Animal Farm Essays and Criticism
by George Orwell

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Historical Setting for Orwell's Animal Farm

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 7,586 words.)