Animal Farm: A Beast Fable for Our Beastly Times

Spurred on by urgent purpose, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair) began writing the first of two books for which he is most famous, Animal Farm, at the end of 1943 at a critical point during World War Two. The Red Army of the Soviet Union, facing the brunt of Nazi Germany’s best fighting forces, was valiantly waging a desperate fight to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Allies, and in doing so, was helping to keep England safe from Hitler. For this, many in the West were grateful. Orwell, however, saw things much differently and he had real reasons for embarking on his beast fable to warn the world. Nevertheless, writing a satire about an ally fighting your enemy during wartime hardly seems like the work of a sane man. But Orwell had good cause and, more than most people, he understood the true nature of Stalin’s regime and what it had in store for the West.

Orwell wrote Animal Farm to remind people of the facts not only about Stalin the power-hungry assassin, but about totalitarian regimes everywhere, and how easy it can be for governments to seize power and bend the will of the people to its own purposes.

In late 1943, when Orwell began writing this little book, he was on the sidelines of the war. He had first tried to enter the army but was rejected by his poor health. In spite of his bad health, he was accepted in the Home Guard and worked for a time in the Indian Division of the British Broadcast Service (from which he patterned his experiences and assigned them to one Winston Smith, the protagonist of his other famous book, 1984). Orwell suffered from tuberculosis, which was complicated by a bullet wound to the throat he received in the closing days of the Spanish Civil War. It was during that prelude to the global conflict where Orwell ran directly into the path of the Stalinists.

Orwell had entered Spain first as a reporter and observer, but he soon joined up with a militia loyal to the P.O.U.M., a Marxist, anti-Stalinist political party. After being shot in the throat and convalescing in secret, Orwell learned that the P.O.U.M. and other anti-Stalinist groups in the meantime were being brutally purged by the other Communists who were now taking orders directly from Moscow. Orwell and his wife had to flee Spain, barely escaping with their lives.

Years afterward, still embittered from that experience in 1937, Orwell remained convinced that Stalin was no man to cheer on. He observed that Stalin had no respect for truth or moral principle, and that he had betrayed the Marxist revolution – and socialism, in particular. Orwell wrote Animal Farm because he wanted to save Socialism from Communism.

As the events of the Second World War unfolded, Orwell became particularly alarmed that people seemed to easily forget what had happened in the immediate past.

Orwell closely followed Stalin’s rapid propaganda shift towards Germany in 1939, which was startlingly revealed as a hitherto secret treaty that was suddenly and violently exposed when both countries invaded and carved up Poland – even though Hitler and Stalin had squared off against each other by proxy in Spain. Orwell viewed this turn of affairs with great disgust. He was further alarmed by Stalin’s sudden return propaganda shift in 1941, when the Wermacht turned on its new-found ally by invading Russia proper and nearly sweeping to the gates of Moscow itself before stalling out against the harsh Russian winter. The ironic climax came when the Western Allies sat down with the Communists at the Teheran Conference in 1943. This was too much for Orwell, and he wrote feverishly, hoping to warn the West and its leaders how false the popular idea was that the Soviet Union was a socialist state.

Orwell’s fears about Soviet Russia and “Uncle Joe”, which he understood even in 1943, were shown to be true after the war. Immediately after the fall of Berlin and Hitler’s suicide, Russia consolidated its victory over the Nazis and brutally took over many eastern European countries in the name of liberating them. Soviet Russia refused to cooperate with the Allies, alienated the West, ended the anti-Nazi alliance and then retreated for nearly fifty years behind its Iron Curtain.

Animal Farm is a straight shot directed at Stalin. Its release in 1945 made publishers uneasy. Orwell, however, stood firm in his convictions that the book would send a message about the easy manipulation of history by the leading players on the world stage.

Animal Farm is set on an English farm named Manor Farm, owned by Mr. Jones. The fable-like story concerns the rebellion of the farm animals, and is told entirely from their point of view. The story opens with Mr. Jones stumbling into bed, unable to lock up the farm properly after a night of excessive whisky drinking. Old Major, the venerable and well-respected pig, has called all the animals together for a meeting to take place after Mr. Jones has gone to bed, and they gather outside the big barn on the farm. Old Major tells them all that he had a miraculous dream last night, in which he saw his approaching death, and also understood more clearly the life of animals.

Through a coincidence of history, Animal Farm appeared in stores the same month that the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The irony of this publication date for one of the most politicized novels of the 20th century did not escape its early readers, or its author. Orwell made no secret of the fact that his writing, and Animal Farm in particular, was single-mindedly focused on the obliteration of totalitarian regimes. Animal Farm, while obviously referring to the general scope of all forms of totalitarian governments, may be seen as a satire of the Russian Revolution of 1917 in particular. Because of this controversial subject matter, British publishing houses were loathe to take on Orwell’s work, and he was rejected throughout his entire first round of publishing attempts. Upon the novel’s eventual publication in 1945, however, Orwell was instantly famous. The reception of Animal Farm led to many different interpretations of its meaning, which Orwell perhaps clarifies best himself, in his article called “Why I Write”:

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism…Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

The main themes of Animal Farm are the betrayal of the revolution, the development of a dictatorship, the failure of a bright vision, and the pressure of the status quo on ideas that would change it. In Animal Farm, the dream of a utopian state in which the animals could live in comfort and dignity is so corrupted that the animals become much more worse off than they had been before the revolution. Orwell wanted to show how this corruption can take place, and wants to show us how to guard against it. Although Orwell was offended by the turn of affairs in Soviet Russia, he nevertheless believed that man could somehow find perfectability so long as he knew how to eliminate the abuses of tyranny and dictatorships.

In today’s uncertain political and military climate, Orwell offers us much in the way that we, too, can guard against dictators. If Orwell had any one lesson for us to remember, it is this: Freedoms surrendered for whatever good reason, are freedoms forever lost.

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