Continuing my series on ‘books I should have read in school, but didn’t,’ I tackled Animal Farm, a short story that is not just a political metaphor, but also a fable about what can happen to even good-intentioned revolutionaries as, after a successful rebellion, they slide slowly but inexorably back towards everything that they fought against in the first place.
Here’s a simplified run-down of the plot: so, there’s a farm. The animals rise up against the farmer and take the place for themselves. They work hard, starve themselves even to succeed, and, despite all obstacles, keep moving forward. The pigs are the smartest, can read and set up the morality of the farm in the form of commandments which are written on the side of a barn in white paint.
Most of the animals can’t read, but they think they remember what the commandments say. Then, as the pigs become more like the humans they overthrew, they find that the commandments are changing to fit the behavior of the pigs. And finally, after much hardship, things come full circle and the pigs have set themselves up as the farmer used to be and everything starts over again.
This is from the preface by Russell Baker: “Orwell called the book “a fairy story.” Like Voltaire’s Candide, however, with which it bears comparison, it is too many other things to be so handily classified. It is also a political tract, a satire on human folly, a loud hee-haw at all who yearn for Utopia, an allegorical lesson, and a pretty good fable in the Aesop tradition.” introduction vi. Also, I would call it a warning. Think for yourselves or others will think for you. Educate yourselves or others will tell you what the words say and will re-write them to benefit themselves or their friends.
Please read everything you can get your hands on. Here’s what can happen if you don’t: None of the other animals on the farm could get further than the letter A. It was also found that the stupider animals, such as the sheep, hens, and ducks, were unable to learn the Seven Commandments by heart. After much thought Snowball declared that the Seven Commandments could in effect be reduced to a single maxim, namely: “Four legs good, two legs bad.” This, he said, contained the essential principle of Animalism.” pg 50.
How do traditions get started?: “Mr. Jones’s gun had been found lying in the mud, and it was known that there was a supply of cartridges in the farmhouse. It was decided to set the gun up at the foot of the flagstaff, like a piece of artillery, and to fire it twice a year- once on October the twelfth, the anniversary of the Battle of the Cowshed, and once on Midsummer Day, the anniversary of the Rebellion.” pg 60 The brilliance of this story is the way that Orwell takes completely human tendencies like remembrances, parades and political speeches and reveals them for the manipulating tools that they can potentially be in the hands of the selfishly motivated.
Or how about the archetype of the ‘reluctant’ leader? : “Comrades,” he said, “I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napolean has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility.” pg 69. The superior housing, connections, salaries and kick-backs… leadership is indeed a heavy and nearly impossible to bear responsibility. It’s a wonder that anyone volunteers for it.
And finally, the poignancy in the memories of Clover, one of the longest lived animals on the farm: “If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak, as she had protected the lost brood of ducklings with her foreleg on the night of Major’s speech. Instead- she did not know why- they had come to a time when no one dared to speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.” pg 95 How did it all happen? Was it the grasping of the pigs? The helplessness of the illiterate but good-hearted animals? What was it? Fate?
The greatest lesson of Animal Farm is that I could imagine this tragedy happening in a town/state/country near me. Couldn’t you?
Thanks for reading.