Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1911
In the following essay, Fitzpatrick, a Ph.D candidate at New York University, notes that an understanding of the historical setting for Orwell's novel is imperative if the reader is to understand the work as not simply an indictment of Communism in the Soviet Union.
Stephen Sedley, in a 1984 article in Inside the Myth • Orwell, Views from the Left attacking George Orwell's Animal Farm as both politically and artistically lacking, points to the fact that his thirteen-year-old daughter was "bored stiff' by the novel, because she, like most students today, was "too new to political ideas to have any frame of reference for the story." In this, Sedley has a point: in the early 1980s, I was in high school and was given Animal Farm to read for the first time, along with the simple (indeed, simplistic) advice that this novel was an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the decline of subsequent Soviet Communism. The political environment in the United States being what it was in the early 1980s, coupled with the fact of my total lack of awareness of the circumstances of the Russian Revolution and the principles of Marxist-Leninist Socialism which the Revolution at first fought for and then lost sight of, my own interpretation of the novel resembled in both content and complexity the following statement: "George Orwell thought Communism was Bad."
Animal Farm is in fact one of the most studied and most readily misinterpreted novels of the twentieth century. And, given our distance from the events which it allegorizes and from the ideas it counterposes, it has only become easier to misinterpret since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The pigs have at last been vanquished, and Mr. Jones has returned to the farm, as we knew he would all along.
But in 1984, as Stephen Sedley was writing, there was no end to the Cold War in sight. The atmosphere on the Right was one of suspicion of all things Communist—the Soviet Union was, after all, the "Evil Empire," and the anti-Communist forces in the United States government held an unquestionable position of moral superiority. The atmosphere on the Left was no better—anything which looked like a criticism of the Soviet Union was considered a reactionary justification for the oppressions of capitalism.
It is this environment, then, which underscores Mr. Sedley's willful misreading of Orwell's tale. How else could he come to the conclusion that Orwell's argument in the novel is "that socialism in whatever form offers the common people no more hope than capitalism; that it will be first betrayed and then held to ransom by those forces which human beings have in common with beasts; and that the inefficient and occasionally benign rule of capitalism, which at least keeps the beasts in check, is a lesser evil"?
Insofar as I believe Orwell to have an argument in Animal Farm, I suspect that it was stated much more closely, with less intervening static, by Adam de Hegedus in an early review of the novel in The Commonweal:
Orwell is not angry with Russia, or with any other country, because that country "turned Socialist." On the contrary he is angry with Russia because Russia does not believe in a classless and democratic society. In short, Orwell is angry with Russia because Russia is not socialist.
Contrary to Sedley's claims, Animal Farm is not arguing for capitalism as the lesser of two evils, but is rather angrily pointing out the ways in which the Soviet experiment turned its back on its own principles—and is perhaps of the opinion that such descent from idealism to totalitarianism is inevitable in any violent revolution.
In order to read Animal Farm as the allegory which Orwell's contemporaries understood it to be, one must first have an outline of the key players. Old Major, the prize boar who first passes on his ideas about animal oppression by the humans and the future Rebellion of the animals, is commonly thought to represent either Karl Marx, one of the authors of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, or Vladimir Lenin, who adapted Marx's ideas to the Russian Revolution. Neither Marx's nor Lenin's influence remained long in its original state. Just as with Major's ideas, followers of Marx and Lenin "elaborated" their ideas into a complete system of thought which did not exactly reflect the intent of the original. (Late in his life, Marx insisted that he was certainly not a Marxist.)
Napoleon and Snowball, the pigs who are primarily responsible for this elaboration of ideas into doctrine, represent Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, respectively. Some of the novel's details slip a bit from a strict representation of reality, as Orwell found it necessary to compress some events and change some chronologies in order to make his story work. For instance, Snowball's original plans for building the windmill correspond to Lenin's plans for the electrification of Russia; however, though this plan was not the point on which the Stalin/Trotsky conflict turned, the ultimate result was the same as that between Napoleon and Snowball: Trotsky was driven from the country under a death warrant; he was reported to be hiding in various enemy states; he was held responsible for everything that went wrong under the Stalinist regime; and, ultimately, his supporters were violently purged from the ranks of the Communist Party.
These correspondences between the Russian Revolution and the Rebellion on Animal Farm are generally agreed upon by the critics. Not much has been said, however, about the allegorical roles played by the humans in the story. Mr. Jones, quite clearly, represents the last Czar in Russia, whose dissolution and cruelty laid the groundwork for the workers' rebellion. The neighboring farmers, Mr. Pilkington of Foxwood and Mr. Frederick of Pinch-field, who are described as being "on permanently bad terms," represent the leaders of England and Germany respectively. The closeness of their names seems to imply an essential sameness—quite a shocking notion for a novel written at the end of World War II!—but Pilkington is described as "an easy-going gentleman farmer who spent much of his time in fishing or hunting according to the season," and his farm is "large, neglected, [and] old-fashioned." Frederick, on the other hand, is "a tough, shrewd man, perpetually involved in lawsuits and with a name for driving hard bargains," and his farm is "smaller and better kept." Pilkington is thus representative of the Allies' lackadaisical attitude toward their neighbors, while Frederick carries with him elements of German aggressiveness and bellicosity.
In fact, late in the novel, "terrible stories" begin leaking out of Pinchfield about the cruelties Frederick inflicts on his animals, no doubt corresponding to the horrors of Hitler and the Holocaust. It is thus that much more shocking when Squealer (who, as Napoleon's mouthpiece, might be said to correspond to Pravda, the Soviet propagandist press) announces that the deal Napoleon had been working out to sell some timber to Pilkington has instead been changed so that the deal will be made with Frederick. This devastating turn of events corresponds to the revelation in 1939 of the secret Nazi-Soviet anti-aggression pact which, like the peace between Frederick and Animal Farm, did not last long, but was abruptly ended by Hitler's attempted invasion of Russia.
Once Russia entered the European war on the side of the Allies (culminating in victory for the Soviet Union, as Squealer claims for Animal Farm, though the only victory was in gaining back what they had before), increasing attempts were made by Stalin to achieve some level of entente, or agreement, with the other Allied nations. A series of meetings were held between the leaders of the various nations, and one particular conference held in Teheran after the war began the eruption into detente, or discord, which resulted in the protracted Cold War. This conference is represented in the novel by the meeting between the pigs and the humans at the end, at which a quarrel breaks out over cheating at cards.
Despite this discordant note, however, the final lines of the novel reveal the greatest shock of all. As the other animals watch through the windows, they notice:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
These lines are crucial to a full understanding of the novel. Orwell does not claim here that Napoleon/Stalin is worse than the humans, and thus that the animals would be better off under benign human control. In fact he points to an ultimate identity between the pigs and the humans, between Stalin and the leaders of the "free" nations, an idea which would have been considered heresy by both sides. This conclusion implies not that the Rebellion has been a failure because the animals are worse off than they would have been under the rule of Mr Jones, but that the Rebellion is a failure because it has completely set aside its own ideals—which may be seen in the corruption of each and every one of Animal Farm's Seven Commandments—and landed everyone back exactly where they started, with the many suffering abuses in order to support the position of an elite few. Or, in the interpretation of George Woodcock in The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell:
old and new tyrannies belong to the same family; authoritarian governments, whether they are based on the codes of old social castes or on the rules of new political elites, are basically similar and present similar dangers to human welfare and liberty.
It seems clear as I reread the novel now, understanding better than I did as a teenager the background against which Orwell wrote his allegory, and paying close attention to the implications of the novel's last few lines, that no part of the novel presents any such simplistic, cut-and-dried message as "Communism is Bad." Even Stephen Sedley's more sophisticated argument about the novel's ideological unsoundness suffers from an apparent—and misguided—belief that Orwell as novelist held any sympathy for Jones, Pilkington, or Frederick.
Other critics, such as Robert A. Lee, writing in Orwell's Fiction, hold that it is in fact dangerous to read Animal Farm too strictly as an allegory of a specific set of events, as one may in that way miss a broader applicability of its meaning. Lee argues that Animal Farm is more than an allegory of twentieth-century Russian politics, and more even than an indictment of revolutions in general: "Orwell is also," claims Lee, "painting a grim picture of the human condition in the political twentieth century, a time which he has come to believe marks the end of the very concepts of human freedom."
This picture of the human condition is what Orwell's allegory has to offer us today, now that the Cold War has been "won" and the humans are back in control of the farm. I do not believe, as Sedley seems to, that Orwell would be relieved that the "benign, inefficient" capitalists are back in charge; I believe he would instead point out that we are deluding ourselves if we think we are closer to those revolutionary ideas of justice, brotherhood, and equality than were the citizens of Stalinist Russia.
Source: Kathleen Fitzpatnck, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3429
In the following excerpt, Brander applauds Orwell's use of colorful characters and lyrical narrative to balance his bitterly satirical story.
Animal Farm is one of those apparently chance pieces a prose writer throws off, which immediately becomes more popular than his more ambitious writings. A sport, out of his usual way; and yet more effective in the crusade to which he was dedicated than anything else he wrote.
For once, the gaiety in his nature had completely taken charge. He was writing about animals, whom he loved. He had had a rest of nearly three years from serious writing. He wrote with zest, and although humour rarely travels across national boundaries, his enjoyment has been shared everywhere. Humour travels most easily in peasant portraiture, as in The Good Soldier Schweik and Don Camillo; and in animal stories. Not many books have been translated into so many languages so successfully and so quickly as Animal Farm....
The style, like the form, is unique in Orwell's work. He had been a master of the descriptive way of writing from the beginning, from the opening words of Down and Out, but he had never before achieved pure narrative. In Animal Farm, from the start, we feel the special power of the storyteller. The animals expel the farmer and his men and take over the farm. The farmer tries to come back but is driven away. The other farmers do not interfere because they look forward to taking the farm over cheaply when the animals have ruined it. The animals, led by the pigs, do not make a mess of it, and the farm is well enough run for the authorities to leave it alone. Eventually, the pigs turn out to be harder slave-drivers than men, so in the end the neighbouring farmers make friends with the pigs and admit that they have much to learn from the labour conditions on Animal Farm.
There is no looseness anywhere in the structure. The story is rounded, the end joining the beginning. The opening speech of the old boar, Major, is answered at the end in the words of Mr. Pilkington and Napoleon. The various levels of satire are similarly rounded, so that the story and all its implications form circles each in its own plane.
The convention of writing animal stories is as old as Aesop in European literature and has been used in England from Chaucer's time. Every animal corresponds to a human type, and though there were many animals in the Ark, there are still human types to place against them. Orwell restates the convention right at the beginning, in the meeting of the animals:
At one end of the big barn, on a sort of raised platform, Major was already ensconced on his bed of straw, under a lantern which hung from a beam. He was twelve years old and had lately grown rather stout, but he was still a majestic-looking pig, with a wise and benevolent appearance in spite of the fact that his tuskes had never been cut. Before long the other animals began to arrive and make themselves comfortable after their different fashions. First came the three dogs, Bluebell, Jessie, and Pitcher, and then the pigs who settled down in the straw immediately in front of the platform. The hens perched themselves on the window-sills, the pigeons fluttered up to the rafters, the sheep and cows lay down behind the pigs and began to chew the cud. The two cart-horses, Boxer and Clover, came in together, walking very slowly and setting down their vast hairy hoofs with great care lest there should be some small animal concealed in the straw....
The two horses had just laid down when a brood of ducklings, which had lost their mother, filed into the barn, cheeping feebly and wandering from side to side to find some place where they would not be trodden on. Clover made a sort of wall round them with her great foreleg, and the ducklings nestled down inside it and promptly fell asleep. Last of all came the cat, who looked round, as usual, for the warmest place, and finally squeezed herself in between Boxer and Clover, there she purred contentedly throughout Major's speech without listening to a word of what he was saying.
It is an enchanting description. There is the bustle and excitement of assembly, just as in Chaucer's Parlement of Foules:
And that so huge a noyse gan they make That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake So full was, that unethe was there space For me to stonde, so full was all the place.
There is the pleasure of watching each animal comporting itself according to its nature. The animal kingdom at once becomes a reflection of human society.
The scene is a parody of a successful meeting of the political opposition. Get the people together with some bait. Turn on the orator to bemuse them, and send them away feeling happy and satisfied, but with the seeds of revolt planted where you want them. The best thing in the parody is the mockery of the egotistical gravity of political rabble-rousers:
I feel it my duty to pass on to you such political wisdom as I have acquired. I have had a long life I have had much time for thought as I lay alone in my stall, and I think I may say that I understand the nature of life on this earth as well as any animal now living.
Three days later, Major dies and the spotlight falls upon two younger boars, Napoleon and Snowball, the Stalin and Trotsky of the story. Napoleon was "not much of a talker" but had "a reputation for getting his own way." Snowball was intellectually quicker, but "was not considered to have the same depth of character." (Part of the fun of the animal story is the enormous gravity of the author's approach to his characters.) Snowball obviously has much more brains than Napoleon. It is Snowball who paints the seven commandments against the end wall of the barn, and when it comes to the battle for Manor Farm, and Jones the farmer tries to recover his property, it is Snowball who has prepared and drilled the animals for the expected attack. It is Snowball who leads them and Snowball who is wounded. In the whole episode, Napoleon is never mentioned.
As the community develops, it is observed that Snowball inspired the "Animal Committees," while Napoleon took no interest in such things. Snowball "formed the Egg Production Committee for the hens, the Clean Tails League for the Cows ... the Whiter Wool Movement for the sheep...." This is the sort of exuberant invention of absurd trivialities that Swift enjoyed in Gulliver. Napoleon, meanwhile, said that "the education of the young was more important than anything that could be done for those who were already grown up." Snowball had altruism, the essential social virtue; Napoleon had a lust for power, and intended to get it by making the animals "less conscious," and that was all he meant by educating the young. Eventually Napoleon wins by his education of a litter of young hounds, who attack Snowball after his eloquent exposition of the windmill scheme, and chase him out of the farm. At his best moment, just when his altruistic plans for giving warmth, food and comfort to all the animals are completed and ready to be carried out, Snowball's brutal rival stakes. It is the same sort of dramatic timing that we shall find in 1984, an ironic twist to the satire.
After that, the Snowball theme is the denigration of the fallen hero. The animals are all greatly upset by the incident, and Napoleon's young lieutenant, Squealer, works hard to make them less conscious of what has happened:
"He fought bravely at the Battle of the Cowshed," said somebody. "Bravery is not enough," said Squealer.
"Loyalty and obedience are more important. And as to the Battle of the Cowshed, I believe the time will come when we shall find that Snowball's part in it was much exaggerated. Discipline, comrades, iron discipline! That is the watchword for today. One false step, and our enemies would be upon us. Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?"
"Discipline!" the invariable cry of the political gangsters who are destroying freedom and truth. That is the first step in the legend that Snowball is the source of evil. The legend grows step by step with the building up of Napoleon as the leader who thought of everything and is the father of the farm. The windmill was of course really Napoleon's own idea, and Snowball had stolen the plans from among Napoleon's papers. When the windmill falls down at the first puff with wind, Napoleon himself comes forth and snuffs around till he smells Snowball. "'Comrades,' he said quietly, 'do you know who is responsible for this? Do you know the enemy who has come in the night and overthrown our windmill? SNOWBALL!' he suddenly roared in a voice of thunder."
Next spring, it was discovered that Snowball "stole the corn, he upset the milk-pails, he broke the eggs, he trampled the seed-beds, he gnawed the bark off the fruit-trees." A typical touch of hypnosis is supplied when "the cows declared unanimously that Snowball crept into their stalls and milked them in their sleep." Napoleon orders a full investigation, and Squealer is able to tell the animals that "'Snowball was in league with Jones from the very start! He was Jones's secret agent all the time. It has all been proved in documents which he left behind him and which we have only just discovered.'" The authentic note this, and it is heard again when Boxer argues that Snowball was once a good comrade: "'Our leader, Comrade Napoleon,' announced Squealer, speaking very slowly, and firmly, 'has stated categorically—categorically, comrade—that Snowball was Jones's agent from the very beginning.'"
Boxer was too simple to be safe. So the dogs are set on him, but he kicks them aside and releases the one he traps under his vast hoof only on Napoleon's orders. At the trial, the confessions of the animals are invariably of complicity with Snowball. Later it is discovered that far from being the hero of the Battle of the Cowshed, Snowball was censured for showing cowardice. At all these stages the simple animals are very much perplexed. Eventually it is shown (by the discovery of further documents) that Snowball fought on Jones's side at the Battle of the Cowshed. The animals are perplexed at each stage of this long denigration, but they are tired, overworked and underfed and do not remember clearly and the lies are so persuasively put across that at every stage they believe.
This parable of human perplexity in the face of contemporary propaganda methods is told with great skill. It is one of Orwell's most effective treatments of the problem which had focused his attention since his experiences in Spain.
Squealer is the modern propagandist, the P.R.O. (Public Relations Officer) who explains away the worst with the best of spurious reasons. He is a familiar type, with: "very round cheeks, twinkling eyes, nimble movements, and a shrill voice. He was a brilliant talker, and when he was arguing some difficult point he had a way of skipping from side to side and whisking his tail which was somehow very persuasive. The others said of Squealer that he could turn black into white."
He was the mouthpiece of the pigs, the new class who were elbowing their way into power by the methods Orwell marks in an essay on James Burnham: "All talk about democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity, all revolutionary movements, all visions of Utopia, or 'the classless society,' or 'the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth,' are humbug (not necessarily conscious humbug) covering the ambitions of some new class which is elbowing its way into power."
In contrast to Squealer is Moses, the tame raven, who specialized in the kingdom of heaven, but not on earth. Moses disappeared completely for years when the animals took over. It was only when the pigs were in complete control and had turned themselves into an aristocracy at the expense of the lean and hungry animals that Moses returns. His tales of Sugar Candy Mountain, where "it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed oil grew on the hedges," are useful again, and in no way threaten the power of the pigs.
Moses has his allowance of a gill of beer a day from the pigs and he does no work. Squealer works hard all the time. He represents the organized lying practised in totalitarian states, which, Orwell says in "The Prevention of Literature": "is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary."
Squealer comes into his own when Snowball is expelled, after making his name on the milk-and-apple question. All supplies had been reserved for the pigs, and there is some grumbling: "Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health." Needless to say, for the purpose of keeping Jones away.
At the moment of Snowball's expulsion, when Napoleon takes over the leadership, Squealer is at his best: "'Comrades,' he said, 'I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure!'"
When there is any fighting, Squealer is unaccountably absent. His time comes afterwards, when the victory has to be celebrated:
"What victory'" said Boxer
"Have we not driven the enemy off our soil ..."
"Then we have won back what we had before," said Boxer
"That is our victory," said Squealer.
A few mornings after that conversation, all the pigs are suffering from a dreadful hangover. It is the drollest incident in the book, and like everything else has its satirical implications:
It was nearly nine o'clock when Squealer made his appearance walking slowly and dejectedly, his eyes dull, his tail hanging limply behind him, and with every appearance of being seriously ill. He called the animals together and told them that he had a terrible piece of news to impart. Comrade Napoleon was dying! A cry of lamentation went up. Straw was laid down outside the doors of the farmhouse, and the animals walked on tiptoe.
The next bulletin was that Comrade Napoleon had pronounced a solemn decree as his last act on earth: "the drinking of alcohol was to be punished by death." Within a couple of days the pigs are busily studying books on brewing and distilling.
Squealer is central. He keeps the animals quiet. He puts their minds at rest. He has the air of a beneficent being, sent to make animals happy. He is the agency by which they become "less conscious. "
Napoleon develops in personality. He takes on the character of the legendary Leader more and more. He becomes progressively remote. From the beginning he is quite different from Snowball and Squealer. He has none of their mercurial qualities, he is no talker. In the range of porcine character—which would seem to be as great as the human range—he is at the other extreme a saturnine, cunning pig. A deep pig, with a persistent way of getting what he wants. He is by far the strongest character on the farm. Just as Benjamin, the donkey, has the clearest idea of things, and Boxer, the carthorse, is the strongest physically.
Boxer's simplicity of character is sentimental comedy of the purest kind. It is the story of the great big good-natured person who thinks harm of nobody, believes all is for the best, so everybody should work as hard as possible and then a little harder still. He is so simple that he does not see his questions are dangerous, and when the pigs make an effort to eliminate him—which is quite hopeless because of his great strength—he never understands what has happened. In the tiny Orwell gallery of pleasant characters, Boxer is the favourite. He is the expression of Orwell's liberal belief in the people: "one sees only the struggle of the gradually awakening common people against the lords of property and their hired liars..." He is the great big gentle peasant, the finest flower of the good earth; and he has the usual reward. When at last he collapses from overwork, the pigs pretend to send him to hospital, and sell him to the knacker. It is the only time that Benjamin, the donkey, forsakes cynicism for action. He attempts a rescue, but too late. With the money they get from the knacker, the pigs buy another case of whisky and hold a Boxer memorial dinner.
Squealer is able to give a complete narrative of Boxer's last moments in hospital and is able to quote his last words: "Long live Animal Farm! Long live Comrade Napoleon! Napoleon is always right." Fortunately, too, he is able to refute the ridiculous rumour that Boxer was sent to the knacker. "The animals were enormously relieved to hear this."
The last stage of the story comes with the legend on the end of the barn which has replaced the seven commandments. None of the animals ever detected that only four of them were commandments and the others were statements of belief. None, except probably Benjamin, who gave no sign, ever quite realized how they were modified. One by one they had been broken-down and now they had all disappeared and in their place stood the legend: "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others." The significance of this expunging of the law is explained in Orwell's essay on Gulliver's Travels, where he says:
In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.
Squealer arranged public opinion. The pigs were now walking on two legs and wearing clothing. Soon they were indistinguishable from the other farmers, except only in their superior discipline over their workers. Mr. Pilkington, proposing the toast of "Animal Farm" at the dinner which the pigs gave to their neighbours, put it very well: "... a discipline and an orderliness which should be an example to all farmers everywhere. He believed that he was right in saying that the lower animals on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the county."
Was it wonderful that when the poor animals gazed in they "looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which"?
The question one poses at the end of this fairy story is whether Orwell had given up hope that mankind would ever find decent government. It is very difficult here, as in 1984, to decide. He had said in his essay on Swift that: "Of course, no honest person claims that happiness is now a normal condition among adult human beings; but perhaps it could be made normal, and it is upon this question that all serious political controversy really turns."
Essentially, Animal Farm is an anatomy of the development of the totalitarian State: "In each great revolutionary struggle the masses are led on by vague dreams of human brotherhood, and then, when the new ruling class is well established in power, they are thrust back into servitude." ("Second Thoughts on James Burnham.")
It is a comment on all revolution: "History consists of a series of swindles, in which the masses are first lured into revolt by the promise of Utopia, and then, when they have done their job, enslaved over again by new masters." (Same essay.)
Nothing is more obvious than where Orwell's sympathies lay. But whether he hoped that the common man could learn to find rulers is not clear. In Animal Farm he is an artist, posing great questions imaginatively; not a preacher, proclaiming a revelation.
Source: Laurence Brander, in his George Orwell, Longmans, Green & Co., 1954, pp. 171-82.