Friday, October 22, 2010
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?