Animal Farm by George Orwell

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the boars lead the other farm animals in a revolution against Mr. Jones’, in hope of a better life. Together, the animals take over Manor Farm, making it their own farm. Running a farm is a lot of work, but the farm animals are convinced the work is worth it because the land is their own. Basing the philosophy of “Animal Farm” on a few basic commandments (the main one being “four legs good, two legs bad”), the boars lead the animals on to relative commercial success. As time goes by, life on the farm remains challenging for the animals, and few can recall the difficult days of Mr. Jones’ rule. But few complain because they have so much pride at maintaining their own farm.

By itself, Animal Farm is an odd, but amusing tale. The animals are successful in their revolutions against humans and the reader wants to cheer them on. Then the subsequent slow transformation of Animal Farm back to the necessary evil of doing business with humans (for Animal Farm is, unfortunately, not completely self-sufficient) seems sad, for we wish success to the remarkable animals, despite the obvious treachery of the leading animals.

Put into the cultural context in which it was written, however, Animal Farm clearly mocks the rise of communism in Russia. To me, Animal Farms‘ ironic humor becomes all the more sad when one realizes the correlating story among humans suffering in Orwell’s contemporary Russia. I liked rereading Animal Farm, and now that I understand a bit more of the context, I found it quite sad, and not nearly as funny as the first time I read it.

Version of Horn and Hoof Flag, based on hammer and sickle, courtesy Wikipedia
Version of Horn and Hoof Flag, based on hammer and sickle, courtesy Wikipedia

I read Animal Farm for the Martel-Harper challenge. In the letter that Yann Martel sent to Stephen Harper, Martel shares how literature makes history portable:

Animal Farm is a perfect exemplar of one of the things that literature can be: portable history. A reader who knows nothing about 20th-century history? Who has never heard of Joseph Stalin or Leon Trotsky or the October Revolution? Not a problem: Animal Farm will convey to that reader the essence of what happened to our neighbours across the Arctic. The perversion of an ideal, the corruption of power, the abuse of language, the wreckage of a nation-it’s all there, in a scant 120 pages. And having read those pages, the reader is made wise of the ways of the politically wicked. That too is what literature can be: an inoculation.

Because I’m not all that familiar with the details of the beginning of the USSR, I defer to the Wikipedia experts for that. The Wikipedia entry for Animal Farm clarifies who some of the animals may represent: each character seems to directly relate to actual people in Russian history.

Reading about …

Animal Farm has been called an allegory, a satire, and a fable. I defined satire a few months ago; now it’s time to visit allegory and fable.

Allegory

allegory, noun, 1: the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence ; also : an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression
2: a symbolic representation : emblem (Merriam-Webster.com)

In A Handbook to Literature (eighth edition), Harmon and Holman go beyond the basic dictionary definition to explain that allegory is a form of metaphor. That is, that

objects, persons, and actions of a narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. … it represents one thing in the guise of another. (page 12)

Harmon and Holman also clarify that allegory differs from symbolism: symbolism doesn’t necessarily incorporate ideas into the structure of a piece as does allegory. Types of allegory include parables and fables.

Fable

fable, noun, : a fictitious narrative or statement: as a: a legendary story of supernatural happenings b: a narration intended to enforce a useful truth ; especially : one in which animals speak and act like human beings c: falsehood , lie (Merriam-Webster.com)

I was surprised to learn that fables especially have animals speaking and acting like humans. That puts Aesop’s Fables into perspective. I read and reviewed them last year, but I didn’t think about what that term means. Most of Aesop had animals acting as humans, and the results “taught” the reader a lesson.  Harmon and Holman share a few notable fables other than Aesop, including Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I also read and reviewed last year (not realizing they were considered “fables”). Harmon and Holman define fable as “a brief tale told to point to a moral” (page 207).

Classifying Animal Farm

Maybe this is blasphemous, but I don’t particularly think Animal Farm is a spectacularly written book: I don’t feel very drawn into the language. It was a short novella, and I felt Orwell “told” more than he “showed” in many of the sections.

That said, I do think Animal Farm is a remarkable little novella. It was written for its story, and Orwell did a great job of creating a “realistic” allegory to illustrate his purpose. Animal Farm is clearly an allegory in the form of a fable. In places it feels heavy-handed, but that is the purpose of allegory. In some respects, Orwell wrote it to be heavy-handed. He’s purposely trying to represent something. As Yann Martel said in his letter to Stephen Harper, it’s a political book, and “It deals with one of the few matters on which we can all agree: the evil of tyranny.” I think that theme makes it great.

(Not surprisingly, Animal Farm was rejected by many publishers during World War II; it was not published until late 1945. This is, of course, despite the fact “Russia” is never mentioned in its pages.)

Someone suggested to me that Animal Farm is a novel to read once: it doesn’t speak to one person individually, but rather comments on a situation. However, Animal Farm shows up on many “best novel of the century” lists. I’m not sure what I think about either of those classifications. I, in fact, did reread it, but I do think there are better “best novels” out there.

What do you think about Animal Farm? Did Animal Farm speak to you personally, as novels sometimes do? Or is this a novel written with a purpose that eludes you? Or, does the heavy-handed purpose help you like it more? Should Animal Farm remain on “best novel of the last century” lists, or should it be stricken?

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed Animal Farm on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I have always enjoyed Orwell – and it started when I read Animal in the 6th grade as part of a unit on Communism. I think reading it in that framework originally helped me to appreciate what it stood for from the start. But, I gained a new appreciation for it recently when I was talking to my boss who is Ukranian. He didn’t read Animal Farm until he was in college (late 90s) and was blown away by how accurately it reflected the culture he lived in until the break up of the Soviet Union.

  2. Amanda, I thought I searched 5-squared, but I guess I didn’t. Thanks for your link. I agree: I think it’s a conceptual genius! Hoping to reread 1984 soon too.

    Allison, I think it would have helped to read it in context! My first time I read I as a teenager– found it on my mom’s shelf. Didn’t have much idea what it was about at all. And talking to the Ukranian about it would have been quite interesting too! Scary to think of people living like that…it made me sad. 🙁

  3. I read this back when I was a young teenager (maybe 14 or so), and thought it was a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon. I do wonder if I would appreciate it more now that I am older and wiser (hopefully!). I’d also like to re-read 1984. I can’t remember what I thought of Orwell’s style, but I do remember thinking both of those stories were really engaging and thoughtful “cautionary tales”.

  4. Animal Farm is one of my favorite books. We read it for school two years ago and it quickly rocketed to the top of my list. While I agree that he “tells” more than “shows” the story, I can’t imagine it any other way. And I think it can speak to people both individually and as a group – absolute power corrupts absolutely relates to situations I been through and through local, state, national, and international governments.

  5. I only read AF a couple of years ago for the first time (where was I in Junior High when everyone else read it?), so had read a good deal about it before I turned to the book itself. I was looking for the allusions to Russian communism and was not disappointed. Yes, Orwell was a little ham fisted in making his point, but I kept thinking of the blunt reality of Soviet art and thought his tone fit his theme.

    And yes, I read it because it was included in the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels of the 20th Century. I think it deserves a place on the list, if not for the execution, then for the historical significance.

  6. I loved Animal Farm when I read it in school, but my school also worked hard to make sure the history and English classes tied things together, so we were very aware of the context as we read. As much as it might not have affected me personally, AF helped me understand the thinking behind Communism and how it could come into being. The concept had seemed so radical and far-fetched to me that I had trouble grasping it until I read AF. It’s almost an educational, warning experience than anything else.

  7. I also read this in the 6th grade. I was probably 12 yrs old. I wonder what reading it now would be like. Have you read 1984? I just read it. Very different from Animal Farm but similar themes, I think.

  8. Steph, I think that’s how I saw it as a teenager — kind of missed the “deeper meaning.” But still good!

    Christina, you’re right: the themes are important to individuals too.

    Rose City Reader, I never read it in school either. But my parents had it on a shelf and I picked it up as a teenager because it looked short and it had a pig on the cover. 🙂 Yes, you’re right, the historical significance does give it a place.

    Lisa, I find Martel’s letters quite a nice look at the books he chooses!

    Heather, great school to teach this book with the historical context! It certainly does explain the idea behind communism in a great way.

    Chris, I read 1984 years ago, much at the same time as Animal Farm. I think I must reread it as well. I think “Orwellian” has become a term to describe his similar themes…

  9. This is one of the few books that I was required to read in high school that I loved right from the opening page. I think my love of the books from my love of reading and secondly my love of history. This is a book that I haven’t picked up again for quite a few years, but it’s a book I tend to purchase almost every time I see it. This has put the craving to devour that book again back into my soul. I guess I should hunt one of my copies down and read it soon. Thanks for the great review.

  10. Pingback: Animal Farm « Jackets & Covers
  11. I loved Animal Farm when I first read it maybe 45 years ago-I have read it maybe three or four times then and have listened to the audio book a few times. I think it is a great study of the corruption of power, one of the dominant Orwellian themes

  12. I read this book earlier this year and really enjoyed it! It wasnt my favorite book…but I thought it really had me thinking afterwards. It was great!

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