Friday, December 01, 2006

Animal Farm

(My first review for From The Stacks)

I have finished reading _Animal Farm_. I usually don't read prefaces or forewords ahead of the actual book unless they are written by the author, but I did this time. The person who wrote the foreword wondered what qualifies a story as a fairy tale and whether _Animal Farm_ really met the criteria. It did not meet my criteria of a fairy tale, at least not a satisfying one. There was no glittering good to contrast the deep evil and win out in the end. To me it seemed more like an animal fable, except that the moral was not easily found. (Do all animal fables have morals to them? I am thinking of Aesop but there may be some that do not.) Certainly Orwell had a message he wanted to convey, and according to the foreword the message was that the Russians did it wrong, the "it" in question being communism. So, I went into the story with this person's opinion in my head, and I'm not sure how much it colored my reading experience, but here is what I got out of the book:

Napoleon the pig was evil; Boxer was good and ignorant and blindly trusting; Benjamin and Clover seemed more aware of what was going on than any of the animals, and I wondered why they did not try to escape. Orwell's narration was spooky and effective, reading as if he were one of the masses, unaware of the truth or unwilling to speak anything but the "official" line. He snuck in the lies and made the reader have to be as attentive as the overworked animals should have been. I actually had to go back and reread the original Seven Commandments when the pigs started to rewrite them.

But the animals were not noble, no they were not. I saw nothing to emulate. I saw a poor, pitiful society at the mercy of greed and corruption and lust for power. I saw "citizens" who were entirely too trusting, and entirely too passive. I saw that the best among them lowered their heads and worked harder and repeated mantras to avoid figuring things out. I saw that the most keen of the "good guys" made no attempt to explain what was happening to the others, but simply shook his head at their ignorance with an attitude of "this too shall pass". I saw a society of animals who embraced certain principles, and then stood lamely by, not one of them willing to be a voice in the wilderness, as their leaders reverted to the same kind of tyranny they had been under before, with one difference: the earlier arrangement, however cruel, had not been tainted by lies.

A very interesting book. I did see Stalin and Trotsky in the book. I wonder, was the old pig, Major, intended to represent Lenin? I don't know enough about Russian history to be sure. And what was up with the scores of animals who came forward confessing to sabotage and other traitorous activity, then being slain by Napoleon while everyone looked on? What led the animals to continue confessing and allowing themselves to be killed? Did they think it was virtuous? Were they instructed to confess and promised amnesty? I can't help but think that part of the book corresponds to some event in history. I couldn't make it fit with everything else.

Now I can add _Animal Farm_ to my list of not-very-enriching-but-necessary books I have read.

Updated to add a quote I kept feeling on the edge of my consciousness, and of course it came to me after I got up from the computer: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." (Attributed to Edmund Burke)

1 comment:

Kathryn Judson said...

My take on Animal Farm is that the author saw too many people acting like dumb brutes, and he wanted to show them what they looked like. It's a cautionary tale. We're supposed to be uncomfortable with how the animals let themselves be duped and led and slaughtered, and we're supposed to vow (at some level) to never be like that ourselves.

For some people, too, I think this book is the first exposure they get to the practice of "disinformation," by which some leaders lie, even to their followers, as a matter of policy. It also shows nicely how communism shakes out in practice - how the pretty principles get used by ugly, compassionateless people to elevate themselves and put others down. In other words, some folks can talk a good line about being comrades, but take everything they can for themselves anyway.