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Book #30: Animal Farm

I could probably have a much more entertaining review if I let my one-year-old son review Animal Farm.

Me: “What’s the cow say?” Him: “Moo!” Me: “What’s the pig say?” Him: “Oink! Oink!” Me: “What’s the doggy say?” Him: “Woof! Woof!”

Outside of animal noises, though, I’m not sure how much insight he could give you. And, really, he’s so fond of pigs right now I don’t want to burst his bubble and reveal Napoleon’s dastardly deeds. That just might break his heart.

Anyway, all that’s neither here nor there. Truthfully, in 9 or 10 years, he’ll be ready to read this book, and that’s the beauty of Animal Farm.

He might not totally understand the idea of the allegory, or how the animal rebellion represents the Russian revolution, but he will appreciate a funny story about talking animals who rebel against their owner and overtake a farm. Who can’t appreciate a story like that?

In many ways, Animal Farm reminds me of two other books I’ve read from the list. The simplicity of the story masks some of the complex themes, reminiscent of another book that’s popular with kids–The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

But Animal Farm also reminded me of Lord of the Flies. The kids on the island start off peacefully, much like the animals on Manor Farm.

But the temptation of power corrupts Jack, who overthrows Ralph, rules by force and dictatorship, and spreads lies about anyone who chooses to stand up to him.  The idealistic utopia they live in at the beginning of the story slowly transforms into survival of the fittest.

I rarely go into long detail about plot in my reviews, and this one will be no exception. But I will say that in just 93 pages, Animal Farm manages to be one of the more entertaining reads of the first 30 books.

Orwell is just brilliant. Brilliant, I tell you. After the beauty of 1984, that should be no surprise.

While reading this book, it hardly even occurred to me that I’m reading a story about talking animals. Talking animals! And it’s not some cheesy, made-for-TV Lifetime movie with lip-syncing dogs.

In sum, the story centers on a group of pigs who lead a revolt on Manor Farm, run by the evil Mr. Jones. The animals on the farm work all day, are given just enough food and drink to survive, but they never see any of the benefits of their toils. They hate humans. “Four legs good! Two legs bad!” they say.

One day, the pigs decide enough is enough. They gather the rest of the animals around them–horses, donkeys, dogs, cows, sheep, chickens, a lazy cat, and other usual farm animals. Old Major, the elder wise pig explains to them:

Our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty.

The animals launch into a rebellion and chase Mr. Jones away. But what starts as a happy world of talking animals, with plenty of food and free time, slowly devolves into Hussein-esque dictatorship, led by none other than the fat, bloated, and narcissistic pig Napoleon.

He runs Snowball, the good and honorable pig, off the farm and spreads lies about him. Who doesn’t love a pig named Snowball?

Orwell’s story shows how power corrupts, how it’s blinding, and how willing the victims of the power-hungry are to believe total lies and misinformation. They’re told everything is being done for their good.

You’ve seen this play out all throughout history, when corrupt leaders forced their way into power and led by fear. It’s all for your “best interests,” they tell the people. It’s been called “mushroom communication”—keep them in the dark and feed them B.S.

Perhaps Orwell’s tale is a bit heavy-handed, but it is, after all, mainly a kid’s story, right? He’s making his point clearly—a point even a seventh grader can understand.

Squealer the pig is the public face of Napoleon’s dictatorship. He’s the spreader of propaganda–the airplane flying over the bombed village and dropping pamphlets attempting to justify, excuse, explain why women and children were just killed.

Whenever Napoleon changes a law to benefit him—such as allowing animals to drink alcohol or doing business with humans—Squealer is Napoleon’s lackey and walks around the farm, after one of Napoleon’s edicts, and explains to all of the animals how the changes are actually a good thing.

Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure.   On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility.  No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal.  He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves.    But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

That would be George Orwell.

George Orwell’s books are just so easy to read. And that’s not to say they are simple. His writing is just so clean, so succinct. He uses what an editor would call an “economy of words.” No fillers. Nothing creative for the sake of being creative.

He’s just a fundamentally sound, excellent writer, an editor’s dream. When I grow up, I want to write like George Orwell. If you do too, check out his writing rules.

On the negative side, if there is a negative side with this novel, the book doesn’t have much dialogue. It’s nearly 100% narration. The animals can talk, and they occasionally do, but it’s usually the omniscient, omnipresent narrator who does most of the talking.

At times, it’s a little distracting when the narrator says things like, “And then, [important character] died” or “[important character] was never heard from again” without much explanation. He’s just gone. In a fast-paced, 93-page novel, I guess some things are going to be brushed over.

Minor negatives aside, Animal Farm truly is a classic, and that’s not hyperbole (for you, Mike P). You really must read this book, if you consider yourself well-read in any way.

Seriously, you can read it in 2 hours. You should get started on that. Like, now.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.”

The Meaning: Orwell seems to be saying that human nature, no matter how idealistic their original intent, is easily corrupted by power and greed.

Highlights: Animal Farm is such a simple, yet deeply complex, story. Orwell really is one of my favorite writers—and that’s not just hype. And the way he describes the creepiness of the pigs walking on two legs is just brilliant.

Lowlights: There are gaps in the story. Main characters die without much of an explanation. Sometimes, what would seem like key events are skimmed over quickly. Not a lot of dialogue to break up narration, but the shortness of the novel makes that not as big of a deal.

Memorable Line: The final dagger: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Final Thoughts: Another great one from Orwell. If all he ever wrote was 1984 and Animal Farm, he would’ve done more for literature than many authors who have written a dozen novels.

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35 Comments Post a comment
  1. I read “Animal Farm” very young and loved it. I was always afraid to go back to it later in life and find it horribly disappointing. But I did go back to it, and found it just as moving, just as entertaining, and a whole lot more meaningful. Great review!

    Like

    November 9, 2011
    • It really does age well. I thought I might think it was a little juvenile this time around, but that’s not so at all.

      Like

      November 9, 2011
  2. I’ve been re-reading Animal Farm along with you, Robert, but my take on it is much different. I find it utterly chilling. (Great writing can do that.) Maybe it’s because I spent a significant portion of my life preparing to be a part of a life-or-death struggle against the Commie hordes, and have done some studying of totalitarian regimes, Orwell’s story of power-mad corruption, deceit, and flat-out murder resonates. Who can’t be disturbed by “citizens” confessing their “sins” and giving themselves up to be summarily executed, even after seeing some of their fellows suffer that same fate before their eyes?

    Don’t think, just because the Soviet Union has been gone 20 years, that the kinds of behaviors Orwell describes don’t still exist in the real world. Think North Korea. Think Zimbabwe. Think Myanmar/Burma. Think Iran. Think Syria.

    Yes, Animal Farm can be read as a children’s tale. But it’s really meant for we adults, and the simplicity of its language only amplifies the brutality of its message.

    Like

    November 9, 2011
    • I agree w/ the chillingness of the story. When the animals finally see the pigs walking around inside the house at the end, I felt really creeped out. I think that’s a sign of the great writing, to move you with something that is almost silly.

      Like

      November 9, 2011
    • What do you disagree about? The kids story part?

      As I mentioned, the beauty of Animal Farm is that a kid can read it and follow it, but there’s another level underneath. The fact that it’s required reading in middle schools across the U.S. shows how applicable it is for kids, even if they don’t totally get it. But I think Orwell wrote it in a way that a 12 year old can definitely understand the magnitude of what he’s reading and how it can relate to things that have happened in history.

      Perhaps the creepiest part to me, as I mention in the highlights, was the visual of the pigs walking.

      Like

      November 9, 2011
      • Oh, certainly kids can read it and “get” its message at some level. But I don’t think they were Orwell’s primary or even secondary target readership. His target, I believe, was we adults, particularly those active or interested in politics, and among those, particularly those on the left who naively believed the propaganda of the Soviet empire of the time.

        As I wrote in an earlier comment, the fact that Orwell was a committed Socialist, and was still willing and able to give Soviet pseudo-Socialism such a scathing critique, gives this work that much more power. A comparable work today would have to be written by a Muslim and criticize al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and similar organizations.

        Like

        November 10, 2011
  3. fascinating!thanks!

    Like

    November 9, 2011
  4. You pretty much echo my feelings on this book; it’s brilliant. I couldn’t get over how well written this was and how it’s such a simpmle read with such a complex message.

    Like

    November 9, 2011
  5. A thoughtful and apt review – if you are a fan of Orwell I can’t recommend enough his novella “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” It is something that I think should be compulsary reading for every human being, and there are barely any books I would give that title too.

    Like

    November 10, 2011
  6. While I totally see why characters dying or disappearing would be a lowlight, at the same time, that was what would happen in totalitarian regimes. Sometimes people would just disappear. No details, no explanations.

    Like

    November 12, 2011
    • I can understand that if the POV was from one of the characters. But the story was being told from the POV of an all-knowing narrator, and he didn’t seem to know much in those particular instances.

      Like

      November 12, 2011
  7. This post has generated some of the most interesting comments I’ve read on your blog to date – a comment on both your writing and Orwell’s. I enjoyed this!

    Like

    November 12, 2011
  8. I actually read this in 11th grade English class very close to reading Lord of the Flies. I agree they are similar. They both gave me chills. Animal Farm’s closing line with the pigs getting on hind legs like humans sent shivers up my spine, no doubt.

    Like

    December 21, 2011
  9. Yes, 1984 and Animal Farm should be required reading for every person.

    “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

    Genius!

    And it was very difficult to watch international news after reading 1984.

    Like

    November 21, 2013
  10. I loved Animal Farm as well, my favourite line is probably the closing line, as well as “all animal are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. There’s something about Orwell’s writing that is so captivating.

    Like

    February 4, 2014
  11. Bear #

    Orwell and Vonnegut are probably the two writers who shaped my political thought as a young kid, long before I heard of Mikhail Bakunin. Thanks for the review. Peace ~ Bear

    Like

    April 20, 2014
  12. Ana Oak Tree #

    Hi! I read “Animal Farm” just a while ago and I think your review is amazing! I know it’s been some time, but I just wrote a poem inspired in Animal Farm and I would really love if you could give some feedback on it. Thanks and great work!

    Like

    April 12, 2015

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