Published by Signet Classics on April 6th 2004 (first in 1945)
Reading Challenges: Back to the Classics, What an Animal
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A farm is taken over by its overworked, mistreated animals. With flaming idealism and stirring slogans, they set out to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality. Thus the stage is set for one of the most telling satiric fables ever penned –a razor-edged fairy tale for grown-ups that records the evolution from revolution against tyranny to a totalitarianism just as terrible. When Animal Farm was first published, Stalinist Russia was seen as its target. Today it is devastatingly clear that wherever and whenever freedom is attacked, under whatever banner, the cutting clarity and savage comedy of George Orwell’s masterpiece have a meaning and message still ferociously fresh.
Preliminary remarks: This post is more an analysis (or an “assessment,” if you will) than a review, so if you’re worried about spoilers, maybe only read the first two paragraphs. The rest is a long Q&A session, where I ask questions about the book and then give possible answers.
I’ve always liked this book. I mean, I’ve never been particularly knowledgeable about the Russian revolution, but I can tell that the state of things—of government—the farm devolved into is bad. (I did think it downright hilarious that the name Napoleon was used for the Stalin-pig. And in the French version, he’s César! Like Caesar.) To tell you the truth, if I had learned all of my political history like this, I would understand it a lot better.
Anyway, I liked Old Major and thought he had the right idea, but when he died things did not entirely go his way. They may have if Snowball—Trotsky—had remained in power. He believed in the self-emancipation of the working class and that it would last only if the revolution spread. But then Napoleon takes power, and takes all of the power. If you want to read about the allegorical significance and theories on it, I suggest the Wikipedia page as well as the pages for Stalinism and Trotskyism. Apparently every detail has significance, but I’d like to know what the cat represents. Her role is obviously my favorite. I would be her in this scenario.
If you look at it as a book and not necessarily an allegory (I don’t have enough historical knowledge to do this), some questions can be raised. It seems to me that the only reason Napoleon was so successful was because the animals were too dumb to realize what was happening and put a stop to it. I can understand why it was the pigs who gained power, because I think that pigs were the smartest animals on the farm. But the other animals couldn’t read (except Muriel and Benjamin) and couldn’t remember the past well enough to know when Napoleon was editing it. They couldn’t tell when he was lying and couldn’t remember enough to catch him in the act. Apparently Jessie and Bluebell forgot that they had 9 puppies, because they never inquired about them and asked to see them and so they were raised to be Napoleon’s secret police. And that, honestly, was the key to Napoleon’s tyranny, in my opinion. As he got more blatant and daring with his tyranny, the other animals started questioning more (though not enough), but they were stopped by the threat of the dogs before they got any further. This is with the exception of Boxer, who was more than a match for the dogs, almost killing one (he almost killed a man, too), but unfortunately he was probably the dumbest animal on the farm. If he had been as smart as Benjamin and less cynical, I think he could have singlehandedly taken the pigs out of power, but he would not have assumed the role himself. I am curious about where Snowball went, and I would have sent the pigeons and Moses to look for him if I had deposed Napoleon and the pigs. Honestly, though, I think Napoleon may have known where he was the whole time after having done exactly that. There’s nothing that suggests he didn’t know. He made up stories about where Snowball was, and the stories always changed, but that was merely a manipulative tool. There is the option that he had gone in secret and killed Snowball, but I doubt this for two reasons. One, he would really have nothing to be gained by it. He had already overthrown him, and Napoleon was not petty. He was too smart for that. Two, he would have had to send enough manpower—er, animal-power—to take down a mature pig, and the absence of such animals for as long as the hunt would take would surely be noticed (even by the dumbest of animals). If Napoleon ended up having to explain that he had murdered Snowball, or chose to explain as a point of reminding the animals of his power, he would lose the advantage he had of using Snowball as a scapegoat for everything. As synonymous as Napoleon’s name had become with God, Snowball’s was with the Devil. That’s difficult to miss. But truly, there’s not enough evidence either way to suggest that Napoleon knew or didn’t know where Snowball was.
How much would literacy have helped them? Probably not much is my guess. They would know what the commandments were, though they might not be able to see when they were changed. The thing is they would need proper intelligence and a better memory. If they had intelligence, they might be able to connect the dots when they found Sqealer amending the commandments. If they had memory, they would simply recognize that the two words weren’t there before. They would also know that conditions were much worse than they had ever been. I don’t know if bad memory is just an animal thing, or the fact that these animals, being especially dumb, were also especially bad at remembering, but it seems too simple a flaw for me. If all the animals were intelligent, literate, and had a good memory, they might be able to band together and take down the pigs. I said earlier that if only Boxer was those things, that would be enough. (Another question: how intelligent are Napoleon’s secret police puppies? They seem to only have been bred for protecting Napoleon and probably can’t even speak.) I don’t know if Boxer would be able to stand up against all the pigs as well as all the dogs, though. Obviously it would help if more of the animals were intelligent. Clover was catching on to things, but seemingly had no desire to change things or start a revolution. I don’t even think she’d be capable of convincing the rest of the animals.
I’m also curious about the lengths Napoleon seemed to have gone to make Snowball out to be the enemy. I have a very strong feeling that Napoleon did—or arranged—the destruction of the windmill on both occasions. I’m 90% sure he did the first time and only 50% sure he did the second time, although that would mean he had arranged for the men to attack the farm and the windmill (seeming satisfied to only destroy the windmill before leaving). Maybe he didn’t do the second one. But the first one he did, and for what? He would set back his own workforce, wasting valuable time (pigs don’t live forever) that he could have used them for other projects. Also, what use was blaming Snowball for everything? Was it to distract them from the fact that conditions were worsening? Well, they wouldn’t be nearly as bad if Napoleon hadn’t leveled the windmill. But that’s the other thing. Napoleon had no intention of using the windmill to better the lives of the animals. They all thought that, and that’s why they worked so hard. Maybe Napoleon wanted to put off the completion for so long that the animals forgot the specifics of what they wanted it for. By the time it was completed, they didn’t really care what it was used for as long as they had finally completed the windmill. No one put up a fight when it was used for something simpler. The animals were too old and tired to even think anything was off. Too old to even remember that their retiring age had come and gone and they were still working. I don’t think it would occur to them until they dropped down dead of exhaustion. Why were they so complacent? If I was still working hard on a farm at 80 years old, you bet I’d notice. Again, the dumbness of the animals seems like a convenient plot device. I don’t think the people of Russia were quite that dumb, though they may have been that powerless for other reasons. It seems to me that the animals on the farm were much more inclined to work together and do things en masse—like attacking—than people would be. If they had been left to their own, they would have had a perfect utopia for the working man (animal). If they all realized something was wrong, they would probably have banded together and attacked the pigs/dogs. Maybe that’s just something dumb animals would do, but it would work. I think people would be a little more hesitant about this.
Back to Old Major. Would his vision of an animal-run society have worked? I’m conflicted about this. I think that the animals NOT including the pigs would have done a fine job on their own as far as the book suggests. They were willing to share everything—the work and the results. Would a natural leadership have emerged? That’s hard to say. I don’t think any particular one of the animals stood out to me as a natural leader. Boxer was admired enough, but wouldn’t have wanted it and wasn’t smart enough. Benjamin was smart enough, but he was cynical and preferred to be left alone. Clover was well-liked, though older, and she had a bit more intelligence than the rest, but I don’t know if she’s necessarily cut out for leadership. I think it would have been too much for her. Muriel is well-liked enough and can read, at least, but shows no other characteristics necessary for a leader. No other animals stand out enough. Would they have needed a leader? Again, the book suggests that they would not. They might institute a form of majority-rule democracy.
Old Major would have been the obvious choice for leader, but he died before the revolution with no successors other than Napoleon and Snowball, which brings us to the pigs. With the pigs in the story, they emerge as natural leaders simply because of their intelligence and forward-looking vision. If Snowball had remained in power, I think he would have followed closely enough to Old Major’s ideas, and I think he might have been able to follow the commandments. I was hesitant on the idea of not using money or trading, but then I remembered that that would only be needed in cooperation with people, and in Snowball’s world, all animals would overthrow all people. They might want to barter with the other animals of other farms, but it seemed to me that they were pretty self-sufficient. It was mostly the luxuries that money was needed for. Oh, but that’s not true—not even the windmill would be able to be completed without man’s machinery. Maybe they would keep men around until they had become entirely self-sufficient, and completed all their projects, and then overthrow them. I don’t know about this though. That would still involve trading/buying (or stealing), and I don’t know if they would ever be satisfied with the state of the farm. They might always want to be improving. So maybe Snowball’s farm would eventually end up using money. But the actual commandments I think would remain safe. (Not using money is not in the original seven commandments.) I don’t know how well he would be able to preserve the last one, since if a leadership emerges it is hard to say that they are all equal, but if they instituted some system of law, they could say that all animals are equal in the eyes of the law. Actually, that might not even be necessary. The main things the animals worry about are doing work and getting food. If all animals work as is appropriate for their ability, and they all eat what is reasonable for them, then that might be equal enough. But it’s hard to see any society where there isn’t a system for punishment, as much as Orwell says they’d be a utopia. Sure, sure, all the animals are perfectly honest now, when the revolution is new, but sooner or later there will come a time when one steals something, or does some other crime.
I think the way Sugarcandy Moutain (animal version of Heaven) is presented is interesting. So the animals like to believe in it post-revolution because they want something better after this life, which means they aren’t perfectly content with their current life. Yet when their life worsens (post-revolution), they don’t become increasingly obsessed with the idea of a Heaven, because they rely on facts and figures (falsified of course) to tell them that conditions are actually improving, even though they feel like crap. So they’re too dumb to need to rely on the idea of an afterlife to keep them going, even though the pigs consider anyone who believes in Sugarcandy Mountain dumb. So they’re dumb if they do and dumb if they don’t. Very curious.
I believe those are all of the things I can think of to say at this current moment. It’s a great little book and raises loads of questions. It’s just fun to read.
reaction upon finishing
Wow, that’s terrible….this is awful!
this book in one word
I did actually take notes while reading this because I knew I’d want to write as much as I could. I addressed many of the points here in the review, but if you’re curious what my thoughts were at various points in the book, check out my notes.