I hadn’t read Animal Farm, by George Orwell, since I was in high school (oh so many moons ago). But in the last two months I’ve read it twice, the second time reading it aloud with one of my classes I teach (all of whom are about 15, 16 years of age). And as a pleasant surprise, quite a number of them actually enjoyed the allegorical novella, as well as understanding the purpose and meaning behind it all. This, more than my own enjoyment of it, makes me realise how powerful and relevant this story still is today, nearly 70 years after it was written.
Subtitled “A Fairy Story” (and in some editions “A Satire” and “A Contemporary Satire”), Animal Farm is based on the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and then onto the Stalinist Era of the Soviet Union. As it was written during WWII, when a wartime alliance existed between Britain and the Soviet Union and the British generally thought of Stalin with quite high regard, Orwell cleverly chose to disguise his characters through the use of animals (though there were other reasons behind this choice).
When a revolution takes place on Manor Farm in which the animals overthrow the humans, they change the name of the farm to Animal Farm, and the pigs Napoleon (based on Stalin) and Snowball (based mostly on Leon Trotsky) take over the operations of the farm. After Napoleon ousts Snowball, however, the ideals of the revolution are quickly forgotten as he works the animals harder than they have ever worked before, while beginning a campaign of propaganda which includes changing history just to convince the animals that they are doing the right thing to support him. Napoleon even has his dogs (which he raises from when they are pups) to terrify the other animals into obedience, not unlike the Secret Police of the Soviet Union. Throughout it all we meet many other characters, such as the hard working horse Boxer, the wise donkey Benjamin who often sees things as they really are, and the sheep who blindly support Napoleon throughout the tale.
I’ve been teaching this book to my students focusing on the concept of ‘Power’, for which this is perfect. The story ultimately reflects on the corruption in the individuals who have power – in this case Napoleon and the other pigs (who soon begin to take more food and give themselves other luxuries while making up excuses for why the other animals must continue to starve and work relentlessly) – rather than any corruption in the ideals of the revolution. Orwell wasn’t trying to condemn socialist ideology, but the way that Stalin corrupted this and managed to brainwash so many people into supporting him. His power isn’t just through this use of propaganda to control a population, but through the use of force in some cases (such as the dogs), and through changing history – in this case changing the “Seven Commandments” whenever the Pigs happen to break one of them, which happens repeatedly until they later replace them with a single commandment “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Napoleon even has power over them through promises of a better life, which he gives them through goals such as constructing the windmill (though when the windmill is built, the better life never actually arrives).
While this allegory of the Russian Revolution does simplify matters too much to teach the actual history with this book, it is a great way of understanding the way that revolutions can and have gone wrong, due to the greed and corruption of those in power. Many of my students enjoyed it, and found it startling to see the connections between the novel and politics around the world in the last century. As far as I’m concerned, any book that can hold a bunch of teenagers’ attentions and interests in this digital age in which so many teenagers simply don’t read books must be a pretty amazing story. The reaction of my students (who, I might add, are not keen readers), in other words, is testament to the importance of this story, and the relevance it still holds today.
If you haven’t read Animal Farm, I strongly urge you to read it. It won’t take you long to read, but you will think about it and remember it long after you have put the book down.
Have you read Animal Farm, or anything else by George Orwell? What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s still relevant?