Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book #34 - Animal Farm (George Orwell)



How many adjectives are named after authors? I can think of two: Orwellian and Dickensian. Oh sure, you can argue there's "Shakespearean" as well, but that refers to the author himself, so that a "Shakespearean" actor is an actor who performs in plays by Shakespeare. So old George Orwell seems to have done pretty well for himself, I have to say.

Today I read "Animal Farm". Yes, I read the whole thing in a day, which isn't saying much because it's only 97 pages long. And for some reason I keep wanting to call it "Animal House", but as we know, that was an entirely different story altogether.

So is "Animal Farm" Orwellian? Well, yes. To me, the epitome of Orwellian is in "1984" (a book I read in high school) which features a dystopian future where citizens are under the control of a total dictatorship, and all aspects of their lives are monitored and controlled. And that's similar to the way things end up in "Animal Farm", although there are differences.

"Animal Farm" is a book that most of my friends seem to have read in high school, and after reading it I can understand why. The book is an allegory for the Communist revolution and the evolution of the Soviet Union under Stalin. The symbolism is obvious and straightforward, which makes it a good book to teach concepts like symbolism and allegory, assuming the students know the history of the Soviet Union. But I'm actually really glad I didn't read the book in high school, because I think I appreciate it a lot more than I would have then. The book is very dark, painting a dim view of human nature, as symbolized by animal nature. The book tells the tale of a farm in England, where the animals take over. The revolution, where the animals overthrow the drunken farmer who runs the farm, is at first idealistic, democratic, and socialist. The animals are all equal and all comrades in arms who stand united against their common enemy, the humans. But then things go awry. The pigs, who are by far the smartest of the animals, assume leadership roles, with two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, duking it out for supremacy. Napoleon clearly represents Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky. We all know who wins that one. Napoleon raises some dogs from puppies, who become his vicious thugs. They attack Snowball, forcing him to flee, and a reign of terror more or less begins, albeit slowly enough so that the animals never really realize what is happening. Napoleon consolidates his rule with a number of show trials, resulting in a death sentence for those who confess to crimes they haven't committed. The initial ideals of the revolution are long gone, and the seven commandments that were written down at the beginning of the revolution (such as "No animal shall drink alcohol" and "No animal shall sleep in a bed") are modified to suit the pigs' needs ("No animal shall drink alcohol to excess" and "No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets"). Eventually all the commandments are overwritten with one commandment, the famous "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". In the end, the pigs and the dogs live like princes, while the other animals are slave labor to them. The pigs eventually start to walk on two legs, and put on clothes, and become indistinguishable from the humans, whom they have now allied themselves with. And so the glorious revolution leaves the animals having substituted one terrible set of masters for another.

Very bleak, indeed. But I can appreciate now, much more than I would have in high school, just how truthfully this story rings. Power corrupts, and in any society, those in power tend to gain more power, and those at the bottom find it terribly difficult to escape their class. It makes one wonder whether a true socialist society can really exist. It seems that in all societies that have ever existed there's been a social hierarchy, with powerful families and groups, and the vast majority under their rule, either directly or indirectly. Maybe that's my age talking...the triumph of cynicism and cold reality over the idealism of youth. But it's not just me..."Animal Farm" clearly presents a similar take on human nature. One that's positively Orwellian.

4 comments:

Amateur Reader said...

Kafkaesque!

I takes a more subtle casuist than me to explicate the difference between the Orwellian and the Kafkaesque.

Robby Virus said...

Hah, good one! You're right, I missed that one.

David.Steakley said...

my favorite character is the Stakhanovite horse Boxer: "I will work harder." You see where that gets him.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

How about Darwinian?