I have not read Animal Farm before.
I know, I know. How can I proclaim myself a bookworm and literature lover if I haven’t read one of the greatest classics of all time?
(Note: I haven’t read a tonne of classics. A Clockwork Orange, Catch-22… should I stop this blasphemy now?)
But yeah. Who hasn’t heard of Animal Farm? I have, but I’ve never gone out of my way to buy a copy. I may be a book hoarder, but I am a lazy one. I usually buy books based on what I see – which is, whatever I can grab whenever I happen to be at a bookstore. I’ve never read War of the Worlds either *gasp!*
Animal Farm was going for only RM15 at my local bookstore, so I bought it two weeks ago along with two other books. Since it was a small and lightweight book, I brought it along during my Penang trip. I finished it within the few hours we were travelling from KL to the island – not because I’m trying to brag or anything, but coz the story itself isn’t very long.
Animal Farm by George Orwell was published in 1945 – a few years before his other famous novel, 1984. Similar to his latter work, AF is set in a dystopian setting, and has been hailed as an excellent political satire; a critical look on the political and social climate of that era – in particular, the communist regime of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Orwell, who was a democratic socialist himself, has stated in interviews that he felt that Soviet Union had become a brutal dictatorship, and writing Animal Farm was his way of opening up the eyes of the West, many whom at that time were still sympathetic to the Red Army’s cause. Orwell himself suffered during the Spanish Civil War under this regime, and that has led to the somber and unforgiving tone of this story.
Originally dubbed Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, the preface in the book I bought explained that it was called so because it reeked so much with political overtones that publishers rejected it on the basis that even the blind could tell that the characters in it were meant to refer to people in real life. Adding ‘A fairy Story’ gave it fair basis to claim that it was, in fact, just a fairytale. But isn’t that how the best tales are told and passed down through the generations?
The story chronicles the lives of animals on a farm. They live a hard life – the chickens, ducks, pigs, dogs, horses, donkeys… all are not spared from hunger and the rod, slaves forced to work for a drunkard master, Mr Jones. The animals would have stayed in that station forever, if not for the wise Old Major, a prized white boar. He has a vision – that the animals would create a peaceful nation for themselves without human oppression. He lays down the principles for ‘Animalism’, which become the basis for everything the animals should follow – the most important being ‘All Animals Are Equal.’
Then he conks out.
Left with a void of leadership, two male boars take the helm of leading the animals, now that their founder was gone. These are Snowball and Napoleon, reportedly modeled around Trotsky and Stalin, respectively. Being much smarter than the rest, they teach the animals how to read and write, help in ensuring the farm runs smoothly, etc. In a coup, they manage to overthrow Mr Jones (which is said to symbolise the people overthrowing the Russian Tsar) and establish a new government called Animal Farm. All seems to be well for a moment… until small but sure allowances are given to the pigs; an advantage over the other animals. It started off with a little bit more provisions, then this and that. The other animals, having lived all their lives in subservience, and being less intelligent, felt that these were necessary since the pigs were ‘smarter’, after all.
The book portrays Snowball as being the clever and innovative one, who comes up with all sorts of ideas, such as building a mill so that the farm could be self-sufficient without relying on outside sources for trade. Napoleon, on the other hand, is seen as biding his time, training a newborn litter of puppies as his personal guards. The two boars fight constantly over reign of the farm – until one day, Napoleon seizes a chance and chases Snowball away with his now fully grown, ferociously trained dogs. He establishes himself as the ruler, and the animals are made to work harder than ever to complete the windmill project, which Napoleon now claims as his own. Still, the animals, being uneducated and afraid, convinced themselves that they were better off than they were under a human.
A neighbouring farm attacks, destroying the mill the animals worked so hard to build. Somehow along the way, Snowball is made a scapegoat for all the farm’s troubles, and those who ‘remembered’ the situation wrongly were put down or killed. Napoleon uses his armed dogs as a weapon to instilling fear, and rewrites ‘history’ in the memories of the animals until Snowball is seen as the harbringer of all their problems. The principles of Animalism underlined by their late founder, the Old Major, are slowly twisted and changed of their meaning. The animals continue toiling under a mistaken belief that they are now living better lives, free from the humans. What they get in exchange, however, is merely the same whip, under a different master.
The story has a rather sad ending in my opinion, but if you want to find out what it is, grab a copy.
Often simple but very cleverly written (and this is no mean feat!), Animal Farm is understandably one of Orwell’s greatest masterpieces. Done in clear, concise language, there is nothing dreamy about the cruel reality of the farm’s residents, and reflects on the strong opposition Orwell had towards the ‘ideals’ created by Stalin’s regime. Orwell was a socialist himself, and seeing this version of his beliefs being twisted into something that it wasn’t was probably hard for him. You can see this from the novel – how Old Major supposedly represents Karl Marx, the founder of Marxism, and his vision of ‘all animals (people) are equal.’
Towards the end of the novel, the reader will find a saying that drives this point home – “All Animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” My take on it is that sometimes principles, no matter how well-intentioned they may have started off with, can be easily twisted by self-serving individuals for their own ends. True equality is impossible. If you applied it to some situations today – how people are using religion and twisting its interpretation to suit their needs – it is basically the same concept. The story also deals with how people can be subjugated and made to forget with fear and coercion – as seen by how Snowball was demonised and rewritten in their memories as an evil pig, even though he was a hero in the first place.
The characters are developed well, each representing a particular ‘segment’ in society. Boxer the carthorse, for example, is loyal to the bone but not very intelligent, responding to hardships by working even harder. His is a sad, hard fate. Then there’s Benjamin, a cynical old donkey who states one irrefutable fact about life on the farm – “life would go on as it had always gone on– that is, badly.”
Overall, Animal Farm was a VERY good read, and although short and simple, the symbolism and layers of political and social commentary within it is astounding. You could probably read it a few times and get different meanings every time. It also reflected Orwell’s stance against Stalin Russia and the form of socialism they promoted, as being an impossible dream to achieve, because although the ideals are there, there will always be men who are too weak or selfish to uphold them.
You shoudl have just skipped everything above and just gotten this piece of advice:Read. It.