Orwell famously gave his novel Animal Farm the sub-title Fairy Tale. The subtitle seems ironic. Elsewhere we’ve noted that if Animal Farm is a fairy tale, it’s like one by the Brothers Grimm: dark and chilling and generally lacking in fairies.
We might more accurately describe Orwell’s novel as a short allegory, a fable. Before we actually get into talking about how Orwell’s novel is a fable, let’s get some terms straight. An allegory might be thought of as an extended metaphor, a picture, story, or poem in which many of the elements are symbols for something else. Insofar as many elements of Orwell’s novel are symbols for people or events related to the rise of Stalinism, it is a traditional allegory.
A fable is sometimes just thought of as a short allegory, but it is also something much more specific. The tradition goes back to Aesop (a Greek who came up with such tales as "The Tortoise and the Hare"; he lived from roughly 620 - 560 B.C.). The fable often features personified animals, and it is meant to teach a lesson or to illustrate a moral, which can often be summed up in one line. For example, the famous “Slow and steady wins the race.”
Orwell’s novel is a traditional fable at the same time that it is a more complex allegory for the events leading up to and following the Russian Revolution. Like Aesop’s fables, Orwell’s story is full of personified animals. It is simply told, and though it is full of ambiguity, it has at least a few clear morals. For example: power corrupts, or utopian visions need to have an accurate working-idea of human nature.
We’ll get into the details of Orwell’s Russian allegory in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," but here we are most concerned with the general form of his story. We are concerned with how his form both liberates and constrains Orwell's voice. In other words, with what it does and does not allow him to say.
Part of the reason that Orwell’s novel is one of the most read books in American secondary schools is because it is simple and easy to understand. The simplicity of the fable form is a large reason for Animal Farm’s success. It has a point to make, and it makes it clearly and concisely. Everybody gets it.
It's worth asking if Animal Farm too simple. We’ll address this question in relation to just one passage, the moment when Clover the horse begins crying after the executions:
As Clover looked down the hillside her eyes filled with tears. If she could have spoken her thoughts, it would have been to say that this was not what they had aimed at when they had set themselves years ago to work for the overthrow of the human race. These scenes of terror and slaughter were not what they had looked forward to on that night when old Major first stirred them to rebellion. (7.30)
The passage is especially interesting because it is one of the few (as Orwell scholar Morris Dickstein has pointed out) where the novel almost breaks the bounds of its genre and speaks directly to the reader. The narrator tells us that this might be what Clover was thinking, "If she could have spoken her thoughts..." In other words, the narrator is stepping in and offering his own commentary on the situation for Clover.
And yet, even here, when the narrator almost breaks the fable’s bounds, we don’t learn very much. All we learn is that there is an obvious disconnect between Old Major’s dream and the current state of Animal Farm. In other words, we learn what we already knew: Old Major never said anything about animals killing animals.
Some critics have pointed out that Orwell’s fable demonstrates how Stalinism gained hold in Russia, but says much less about what allowed it to gain hold. At some times, it seems like it’s the stupidity and gullibility of the other animals on the farm. At others, it just seems like its Napoleon’s brutality. In our opinion, such critics are trying to get too much from Orwell’s novel. Animal Farm is not, after all, a philosophical treatise.
The key point, though, is that the fable form allows Orwell to do some things well (describe what was happening in Russia at the time), while preventing him from doing other things (go into detailed speculation about why Stalinism gained hold). As we have said, the fable form both frees and constrains his narrative voice.
A last point. Because a fable is open to interpretation, some people have interpreted Orwell’s novel in ways that he himself could never have imagined. In the "Writing Style" section, we talked about how Orwell wanted to say what he said – nothing less, and nothing more. Except that with a ‘fable,’ the author is necessarily saying more than he says: he’s hinting at a whole allegorical world that the reader has to pick apart for him or herself.