My rating: 4 stars
Fables are never going to feature the most developed of characters. Their main aim is to convey a moral lesson after all. In Animal Farm, George Orwell succeeded in using this genre to criticise the Soviet Union, creating a thought-provoking story that can be relished even by readers who, like me, don’t tend to enjoy anthropomorphised animals in books. And, if the main text’s importance can’t be denied, the first annex featured in the Penguin English Library edition is as, or even more, interesting.
The animals at Manor Farm are exploited by Mr Jones. It is Major, one of the pigs at the English farm, that makes them see that they are forced to work until they have no strength left in appalling conditions. They are not free. Three nights after his rousing speech, Major dies and doesn’t get to witness the rebellion that takes place when the animals go one day unfed. As the animals take over the farm, Mr Jones flees.
Afterwards, two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, start to lead the other animals. They reduce Animalism, the system of thought based on the principle that freedom and equality are essential rights of animals, to seven commandments and change the name of the farm to Animal Farm. The animals continue to work the land, but this time with much more enthusiasm, since they are doing it for their own prosperity. One day, however, the pigs start to keep the milk and the apples only for themselves, instead of distributing them between all animals. The justification? They are the brainworkers after all.
The aim of this fable is to criticise the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union, the danger of emulating it and the corrupt influence of power. That is blatantly clear. While the pigs amass increasingly more power, ordinary animals continue to work for hours and are constantly lied to. Most animals just repeat the mantras, which are constantly tweaked as it suits the pigs.
“These two 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 by simple arguments.”
In his other revered book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell managed to denounce totalitarianism (in a more general way) while also creating a gripping story and believable characters. Animal Farm is not as accomplished in that regard, however. Since the characters are mostly only animals, they don’t have very defined personalities and their actions are not that intricate. For that reason, the book can feel repetitive at times.
Nevertheless, it is essential thanks to its message, which continues to be explored in the two appendixes featured in the edition I read. The first one consists of Orwell’s proposed preface where he explains how he struggled to have the book published in the UK, seeing that publishers thought that it would likely cause offence in Soviet Russia (this was during the Second World War). That concerned him.
“If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it’s not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or a journalist has to face (…).”
Orwell was also highly critical of those who turned a blind eye to the Soviet Union’s wrongdoings, particularly the pacifists who didn’t seem to have a problem when a war was waged by the Red Army.
“These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the times may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.”
The reason why Orwell’s work continues to be relevant today is that he had a great understanding of politics, power and human nature.