I don’t know an awful lot about Russia and Stalin’s rule, but I don’t think I needed to to appreciate the bleak picture Orwell paints of corrupt politics. I think the narrative works excellently in the allegory of the animals and makes it hugely simplifies what is ultimately a rather complex situation, and if I may, adds a thin coat of humour to the allegory.
Although it’s very difficult to discuss the narrative with disregard to its context, I’ll briefly give my thoughts on the story itself, because I think as well as being an excellent political allegory, the story works well for children as simply ‘A Fairy Story’ as its subtitle denotes. I didn’t know exactly how the plot would play out at first, although I had my inclinations, so when it opens with the animals deciding to rise up against the evil dictator Mr Jones, I was all far it, and it gave me some pleasure to see the animals take back power (which is clearly intended). And then, of course, Napoleon conspires against his growing political opponent, Snowball, and drives him out of the picture. I had the idea in the back of my mind that Snowball would return at some point in whatever fashion, and we never find out what really happened to him, although I suppose it doesn’t matter. Snowball’s role is to show how easily a political figure can be demonised, and the truth obscured. This is an idea that plays largely into 1984 with its ministry of truth and absolute re-writing of the truth, and to no surprise, I discovered that Animal Farm was written several years prior. I don’t think it’s any surprise, either, that my favourite character was Benjamin who acts as a ghost of the past, and eventually the only one that remembers the reality of the situation, but unfortunately he does nothing to protest this, and to an extent represents the hopelessness of trying to change, although to do nothing in that situation makes him just as bad as the ignorant ones who allow the situation to deteriorate.
From a certain point in the novella, the story depicts the slow decline of society, and the gradual return of things to the same way they had been under Mr Jones, and arguably even worse, to the point where it ends with the story coming full circle. And from this point where this trajectory started, I was thinking, ‘Right, I know how this is going to play out, all that remains to be seen is how it will end,’ and I wasn’t disappointed. The ending was rather haunting with the pigs assuming absolute control, and effectively becoming human, not forgetting the iconic ‘All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others,’ which I love. It’s darkly comedic but represents the harsh reality on which it is based.
I think it the mark of a true genius to turn such a complex and hopeless reality - a dystopian society that is all too easily achievable - and turn it into a relatively simple story. Spiritually and ideologically, it acts as a prequel to 1984, which deals with the more complex ideas of mind control and the methods with which the government keep its people in check, and although I have to admit 1984 had a far greater effect on me, there’s definitely something to be said for the simplicity of Animal Farm, and although it is heavily rooted in the Russian revolution and the rule of Stalin, I think it speaks more broadly about the danger of power and how easily it can lead to injustice and ultimately, absolute slavery of the body and mind. On one level, we are more complex than animals and aren’t so easily manipulated and controlled, and it takes a lot to deceive and enslave us, yet on another level, and historically, we are exactly the animals of animal farm, because the majority of people have such closed minds and don’t bother their tiny susceptible minds with seeking the truth, and therefore all it takes is a little charisma and cunning, and we are all enslaved.
If you haven’t read Animal Farm, read it. It’s one of the most important, yet easily digestible, political dialogues, and I think it, and it’s ‘Big Brother’, 1984, have never been more relevant in the western world since they were penned, and that speaks volumes about the importance of their discussion.