This review contains spoilers.
I recently bought a $2 copy of George Orwell’s classic fable Animal Farm in a bookshop in Phnom Penh. I’ve read Animal Farm before – in university, perhaps? Or high school – but it is one of those timeless novels that can be read over and over again and still feel relevant.
Animal Farm, a “fairy story” about a group of animals that overthrow their farmer in order to run the farm themselves, was originally intended to serve as a political allegory for what was happening in Stalinist Russia in the 1940s. Orwell initially had trouble publishing the novel in England. He wrote in a preface (not included in the original publication in 1945) that the reason for this difficulty was a sort of tacit agreement amongst people in England not to say anything bad about the Soviets. Orwell wrote that although there was no state-sanctioned repression of freedom of speech in England at the time, there was a kind of “it’s not done” mentality in regards to the discussion of Russia. I don’t know much about Russian history (and apparently Animal Farm follows very closely the rise of Stalin) but Orwell’s novel is certainly very reminiscent of revolutions and communist regimes in general. I was reminded of North Korea, and also of the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.
Animal Farm is on the surface a simple story. The animals decide they don’t want to be kicked around by Mr Jones anymore, so they rise up and take the farm for themselves. A pig named Napoleon becomes their leader and at first everything seems to go well. But gradually Napoleon and the other pigs become more powerful, and the original principles of the revolution are twisted (“No animal shall sleep in a bed” is amended to read “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets”, and “No animal shall drink alcohol” becomes “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess”.) By the end of the novel all of the things the animals had first stood up for are completely reversed. History is reinterpreted by Napoleon and delivered to the rest of the animals in the form of propaganda by the pig Squealer. Everyone (apart from the pigs and the dogs) is worse off than they were before.
Animal Farm is relatively short (less than a hundred pages) and very easy to read. I found myself caught up in the characters, even though the narrative voice for the most part keeps its distance from the interiority of individual animals. Every now and again the reader is given a glimpse of the thoughts of the horses Boxer and Clover, but the narrator is mostly omniscient and reports actions rather than feelings. The actions speak very clearly for themselves, however – no moral explanation is needed.
Orwell hoped to end the novel on a discordant note, with a moment that seems to speak of a sort of reconciliation but that is in fact tense with the promise of more conflict to come. For me, the ending was perfect – subtle and unsettling, a scene that stays in the mind of the reader long after the book has been placed back on the shelf. I’m sure the next time I read Animal Farm it will have the same effect. An elegant, poignant, and engrossing story.
George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) was born in 1903 in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. Over the course of his life he spent time in Burma, France, England, Spain, and Morocco, and much of his writing was influenced by his experiences in these places. Animal Farm was published in 1945, and was followed in 1949 by what is arguably Orwell’s most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell died in England in 1950.