Animal Farm – the continuing relevancy and appeal of Orwell’s masterpiece

Animal FarmI 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.

Found on keebs.com (artist unknown). This poster portrays the atmosphere towards the end of the book quite well.

Found on keebs.com (artist unknown). This poster portrays the atmosphere towards the end of the book quite well.

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?

14 thoughts on “Animal Farm – the continuing relevancy and appeal of Orwell’s masterpiece

  1. Agree re lamenting the ‘Socialist ideal’ I have wondered whether it therefore actually refers to the two Russian Revolutions (one more Socialist and the other totally autocratic, evil, and dictatorial).

    • Hmm that’s quite an interesting point. It wouldn’t surprise me, knowing Orwell – I suspect it refers to a lot more than you’d notice at first glance, and possible more than Orwell himself consciously included.

  2. I recall this being on my O-level English Literature syllabus here in the UK in the mid 1980s. Timed perfectly as I was also doing History covering the same period. The English Lit teacher really made us read and look beyond the words and understand what the book was implying. It was a great read and since then I have read several times, but am always cast back to being 15 years and some wonderful memories. It is a great book and I feel a re – read coming on.

    • I think that’s a good age to read this book for the first time – just old enough to be able to really understand and appreciate what it’s saying, without having had too much exposure to that entire genre of writing. Sadly most of our students won’t learn that history period, but as both an English teacher and a History/Geography teacher, I had to sneak a bit of the history in there (it is important as context, too). Glad you enjoyed it so much – I have found it better upon subsequent readings. That ending is just brilliant! 🙂

  3. I recently read 1984 and enjoyed it. And yes, it’s still relevant in today’s world. I haven’t lived in a society like the one described, but I think a few still do today. I haven’t read this one yet. I hear its good, if not better than 1984.

    • 1984 is a great read as well, and I find reading that and Animal Farm helps you appreciate them both more – there are similarities between them, and you can tell one followed the other in terms of being written. It’s hard to say which of the two is better – I think Animal Farm is a more pleasant read, perhaps, but 1984 is just as powerful a story – more haunting in some ways as it was more speculative than based on the past, and it is eerie how accurate some of that speculation was.

  4. Very true – I find Animal Farm less a history of the Russian Revolution as a story about power and corruption; it just so happens that Stalin inspired it!

    • Yep – I think you could have based the story on a number of other dictators and it would have still worked. But I do like the history behind Animal Farm, and I like the fact that it reflects Orwell’s personal dislike of that history, particularly through his own experiences.

  5. I loved Animal Farm when I was in High School, particularly since, at that time (the 1980’s) America and the west still had frosty relations with the then Soviet Union.Thanks for reminding me of the book.

    • True, I imagine it would have been interesting then (and probably more widely taught too, though I suspect it’s still taught a fair amount now). It’s a very clever book, that’s for sure. 🙂

    • Umm I don’t know if this is on Facebook? I know I didn’t post this one up there, unless you did? Otherwise nobody on there will see this comment…you could post a link to it on there and ask again if you want though. 🙂

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