Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

11 Nov 2011

(Novel) Animal Farm by: George Orwell

(Reaction) Communism on the Homestead by: Jose Angelo Singson

The novel Animal Farm by George Orwell is a modern day fable and political cautionary tale. Very clearly it is written for no other reason but to warn the world of the dangers of the despotic regime of Stalin and his political ideologies. It is a lampoon of totalitarian governments in their manifold appearances and because it was a political satire that targeted such a raw nerve it was initially very difficult to get the book published.

At the time Animal Farm was ready for distribution, the Allies were working closely with the Soviet Union. The novel presents specific historical figures and different factions of Imperial Russian and Soviet society allegorically. Among these are Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, both embodied in the novel as Major. Leon Trotsky as represented by Snowball. Joseph Stalin as played out by Napoleon. Adolf Hitler is embodied by Frederick. The Allies, the peasants, the elites, and the church are represented in the novel by the characters Pilkington, Boxer, Mollie and Moses, respectively.

The similarity of some of events in the novel to Soviet history is deliberate. Take Snowball's and Napoleon's jockeying for position. It is a parallel of Trotsky's and Stalin's own power struggle. Even the battles the animals wage against the humans are allegorical to actual historical events. The Battle of the Windmill for example is the novel's representation of World War II itself.

Although the historical references throughout the novel are quite clear there are other events in Animal Farm that smack of historical allusion but which are less specific. The executions mentioned in Chapter VII seem to hint at The Red Terror or the growing threat of communism but also share many similarities with The Great Purge or the series of political repressions organized by Joseph Stalin.

These executions seem to be a summation of Orwell's fears. These fears in turn are effectively projected at the audience allowing the reader to concentrate more fully on the political satire Orwell presents and his admonitions about the evils of despotic government.

Throughout the novel Orwell's pessimism shines through but the most poignant and lingering of these pessimistic thoughts is his belief that totalitarianism was inevitable. All governments, even those in the West, would eventually succumb to it.

Resources trace this pessimism from Orwell's youth. He had literally spent his youth in an age of dictatorship. He had seen firsthand Hitler's and Stalin's coming into power. He had read about how dissidents fought during the Spanish Civil War. These events had so affected a young George Orwell that he eventually came to believe that these tyrants were merely a taste of things to come. According to him, some time in the future a completely new form of dictator, viler than the previous autocrats, would eventually come into the scene.

Orwell wastes no time in pointing out the evils of totalitarianism. Early in the novel the pigs take the milk and apples, justifying their actions on the basis of their ascendancy. They reason that because they are smarter than the other animals they require more nutrition. This argument is ironic given that if there was anyone that needed more food it was the laborer animals, but the pigs prevail because of the other animals' ignorance.

Using this example the author points out how subtle totalitarianism can be in its operation, often using the idea of for the greater good as smokescreen in much the same way that the Soviet Union did before the human rights abuses became blatant.

Totalitarianism in Animal Farm occurs in cycles beginning with Farmer Jones and ending with the Napoleon the pig. This occurrence and re-occurrence of tyranny is once again solid evidence of Orwell's pessimistic belief that all totalitarian regimes happen with frightening regularity and predictability.

As the story progresses, Napoleon essentially becomes the figure they originally feared and despised, Farmer Jones. This is a mirror image of Stalin's rise to power using the promise of equality and freedom as a ruse to gain popular support. In the striking final scene Orwell writes: ...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... At this point pigs and men have become indistinguishable from each other which are the author's way of saying that all leaders will eventually become cruel dictators despite the initial nobility of their purpose.

From the onset of Animal Farm much is made of education's role as a control mechanism. The pigs rise up to the challenge of organizing and marshaling the other animals because they are ...generally recognized as being the cleverest of the animals... Initially, the pigs are loyal to their fellow animals and genuinely uphold the revolutionary cause. They turn Old Major's vision into reality.

Unfortunately it does not take too long before the pigs' intelligence and education is transformed into tools of subjugation. When the pigs desire something material - such as milk and apples - they use their superior intellect and knowledge to deceive the other animals, completely abandoning their morals and egalitarian tenets of the cause.

Much like actual human dictators the pigs limit the other animals' opportunities for education saving it for them. The pigs educate themselves from a children's book but then destroy it immediately; denying the other animals a chance for betterment. Eventually most of the animals on the farm are rendered all but illiterate. Once the pigs establish themselves as the educated elite, they utilize this advantage to control the other animals. They take advantage of the farm animal's illiteracy by making subtle changes in The Seven Commandments, revising gradually to provide them with favors. The pigs learn various trades from manuals, providing more opportunities for economic specialization and technological advancements.

Having become the intellectual bourgeoisie the pigs no longer do their share the manual labor, relegating the task to the other animals. They now busy themselves with bookkeeping and organizing. This shows that the pigs not only have access to all the best opportunities but with this advantage they can now opt to keep these opportunities to themselves. Frighteningly at the novel's end the readers now witness Napoleon educating the next generation of oppressors as he passes on the methods of suppression to a new litter of piglets. This is perhaps Orwell's opinion of the natural progression of despotic regimes; that is that it tends to develop into a nepotistic rule.

Orwell was subjected to both the immense power and the dishonesty of propaganda, working as a propagandist himself during World War II. Propaganda is not an exclusive tool of totalitarian governments. Propaganda can unite people but it can obviously mislead them as well. Orwell acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects of propaganda. We read it in Animal Farm as useful for gathering a maltreated and disheartened populace, uniting them to fight against a common enemy and empowering them by giving them a cause other than mere survival to live for. We also read it as being used as a tool of suppression, spreading fear and uncertainty into the masses; robbing the common person (or animal as the case may be) of peace of mind.

Squealer is the Napoleonic government's propagandist and represents all propagandists in a totalitarian regime. He is a skilled public speaker and can make the animals believe nearly anything. This can be clearly seen in his dealings with Clover and Muriel. Whenever Clover suspects that alterations have been made to the Seven Commandments, Squealer convinces her that she is wrong.

Skilled as Squealer is in propaganda he is nothing compared to Napoleon. Napoleon outlaws the singing of Beasts of England (the animal's revolutionary anthem) and replaces the song with another song containing lyrics that promise never to harm Animal Farm. Through this shrewd change Napoleon effectively kills the revolutionary spirit of the farm that may be roused by the singing of Beasts of England. He then replaces this revolutionary fervor with exact opposite: a command to remain passive and maintain the status quo.

Propaganda in Animal Farm is also used as a vector for spreading terror. This is clearly seen in Napoleon's mud-smearing campaign of Snowball. He concocts an image of Snowball as ruthless and spreads a rumor that Snowball could attack the animals at any time. The most atrocious example of propaganda in the novel as a tool for brainwashing is the aphorism that replaces the entire Seven Commandments: All animals are equal/But some animals are more equal than others. This idea is deplorable on many grounds. The term more equal is a mathematical improbability. To an intelligent or educated reader it would be exposed as an obvious bit of semantic gobbledygook but what is really most deplorable is this: even though this is the case the animals are now too conditioned by Napoleon to take notice of it.

In the end it is not Napoleon's cruel rule that destroys Animal Farm but rather the apathy of its inhabitants. Initially, the concept of freedom from the negligent Farmer Jones spurs the animals into movement; the mere idea of revolution is enough motivation for them to fight and aspire for better things. Sadly by the book's end, the animals become as indifferent as Benjamin (the donkey) always was. Despite the brutality and injustice the animals suffer, Napoleon's propaganda keeps them moving for the greater good and they live under a grotesque parody of freedom.

While Benjamin is apathy made flesh, Boxer is his anathema. Boxer is willing to make any sacrifice for the good of Animal Farm. Orwell exposes the apathy of the totalitarian reign through Boxer's betrayal by his leaders. Boxer was perhaps the most noble and endearing character in the novel. He served unconditionally and worked truly for the sake of others. The pigs never considered Boxer a loyal comrade. They objectify him treating him as apathetically as they would a commodity. Later on this objectification is made literal as they profit from his death by selling his remains to be turned into glue and bone meal - actual quotidian objects...

As one reads through the novel the other animals' eventual apathy reveals itself as a coping mechanism against the horrid truth and it comes as no surprise that Animal Farm's most apathetic and cynical beast, Benjamin, is the one that survives the longest. His emotional indifference to the state of affairs keeps him from being disappointed. Benjamin therefore embodies the badly stereotyped gloomy Russian and, ironically is most likely to be the voice of George Orwell himself.

Review:

I remember having read Animal Farm as a young boy and being terribly saddened by it. Reading it again as an adult does not decrease the impact. I am still terribly saddened by it.

I am saddened by the themes of the novel: the inevitability of governments to lapse into tyranny, the apathy, the fear, the bitter cynicism. I am also saddened by the novel's inability to impart to the reader an ability to hope for the future; the inability to put stock in one's leaders or in this fellowman.

Animal Farm is required reading for a reason. Its warnings to be eternally vigilant in order to maintain the quality of life and freedom we take for granted as well as the admonitions against desensitization is what makes it such an excellent fable for ages to come and a solid reminder that these matters (cultivating a social-moral conscience and guarding against indifference) must be taken seriously. After all, these concerns are really what separate man from beast...

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