Animal Farm, by English author George Orwell, is a fable that uses a barnyard setting to represent the Russian Revolution and explores themes of class and power. Read the overview below to gain an understanding of the work and explore the previews of analysis and criticism that invite further interpretation.
"Animal Farm: An Overview." Gale Essential Overviews: Scholarly, Gale, 2015.
In his short novel Animal Farm (1945), English author George Orwell (1903–50) allegorizes the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the tsarist autocracy was pushed out and the Bolsheviks came into power, and the revolution's incremental betrayal of its supporters under dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). Drawing on fable conventions, Orwell tells a farmyard story, casting revolutionary leaders Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), and Stalin as pigs, which—along with other common farm animals such as horses and hens—rebel against the tyranny of tsar-like farmer Mr. Jones. Set on a small English farm, the novel follows a collective of working animals that, as the pigs exploit them anew, toil pathetically day after day in the belief that they are remaking the farm as a republic.
Orwell wrote Animal Farm toward the end of World War II (1939–45), when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was being hailed by the Allied forces (including the British) for its decisive victories over Nazi Germany at Stalingrad (1942–43) and Kursk (1943). As such, he had difficulty finding a publisher prepared to offend Russian sensibilities. Gollancz and Faber and Faber, among other publishing houses, rejected the book outright. London publisher Jonathan Cape came close to printing it but was persuaded to reject the work by a Ministry of Information official later presumed to have been a Soviet spy. In spite of this reluctance, when it was finally released in England by Secker and Warburg in 1945, the novel was a runaway success, as it was the following year in the United States—no doubt helped by the dissolution of wartime alliances and the first rumblings of the Cold War. Regarded by many as Orwell's finest work, and certainly his first truly popular one, Animal Farm has long been ranked as among the best books of the twentieth century.
Following the revolution, the Russian Communist Party recast the former empire as a federation of republics with governments informed by the socialist principles of German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). Initially under the leadership of Lenin, Soviet Russia then entered an era of reconstruction, during which it privatized all aspects of the economy and attempted to control any forms of dissent to its Marxist-Leninist goals. After Lenin's death, Stalin effected a coup from within the Communist Party, and, although making a dogma of Marxist-Leninism, he turned the party into a properly totalitarian apparatus. During what is referred to as the Great Purge, millions of enemies of the state were executed or sent to forced-labor camps. Meanwhile, hasty attempts to modernize the peasant agriculture brought on deathly famines. Animal Farm retells this history metaphorically—in the sly maneuverings of the boar, Napoleon, to oust his rivals and take control of the farm; in his forcing the animals to build an electricity-generating windmill, which leaves no time for food production; and in his purges of alleged traitors to the animals' revolution against Mr. Jones.
The novel begins with Lenin (some say Marx or a Lenin-Marx composite), Trotsky, and Stalin figured in the characters of Old Major, Snowball, and Napoleon, respectively—pigs on a farm where animals are bred to produce (like the hens), to labor (like the cart horses), and to be fattened for slaughter (like the pigs). Old Major rouses the animals to rebel against the “tyranny of man,” and the Russian Revolution is satirized as a scrap between Mr. Jones and his animals. The animals, victorious, take over, and with a newfound sense of dignity set about everyday tasks such as harvesting hay. However, the pigs have only just posted the “seven commandments of Animalism,” including the tenet that “all animals are equal,” when they opt out of the hard labor and appropriate exclusively for themselves the comforts of the farmhouse. Here, what culminates in Napoleon's dictatorship tragically inflects the lives of the common animals, who continue to toil in the belief that they are forging Old Major's republic.
Bunt (1924) by Polish novelist Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont (1867–1925) bears a remarkable resemblance to Animal Farm, although it is not clear whether Orwell knew of the work. The novel allegorizes the same revolution with a story of farmyard animals rebelling against their human masters in a struggle for equality that ends in terror and oppression. Orwell's next novel after Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), offers a comparably symbolic—if more realistic—vision of everyday life impoverished culturally and politically by a Stalinesque regime. The fearful preoccupation with Stalinism also informs Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938), a nonfiction account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) fighting for a leftist militia.
In addition to pleasing popular audiences, Animal Farm appealed to political conservatives who recognized its value as a propaganda tool for discouraging socialist affiliations. Thus the Central Intelligence Agency clandestinely funded the 1954 animated film adaptation by John Halas (1912–95) and Joy Batchelor (1914–91), which was also the first feature-length animated film in English cinema history. Critics in the early twenty-first century have been just as attentive to Orwell's politics, yet there has been a greater tendency to acknowledge the novel as a work of politically informed art rather than of mere propaganda.
The grand theme of Animal Farm has to do with the capacity for ordinary individuals to continue to believe in a revolution that has been utterly betrayed. Orwell attempts to reveal how those in power—Napoleon and his fellow pigs—pervert the democratic promise of the revolution. The emotional force of the novel comes from the author's depictions of those ordinary animals who unthinkingly give themselves in good faith to working for the very system by which they are ruthlessly exploited. A case in point is Boxer, one of two cart horses among the pigs' “most faithful disciples.” The horses “had great difficulty in thinking anything out for themselves, but having once accepted the pigs as their teachers, they absorbed everything that they were told, and passed it on to the other animals.” Whether harvesting hay or fetching stones from the quarry, Boxer works harder than any other animal, yet still he adopts the motto “I will work harder.” So selfless is he in his service, in fact, that he works himself close to death. At this point Napoleon, while purporting to send him to the hospital, sells him to the slaughterhouse, then spends the money from his corpse on whiskey for the pigs.
The novel develops according to a recognizable dramatic pattern that underscores the tragedy of what it means to never lose faith in a betrayed revolution. For example, when the animals participate in the so-called Battle of the Cowshed, they witness Snowball decorated as “Animal Hero, First Class” for distinguishing himself in battle against Jones. Napoleon later revises the history with contradictory details—announcing that Snowball actually fought alongside Jones against the animals. When the animals resist the new story, the pig Squealer (a master deceiver) convinces them that their memories are faulty. This pattern of firsthand experience superseded by revisionist propaganda underscores the tragedy, as Orwell sees it, of ordinary individuals who forego their better judgment in letting a totalitarian regime dictate a false reality.
Orwell chose a difficult genre—the fable, often equated with children's literature—to offer a complex critique of one of the most problematic regimes in modern history. He succeeds by capturing both realistically and amusingly the characteristics of many of the animals and by convincing the reader that these characteristics lend themselves, at least metaphorically, to understanding human life in the totalitarian context. Rather than simply mocking his subjects, Orwell suggests that there is indeed something beastly about them: that there is something sheep-like about those who learn dogma by rote (who bleat “two legs bad, four legs good!” or “four legs good, two legs better!” interchangeably), something dog-like about secret police trained to attack on command, and something horse-like about those who unthinkingly give themselves body and soul to the bankrupt cause.
Animal Farm was released to critical acclaim. Writing for the New York Times, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. hailed it as “a simple story perhaps, but a story of deadly simplicity … [a] superbly controlled and brilliantly sustained satire.” Not everyone agreed with Schlesinger, however. Writer and critic W. J. Turner, for instance, thought the novel was marred by “pessimism” and accused Orwell of being “grossly unfair to Stalin in his account of him as ‘Napoleon.’” Still, the fact that the novel has been a staple in classrooms for generations suggests that critics like Turner did not have the last say.
Writing in 1989, activist-scholar John Molyneux (1948–) summed up Animal Farm as “probably the most popular and influential piece of literary propaganda produced in English, perhaps in any language, this century.” Molyneux claimed it was “likely that far more people have learned what they know of the fate of the Russian Revolution from here than from any other source.” In his introduction to a 2003 edition of the novel (with Nineteen Eighty-Four), essayist and critic Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) confirmed Animal Farm's distinction as “the twentieth century's most successful satire.” As Hitchens and Molyneux both make clear, although the novel has long appealed to younger readers with scant knowledge of Soviet history, the book's legacy rests on its political force.
Indeed, Orwell scholars continue to read the novel for its political insights. Discussing The Rule of the Pigs, Oleg Minich's 2005 cartoon adaptation of Animal Farm, Olena Nikolayenko insisted in her 2007 essay in PS: Political Science and Politics that the book speaks profoundly to contemporary crises in and for democracy—in Minich's case, in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. Other twenty-first-century scholars similarly return to Animal Farm to think through enduring political issues. David Dwan, for instance, in an ELH (English Literary History) article, considered Orwell's treatment of equality as a means of probing contemporary practices under Western democracy that do not always live up to prevailing ideals. Meanwhile, scholars such as Paul Kirschner have tried to reclaim the text as not only a political but also a literary work, reminding readers of Orwell's own declared intention “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
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