It seems impossible to separate the characters of Animal Farm from their perceived counterparts in the Russian Revolution, and therein lies an unfortunate consequence in the mass analysis of such a wonderful and essential book. I wrote in a previous essay that it is not a question of should one read Animal Farm, but when one should read it. There have been far too few sentences that have stood out so pronouncedly in my mind as a personal triumph as that one. My ego aside I make this assertion due to my first sentence of this essay. The fact that we believe the events of Animal Farm to be only a localized allegory about the formation of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, reveals a flaw in our perception of our own humanity. Animal Farm at its most basic level is an attempt to warn the masses of the twentieth century of the abuse of power and demonstrate that no one is immune to its blinding influence. Power corrupts absolutely seems to have become an almost tawdry platitude, which is unfortunate because even the most hackneyed mumbo-jumbo retains its power if it possess worthwhile truth. In many ways Animal Farm is a summation of this predicament because it demonstrates such a platitude which had been expressed numerous ways before the actual writing, and also because like said platitude, we listen to the words without actually absorbing the message.
To begin, a basic summation of the text shall be necessary. I promise to keep it short.
In the beginning an old boar by the name of Old Major gathers the animals of Manor Farm together to inform them of a vision. He says that the animals should be the real owners of the farm because animals are the only ones who actually produce anything at all. He speaks to them of a vision in which no animal suffers the whip or the rack or the chopping block before concluding his grand speech with an original song entitled Beasts of England (which possesses one of the few hilarious moments for those paying attention because the melody is described as a mix between Clementine and La Cuacaracha). Old Major dies however his ideals do not. One day Jones, the ill-fated owner of the farm, neglects to feed his animals properly. When they bursts into the store room to feed themselves he begins to whip them resulting in the rebellion and the formation of the revolution. On the farm are many animals but the pigs are by far the smartest. They lead the other animals by teaching them the alphabet and writing the famous, and by far most easily absorbed section of the text most likely due to our annoyingly constant exposure to fundamentalist paradigms, Commandments of Animalism. Two pigs emerge as leaders, one named Snowball and the other named Napoleon. The two pigs argue and bicker over the proper management of the farm until Napoleon eventually chases Snowball off the farm with trained dogs. Once accomplished Napoleon takes Snowball’s plans for a windmill and the animal’s work day and night all the while the pigs slowly assume total control of the property now known as Animal Farm. The Animals are constantly monitored and re-educated about their history and their own commandments until there are few who can actually remember the foundation of the farm. The book ends with the classic and somewhat heavy handed metaphor when the pigs are playing cards with invited humans and the animals “looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Due to the subject matter it becomes difficult to determine when one should read Animal Farm. A person glancing through the summation above may have young children and stop reading after mention of talking animals in which case they open their young child up to potential disaster. One might mistake Animal Farm for a charming fable in the vein of Aesop (whether it be the original Greek tales or else the charmingly re-imagined version in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) but after a certain point this becomes impossible to materialize. In a later chapter after Napoleon has assumed power he holds a large meeting to declare the bitter influence of Snowball (who by then has been chased off the farm and most likely assassinated by the despot’s goons). Animals come forward to confess and the text reads:
“They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown since the expulsion of Jones.”
This would seem enough to place the reading of Animal farm well past the age of four and perhaps even past the age of ten. The question arises but should it? Obviously infants should not be encouraged to read such a text and the protection of young minds is essential for healthy development, but everyone must fall off the cliff in the Rye and discover that the world is not always pleasant or accommodating. The passage quoted is a potent symbol and as such we must be careful as to when children should experience such horrific incidents in prose. The answer to this question is often the wrong sort. Rather than be exposed to challenging works of literature they are heavy handed worksheets and young adult pulp, assuming they are given even that. While there may be works of young adult fiction such as Bridge to Terrabithia or Are you there God, It’s Me Margaret that challenge a young reader and ask them to question what it means to be a human being and struggle, a majority of the texts provided to children seem to be nothing but fluff guarding them against certain realities of life. Certainly of the most difficult topics such as pain, death, and sense of self and individual will.
I believe that is where Animal Farm may be necessary as a required text in public education as well as private education. I grew up attending a private institution known as All Saints Episcopal School (A classic example in misdirection as I was the one of the few, at that time, actually Episcopal Christians at said school). It is not my intent to burden you with tales of my shitty years attending this awful hellhole (though I might save that for a later time) however I will mention several important stories read at said school. They include: Oliver Twist, The Birds, The Cask of Amontillado, The Journeys of King Arthur and his Knights, and the Lord of the Flies. These texts were read during the two years it took to finish the sevenths and eighth grade during which time I was approximately thirteen years old. Right away it seems to make sense. By middle school (American middle school at any rate, I am ignorant concerning public education in foreign countries) the child is old enough to experience “dark” moments in literature and in all of the books previously cited, particularly the latter, contain horridness that can be quite shocking to any first reader. Compared to Lord of the Flies, Napoleon’s slaughter seems a penny thrown in a pond, but to a first reader such images and moments carry great weight in our development and consciousness. But even so, the lessons gained from careful analysis of such works, rather than a superficial exposure, can linger in a human being’s mind if they are open to the experience.
Both the Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm are excellent for their portrayal of the way in which power can be attained and constructed easily, but also the way in which it can easily crumble as power plays are used to distract those who are not as gifted intellectually.
The power of Animal Farm as a text is justly in its writing and prose. While reading the book recently it was remarkable how such simple prose can accomplish so much. George Orwell will probably never be called to the same hall of proseists such as Joyce, Tolstoy, or Fitzgerald due to the fact that his writing bears little experiment or panache.
This is not a weakness.
Like political manipulation itself, the execution is subtle rather than grandiose. In a previous essay I quoted directly a passage in which Squealer, one of the aptly named porkers that runs the place, explains why the pigs require the milk and apples for he says:
“We pigs are the brainworkers. The whole management and organization of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back! Surely Comrades,” cried Squealer almost pleadingly, skipping from side to side and whisking his tail, “Surely there is no one among you who wishes to see Jones come back?”
Now if there was one thing the animals were certain of, it was that they did not want Jones back. When it was put to them in this light they had no more to say. The importance of keeping the pigs in good health was all too obvious. So it was agreed without further argument that the milk and the windfall apples (and also the main crop of apples when they ripened) should be reserved for the pigs alone”
If we look at the prose it is simple. Orwell cannot be bothered by flowery language because his work is political allegory, and while the language of politics is a labyrinth of misdirection, he is making a direct statement about manipulation. As such, the prose must be simple. As is often the case simplicity yields to complexity. We have all seen the big red dot in the Museum and wondered to ourselves why good money and time would be spent in adoration of such simplicity, but such a simple statement reveals the immensity of detail. If we look at each word, each sentence we observe that Orwell’s language is a beautiful and meticulous dance. Squealer appeals to the animals sense of self by depreciating while at the same time lifting the pig’s position in the farm as key provider. He acknowledges his own physical inferiority but without sacrificing power. In the next sentence when he speaks of “welfare” he appeals to his ethos. Ethos, to those unschooled in rhetoric, is an argumentative tool in which the speaker appeals to the audience by calling his integrity as a means of securing his position. Squealer protests that he’s working for the benefit of the animals themselves, and surely he would not lie since he cares so much about them. In fact the removal of the apples from the rest of the communal diet is on some level a sacrifice, because it demonstrates he has assumed a more important work than the rest of them and that his labors are more intensive than their own. Finally we see his appeal to pathos. Pathos or “pathetic” appeals are arguments rooted in emotion. We’ve all suffered filibusters by politicians in which they are brought to tears as they tell the tale of Jim the town hopeful who makes them proud to be an American citizen. Squealer employs not fond reminisces within the animals hearts because it can be seen as the book progresses he is not attempting to lift their spirits at all, but instead calls upon their communal fear. The fear of Jones is a fear of helplessness. While the characters may be animals they are anthropomorphized and a unifying fear in humanity, apart from yet another STAR WARS prequel centered around Jar Jar Binks, is a sense of powerlessness. Squealer not only appeals to this raw emotion but he manipulates his own emotional state by “pleading” with the animals once again placing them in a seeming position of power. Finally to note, Squealer often “dances” as he move about during his appeals to the animals creating a visual distraction. Hitler is too often employed example, but the purpose of this essay he will have to do. Anyone dimly familiar with the fuehrer of the Third Reich has at some point viewed the man mid-speech. Making grand gestures and contorting his face like a palsy victim with the runs he conveys great emotion and that energy translated into the emotional experience of the listener. Squealer moves about to give his words an added depth but also so that the animals are too busy observing the movements of his body to truly stop and consider the ideas being presented to them.
After all of this the animals acquiesce and allow the pigs to eat the apples without argument. It’s brilliantly executed and Squealer’s ability as a rhetorician cannot be denied. But how does this relate to the issue of when a child should be exposed to such a text?
The answer is simple: Whenever a child recognizes injustice.
Few of us have possessed moments of greatness when we stood up for a fellow student, for a best friend, or even an acquaintance that seemed to be suffering from some external persecution whatever the form. We may have recognized it as such, but we may have failed to act because getting involved is just too much trouble. There exists a psychological condition (the official name, I am ashamed to admit, I don’t honestly know) we shall refer to as Spectator’s syndrome. We’ve all experienced it. The teacher asks the class a question. “What does “a” then equal?” Well we know the answer or we don’t, but there is an impulse to remain silent. We believe someone else will provide the answer we cannot give. We remain in this position until one brave soul raises their hand or else somebody farts. This syndrome manifests, not just in its juvenile grade-school form, but also in day to day reality. We see a man suffering a heart attack. His body drops and we cluster around the poor soul who requires medical aid or at least an aspirin. We expect someone, perhaps the man or woman standing next to us will whip out their Smartphone and dial for an ambulance, however, much to our own audacity of dismay, no one does and so the earth is blessed with another cadaver.
It is the lone dissenter who recognizes the injustice of this action who steps forward, points at you, and yells, “You, call an ambulance. Now idiot can’t you see he’s dying?” This man or woman possesses a strong individual will because they have pushed past the collected trust in the mass and placed strength upon themselves. Rather than submit their will to the higher power of society, they understand that action requires action on their own part.
There is a passage in Animal Farm in which Squealer is attempting to re-write the history of Animal Farm by smearing the name of Snowball and further re-create him as a villain and a monster. He suggests that Snowball aided the Human beings at the famous Battle of the Cowshed. Boxer, perhaps the most devoted to the cause of Animalism, recognizes an injustice in this and protests:
“I do not believe that,” he said. “Snowball fought bravely at the Battle of Cowshed. I saw him myself. Did we not give him Animal Hero, First Class,’ immediately afterwards?”
I do not believe that. Boxer may possess little intelligence (it’s noted he cannot learn any more of the alphabet past the letter D) but his strength of character is such that even in the face of “authority” he maintains his integrity. He is rewarded by an attempt on his life. Boxer’s integrity of will cannot almost be missed, in fact almost every passage of note in Animal Farm can be missed if one simply sprints through the text without giving each word, each sentence, each paragraph etc., the attention it deserves. We perceive Animal Farm to be nothing but a text about Animals with a clumsily veiled metaphor for Russian Communism. No one will protest that that is not there, it is, but that is simply one interpretation. Hierarchy and power are universal paradigms that govern our species and as long as they exist those in the know and possession will manipulate whatever forces they can to maintain it. Regardless of political position, power corrupts absolutely.
This platitude can only be appreciated when one understands injustice for what it is: the manipulation of a few for the betterment of those in their circle.
Animal Farm is most likely never to be read in grades lower than the seventh, and it is likely to be continually read as a metaphor for communism. But those who are willing to step forward and face the bitter truth of the novel will be rewarded for receiving a text that plots out the tricks of manipulation and understand that we lose our power, not in grandiose revolutions, but instead through subtle tricks and smiles.
I believe this has done little to truly answer the question, when one should read Animal Farm. A straight answer would most likely be sometime around the age of ten or eleven. A satisfying answer would be the first time we observe an event, a statement, a speech, or an opinion and respond as Boxer does, “I do not believe that.” The result will leave you forever changed, slightly disappointed in life, but stronger than you can possibly know.