Animal Farm

By George Orwell

Background Communism and Dystopia

The literature of 'dystopias' can be traced back to a reaction against the seemingly ideal world expounded in Thomas More's Utopia from which the term derives and forms an opposite. It found a new voice in two of the most profound and respected thinkers of the twentieth century: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's very similar Brave New World were bleak visions of the future engendered by a fear of Communism. Unlike the general trend amongst the literati of the thirties and forties, Orwell was deeply suspicious of Soviet Socialism and felt that the ideals of the Russian Revolution were being betrayed by the tyranny of Stalin and the draconian measures being taken to quash any dissent in the Union. Therefore, as war raged around Europe in 1943, and he saw Soviet soldiers fighting alongside their capitalist European allies, Orwell began to write Animal Farm. This was a novel made extraordinary by its combination of being both a naïve tale that could be told to children and a fascinating and profound critique of the USSR and Stalin's dictatorship.

Another great dystopia - Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is written as a warning to feminists against taking the gains of the feminist movement for granted. Animal Farm has a similarly didactic purpose: to warn the world, and specifically the Soviet Union, about the problems associated with Communism. The novel is a history of the betrayal of the noble origins of the Russian socialist movement demonstrated through the animals of Manor Farm. Orwell presents the various characters involved in the recent history of the Russian nation as representative animals anthropomorphized and made the players in a fairly clear-cut allegory.

This interpretation, whilst obviously correct, is also rather limiting. To see Animal Farm simply as a representation of the problems associated with the rise of Communism denies it the qualities which make it, like Aesop's Fables, a timeless commentary upon the human condition and the lessons humanity must learn about itself. Animal Farm shows us not only why Communism is an untenable concept, but also why there are some basic human characteristics (namely greed, envy, ambition, and pride) which mean that a community that ignores individuality cannot succeed. The tenets upon which the theoretical Communist community is founded are worthy but these tenets are manipulated by the hands of men who wish to use them for their own gain rather than for communal good. Orwell is not anti-Communist. He is merely highlighting the principal problem facing the Communist regime (specifically under Stalin) - that for a community based upon total equality to function correctly, the community must firstly eradicate those characteristics which lead men to seek to better themselves above their brothers. Old Major's ideals in the novel are indeed worthy, but are naïve in their ignorance of man's baser qualities. Whilst it is Old Major whose sagacity leads to the establishment of the animal 'utopia', it is also his naiveté which leads to the downfall of the community, laying the path as it does for Napoleon to exploit the mores of the society to his own ends. Animal Farm is a circular novel: illustrating the lack of true meaning behind the revolution. The novel is a series of dramatic refutations of the Seven Commandments, and a return to the despotism and carelessness of the beginning. The only change is in the identity of the tyrants, and even this only changes partially.

It should be noted that the novel questions the validity of Capitalism every bit as much as it questions Communism. What Orwell is trying to get across is that it is unrealistic to think of existence in polarised terms of good and evil. The animals' Seven Commandments work upon the initial premise that humankind is irrevocably evil and that its way of doing things is antithetical to the common good.