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In light of the events in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, what 20th century novel would be the very first to come to one’s mind?
George Orwell’s 1984, perhaps? Naturally. Many in the mainstream media have already commented upon the parallels. But more specifically, what would occur to a writer of stories about anthropomorphized animals? Yes, of course, it would still be George Orwell, but in this case, it would be Animal Farm. It’s one of my favourite books and one of those that inspired me to write in the vein that I do.
Animal Farm, first published by Secker and Warburg (London, 1945), is a scathing political satire. In it, the downtrodden animals of Manor Farm – inspired by the ideology of “animalism” as espoused by the aged prophet, Major, an old boar, and led by two younger pigs, Napoleon and Snowball – revolt, throwing out their discredited and dissolute human overlord, Farmer Jones.
At first, having achieved success and with abundant food, they live in a state of bliss and egalitarianism. In the beginning the two pigs find common ground and cooperate on running things. The farm animals are now governed by a set of seven commandments focused on the common good:
Over time, things fall apart. Napoleon and Snowball find themselves at odds on how to run the farm. Snowball, who is the staunch believer in the revolution, holds true to his policies and economic plans for progress and a better future. He uses argument, logic and rhetoric to sway the other animals. Napoleon, however, has a different agenda. He cares for nothing but power and has little interest in cooperation. He understands that the more innocent and naïve farm animals can be controlled by clever tactics, and his enemies destroyed through violence, deception and coercion. Ultimately he drives Snowball off and wins that internecine rivalry.
Napoleon seizes more and more power, purging Snowball’s remaining supporters and ruling alone. Eventually Napoleon becomes the classic corrupt dictator. Aided by a skillful propaganda chief, Squealer, (yet another pig) he ends up oppressing all the other farm animals, leading them back into servitude, in an alliance with the former farm ownership. In the end, the poor animals are back where they started.
Napoleon’s power is based wholly on the threat of violence. He views debate as “unnecessary” and will permit no questioning of his command. Discussion is closed down and all dissent is silenced. Squealer regularly displays his skill at doubletalk, painting Napoleon’s ever more disturbing crimes in a positive light, making the animals’ leader to be more martyr than dictator. Calling the takeover a “sacrifice” and stating that leadership is “not a pleasure,” the pig manages to “turn black into white.” Even more invidious is Squealer’s ability to rewrite history. He denigrates Snowball’s part in the fight against the humans (the Battle of the Cowshed) and claims Snowball’s ideas were really those of Napoleon all along.
The two pigs control the farm’s population (the other animals but principally the sheep), packing meetings with unwitting supporters, all trained to chant in unison at crucial times. For example, when a quartet of pigs dares to make an objection, Napoleon’s team of intimidating guard dogs growl and the sheep bleat their “Four legs good” slogan over and over.
The farm animals, falling for the propaganda, the deceptions, the blaming of others and the constant rewriting of history, think that their ever-increasing sacrifices (reduced rations and hard work) are for their benefit. Such sacrifices actually serve only Napoleon, who is soon seen to be enjoying the high life in concert with the former human oppressors.
Once Napoleon is in total and undisputed control of Animal Farm, he becomes a paranoid egomaniac, maintaining control through force, public imagery and advertising. His behavior changes in several ways. He virtually vanishes from public. When he is seen in public, he is always heralded by a black cockerel. He lives in separate rooms from the other pigs and only eats from the original owner’s dinner service. He orders a gun to be fired on his birthday and is referred to with flattering epithets, such as “Protector of the Sheep-fold.” He orders a poem about himself to be inscribed on the wall of the barn, surmounted by a painting of his profile. He has a pig named Pinkeye taste all of his food to be sure it is not poisoned. He renames the farm’s great construction project the Napoleon Mill and, after selling the timber, has the animals slowly walk past him as he lies on a bed of straw next to his piles of money.
The book ends with the recasting of the farm’s famous maxim to “Four legs good, two legs better!” and the animals’ commandments to one: “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL / BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.” Eventually, the controlling pigs walk on two legs, begin carrying whips, wear human clothing and ape human behavior in all its worst ways. Ultimately, Napoleon betrays everything the revolution stood for and has thrown in his lot with the humans.
Animal Farm, of course, is an allegory. The animals’ revolution stood for the Russian revolution of 1917, Farmer Jones represented the Russian Czar, Napoleon was meant to be Stalin, Major a stand-in for Lenin and Marx, Snowball for Trotsky, and the failures of Napoleon’s plans stood for one of the Soviet Union’s great tragedies, the 1932-33 famine brought on by the forced collectivisation program and grain confiscation, resulting in loss of life in the millions.
It is also a satire, where Orwell ridicules both the rulers and the ruled, the naive, the cynical and those who know better, where every creature either supports or fails to halt the inexorable path the revolution takes. There’s even a raven whose descriptions of Sugarcandy Mountain serve to lead the animals to sacrifice in the hope of better days ahead.
It is a cautionary tale, written in but three or four months at the tail end of World War 2, when the USSR was still deemed a close ally of the west. At first, Orwell found it hard to get a publisher. Only when the war ended, time had passed and the Cold War was beginning, did he find someone willing to publish it. In those days, Animal Farm was met with mixed reviews and it has often been subjected to censorship in many parts of the world.
But it has stood the test of time, eventually adapted for radio and film, receiving recognition and awards, named as one of the top books of the 20th century and continues to be in print today.
One wonders what George Orwell would have made of the events of the last four years and its culmination on January 6.
[I am indebted to Cliffs Notes for refreshing my memory of this book. Much of this summary comes from here.]
Cover Photo by Judith Prins on Unsplash