For the Book with Non-Human Characters challenge (2018 Book Challenge ) I decided to try Animal Farm, a book I somehow didn’t have to read in high school.
A book where animals run their own farm? How cute!
While the premise does sound like it would make an adorable pop-up book, Orwell’s scathing anti-Stalinist fable takes the reader through the realistic rise and fall of a political movement.
Manor Farm is owned by the abusive Mr. Jones. Tired of his drunken incompetence and cruelty, the animals revolt, driving him off the land. The exhilaration of victory bonds the animals and inspires them to keep control of the farm. More knowledgeable and industrious than Jones, they take over operations, yielding a successful harvest. The dream of a better animal-run tomorrow inspires loyalty and a willingness to work harder.
And then corruption rears its porcine head in the form of Napoleon (only because calling him Joseph Stalin would have been too on the snout).
What starts out as an organized workers’ paradise crumbles and is rebuilt into a dictatorship.
The anthropomorphized characters have the frightening characteristics of their human counterparts, all in some ways complacent in Napoleon’s rise to power. Literal work house, Boxer, blindly follows Napoleon despite obvious exploitation. Stubborn mule Benjamin takes pride in staying uninvolved while complaining about everything. There’s also spin doctor, Squealer, master of propaganda, nameless sheep who bleat what they are told. There’s even a canine NKVD, comprised of dogs indoctrinated from puppyhood to follow Napoleon’s orders.
Orwell’s novella is a quick read, written in a flat matter-of-fact tone that brings out the absurdity of the images and situations. He takes his time portraying the eventual destruction of a benevolent dream. Napoleon uses subtle betrayals, plausible lies and unquestionable patriotism as tools to dismantle the government the animals thought they were working toward. In one of the most disturbing scenes Napoleon orders a purge. What follows is a montage of forced confessions and the subsequent slaughter of the confessors. Dozens of animals, pigs included, are struck down in the bloody massacre while the others look on, horrified. By the end, Animal Farm is so unrecognizable that most can’t remember what life was like before.
Though Orwell targets Stalinism, this could be any form of government that favors the strong over the weak. Napoleon is no different than any other despot, human or animal. The bleak ending is predictable partly because it’s the inevitable conclusion to what has happened before, partly because history has repeated itself enough for us to know what to expect.
It’s strangely reassuring to see that the same political issues we face to day have been going on for decades and that maybe this isn’t really the end of days. Fake news, rewritten histories, silenced opposition… Apparently, some things will never change.
Thoughts that linger
There’s a scene where a drunk Napoleon runs a lap around the farm while sporting a bowler that still cracks me up.