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Move over, Babe and Wilbur: there's a new talking pig in town.
In fact, there are a lot of talking pigs. And talking horses and birds and cows, for that matter. But George Orwell's Animal Farm is no Jim Henson-inspired comedy about a pig who just wants to be a sheepdog, or bittersweet tale about interspecies love. It’s a biting satire about tyrannical governments and a dark warning about the fate of communism in Russia .
Today, Animal Farm is a classic. (In fact, we have a sneaking suspicion that you're here because you're being required to read it.) But when Orwell wrote the book in 1943-44, he could hardly find a publisher. In fact, no one took him up on it until 1945, and even then readers weren't too keen on it.
You see, Animal Farm takes a blow at the Soviet Union, especially its leader Joseph Stalin—but the Soviet Union was an ally in the U.S.'s fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. Criticism of Stalin wasn't banned in wartime British press, but it wasn't exactly encouraged, either. Stalin may have been bad, but Hitler was worse. When publishing house Faber & Faber rejected Orwell, an editor pointed out that it was simply distasteful to depict Stalin as "a pig."
But Orwell was no knee-jerk anticommunist. In fact, he was a socialist, a simple word for a complex and varied set of beliefs. Let's just say that socialists believe that the means of production (like factories or businesses) should be controlled by the workers for the good of everyone, rather than controlled by a tiny subset of owners for their own profit. In other words, Walmart should be owned by Walmart employees, rather than by the Walton family. (Does that sound crazy? There are co-ops and employee-owned businesses today that operate in just that way.)
Since communism is an extreme form of socialism, Orwell actually fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. Their enemy was Spanish leader Francisco Franco and his fascist followers, who believed in strong, militaristic national identity united under an authoritarian leader—think the Wizard World under Voldemort, or Mordor under Sauron. But Orwell quickly realized that the communists he was fighting for could be just as totalitarian and oppressive as the fascists.
In fact, his time in Spain made him realize "how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries" (source). And that's where Animal Farm comes in: it shows Stalin's version of communism as the exact opposite of socialist values—as a brutal, oppressive, and unequal regime. Not that he saw Western leaders as much better. Brutal, drunken humans represent Western leaders in Animal Farm—and the animals of Manor Farm are more afraid of the humans regaining control than they are of the Stalinist pigs.
Orwell satirizes all political tyranny. He's just generous like that.
Okay. But why animals? Why not just write an essay? (Orwell was pretty good at the ol' essay-writing gig, after all.) Or why not write a novel with actual people, like his 1949 political satire 1984?
Well, come on. If you're going to get a lecture about the evils of totalitarianism, wouldn't you rather hear it from a talking horse?
Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and said, "I'm going to be the President of the United States one day"? Or—let's take it down a notch—have you ever run for class president on a platform of better cafeteria food and free sodas for all?
As your election gift, we'll wrap up for you our very own dog-eared copy of Animal Farm. Using barnyard animals, it provides (practically in bullet point form, and in less than 200 pages) over 200 years of knowledge about leadership and power, distilling all of the mistakes great (and not-so-great) leaders have made over time. Chief among them? Letting the power go to your head and keeping all the free soda for yourself.
The animals’ successes and failures all have hard lessons for would-be leaders. What happens when the wisest leaders like Old Major die, and how do you stop someone like Napoleon or Squealer from taking their place? What do you do when somebody like Mollie the horse puts their own comforts ahead of everyone’s needs? And how do you defend your gains when someone like Mr. Jones or Mr. Frederick comes calling, looking to take it all back?
As revolutionaries from Julius Caesar to George Washington have discovered, those questions don’t have any easy answers. And Orwell isn’t in the business of giving us simplistic fairy tales about what a good society should look like (despite the book’s original title, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story). He’s equally skeptical about finding convenient scapegoats for why revolutions fail. What he does give us is one of the sharpest political satires of all time—a book that’s just as relevant today as it was when it was written, even if there’s no Soviet Union anymore.
Seriously, Mr. or Ms. Future President. Go read this book right now.
A TV movie with animatronics technology. Voices of Kelsey Grammar, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patrick Stewart.
An animated movie version of Animal Farm.
Fun fact about this 1954 adaptation: every single animal is voiced by the same guy. Talk about low budget.
Okay, we'll just be over here wondering why IMDB has classified this 1999 adaptation as "comedy" and "family."
Comprehensive revised version of the Seven Commandments (also known as the Principles of Animalism), showing all tracked changes.
Squealer falls off the ladder while altering the Seven Commandments in this 1950 comic strip.
Here's the extremely restrained cover of Animal Farm's first edition.
In this 1933 photo, Orwell looks like he has a bit of the old grumpy donkey in him.
Orwell’s original preface to Animal Farm. Discusses issues of censorship.
Letters from Orwell regarding Animal Farm.
Check out Orwell's original preface. Can you see why he'd have trouble publishing it?
Here's Orwell's classic essay, "Shooting an Elephant." It's about shooting an elephant. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Everything you know is wrong: star New Yorker essayist Louis Menand upends Orwell's legacy.
For Every Action, There’s a Reaction
Looking at Animal Farm as an allegory of the Russian Revolution, the Battle of the Cowshed is a lot like the Russian Civil War. Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and other revolutionaries had to defend against attacks on all sides, and their idealistic vision was never quite the same.
Meanwhile, the Battle of the Windmill, in which Boxer and the other animals fend off Mr. Frederick, is similar to the real-life Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. Almost two million people died in this incredibly bloody battle, but it was a turning point for the Allies.
The Soviet Union and the Russian Revolution are a better fit for Animal Farm’s allegories, but the French had a revolution of their own that went…not so well. And by “not so well” we mean “thousands of people had their heads chopped off.” The name of the man who became a dictator after the revolution? Napoleon Bonaparte. Hmmm…
This little guy would not agree with Snowball's maxim about the necessity of hind legs. Honestly, is this the best thing you've ever seen, or what?
Can't get enough Orwell? This site has enough to keep you occupied through a whole Russian winter.
Hmm. Was it "No animal shall sleep in a bed to excess," or "No animal shall drink in sheets?" No worries: you can check out a comprehensive revised version of the commandments right here.
Brown University has a neat little online exhibition of some Orwell documents.
Not All That Animates Is Disney
Even cute little piggies can't make us feel good about this 1954 animated adaptation.
Check out this 1999 version with real farm animals—and the voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard as Napoleon. (No wonder all the animals follow him.)
We couldn't decide which of these fan renditions of "Beasts of England" we liked best.
Everything's Better With an Accent
British actress Tamsin Greig narrates Animal Farm.
The nice thing about an audio book is that you can still harvest the hay while you "read."
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