Reading Animal Farm by George Orwell has been an intellectual treat, if not exactly the soothing balm to my soul kind of treat that I usually enjoy in my spare reading moments. I have heard about this book since my high school days. I wonder why I never read it back then when I was on my snobbish literary kick of thinking that classics are the only books worth reading. Whatever my reasons, I am glad that I did not for the simple fact that I don’t think I would have understood most of the content beyond the story line.
Animal Farm made me sick to my stomach when I read it Saturday for the first time. For such a short book it sure packs a punch. Just a note, don’t let this scare you from reading it if you haven’t already done so. It is neither very graphic nor full of bad words. The understanding of what is actually happening disturbed me, as well as the fact that the characters cannot understand or articulate their unease at the changes. I chose to reread it a second time with a much more methodical approach. I took notes, six pages of them, as I analyzed what I was reading.
On the surface Animal Farm is about a group of farm animals who overthrow their drunken abusive farmer and take over the farm to run it for themselves. Their rebellion is foreseen by Old Major, a prize winning boar on his deathbed. Before he dies Major tells them that the time will come when animals will overthrow their masters, and when this happens they must take care to not adopt the habits and vices of humans. He lays out several points in his lecture that the animals all espouse. Two other pigs named Snowball and Napoleon use the things that he told them to come up with Animalism, which they then teach to the other animals.
There is a vain and pretty horse named Mollie in the story who struggles with the new doctrine. She is used to having ribbons in her mane and sugar lumps to eat. I found it very telling that she struggled with accepting the idea of liberty because it meant the sacrifice of her ribbons and sugar lumps. Snowball asks her, “Can you not understand that liberty is worth more than ribbons?” His question made me stop and think about the things for which we give up our freedom. Some of us give up our personal liberty to addictions. Some of us give up our freedom for a perceived security. Some of us give up our liberty to get in debt for the newest technology. There is not one person on earth today who hasn’t at one time or another given up his personal liberty for something that figuratively glittered, like Mollie’s ribbons.
The thing is, not one of us looked at it that way when we were doing it. Did Mollie ever regret giving up her liberty for ribbons? I don’t know. She seemed pretty satisfied to be adorned rather than to make her own choices. When my husband and I first got married and used credit cards, we never ever viewed it as giving up our liberty, but the reality of our credit card use resulted in a long painful process of having to scale back our purchases and using all our “extra” money to pay those credit cards. We gave up a significant amount of our personal liberty just to go out to eat and generally live just a smidgen beyond our means. I know that this isn’t what Animal Farm is actually about, but it is applicable.
After the animals overthrow the farmer and take the farm for themselves they have to create some sort of society for themselves. The interesting thing to me is that almost immediately the pigs Snowball and Napoleon, creators of Animalism, emerge as the leaders. They reveal to the others that they have taught themselves to read and write and with this new talent they have come up with Seven Commandments for Animalism. All the other animals are ecstatic with these new principles which include things like “all animals are equal” and “no animal shall kill any other animal.” Eventually these get boiled down to a slogan that is a pretty famous quote, “Four legs good, two legs bad.” The sheep in particular like this slogan.
But inequality creeps in that very first day, and, like an insidious weed in a garden, it grows until equality is snuffed out beyond resuscitation. Based on their superior education and brain powers the pigs become the leaders which means they need special treatment. At first this simply means that they need the milk from the cows and the apples from the orchard to keep them healthy. Eventually it turns into them living in the house and engaging in trade with human. Each step along the path of inequality is small and easily explained away by a very persuasive pig named Squealer. They need the milk and apples to stay healthy. They need the beds to keep their minds fresh and alert. Interestingly enough every explanation is accompanied with the oblique threat that Jones the Farmer will come back if the pigs don’t take that small step. Eventually the oblique threat is accompanied by the very real and present danger of dogs brought up by Napoleon, think Hilter’s Youth on steroids.
There is a real art to tyranny as exposed by George Orwell. Each step is simple at first and easily explained by Squealer. The milk and apples, for example, he explains are necessary for the health of the pigs. Because they are the “brainworkers” they need to stay healthy. It’s not even that they like the milk and apples, but they are willing to make that sacrifice to keep the farmer away. When Napoleon announces that there will be no more debates or voting, Squealer comes along behind him and assures the animals that the pigs are willing to sacrifice and take over the decision making because the animals might make the wrong decision and Jones might come back.
All of the changes lead to excessive amounts of work for the animals, less food called readjustments instead of reductions, and no retirement. The animals are slowly wore down until they can barely remember why they rebelled. This is tyranny by starvation and work. Then there are the purges conducted by the pigs and the dogs; tyranny by intimidation and terror.
The windmill is heartbreaking. The animals toil so hard to get it built as they dream of running water and lights and heaters during the winter. When it is finally finished they are sorely disappointed because Napoleon announces it is better to work hard and live frugally than it is to have luxury. No one dares complain because they have been conditioned to think that Napoleon can do no wrong. Propaganda is an art of tyranny.
Another of the art of tyranny has to include the use of people as a distraction and a prop. The pigs use the dogs as a means of intimidation and violence. The sheep, with their brainless acceptance, become a major distraction at crucial points when they bleat their slogans so long and so loud that more rational animals do not get a chance to speak before it is too late. This happens when Napoleon appears, waking on two legs and carrying a whip. Orwell wrote:
There was a deadly silence. Amazed, terrified, huddling together, the animals watched the long line of pigs march slowly round the yard. It was as thought the world had turned upside-down. Then there came a moment when the first shock had worn off and when, in spite of everything -in spite of their terror of the dogs, and of the habit, developed through long years, of never complaining, never criticizing, no matter what happened – they might have uttered some word of protest. But just at that moment, as though at a signal, all the sheep burst out into a tremendous bleating of – “Four legs good, two legs BETTER …. Four legs good, two legs BETTER!”
It went on for five minutes without stopping. And by the time the sheep had quieted down, the chance to utter any protest had passed, for the pigs had marched back into the farmhouse.
Those sheep were a pretty useful tool, don’t you think?
I could go on and on with more things that I found in my perusals of Animal Farm. I probably could find even more if I read it again and again, but no one pays me to do that. I’d actually like to learn more about the rise of Stalin before I read it again. Orwell wrote it as an satirical piece about Stalin. I’m sure if I knew more about that time in history I would see even more in the book. I’m not sure if I could say that I actually enjoyed this book, but it did make me think.
What do you guys think about Animal Farm?