orwell clarified and developed his ideas further for 1984, so some of the things in Animal Farm are not quite thought through carefully.
    However, I am almost beginning to agree with him about the other humans and farms, as I see more and more that nearly all governments in the world are full of self-interest, corruption, all about serving the interests of a small part (usually the more extreme part) of the electorate and so on. I suspect the examples of ‘appeasement’ and Realpolitik disgusted him, which is why he lashed out in the book. It may be exaggerated, but the frustration is understandable.

    • Yes, I kinda got the impression he may have dashed this off quite quickly as an immediate warning, and then thought it through more thoroughly later. I know what you mean about all governments tending to serve the worst of us in the end, but (and I hope I can still say this in four years) no democracy has ever behaved quite as badly as Stalin (if you discount Nazi Germany as a democracy, of course). There’s less of a distinction between Putin’s Russia and us, though I’d still rather have our government – just! I reserve the right to change my opinion should we ever elect Nigel, Boris or Michael though…

      • Errrm, I wouldn’t really call any of the Communist states a democracy, as once the leader was elected (usually with some ‘help’), then it was impossible to oust them, although elections took place with the regularity of clockwork. We’d have people come knocking on our doors to go out and vote, even though we said: ‘What’s the point, regardless of whether we do or don’t, he’ll still be elected with 98% of the votes!’. Never 100%. cos that would have been too obviously rigged! :-]

        • Certainly not! Sorry, I must have been unclear – what I meant was precisely that the USSR couldn’t be considered a democracy, and nor could Nazi Germany really once it got going, and that they both behaved so appallingly that I was a bit put off at Orwell seeming to suggest that all forms of government are equally bad – whether he made that suggestion deliberately or accidentally. No democracy (yet) has behaved as badly to its own citizens as the totalitarian regimes have to theirs. It’s worrying that 70 years on, people again seem to be clamouring for the kinds of leaders who are quite likely to turn democracies into totalitarian regimes though…

  2. A brilliant review of the book, FF, I must say. Like you, I haven’t read this since my early teens and I also remember it striking me as extremely clever and effective. I think I shall have to read it again having read this, the points you make are superb. Perhaps Orwell was overtaken by his own emotive views of the revolution and so we have this quite simplistic and frustrated presentation of the revolution. Funnily enough, the part I remember most clearly about this book (apart from poor Boxer, who broke my heart!) was when the pigs got into the farmer’s drinks cabinet and a statement was issued the next day that Napolean was close to death. later in the day it was announced that he might indeed survive and by the evening he was actually going to be fine. Whenever I have a hangover, I think about this bit in the book!

    • Aw, thanks, Lucy! Yes, I got the impression from his introduction that he maybe dashed this off quite quickly as a warning, and then thought it through before writing 1984. Also reading between the lines of the introduction, I suspected he maybe got quite a lot of negative criticism at the time for the way all the “governments” ended up effectively as bad as each other. Haha! Yes, I liked the hangover scenes too – a much needed bit of humour in the book! The demon drink… 😉

  3. Interesting review, thank you. Some good points – Orwell was a boyhood hero of mine but I also found that when revisiting his novels that there are some difficult undertones, such as his patronising attitude to the working class, not to mention his homophobia, that haven’t survived the passing of the years.

    • Thank you! I’ve re-read 1984 as an adult and don’t remember struggling so much with it, but I definitely read more critically since I started blogging. I may read it again this year if I can fit it in. I was surprised by how much I disliked the way he showed the animals as stupid in this one – as you say, it felt patronising…

  4. In some ways, FIctionFan, this book is getting more and more relevant as time goes on. I know what you mean about the pigs – I do. And I can understand how 1984 was a little more sophisticated in ways. But this one does have an awful lot to say, I think. Thanks, as ever, for an excellent review.

    • Tragically so, Margot – especially the corruption of history and “truth”. I do think this one is still a good introduction to the subject, especially for teenagers, but I’m glad he filled it out more in 1984 – this one feels almost rushed, as if he hadn’t fully thought his ideas through.

  5. Great review. You made some good points, FF. So did the other commenters. I haven’t read this book since I was a teen. I wonder if my view of it would change as well.

    • Sometimes I’m not convinced re-visiting books after a long period is really a good thing. This one is still good, but even apart from my issues with the “message”, the whole Boxer thing didn’t affect me nearly as much now – I must have grown hard in my old age… 😉

  6. You’ve given me food for thought FF. I haven’t read this since I was 12, when I found it very affecting. You’ve made me realise I’m well overdue for a re-read, maybe I would have quite a different experience of it now.

    • I think it’s a combination of me being older, which meant the whole Boxer thing didn’t affect me quite so much, and just that the world has become a much more cynical place in the intervening years. There was still a kind of post-war idealism when I first read it, and a belief that socialism/communism could work. Now we seem to have rejected all our political systems but haven’t worked out what to put in their place… oh dear! Give me chocolate, quick!

  7. My father gave it to me to read when I was quite young. I read it several times. I was too young to understand it the first time but I found it kind of scary.

  8. I first read Animal Farm when I was 12 too…because I liked stories about animals! I had no idea what it was about and found it confusing and a little scary and then my dad sat me down and I learned about the Soviet Union for the first time. When I read it a couple of years later in school, I got a lot more out of it but I wonder what I would think of it now.

    • Because I read it as a school text, we were told what it meant as we read, but even so it was Boxer’s story that affected me most. I grew up as the youngest child in a family that talked politics incessantly (we still do!) so I guess I was pretty well informed for my age, politically at least. I still think this is a good introduction to the ideas of propaganda and so on for teens, but I’m glad he developed it better in 1984…

      • I just remember being shocked because I was expecting a sweet story about animals on a farm and the allegory was completely over my head! My dad has a background in Russian history so he was able to set me straight once he realized what I was reading!

        • Ha! Yes! I think the fact that it’s called a “fairy tale” probably means people read it when they’re a bit too young to get the history behind it. Over here it’s been a school text for decades, so they try to tie it in with teaching the history – but it was still poor Boxer’s story that upset me, rather than Russia’s! 😉

  9. I, too, read this one when I was about 12 or 13, and I remember enjoying it on the level of an animal story. I haven’t re-read it since and I’m not sure I want to! It always made me a bit exasperated when my English teachers demanded we analyze what we read to death, forcing interpretations, pigeonholing characters, and so forth. Guess I’m just a simple person at heart!

    • Yes, it was the Boxer story that affected me most back then, but truthfully I didn’t find that aspect nearly as effective this time round. I’m never sure about re-visiting loved books either – we change so much as we become adults that they rarely have the same impact. And don’t get me started on English teaching… grrr! 😉

  10. Great critical review, FF. I read this book in my late teens and remember having similar problems with the message of it. I think this is a book that perhaps needs to be read in its historical context for the message to work. Maybe sometimes a message has to be simplistic in order to be heard? What a scary thought, especially at a time when many people’s attention span doesn’t last past 140 characters.

    • Thanks, TJ! Yes, I think this is a good introduction to the ideas of propaganda and so on for younger teens, but adult scrutiny kinda lessens its impact, I found. I got the impression from Orwell’s introduction that he perhaps dashed this off in a hurry to get his message out, and then thought it through more thoroughly before writing 1984. The really scary thing about it though is how many parallels I could see with what’s happening today – it appears we really don’t learn from history…

  11. Great review. I too read this for the first time in my early teens, when the Cold War was still happening around us. Reading it as an adult, I have to agree that it was a pretty simplistic presentation and nowhere near as effective as 1984. I always thought Orwell was a snob, and much more of a despiser than an admirer. The man could write though!

    • It’s sad, but if I’d read it five years ago I’d have been thinking of it as an interesting insight into the past, but tragically now it reads like contemporary fiction again. You’re right – that is how this feels, as if he despises everyone – the intelligent for being corrupt, and the workers for being stupid. I may re-read 1984 later in the year – I’ve read it as an adult before, so I’m pretty sure it’ll hold up better…

  12. Interesting review, FF! I haven’t read it yet, but when I do will keep your thoughts in mind. They’ll probably help me figure everything out. I don’t have the confidence that I could figure it all out on my own Ha! (I like your little dig at a certain present political situation near the end.)

    • It’s definitely one that’s worth reading, not just for itself but to kinda see it as a precursor to 1984, which is by far the better book. Haha – unfortunately every time Napoleon the pig spoke, it was Donnie’s voice I heard… 😉

  13. I loved this as a teenager but I suspect I didn’t really understand it at the time and would feel differently about it if I read it again now. That’s always the risk with re-reading books after such a long gap! I’ve read some of Orwell’s lesser-known books recently – Coming Up For Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying – and enjoyed both, but they are very different from Animal Farm!

    • Yes, on the whole I’m not keen on revisiting books I liked in my teens – I’d rather remember them the way I thought of them back then. I haven’t read much Orwell – only this and 1984. One day I’ll get around to some of his other books! But this one feels like something done in a hurry perhaps, and then he thought through the ideas a bit more before expandin them into 1984…

  14. An interesting review – I haven’t revisited Animal Farm since my teens although I have done so with 1984 (which I first read that year!) which to be honest I always preferred. We were studying Stalin in history at the same sort of time so I understood quite a lot of the allegory, but as you say, we are now older and wiser and understand a little bit more about the depth of the horror (perhaps?)

    • I think that’s true. Certainly when I read it I didn’t know much about Stalin, which is maybe why I was OK with the pigs becoming humanlike in the end. But now that we know so much more about the horrors, I kinda objected to him, as I felt, suggesting that all governments are as bad as each other… even Theresa May isn’t quite as bad as Stalin… though I’m saying nothing about Donnie… 😉

    • Me too! In fact, I hardly ever read a book I read back then unless it’s one I’ve re-read regularly ever since – like Wind in the Willows. Boxer’s story in this one broke my heart as a young teen, but didn’t have the same impact this time round…

    • Thank you! It is well worth re-reading, even though I wasn’t quite as impressed by the underlying ideas as I expected this time. But it seems like a very timely read…

  15. Well I do think that what he was saying about the Soviet Union was quite revolutionary at the time – and more directed to comrades on the left than to right wingers or those wanting reds under the bed ammunition. This had all started from his experiences a decade earlier in the Spanish Civil War. The SU was at the end of the War the totalitarian system left standing, so it was the one to write about. As you say, we have a different pig in power now.

    • Yes, and a lot of it is very perceptive. But on re-reading it feels a bit rushed – as if he wanted to get the main message across but hadn’t thought through the other messages it implies. I’ll have to re-read 1984 sometime – I have read and loved that as an adult, so I’m sure it will stand the test of time better. And both are sadly too timely at the moment – every time Napoleon spoke, I heard Trump’s voice, and I now think of the revolting Kellyanne Conway (she of the “alternative facts”) as Squealer…

  16. Very interesting review, FF! I was wondering how well you were going to receive this in light of events. Perhaps you’re right — better for a younger mindset. I’ve been using the term “alternative facts” daily now to fit the narrative of my choice. My scale in my bathroom is definitely using alternative facts! And now my kids have caught on, using alt facts to explain missing cookies. Where does it end?! I’m instructing them to reread Animal Farm this instant!

    • Thanks, DD! Yes, my cynical adult brain couldn’t just go with the flow as easily as my young brain did! Haha! I’m thinking of starting a special daily feature “Alternative Fact of the Day!” highlighting whatever nonsense Trump or KellyAnne comes out with next (I now think of KellyAnne as Squealer, sadly…) I see she’s invented a massacre today – it’s so exciting to never quite know what tomorrow’s “truth” will be…

      • Egads! The Bowling Green Massacre today, the alt facts everyday… I can’t keep up with her brand of crazy! How does she even keep track of her spin? Perhaps it explains the knots in her hair and the haggard look in her eyes… I have an impeachment ticker going on my computer… it’s the only thing keeping me sane.

        I’d love that daily feature! T doesn’t read books, so it’s safe to say a book review site is the perfect outlet! No Twitter war threat.

        I hope Theresa May sterilized her hand since her last visit. Although there’s not much to grab, she did need to guide him down the scary, spooky steps.

        • She looks worse every day doesn’t she? She changed so badly after the election, I wondered for a bit if she’d suddenly realised what she’d done and was regretting it, but she seems to have bought in to the whole thing again. I almost hate her more than I hate Trump – almost!

          Yesterday was another exciting day… at least no-one can say it’s been boring… 😉

  17. Oh, man, when I read this book for the first time, last summer (don’t judge me), I was so caught up in unfairness of it all and wanting to care for the old and sick animals, to know how the cat gets away so easily, that I missed any and all political connections because I was just so…INVOLVED…like the animals were actually people. *sigh*

    • I didn’t get to read it ‘on my own’ the first time, since it was a school text, so we were made to be aware of the politics as we read. But even so, the whole Boxer story broke my heart! It didn’t so much this time – I’ve become so old and cynical… He was kinda horrible about the cat, though! T&T were most annoyed!

  18. Great review! I also read Animal Farm for the first time when I was around thirteen, and have now just finished reading it for the second time. Just like you, I was left much more impressed by it when I was thirteen. Well, I have to say the ending gave me goosebumps even today…

    • Thank you! Sometimes revisiting a book can be a disappointment – I’m often reluctant to in case it destroys my memory of it. I remember sobbing buckets over Boxer when I was young, but this time I got through without a tear – what a horrible hard-hearted old cynic I must have become! 😉 But despite my criticisms it’s still a book well worth reading as a warning, especially with the current political upheavals around the world…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

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