I must admit, it’s taken me a while to get to this book review you’re about to read. Truthfully, I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm a few months back, before reading some of the other books I have since reviewed. But, unlike the others, I seemed to have a real problem with this book that required a little bit of stewing and thought before I could do a review on it.
The problem was, my first real interaction with Animal Farm was when I watched a television programme where a teenage girl did a rather austere book report on this book for school. I guess the programme kind of led me to consider that Animal Farm was the type of book that schools set as their course-work books for their teenage reluctant-reader students because it didn’t present much of a reading challenge. In addition, I’d known about Orwell because of his 1984 fame and I guess this also gave me the impression that perhaps the novel was a little bit sci-fi or maybe even premonitory as 1984 is claimed to be (a book review will come once I’ve read it). These two aspects combined made me disinclined to really read the book.
Yet, Orwell’s Animal Farm is considered as somewhat of a classic. I mean it’s not quite up there with Dickens and Austen but it’s pretty close. I guess if classic novels had classes, Austen and Dickens would be right up there in the first class while Animal Farm might be classed as a secondary classic. Thinking this, when I saw the book selling second-hand, I knew it was only right to get it and read it. But even as I started at the first chapter my sense of forboding increased as I read about the talking animals. What was this, a children’s fairy tale!?
I can tell you right now, the answer to that question is: absolutely not!
Animal Farm is the tale of a group of talking barnyard animals. Sick to the teeth with their farmer-owners negligent behaviour towards them, the animals decide to do something about it by taking the farm for themselves. It promises a chance for equality, freedom and an easier more productive life. But, while their new life without humans starts out living up to its promises, the animals soon become disillusioned. Their happier, easier, more productive life does not seem to be any easier or any more productive, or does it? Struggling to remember the life with their old farmer-master, the animals battle to come to terms with the fact that maybe they were mistaken in getting rid of the farmer. Is life better or worse than before? Are all animals truly equal in this new life?
While I understand that there is a 1999 filmic version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, I have not seen the film. Still, I wonder at how good a live-action film about a group of talking animals could be. Of course, I’ve seen and enjoyed Babe which had talking animals in it. and I really enjoyed it – found it heartwarming and sweet. But, it just seems to me that the animals in Animal Farm do more than talk as Babe and his friends did. They write, they draw, they build, they till the land – they essentially do a number of activities that that I’m not even sure animal trainers could get real animals to appear to do. When Garfield was made into a live-action movie, the only animal that did some pretty weird stuff was Garfield and he was sort of more CGI than real animal. So, I wonder how a whole movie could work with animals who are meant to be able to do the impossible.
I would have suggested that perhaps an animated version would be a little easier because with animation, the characters can be made to do just about anything – animal or not. But, I’m not convinced that animation would be quite right for this particular novel. Animation, generally, tends to suggest that its suitable for children (except perhaps programming like The Simpsons and South Park that I wouldn’t even watch and I’m in my twenties) and I’m not convinced that children will grasp Animal Farm.
Perhaps, Animal Farm can be classed as one of those novels that is better to read than to see visually.
In My Humble Opinion:
With all I’ve said of Animal Farm now about talking animals, teenage book reports, classic literature and the like, I’m sure you’re wondering why I had such trouble with this particular novel. Why on earth did it take me so long to write this review on a book that teenagers read? And what’s the big deal about talking animals?
Well, frankly, the answer to those questions is that this book is a little more complicated that it may first appear. It’s not exactly that the book is hard to comprehend. Actually, it’s rather true-to-life, in spite of the talking animals. And this, I guess was the problem all along. While a talking-animal book might generally suggest a fairy tale or fantasy, Animal Farm is actually highly political. And, though I recognised the political nuances (well, more like glaring insinuations), I couldn’t accurately explain the politics.
I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around the different political persuasions and ideologies out there. Even when i studied them for a class, they befuddled me. In short, I needed some help. A little while ago, I found a diagram that explains different political ideologies through the use of cows. Though I’m no farmer, I found this explanation rather useful and easy to uderstand. So, when I found myself faced with politics, I took to the internet to find those explanations again and found a whole list of cow analogies on Slideplayer. I’ve jazzed it up a bit with a clipart of a cow from clipartpanda and a some editing. So here it is, cow analogies for political ideologies (if you’re struggling to read the text, click the image to enlarge it):
Well, I guess you’re curious to know which political ideology I think is present in Animal Farm. Is it totalitarianism where your cows are taken and you’re told they never existed? Is it capitalism where your one cow is forced to do the work of four while you get rid of the other? Is it fascism where your cows are taken from you and you’re forced to buy their milk? Is it communism where you share the labour and rewards with others?
(Warning: this paragraph could contain spoilers) The answer is not at straightforward because like most countries, Manor Farm, which is the setting for Animal Farm goes through various political ideologies. In the beginning, when Mr Jones, their owner is still around, their relationship with him seems to be like a feudal government: they work for him and he reaps most (not all) of the rewards of their labour. But, the moment the animals revolt, their situation changes. They’re desirous, I believe, for pure communism: an equal share of everything. And they do have that at first. But, then as they become more productive and more powerful, some animals want more than others and their “government” changes again. At the end, I think fascism might be the order of the day, interspersed with a little totalitarianism. The animals labour hard but do not get the fruits of their labour freely as they had hoped. In addition, towards the end, they forget that they were even promised an equal share of everything as the rules slowly begin to change.
The reason I think Animal Farm can be considered a classic, is because it is quite true-to-life. I mean, there has come a time in many countries when revolution has been in the air. Think of the three most famous revolutions of the past: the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the American Revolution. What caused the revolt in each case? The people were sick of being controlled by one ruling power who took too much of what they earned. So, the French chased away the King of France; the Russians revolted against the Tsar and the Americans pulled away from the British and their ruler. And the animals did the same with their farmer in Animal Farm.
Then, when revolution is over, there is a brief time of prosperity before things begin to change, before certain powers try to take over. I once thought about the viability of equality and decided that it was a pipe-dream. I don’t think equality can every really be attained until one aspect of human nature is removed: the desire for superiority. How many spheres of our life have an aspect of superiority and inferiority about them? The family has a hierarchy: grandparents, parents, kids. Siblings try and evoke superiority over one another. Workplaces have hierarchies between bosses and employees. Schools have hierarchies when they make some pupils prefects or even head-prefects over others. There are power-struggles between men and women. We all try to be the best at something: sport, art, learning, leadership, humility. There has always been a constant struggle for power and superiority and until humans stop wanting to be all-powerful, equality can never be attained.
And, I guess, this, in part, was what Animal Farm was all about. The animals desired equality but, even after a struggle for equality, they ended up with inequality all the same. Animal Farm is also about the circles societies end up in; how they start in one place and try and move, try and attain something better, but eventually life revert to how it was before, as the climatic ending suggests.
All in all, I can’t really tell you whether I like Animal Farm as a novel or not. I didn’t not like it but it’s not something I would have chosen either. It’s also possibly something I would not read again. I guess, like some other novels considered classics, I learnt from the novel, appreciated its life-lessons rather than deriving pleasure from it. And this is why I think you should read Animal Farm too. You may not like politics. You may not understand politics. But just like the fact that, as the rather long-winded Edmund Burke claimed, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”, those who do not read Animal Farm, may suffer a similar fate as those animals.
So, grab a copy of Animal Farm and enjoy it’s complexity. And see if the politics of Animal Farm reminds you of any countries you know. It certainly reminded me of a few. Then let me know what you think. Oh, and don’t forget, my Challenge is still going strong. Let’s see if you can out-read me. 😉
Until then, though…