Not All Books Are Created Equal: Orwell & His Animals at Fifty

By Byrne, Katharine | Commonweal, May 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Not All Books Are Created Equal: Orwell & His Animals at Fifty


Byrne, Katharine, Commonweal


Although he was a respected novelist and journalist in England during the '30s and early '40s, George Orwell (1903-50) had a hard time getting Animal Farm into print. He finished it in 1944 and sent or carried it from one publisher to another, but no one would take it. World War II was in progress. Russia was our ally and Britain's. A book that satirized the betrayal of Russia's revolution by its leaders was regarded, at the very least, as an affront to a friend. Moreover, an American publisher told him you just can't sell an animal story to adults.

Not until the end of the war in 1945 and the customary reshuffling of friends and enemies was a publisher willing to invest enough precious paper to produce 450 copies. These were sold out within weeks. The Queen dispatched an emissary to her bookseller-by-appointment, but his shelves were bare; an anarchist book shop offered the Queen a complimentary copy. The book has never been out of print since then, read by millions in dozens of languages. Nineteen ninety-six marks its fiftieth anniversary of publication in the United States.

If you were in high school at any time since the 1950s, you probably read Animal Farm, a story of the revolt of Farmer Jones's livestock against their brutal, drunken owner. The venerable boar, Old Major, is the philosopher of the revolution. His ringing words to the clandestine assemblage of animals remind them that their lives are "miserable, laborious, and short," with no share in the fruits of their labor. While ascribing all their troubles to "man," his speech ends with the warning: "Above all, no animal must ever tyrannize over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. All animals are equal."

The barnyard is roused to revolution. Led by the pigs, the animals rout Jones and take possession; "Jones's Manor" is now called "Animal Farm." Morale is high. Victory is sweet for the liberated animals but also brief. At first they gambol in joy at the prospect of living out their lives in dignity, sharing in the prosperity their labor produces. Each works hard to sustain the revolution.

But then, inexorably, methodically, equality and freedom are stripped away as the pigs, under Napoleon, a ruler as brutal as Jones was, develop a ruling elite that abrogates all privilege to itself at the expense of the "lower" animals. (The wily pigs explain that they really don't like the milk that they refuse to share with the other animals; they drink it only to keep up their strength so that they can pursue the welfare of all.)

Lies and terror now rule "Animal Farm." In the ultimate reversal of Old Major's words, "all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others." One form of repression has been replaced by another. In the end, the wretched animals are looking in the window at an economic summit between Men and Pigs, "Looking from pig to man, and from man to pig they observe that there is no difference between them."

John Halas and Joy Batchelor, in their animated cartoon film of the book (1954), apparently could not bear this ending. In their version of the book, "the animals, united, came on relentlessly" and a brick was thrown through the window, "shattering Napoleon's magnificent portrait under the impact of yet another revolution." Understandably, students like this version better than the original.

But as Orwell tells it, the fable ends with all the brave hopes in ruins. Virtue is crushed and wickedness triumphs. What went wrong? Orwell lays out the story and asks us to look at it. He does not moralize. This is what happened, but we know it is not right. We are left morally indignant at the injustice suffered. Are we to believe that this is the inevitable fate of rebellion? Or that other political systems are better than Stalinist communism?

As to that, Orwell does not uphold the political systems of the West. The men who come to deal with the ruling pigs, Pilkington from capitalist England and Frederick from Nazi Germany, commiserate with the pigs: "You have your lower animals and we have our lower classes.

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