Before I even got into reading, one of the first novels I gravitated towards as a kid was George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm. Which, in hindsight, doesn’t surprise me all that much (I used to be of the belief that with books, the shorter the better) and shocks me at the same time.
What interest could I have with a story dealing with politics—not to mention a story that exists merely as an allegory for those politics? I must have been in an overachieving stage.
Since then, though, I’ve read Animal Farm two more times, and each time I read it, the more I understand of its underlying symbolism and the more disturbed I get by it.
I don’t recommend taking the route I did to love Animal Farm. If you’re just starting out as a classics reader, you’ll find that most novels take their “surface” stories pretty seriously and almost none of them are allegories for something else, or if they are, it’s on some meta-level (a word I hope I didn’t just coin), like how the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath represents at least six or seven different concepts, if my high school seminar paper is to be believed.
So don’t let the slim length of Animal Farm fool you. When you’re ready to dive into my personal favorite political novel of all-time, be prepared for a challenge.
Published in 1945, when the Cold War hadn’t yet settled in, Animal Farm shows what the English writer George Orwell saw in the Soviet Union.
But he uses animals, and, more specifically, animals in an English manor, to tell his story about the woes of the Soviet Union.
The disgruntled animals of Manor Farm in England decide to rise up in revolution against their human master after being inspired by the rhetoric of a boar by the name of Old Major. The animals win out and set up their own farm run under Old Major’s ideas of “animalism,” which is meant to promote well-being among the animals as well as the principle that “all animals are equal.”
Two leaders, pigs named Napoleon and Snowball (Orwell’s choice of names in this novella are both blunt and curious), soon emerge and compete for popularity among the animals. Napoleon ends up being triumphant—with a name like that, I didn’t doubt he would on my first reading. He and his swine cronies run the farm as auspiciously following the ideas of animalism, but in reality, they drift away from them to become more like . . . humans. Who could’ve guessed?
Soon, the pigs are walking on two feet despite the animalism principle of “four legs good, two legs bad.” Napoleon has his enemies rounded up via secret police for show trials where they admit to fake charges. He even has the gall to send my favorite character, the endearing workhorse Boxer, to the glue factory when he gets too old. Finally, in a moment that rivals the “two plus two equals five” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the pigs put up a stunning “addition” (read: detraction) to one of the basic tenets of animalism.
It’s not a cheery read.
Especially once you realize the real history underlying it all. Napoleon represents the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and the events of Animal Farm’s turmoil and bloodshed symbolize the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Orwell’s efficiency with this narrative makes its story and overall warning all the more devastating. Animal Farm makes an interesting allegory about some of the worst things humans can do to each other by comparing them to, well, animals, which I find to be the book’s ultimate irony.
Read what others have to say about Animal Farm here on Goodreads.com.