Friday, October 22, 2010


Is anyone else as sick and tired as I am of nasty political ads and news coverage for the upcoming election?  Most frustrating is that I never see a candidate I really like or feel confident in - usually it just seems to be a choice between crooked and dishonest bums who'll say anything to get elected whether they believe it or not.  Maybe now's a good time to review this book, huh?

Animal Farm (Signet Classics)Back in high school I rarely had much of an appreciation for the books we were assigned to read. More often than not I found them dreadfully boring and sometimes didn't even bother to read more than the Cliff's Notes. So I've been going back and making amends for some of them - I'm still not planning to read Wuthering Heights or Madame Bovary, though - but I recently read Animal Farm.

First published in August 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end, Animal Farm tells the story of farm animals who take over Manor Farm owned by Farmer Jones. Old Major, an elderly boar, tells the animals of a dream he's had of a future time when the animals will revolt and no longer work for humans. Within a few days he dies and soon thereafter the revolution occurs. Two young pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, take charge and organize the animals and their laws and make the farm more prosperous than when humans were in charge. But when conflicts arise, Napoleon drives Snowball out and before long their laws (7 commandments) are changing and the animals realize the oppressive farmer has been replaced by even more oppressive pigs.

This book was assigned reading in my 9th grade Civics class back in the early 1980s when Soviet communism was a fearsome enemy. But in spite of the obvious parallels to Stalin and 1940s communism, I doubt I fully appreciated it – actually, I'm not even sure I read it back then - but I was very impressed with the story this time.

The pig Napoleon is compared with Stalin and the way he abused his power to gain control over the people, setting himself up in comfort while encouraging the other animals to labor harder. When he is faced with opposition he reacts violently by using the vicious puppies he's been quietly training, a close corollary to the KGB and secret police employed to silence dissent, particularly during the bloody purges. The pigs excuse the privileges they allocate to themselves by explaining that their "brain work" is the hardest of all, and therefore they require the cream and apples (luxuries) to be mixed into the mash they eat, even while the others are asked to sacrifice. Squealer becomes the minister of propaganda, and he trains the stupid sheep to bleat "four legs good, two legs bad" to drown out any complaining that arises, and frequently announces fabricated production numbers to deceive the animals into believing their lives are better than before. But there's also a strong parallel with labor movements in general from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the way promises were made to manipulate the working classes into supporting violence and revolt.

Although Orwell was a socialist himself, the book exposes the ease with which propaganda (and threats and actual violence) can control the opinion of otherwise enlightened people in a totalitarian state. I don't want to give anything away but pay attention to the way Squealer spins the account of the "Battle of the Windmill" to sound like a great victory for the animals - an allusion to driving the Germans out of Russia despite an enormous cost in lives. Also the way Napoleon awards himself a ribbon for his bravery during the battle (his tail was nicked, possibly by buckshot) although no such recognition is given to other animals, and the way their history and laws are re-written. In the end, even the promises of a comfortable retirement aren't honored - note what happens to the horse Boxer and the pasture that was set aside for animals in their old age. I also thought the ending was entirely appropriate given the time it was written.

I listened to the audio book narrated by Ralph Cosham, and I'm glad that I finally made the time for this interesting and important story. I'm not sure that it can be appreciated by high-schoolers, but hopefully teachers will make the effort to explain the background behind the book and the parallels with Soviet communism. But even more important, I think readers should note the way similar strategies are used in our own government and economy today. Maybe there was a reason teachers assigned books like this in the first place?


  1. Yes, I am so sick of the propaganda I have stopped listening to it.

    I read this book again with my son (9th grade) and definitely appreciated it more than in high school. Your comments reflected the conversations I had with both my husband and my son while we read this classic novel.

    Have a great day!

  2. I taught this book to my 9th graders in Arizona and I think I might have appreciated it more than they. I'm working a book right now where propaganda plays a major role.

    I'll just be glad when November is over. :)

  3. Thanks Lily and Ashley - good to hear others have enjoyed it as adults, too. (It never fails to amaze me how *good* some of those high school books actually are!)

    And good luck making past the elections. The easy answer is to just change the radio station, but unfortunately the HUGE city of Los Angeles doesn't have any good radio stations. So I'm stuck with listening to NPR, which sometimes leans too far to the left for my tastes. Oh well, silence is good, too.