Before his seminal 1984, George Orwell honed his political and social commentary with Animal Farm. Few would have thought that a book about talking farm animals could be an allegory for the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the dictatorial regime of Joseph Stalin, let alone one so insightful and empathetic. Orwell shows us how easy it is for a utopian dream to be turned, by degrees, into a dystopian nightmare.
The story begins on Manor Farm, which has fallen into disrepair at the hands of its drunken and negligent owner Mr. Jones. An elderly boar named Old Major gathers the farm animals together and speaks of a revolution against the farmer. After the Old Major’s death, two young pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, assume control of the revolution and prepare the animals for the coming fight. They successfully overwhelm and drive out Mr. Jones, renaming their home Animal Farm.
The story of Animal Farm is engaging on its own but the depth and ingenuity of its political subtext can’t be ignored. Mr. Jones represents Tsar Nicholas II, head of an aristocracy whose waste all but broke the backs of the middle-class citizen. The Old Major who sows the seeds of rebellion is a combination of writer Karl Marx and revolutionary Lenin. The former spoke of an uprising by the working class, the latter put it into action.
Under the leadership of Snowball and Napoleon, a new set of rules are created. The most important of these is “All Animals Are Equal”. Snowball is the more compassionate of the two, teaching the other animals to read and write. Meanwhile, Napoleon is greedy for power and plots to singlehandedly rule Animal Farm. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon is our Stalin surrogate, power-hungry and totally bereft of conscience. Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, whose objections to Stalin’s growing authority made him an early thorn in the dictator’s side.
Other characters, both human and animal, are also believed to have allegorical potency. Mr. Jones’ cunning pet crow Moses wins the trust of the animals and regales them with tales of a mythical ‘Sugarcandy Mountain’. This is seen to represent the Russian Orthodox Church, which promised the world to the overburdened working class and served as a faithful tool for Stalin’s propaganda machine. One of the most interesting animals is Benjamin, the intelligent but cynical donkey. Though unconfirmed by the man himself, many believe this to be a stand-in for Orwell who was known to be more than a little grumpy at times.
Stalin’s ruthless tricks to achieve political dominance are well-documented. Seeing them recreated through Napoleon in this allegorical narrative is still enough to make the blood boil. It’s heart-breaking to watch a revolution built on the ideals of hope and equality corrupted by a poisonous greed. The other animals show such innocence and naiveté in the face of an avarice they can’t comprehend. There is a sense, as with Milton’s Paradise Lost, that we are witnessing the corruption of something pure, something that once gone can never be regained.