Animal Farm: Sixty Years On: Robert Pearce Gives a Historian's-Eye View of George Orwell's Classic Novel
Pearce, Robert, History Today
A 'LITTLE SQUIB which might amuse you': so George Orwell dismissed the book he was completing in February 1944. 'There's a farm, and the animals get fed up with the way the farmer runs it,' he wrote, summarizing the plot, 'so they chuck him out and try to run it for themselves. But they run it just as badly as the farmer and become tyrants like him.' Seldom can an author have so misrepresented the passionate intensity invested in his work, or have made a novel seem such a poor publishing proposition.
Several publishers duly rejected the work, but not because it was banal. The little squib was an attack on Britain's wartime ally, the Soviet Union, and thus likely to be political dynamite. The book appeared in August 1945, as Animal Farm. Frederic Warburg published it in the teeth of opposition from his sales manager, who couldn't ring himself to believe that Russia was not a socialist state, and from his wife, acutely aware of the immense suffering of the Russian people since the Nazi invasion in 1941. She threatened to leave Warburg ('Don't think I won't!') if he accepted it. Yet it was a decision he never regretted. A first edition of 4,500 copies sold out within a few days, and by 1973, when he wrote his memoirs, the book had sold around nine million copies.
It was a literary as well as a publishing landmark. Orwell wrote that Animal Farm 'was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole'. There were no authorial homilies here, as in his earlier work; instead the plot would point the moral of the book. Most critics have judged that he succeeded brilliantly, turning political writing into an art. Malcolm Bradbury has described Animal Farm as 'the first British postwar novel', embodying a fundamental turning point in 'world historical mood'.
Animal Farm has a pivotal place in a new era of Cold War literature. Politically incorrect in 1944 when the USSR was still an ally, it was soon eminently acceptable to the rightwing establishment, including the CIA, which financed and distributed the 1954 cartoon 'based on' the novel, made by the husband and wife film animators John Halas and Joy Batchelor. This was the most ambitious cartoon to be made in Britain of its day, with 750 scenes and 300,000 colour drawings.
The US Psychological Strategy Board purported to find Orwell's theme 'somewhat confusing', so the ending was changed. No longer did the communist pigs meet, and become indistinguishable from, the capitalist men; instead the animals rose up in a new revolution and secured their freedom. Clearly Animal Farm needs rescuing from the distortions of Cold War propaganda. To understand the book properly we must focus on its provenance, as well as its reception. Then we may understand more fully what Orwell hoped to achieve, and did achieve, with the novel he subtitled 'A Fairy Story'.
The key to the success of Animal Farm lies in the fact that it was not just a political novel. Nor was Orwell the politics-obsessed figure of legend. His childhood friend Cyril Connolly wrote that he was always incorrigibly political, so that he couldn't blow his nose without moralizing on the state of the linen industry. Yet such a view is partly exaggeration, partly anachronism. Orwell himself, in a poem of 1936, insisted that he 'wasn't born for an age like this', the era of mass propaganda, the bomber and rubber truncheons. Indeed even at his most politically committed he took delight in a Woolworth's rose ('ten years of pleasure for sixpence'), in seeing a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks and in hearing a 'first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road'. He was able to glory in the spring and to praise the common toad, whose eye was the most beautiful of any living creature's. The really important things in life, Orwell implied, are private not political. Man stayed human only by preserving 'large patches of simplicity in his life'. …