Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924

Although Orwell endured many rejection notices from publishers on both sides of the Atlantic before Animal Farm finally appeared in print, ever since it was published in 1945 it has enjoyed widespread critical approval. From the start, reviewers were apt to make a favorable comparison between Orwell's book and the work of the great satirists of the past. In an important early review, influential New Yorker critic Edmund Wilson commented that while Orwell's style was reminiscent of that used in the fables of French author Jean de La Fontaine and British author John Gay, he conceded that "Animal Farm even seems very creditable if we compare it with Voltaire and [Jonathan] Swift." Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Adam de Hegedus were among the first critics to attach more significance to the novel beyond that of a political satire. Schlesinger wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Orwell's ability to make the reader empathize with the plight of the animals "would compel the attention of persons who never heard of the Russian Revolution." In Commonweal, de Hegedus stated: "[The novel] has implications—and they are many—which are older and more universal than the past and present of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." He, like many critics have since, pointed out the similarity between conclusions drawn from Orwell's text and the famous aphorism of British historian Lord Acton who wrote, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Early negative criticism of the novel included Nation contributor Isaac Rosenfeld's belief that since the events satirized by Orwell had already passed, it was "a backward work," and New Republic critic George Soule's complaint that the book was "on the whole dull."

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On Orwell's death in 1950, Arthur Koestler, a friend who shared Orwell's own disillusion with Soviet Communism, again raised comparisons with Swift. "No parable was written since Gulliver's Travels," he wrote in the Observer, "equal in profundity and mordant satire to Animal Farm." British journalist Christopher Hollis examined Orwell's ability to craft a fable. "The author of such a fable must have the Swift-like capacity of ascribing with solemn face to the animals idiotic but easily recognized human qualities," Hollis wrote in his A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works, "decking them out in aptly changed phraseology to suit the animal life—ascribe to them the quality and then pass quickly on before the reader has begun to find the point overlaboured. This Orwell has to perfection." Essayist and novelist C. S. Lewis compared Animal Farm to 1984, Orwell's last novel, and found Animal Farm the more powerful of the two. In an essay in Tide and Time he wrote, "Wit and humour (absent from the longer work 1984) are employed with devastating effect. The great sentence 'All animals are equal but some are more equal than others' bites deeper than the whole of 1984."

In the 1960s and 1970s, critical interest in Orwell continued with scholars such as Jenni Calder, George Woodcock, Stephen I. Greenblatt, and Jeffrey Meyers publishing books that discussed Orwell and his works. Like Lewis, Greenblatt and Woodcock considered both Animal Farm and 1984 in their criticism, concluding that 1984 was a thematic continuation of Animal Farm. In his Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, & Huxley, Greenblatt wrote: "The horror of both Animal Farm and the later 1984 is precisely the cold, orderly, predictable process by which decency, happiness, and hope are systematically and ruthlessly crushed." In his The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell, Woodcock observed: "By transferring the problems of caste division outside a human setting, Orwell was able in Animal Farm to avoid the psychological complications inevitable in a novel. In the process he left out one element which occurs in all his other works of fiction, the individual rebel caught in the machinery of the caste system. Not until he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four did he elaborate the rebel's role in an Animal Farm carried to its monstrously logical conclusion." Calder and Meyers both noted that since Orwell was not adept at creating believable human characters, his use of animals in the book made it more effective than any of his other novels. Calder remarked in her Chronicles of Conscience: A Study of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, 'The animals are never mere representations. They have a breathing individuality that is lacking in most of Orwell's human characters."

The 1980s brought a spate of books, articles, and reviews on Orwell's works as the literary community marked the year 1984, the date that Orwell used as the title to his last novel. The literary world also celebrated Animal Farm's fiftieth anniversary in 1995, which saw the publication of a new illustrated edition. While most critiques of the novel remained positive, some reviewers, such as Stephen Sedley, offered negative opinions. In an essay contained in Christopher Norris's Inside the Myth: Orwell, Views from the Left, Sedley argued that the book's popularity had as much to do with an atmosphere of anti-communism in England following World War II as it did with Orwell's vision, stating, "Between its covers Animal Farm offers little that is creative, little that is original." In the New York Times Book Review, however, Arthur C. Danto maintained that "the sustained acceptance of the book is testimony to a human meaning deeper than anti-Soviet polemics." In Commonweal Katharine Byrne summarized many critics opinions when she wrote: "Should Animal Farm be read during the next fifty years? Of course, but for the right reasons: setting up as it does, with crystal clarity, the price paid when we do not safeguard our freedoms."

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