I spent the morning of my 16th birthday helping out at the Bobby Kennedy presidential campaign headquarters. Duane, one of my fellow volunteers, arrived, then handed me a birthday gift without any wrapping paper. Duane said he wanted me to have his trusty, old copy of Animal Farm. He thought the gift would be especially meaningful, because it is a political screed. He knew I’d keep the book because I was born on the anniversary of its publication date. Duane was correct. I have kept the yellowed Signet paperback book ever since that day in 1968.
As I searched for some expired documents inside a box of old papers and books, I noticed the old George Orwell novel on top of the stack. I picked it up and opened it to read the publication date, August 17, 1945. My copy was printed in 1963. It was the 15th printing of the paperback edition. I placed the book on my nightstand. It was time to reread it, yet another time.
I’ve enjoyed this allegorical novella everytime I’ve read it. Each time, I’ve interpreted the book a bit differently with each reading. This time, I decided that Animal Farm is every bit as relevent as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.
Animal Farm regards the history of the Soviet Union and the rise of Joseph Stalin prior to the second World War. Orwell was a democratic socialist who was a critic of Stalin’s regime. He became more vocal about his dislike of the dictator after the author’s negative experiences with the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.
Orwell’s little “fairy story” appeared at a very momentous time in history. The USSR, under Stalin’s leadership, had been very instrumental in defeating the Nazi regime, so people in the West still had a fairly positive opinion of the Soviet Union.
The same month of the book’s first release also witnessed the United States’ nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All three wartime ultra-rightwing regimes were in ruins. The tragedy of World War Two had set the stage for this anti-totalitarian manifesto. People, everywhere, were ready and eager to read something like Animal Farm. The book became a major sales success.
The story’s characters are clearly symbolic in much the same way that today’s cartoon critters talk and display human-like behavior. The events are obviously symbolic of those that take place under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The objective, third-person narrator relays the activity from a point of view outside the animal’s world. This softens the political message and does not repel the reader, unlike blatantly political propaganda.
The writer garners empathy for working class individuals by telling his story from the perspective of the animals that actually do the work on the farm, not that of the overlord pigs nor the enforcer dogs. The naivete’ of the worker animals blends with the narrator’s lack of opinionating. It all works together to form a timeless fable.
Unlike many political books, there are moments of gentle humor. For instance, when the old workhorse, Boxer, becomes terribly sick, the pigs discover a “large bottle of pink medicine” inside the medicine cabinet in the house. They send it out to medicate the poor, old dying horse. Anyone familiar with modern culture will assume immediately that the medicine is “Pepto-Bismol”.
I highly recommend this time-tested novella to all citizens of the world. It is short enough to hold the attention of most readers. Animal Farm has been translated into several languages, so nearly anybody can find a suitable copy.