An Introduction to ‘Animal Farm’

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The beast fable

The critic C.S.Lewis once remarked that the qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral ‘is to know what it is, what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used’.  George Orwell, with nice irony, subtitled Animal Farm ‘A Fairy Tale’.  It is, in fact, an extended allegory.  As a literary term, allegory is not really difficult to grasp.  The writer of allegory describes a subject under the guise of another subject which has apt and suggestive resemblances to the first one.  The allegorical work conveys a meaning other than, and in addition to, the literal meaning.  If we read a story and conclude that beneath its surface meaning another meaning may be discovered and that the real point of the story resides in this other meaning, then we may safely conclude that we have been reading an allegory.  Even the least qualified reader of Animal Farm will no doubt reach such a conclusion.

Animal Farm is a special kind of allegory, the beast fable.  Most of us are familiar with this universal literary form through our reading of Aesop’s Fables.  Those who have read the Fourth Book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels will scarcely be surprised to learn that Swift’s talking horses are literary ancestors of Orwell’s talking farm animals.  A fable is a story designed to inculcate a moral about some aspect of human behaviour.  Sometimes (as in the case of Animal Farm) the moral or lesson is implicit in the story; sometimes it is explicitly stated in brief form at the end.  Like other writers of beast fables, Orwell uses animals and birds to represent the deeds and motives of human beings; like them, too, he has his moral lesson to enforce.

Satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution

Every account of Animal Farm traces the fairly obvious parallels between the characters and motives of Orwell’s animals and those of the human beings they represent.  It was immediately clear to his original readers (in the mid-1940’s) that Orwell had written a fairly explicit satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, a circumstance which made it difficult for him to find an English publisher.  The parallels are easily traced.  Major is Lenin, although since he dies before the rising, the identification is not exact.  Napoleon is Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky, whose quarrel with Stalin after Lenin’s death led to his expulsion from the Communist Party and from Russia.  Molly stands for those Russians who fled the country after 1917.  Boxer is an image of the loyal, uncomplaining proletariat, and Moses an unattractive representation of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The Battle of the Cowshed is clearly the Civil War that followed the 1917 Revolution; Western countries (Jones and his neighbours) sent troops to the aid of the dissenting White Russians.  The Battle of the Windmill is the German invasion of 1941.  Orwell pointed this out in a letter to his publisher.  He felt that at one point in the story he had been unfair to Stalin.  ‘All the animals including Napoleon,’ he wrote in the Windmill episode, ‘flung themselves on their faces.’  This he wanted altered to ‘All the animals except Napoleon flung themselves on their faces,’ pointing out that Stalin, after all, did remain in Moscow during the German invasion.

The moral lesson of the fable

So much for the main parallels between Orwell’s animals and their human counterparts.  What of the moral lesson of the fable?  His experiences during the Spanish Civil War and his close study of Russian politics made Orwell acutely conscious of what he called ‘the barbaric and undemocratic’ methods of Communist governments.  His main concern in Animal Farm was to make people in Western Europe see the Soviet regime for what it really was.

It appeared to him that since 1930 the USSR, far from moving towards socialism, showed clear signs of transforming itself into a hierarchical society in which the rulers (the pigs of the fable) were no more inclined than were the members of any other power elite to surrender their privileges.  Since it was the common view of Western European socialists that a genuinely socialist regime existed in Russia, Orwell saw it as one of his tasks to dispel this misunderstanding in a story that could easily be assimilated by almost anyone, and that would lend itself to easy translation into other languages.

At the end of Animal Farm it is impossible to distinguish the human beings from the pigs, the latter having entered heartily into commercial and social relations with their former enemies and abandoned the major slogan of the Revolution, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’  In his preface to the Ukranian edition, Orwell made an interesting (and perhaps surprising) comment on his ending.  A number of readers, he felt, might finish Animal Farm with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs (the Soviet power elite) and the humans (the Western capitalist leaders).  This,  he pointed out was not his intention.  On the contrary, he meant the book to end on a note of discord.  He wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference, which everybody thought, had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West.  ‘I personally,’ Orwell observed with satisfaction, ‘did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.’

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A novel of universal political truths

Some of the pleasure of reading Animal Farm lies in the reader’s gradual recognition of the parallels with modern Russian history.  The various identifications can be disclosed rather like the answers to a crossword puzzle, or chalked up on the blackboard like so many equations.  But the question arises: once we have made all the identifications what further interest are we likely to have in a work like Animal Farm?  It might be argued that even as an allegory of Soviet politics, the book has lost some of its original point, since Orwell clearly did not contemplate, for example, such developments as those associated with the Krushchev era, or the astonishing course taken by the Soviet system since the coming to power of Gorbachev in 1985.  Fortunately for Orwell’s reputation, his book is likely to attract readers long after the Russian experience has been forgotten, because it has large implications extending beyond the immediate circumstances of any single movement such as the Russian Revolution of 1917.   In several respects, Orwell’s fable embodies universal political truths.  What he describes is what happens sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent, to all revolutionary movements.  The modern Chinese theory of continuous revolution as a means of preserving intact the ideals of the first revolutionaries is an interesting recognition of the dangers (so convincingly illustrated in Animal Farm) which attended all large-scale efforts at the betterment of the human lot.  Orwell’s book is a comment on the failure, as he saw it, of the Russian Revolution to fulfil the expectations of those who saw it marking a new era of true socialist democracy.  But it can also be read as a disillusioned recognition of the apparently inevitable failure of every great reforming movement to preserve its original momentum.  The French Revolution began in unbounded hope for a better world and petered out in the Jacobin terror.

Limitations of the moral fable

In Animal Farm, as in all moral fables, the author starts off with his abstract truth or idea, and uses his story to illustrate this, to give it life.  All the elements in the story are necessarily subordinated to the pattern dictated by whatever precepts the author desires to enforce on the minds of his readers.  Even these bald statements about the literary genre to which Animal Farm belongs suggest its almost inevitable limitations.  The major landmarks of fiction are exploratory in character; their important discoveries about human life and conduct emerge with the progress of the story.  Writers like the Orwell of Animal Farm, on the other hand, give the impression of having made their discoveries before composing their works.  The problem for all those who write fiction to illustrate pre-conceived ideas is that they must force a disorderly mass of experience into conformity with these ideas, which results inevitably either in some falsification of experience, or in a radically simplified view of it.  Inconvenient facts tend to be rigorously excluded.  Orwell, however, in choosing to illustrate what seems to be a universal human experience, is exempt from charges of distortion, whatever may be said about the limitations of his fable.

Orwell was one of those fortunate writers who recognised his limitations, who knew what suited his special talents and what did not.  Readers of his other novels will quickly realise that he found it extremely difficult to breathe life into his characters, none of whom is really convincing or memorable.  There is a sense in which Orwell is not really a creative writer, but a brilliant publicist, journalist, and apologist for liberal causes, who used the conventional fictional framework for his special purposes.  If he could not create life-like characters in his novels, he could at any rate write a great political fable.  What gives Animal Farm its vitality is not the kind of imaginative power one associates with a great novelist.  Such imaginative power was not really needed in this kind of work.  Orwell’s mind was one, which, like Swift’s, often contemplated the great human questions in political terms; like Swift, he found the beast fable an admirable vehicle for political ideas.  The almost perfect correspondence in Animal Farm between form and content at once helps to explain its astonishing popular success and to ensure its survival as a minor classic.

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