Born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bengal, India, on June 25, 1903, George Orwell was the son of a British civil servant and belonged to what he considered “the lower-upper-middle class.” He returned to England with his mother in 1905 and attended a fashionable preparatory school before winning a scholarship to Eton, where he first demonstrated an apparent animosity toward convention and authority. Consequently, as a form of rebellion, Orwell decided against continuing his studies at either Oxford or Cambridge and instead enlisted with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, a decision that would permanently affect his philosophical perspective, political consciousness, and creative legacy.
Conceived and written as satire, Animal Farm is generally acknowledged as presenting many of Orwell’s views on humanity and politics. The novel relates the overthrow of a farmer’s tyrannical rule by the animals in his barnyard and the animals’ aborted efforts to establish an “egalitarian” society. Clearly alluding to political events in Russia from the Revolution to World War II, Animal Farm primarily attacks the extremes of Stalinism, yet goes beyond to dissect the anatomy of revolution and the lure of power. The ponderous political implications of the novel, however, are deftly interwoven into a fantastic tale of animals that talk, walk on their hind legs, write laws, spout propaganda, and commit crimes, all in the name of equality. Once the animals attain their freedom and begin to organize the farmyard, it becomes obvious that their behavior parodies human political and social hierarchies.
The novel takes place on Manor Farm, which is renamed Animal Farm after the animals expel Mr. Jones, the farmer, from its grounds. It is a typical barnyard, except that the animals have assumed the farmer’s tasks. Their aspirations are high; they write seven commandments on the wall of the barn, including “All animals are created equal,” and “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy,” and thus stake their claim. They build a windmill-an object of much contention-that is rebuilt several times after being destroyed by a storm and then by a band of farmers with dynamite. Originally, the animals pledge to preserve the manor house as a museum, but as the power structure becomes more unbalanced, the pigs move into the house, which becomes their domain. The farmhouse symbolizes the new totalitarian rule of the pigs and is indeed indicative of the “revised” commandment: “All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others.” Orwell, by restricting all the action to the farmyard, creates a microcosm of society.
Modeled on a relatively simple premise, the novel begins as the animals of Manor Farm unite against farmer Jones to overthrow his tyrannical rule. Understandably ecstatic over their sudden and rather unexpected good fortune, the animals create a new order for the future based on equality and equity. The paint is hardly dry on their barnyard manifesto, however, when the hated forces and attitudes that triggered their revolt begin to reemerge, eventually to destroy their dream of emancipation. Orwell undoubtedly passes judgement on the fate of revolution by comparing ideological promises with their practical application.
An extremely disciplined writer, Orwell consistently used language to enhance the development of plot while providing insight into thematic concerns. This is especially true in Animal Farm, an imaginative examination of the interaction of language and political method. Written in a pure, subtle, and simplistic style, Animal Farm evokes descriptive imagery and stunning clarity of purpose. Although the novel begins with a relatively light tone, it gradually evolves into a menacing and debilitating void. Coming full circle, the novel ends with a tremendous sense of futility and loss as even the memory of the revolution fades into quiet and passive oblivion.
During the mid-1930s, Orwell like many of his literary contemporaries, became increasingly more perceptive of the social and political concerns of the age. Clearly a turning point for Orwell, this period would ultimately define his artistic purpose and direction as a writer and simultaneously crystallize his prophetic vision of the future. Unquestionably a literary extension of Orwell’s political development, Animal Farm is most often identified as a satire on totalitarian communism and the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. Orwell recognized the ability of emerging political regimes to replace poverty with a form of security based on social and economic servitude. Committed to the preservation of intellectual liberty, Orwell further realized the inherent danger of sacrificing this ideal to governmental control. Orwell’s primary concern by the close of the decade was to discover the proper medium through which to communicate his message.
1. Discuss the pigs’ idea of “animalism.” What happens to this theory as the novel progresses?
2. Boxer and Clover, the two cart-horses, are described as the “most faithful disciples.” What makes them such?
1. Research the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its origins. What similarities do you see between it and the events in Animal Farm? Are the major characters in each of the revolutions alike? Why or why not?
Similar in thematic content to Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four is both an indictment of political oppression and a vigorous attack on the corruption of language. Throughout the novel, Orwell is relentless in his disparaging analysis of totalitarian society. More impressive, however, is his ability to demonstrate the use of language as a tool of government to exercise and ensure control over its people. Deprived of access to their historical and cultural traditions, the inhabitants of Orwell’s world become enslaved to the immediacy of existence.