Monday, 15 February 1999

George Orwell: Animal Farm (1945)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 209

Both of George Orwell's most famous books are about the nature of totalitarianism. Animal Farm is much simpler than 1984, being a retelling of the history of the Russian Revolution in the fairy-tale form of a group of animals taking over a farm by revolution from the humans that formerly ran it.

The treatment is allegorical, with many individual animals representing real people (Marx, Stalin and Trotsky) or groups of people (honest workers, the vain bourgeoisie) or ideas (religion and the church). Orwell's novel is not just an allegory, in the way that (say) Piers Plowman is; having a single consistent plot and realistic characters (I mean realistic as characters; obviously talking animals are not naturalistic) makes it a more involving experience than a display of images would be. Orwell has dramatised a part of human history in the same way that Bunyan dramatised part of human spirituality in The Pilgrim's Progress; and it is no accident that Animal Farm and Bunyan's work are easily the best-known allegories in English literature.

The fairy tale elements are matched by a simple prose style, a straightforward piece of story-telling, which makes Orwell's points - totalitarianism is not to be trusted, the communist revolution changed virtually nothing - even more telling. The language combines with the use of talking animals to make the story read as though it were intended for children (hence the subtitle, A Fairytale, but the themes of the novel are certainly aimed at adults.

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