Monday, January 16, 2012

Great Novellas: Animal Farm

Continuing with the novellas series, I want to be sure to include George Orwell's Animal Farm on the list.  This was a precursor to his more famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and you can certainly see traces of that masterpiece in this smaller text.  However, this is distinctly a satire about the Soviet Union, which was equally as risky as it was relevant, rather than a prophesy of an apocalyptic future.  Typically, we think of the Russian authors who wrote in the dangerous Stalin era, such as Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn. But Orwell, who was passionate about his political beliefs, openly hated and criticized the Soviet Union as well, particularly for its corruption of socialism.

Many of the connections to the Soviet Union are very clear: the pig dictator, Napoleon, represents Stalin; Snowball represents Trotsky; the violent confession scene represents the purge trials; the Rebellion represents the Russian Revolution, etc.  If you aren't familiar with these historical references, you might appreciate and enjoy the novella more if you looked up some of this Soviet Union history. But I think it's important to recognize that Animal Farm has value beyond its cultural connections to the time.  Orwell took the form of the Soviet Union in this particular novella in order to illustrate a larger injustice.  This injustice is found in every form of oppression.  It's the injustice of manipulating the weak, exploiting the underprivileged, and lording power over the helpless.

At the beginning of Animal Farm, the animals overthrow the humans from the farm.  They paint a picture of their autonomous rule, which will be defined by equality, peace, and mutual respect.  Although they initially work as a team in this harmonic way, they eventually create a new tyranny within their independent rule, which is arguably even worse than the rule of the humans.  The pigs take over command, instilling new rules and rewriting history to serve their purposes.  They are blinded by their desire for power, and Napoleon eventually knocks everyone out until he has supreme command of the farm.

Orwell wanted to reveal the vast disparity among economic classes as it contributes to oppression.  The pigs represent the wealthier, educated class, above the horses, cows, and others, with the sheep on the bottom. Much of the pigs’ ability to control the rest of the animals comes from their exploitation of the other animals’ inability read.  Through this, Orwell also shows the incredible power of words, which is something he likewise emphasizes in the totalitarian rule in 1984.  He thus illustrates the importance of education and is sensitive to the poor and underprivileged who don't have access to it.

I also want to be sure to note that Orwell never blamed the animals for standing up for themselves; that was a proper reaction to the oppression they faced from the humans. Instead, the problem is in the new leadership of the pigs. It's really a rather pessimistic view of governance. It would appear that all revolutions are necessary, but all leaders of such revolutions will inevitably be corrupted. Yet delivering this message in the form of an allegory allowed Orwell to expose the evils of totalitarianism in a less frightening and intimidating way.

There are so many messages packed into this novella.  In addition to exposing the terrors of the Soviet Union, Orwell illustrated the groundwork of all political oppression.  And although it appears to conclude negatively, I think that the final image offers a glimmer of hope.  The novella ends with all of the animals looking through the window as they recognize that the pigs and humans have become indistinguishable. Then the story abruptly ends, and Orwell doesn’t provide the animals' next step. Instead, I think that he is inviting the readers to take that next step now that they’ve seen the corruption he illustrated. It is now our responsibility. The only chance for a positive outcome is to respond unselfishly to the totalitarianism and injustice we encounter, which Orwell himself so strongly detected and opposed.


Becky (Page Turners) said...

I read this years ago and remember enjoying it more than I enjoyed 1984. I haven't read either for such a long time now that I downloaded both of them the other day and will be looking forward to giving them both a go again.

Julia Hones said...

I read 1984, but not this one. One more thing: you should say communism not socialism. They are different terms. Communism is a totalitarian regime, socialism isn't.