Most of us are required to read Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm at some point in our high school career. I remember reading it, and even remember vaguely that it was connected with Lord Acton’s statement, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the experience of reading it, the characters, and any sense of the general mood or atmosphere of the story — all of these aspects of the book have escaped me.
This week it was included as a supplemental reading recommendation with our history study of the Russian Revolution of 1917. My recent foray into C.S. Lewis’s On Stories reminded me that the horse Boxer is shipped off to the knacker at some point in the tale, and as my daughter is a horse-lover I thought I would reread the book before deciding whether to recommend it to her.
My reaction is mixed. Animal Farm is generally regarded as a masterpiece of wit, and I admire Orwell’s ability to capture in clear, simple terms the demise of a utopian vision among some farm animals who revolt against their human masters and create a set of egalitarian rules to live by. They end up dividing quickly into two classes, with the cleverest animals — the pigs, especially, who read well — lording it over the other animals. The book certainly makes the point that power tends to consolidate despite the best intentions, and self-interest takes over easily. In some respects the book prompts sobering comparisons to various totalitarian regimes throughout history, as well as various trends in the present day.
On the other hand, there is an inevitability to the plot that made it seem, dare I say, boring. It’s not difficult to predict the outcome, and getting there feels like a bit of a chore at times — especially considering that there are no rays of light along the way. If your emotions are involved, it’s a sad book; if you only engage at the intellectual level, it’s an unremittingly pessimistic one.
According to one Orwell biographer, every detail of the story has a real-world counterpart. At the level of allegory, it’s that exhaustive. One admires Orwell’s thoroughness. Yet I wonder what the point is of creating such a painstaking fictional reflection of real events. Perhaps I would like the book more, and regard it as a better imaginative work, if it started with a “What if?” of some kind: What if one character had behaved differently than his historical counterpart did? What if one of the pigs had a conscience? What if…? It would lose its (sometimes plodding) equivalence with actual events, but it might be more engaging and affecting. If one knows the historical details Orwell is translating into allegory, the story really adds nothing at all.
Except, perhaps, to simplify and clarify. Which brings me back to the beginning: admiration, however lacking in real involvement or sympathy. I wonder how many people reread Animal Farm after their required reading in high school. I wonder how many people remember the book well. Having reread it now myself, I’ll be curious to see how often it comes to mind. It wasn’t exactly an enjoyable experience, but I have a feeling this book may haunt me enough to surprise me.
- The Book Thief (with spoilers)
- The Rocks Don’t Lie