the Ralph Steadman illustrated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm

Animal Farm

  • Author:  George Orwell  (1903  –  1950)
  • Rank:  #44
  • Published:  1945
  • Publisher:  Secker and Warburg
  • Pages:  128
  • First Line:  “Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes.”
  • Last Line:  “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film Version:  1954;  1999 (tv film)
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #31; All-TIME List; Hugo Award (retroactively)
  • First Read:  Fall, 1991

The Novel:  Oh, allegory, how difficult you are to write about.  It always brings up the question of how do you judge it.  Do you judge an allegory for what it is or what it is saying?  Or how well it is saying it?  And it can always be so easy to mis-interpret the allegory.  Look at Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (the original title when it was first released – the subtitle was dropped for the U.S. release and for nearly all other releases in Orwell’s lifetime).  It was released the same week that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.  Certainly it would be easy to look at the story as an allegory for Nazi Germany.  But, of course, anyone who had any idea about Orwell would have known its true intention.

It’s likely that the two best known (and most well-respected and studied) examples of allegory in modern literature are Animal Farm and The Crucible.  In one sense they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with Miller crucifying the right while Orwell blasts the totalitarianism regime of Stalinist Russia.  But on another level they are both really about the same thing: the mis-use and manipulation of those without power by those in power.  But both of them work with precision, working first as art, then as entertainment, then as allegory.  They succeed because they achieve their primary artistic goals first.

Animal Farm is a short book, quite probably the shortest on my list (those 128 pages include 14 of introduction).  But every sentence has an impact.  It draws a clear picture of the farm, allowing us to understand how things have reached their current point.  “Man serves the interest of no creature except himself.  And among us animal let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle.  All men are enemies.  All animals are comrades.”  That statement alone recognizes the impossibility of the animals to ever fully succeed, for that perfect unity will never be found.  Once the Seven Commandments of the animals (not so very different from man’s ten commandments, for these animals are not so different from man as they want to believe, even from the start), we know it is only a matter of time before they start to fall.  And of course, it’s not so surprising to move towards the fateful words “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”

But Orwell manages to craft the tale in such a way that we still care about what happens.  Indeed, it is heart-wrenching when Benjamin is finally pulled from his morose stupor with the knowledge of what is written on that fateful cart that it taking Boxer the horse away.  The loss of such a hero, coupled by the ridiculous lies told about his death afterwords were not only known to the Soviets, but don’t seem so ridiculous in the details that still seem to emerge from the story of Pat Tillman.

So the story quickly moves to its last lines, the ones that almost everyone seems to know by heart.  In such a short time, it has made such an impact.  Yet, of course, it is still the warm-up for the triumphant novel that would soon follow: 1984.

the poster for the 1954 animated film of Animal Farm

The Film:  It gets more acclaim than it really deserves.  I had always heard really great things about the film before I finally saw it.  Part of it, perhaps, is because it was the first British animated feature film to get a wide release.  And it’s a good film, but that’s as high as I’m willing to go.

First of all, it contains one of those types of voice-overs that seems to feel the need to push things along and instead just keeps you from relaxing into the film.  Second, it is overly cartoonish.  This, after all, was a big film, a full-length animated feature at a time when Disney completely owned the market.  So perhaps they wanted to be more serious than Disney, but also try to compete with them.  But the overly cartoonish animation (especially Major during his early speech and Mr. Jones when he realizes that the animals are going to attack him) really is just a distraction.

Then there is the finale of the film.  What was the point of this?  Were they trying to say that perhaps totalitarian regimes like the Stalinist regime so brilliantly satirized in the novel could so easily fall?  That there was no place for them?  Whatever the explanation, it only distracts from the end product.

So, in the end, like I said.  It’s a good film, but it never rises above that.