I’ve been reading a lot of hefty books lately. As of today, I have eleven novels sitting on my nightstand (it’s a mountain of books), and eight of them are over 600 pages. I’m not sure if I’ve been overly ambitious these days, or whatnot, but the pile seems to be only growing, while I have nothing to add to my “finished” shelf. That is why a few weeks ago I decided to take a quick break and read something short for a change. I finished three books, all of them off of my 1001 list, and it felt refreshing to fly through a few shorties. I finally saw a bit of progress and psychologically it was a nice morale booster. Animal Farm by George Orwell was my first achievement.
I familiarized myself with Orwell a little over a year ago, while reading his famous dystopian 1984. Opening this much shorter title, I pretty much knew what to expect. Just like 1984, Animal Farm offers a smart critique of totalitarianism, dictatorship and corruption of socialist ideal. Many readers take it as a straight criticism of Soviet Union and communism, but I think it is worth seeing in a bit broader spectrum. Yes, the book indeed seems to be based on the events after the socialist revolution in Russia, and even the characters are too thinly disguised from their real-life counterparts to deny any similarity. But Orwell does not condemn socialism, especially since he himself was a democratic socialist. What he condemns is Stalin’s iron fist-type of dictatorship. Orwell’s idealistic sympathy for equality is evident in the beginning of the novel when a boar named Old Major is telling other animals of life where they would be free from the human oppression and hard fruitless labour. He envisions everyone working together on food production and sharing plentiful harvest in the fall. The animals are elated by the new revolutionary song “The Beasts of England” that praises communal success and dream of the days to come. Sounds like an excerpt from a Communist Manifesto, doesn’t it? When finally revolution does happen and animals take over the farm, they do seem to enjoy a year of plentiful harvest and comforts of freedom. Soon, however, the power struggle between two new leaders ensues and things begin to change.
I love allegory. My reading senses start tingling all of a sudden when I stumble upon a good allegory. In Animal Farm it is not overly complicated, but extremely effective. In the beginning everyone is equal of course and we see the little community of animals prosper. There is the slogan of “All animals are equal” and the Seven Commandments of Animalism written on the wall. As time progresses, however, the uniform mixture of equal labour breaks down – like oil in water, the clear societal classes are starting to separate from each other. The pigs take place of the new elite class, enjoying many comforts that humans before them were used to. The find clever excuses for not contributing to the society and manipulate Commandments and history to make their lives more luxurious. Slowly, the pigs undergo humanization and in the end stand identical to their neighbour farmers. If you have read the excerpt of the secret book in 1984 regarding the revolutionary cycle, you will recognize the very same topics discussed in Animal Farm. What I love about the allegory in this novel is the way Orwell portrays complex socio-economic issues through a group of beings traditionally detached from society and its problems (ie. Children or animals). This sort of device proves successful in connecting human actions to base instincts that unify all living things. It sort of brings us down a notch and says, Hey you guys aren’t that different from an amoeba! If you enjoy this kind of commentary, maybe check out such famous works as The Lord of the Flies or Island of Doctor Moreau, as well as one of my favourites The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (but only if you can handle depressive books). In the end I agree with the character of old donkey Benjamin of Animal Farm, who would always say the same thing: “Life will go on as it has always gone on – that is badly.”