In discussions of political fiction, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a title often hailed as an essential text, as it zeroes in on society’s fear of the correlation between evolving technology and growing surveillance—as well as mass surveillance’s ties to totalitarianism. But while dystopian novels are all the rage in the literary climate of our current and turbulent times, readers shouldn’t turn a blind eye to Orwell’s influential book which came four years earlier. Animal Farm, published in 1945, is an allegorical and satirical novella that mirrors the 1917 Russian Revolution and subsequent rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union.
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Animal Farm opens on a disorganized farm near Willingdon, England. This low-functioning property is owned and run by a human by the name of Mr. Jones—an alcoholic guilty of great neglect toward the animals he profits from. One day, an old prized boar named Old Major speaks out against the treatment of animals at the hands of Mr. Jones, sowing the very first seeds of rebellion among his four-legged comrades.
However, while Old Major might have posed the idea of overthrowing human rule, his unfortunate death means that two other pigs bring this dream to fruition. Snowball and Napoleon band together in a command position and actualize the plans to revolt, driving Mr. Jones off of the farm and leaving the land in the hands of the now liberated animals. Their victory promises big changes, and together they adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism, prioritizing above all else that “All animals are equal.”
Poor Old Major is a representation of both Karl Marx—a renowned philosopher and creator of communism—and Vladimir Lenin—a Russian revolutionary who stood as a leader of the 1917 revolution. Meanwhile, Snowball most closely resembles the history of Leon Trotsky—a politician closely associated with the ideals of Marx and Lenin who later fell to exile and later assassination. The pig Napoleon is a clear allegory of Joseph Stalin, dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for more than two decades. The events of Animal Farm unfold to encompass the harsh reality that the ideals set forth by the fathers of change may be viciously twisted by the leaders that follow.
Though things on the farm run smoothly for a while with quite a few prosperous changes, things take a turn when Napoleon runs Snowball off the farm for suggesting the modernizing idea of building a windmill. Napoleon takes sole command of the farm and reorganizes their community-style government by implementing an overseeing committee of pigs. In the aftermath of Snowball’s departure, any who appear to support him are executed by Napoleon’s gang of dogs. Still, through the trying times the animals who survive have to admit that things are still better for them than they were under Mr. Jones’ rule—even if Napoleon and the pigs are hoarding extra resources for themselves.
But more atrocities would soon befall the animals on the farm, starting with the injury of the sturdy work horse Boxer, who Napoleon sold to the knacker for monetary gain, despite the horse’s unquestioning loyalty to the pig’s cause. It’s become clear across the farm that all the promises of betterment of their conditions posed by Snowball have been ignored by Napoleon and his pig committee, who continue on to break every Commandment of Animalism set forth. As the pigs walk on two legs, drink, and begin to mistreat the other animals, the pigs and the local farmers begin to collude. The animals left outside to a “simple” life look in on the meeting of pigs and men and fail to find any differences between them anymore.
Orwell’s work is a timeless warning and scathing critique which exposes the ways in which governments may engage in the slow slide into a dictatorship. It starts with promises to citizens that things will get better, and gets swept away by figures who are hungry for power at any cost. Even those who have proven they stand steadfast with the leaders are expendable to dictators, worked to the bone for profit. The downfall, Orwell makes clear in his work, is the lack of awareness and action by the greater masses. If the citizens themselves don’t take a strong hand in the revolution, then history is doomed to repeat itself.
For much of his career, Orwell was known as a journalist and essayist. This experience lends itself to the deeply honest nature of his works, which often strip motivations down to their grittiest and rawest parts. Orwell’s style is known for being concise, crisp, and cutting—providing a gripping and straight-to-the-point journey to the heart of the truth. As he wielded an outspoken and passionate political pen, Orwell carved a path which would one day get him ranked in The Times list of the greatest British writers since 1945.
But why does Animal Farm in particular stand so strongly against the test of time? For starters, high school curriculums introduce the novel to teenagers for the first time precisely when they need it. Nearing an age which they are expected to engage politically, teenagers need to be given the tools to think critically about their government and their leader’s motivations. Through this work, young readers are taught that their voice is vital, and the right to be heard is not always a given.
Still, it’s easy for readers and voters of all ages to get politically complacent. American citizens have been showing up to voting polls in astonishingly low numbers in recent years. Animal Farmserves as a captivating and chilling reminder that sitting back and hoping for the best is the quickest way to have the future decided for you.
Orwell’s work encourages readers to be active in the course of their country’s history, not by merely providing a workforce, but by being informed and opinionated on issues. While Animal Farm delivers a devastating dissection of Stalin’s Russia and the greed of politicians, there’s very little to be done to change the motivations of those individuals clawing and killing for power. What can be changed is the daily actions of the people who give them that power.