Monday, October 17, 2011

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm,
had  locked the hen-houses for 
the  night, but was too drunk 
to  remember to shut the popholes.
Opening to Animal Farm
by George Orwell
I'm going to assume you have read this book.

Probably in high school.

Even if your English teacher was not the best teacher you ever had, you probably got most of what there is to get in Animal Farm.  It's a straightforward book;  Mr. Orwell makes sure that everyone understands  his point.  While the communist revolution may have started well, may have even brought peace, prosperity and equality for a while, Stalin soon seized power and destroyed all that was good about it.

I'm a firm believer that Mr. Orwell's best work can be found in his non-fiction; there's nothing in Animal Farm to compare with Homage to Catalonia or essays like "Shooting an Elephant", but the story is still a good one, the critique of Stalinism is still a damning indictment and, unfortunately, Animal Farm still has a message relevant to our time. Even for those of us who never lived under Stalin.

Consider three examples:

1.  In Animal Farm there is a pig named Squealer who has, as his sole function, the job of convincing all the other animals that what their leader, Napoleon, the evil pig who represents Stalin, is doing is the right thing to do.  Squealer must face the animals and lie to them, cajole them, convince them that what they saw with their own eyes or lived through themselves, is not what really happened.  Squealer is Napoleon's spin-meister, the media pig who corrects the story and tells everyone what "really" is true.  This keeps the animals from questioning their society, keeps them working from day to day without raising objection to how they are treated by those above them.  Squealer is the agent who convinces everyone not to question the status quo.  He must make everyone believe that the pigs should eat better food and while working much less than they do.

2.  The dedicated, devoted worker Boxer, a draft horse, gives his all for the cause.  Whenever anything goes wrong, Boxer takes it upon himself to work harder, to get up earlier than before, work later, do more than his fare share, all he is capable of doing, to make sure that the job gets done and done as well as it can be.  Boxer never complains about the effort he puts into his work, never holds anyone else's lack of effort against them, never questions those in charge.  He has faith that his work will be rewarded one day with retirement to the pasture set aside for him and for others where he can peacefully live out his old age.   Instead, when he has worked himself so hard he can no longer do much of anything, he finds the retirement pasture  has been given over to growing wheat for the production of beer drunk only by the pigs in charge and he is sold to a glue factory.

3.  By the novel's end a few pigs are  living the high life while the rest of the animals gain nothing from their labor.  They are told that they are better off than they were before under the oppressive farmer, and many of them still believe it, but the readers know this is not so.  The pigs are better off, surely, but the rest of the animals suffer to make this possible.

Sound familiar?

Darn that George Orwell.

8 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Oh I had forgotten about Boxer! So sad! Thanks for the reminder/summary!

Amanda said...

Orwell has a tendency to be a little heavy handed for me, but I like the guy for the most part. Ireread this one a few years back and enjoyed it more as an adult than as a senior in high school.

Jim Randolph said...

I read this and 1984 on my own back in middle school. I never had either assigned, which I thought was weird. Now I want to check out his nonfiction! Thanks.

C.B. James said...

I don't feel the same heave-handedness in his non-fiction that I do in his fiction, which is one reason why I think it's better work. He does still come straight to the point. He wants to make sure everyone understands the point he is making, but he's also much more willing to let the actual events he describes do much more of the point-making work.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I think, like Of Mice and Men, I read this early in life then blanked it out for some reason. I MUST have read it. I am sure that all the analogies were lost on me at that age though. Sure is eery to see it summarized now though.

Trisha said...

I really have to re-read this one.

Bonnie said...

I actually read this after high school! Only a few years ago in fact, but yes I've read it.

I think I'm going to have to find myself some copies of Orwell's non-fiction. I never considered reading it before, but he has such a way with words and extended metaphors with his fiction, I figure I must check it out.

Thanks for your post.

Mr. Brame said...

I wrote a long, though-out comment to this post a few days ago, but I think I accidentally forgot to save it. Whoops.

The gist of it was that I really enjoyed teaching this to 8th graders, and my favorite part about it was making them sing "Beasts of England" to the tune of "Ode to Joy."