Book Review: Animal Farm
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
All animals are equal. But pigs fucking suck.
- R. M. Waenga. 2020.
Spoilers: This post contains them for two reasons:
1. It came out in 1945. We are well and truly past the grace period for spoilers.
2. This book is 141 pages long. Go and read or listen to it then come back and read this review if you don’t want it spoiled.
Content warning: Animals die in this book. If you’re the kind of person who avoids books and movies with animal deaths, this might be too much for you. For those who think this content warning is stupid, there’s whole sites dedicated to this, https://www.doesthedogdie.com/ being the most famous example. Some people don’t like to watch/read about animals dying, that is completely fair.
I might as well get this out upfront. Animal Farm by George Orwell might be one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a novella that uses a farm and its animals as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin and the Bolsheviks.
Manor Farm is poorly run by alcoholic human Mr Jones. A wise boar named Old Major calls for an overthrow of the humans, and teaches the other animals about, well, communism. When Old Major dies two younger pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, lead the animal revolution. The animals succeed at taking over the farm and rename it “Animal Farm”. The animals adopt Seven Commandments of Animalism, the most important being "All animals are equal".
Animal Farm starts off as a utopia. All the farm’s animals have enough food for the first time in their lives. Everyone does their fair share of work. The animals sing happily as they work and are generally incredibly happy with their new world.
Ensuing drama sees Snowball (the more idealist of the two leaders) banished from the farm. Through propaganda, false promises, and outright lies, Napoleon turns Animal Farm into a dystopian nightmare. Nowhere is this seen more than the change of the commandment “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The pigs take over leadership of the farm, walk on two legs, wear clothes, and drink whisky. They become what Old Major taught against in the beginning. The book ends with the pigs inviting neighbouring farmers to the farm. The animals outside the manor house are not able to tell the difference between the pigs’ voices and those of the humans.
There are many characters in Animal Farm. The dogs that act as security guards, the other animals that work on the farm, Benjamin the donkey (aka Orwell as an animal in his own book). I’m only going to focus on three characters: the pigs, Boxer the workhorse, and the sheep.
Let’s start with the pigs. Holy shit is the idea of pigs standing upright and wearing clothes creepy to me. I was so revolted by pigs after reading this book I didn’t eat pork for a while. I had such a visceral reaction to Napoleon and his cronies and the way they treated the other animals. For a book to make me feel this strongly about fictional characters, who are animals for God’s sake, is impressive. The fact this does it in fewer than 150 pages makes it more so.
Because you can’t write a review about Animal Farm without mentioning Boxer the workhorse, here we go. It honestly hurts to write about Boxer, an allegory for the working class who revolted against the Tsar but were then betrayed by the Bolsheviks. Poor Boxer, a naïve idealist who suffered the consequences of the new structure the pigs had created. Boxer is described as "faithful and strong" and believes any problem can be solved if he works harder. This ends with him overworking himself, and eventually being unable to work. The pigs send him away, saying he is going to a hospital. They later inform the other animals he died there. In fact, it’s clear that Boxer has been sold off to a slaughterhouse. This is tragic and made me feel ill while I was reading it. I don’t even like horses (don’t hate on me, I’m allergic), and I cried when this happened. I can’t even tell you if they were tears of anger or sadness.
Lastly, the sheep. The sheep in this book act as the spreaders of Napoleon’s propaganda. The idea is that they’re not the smartest bunch, so they’ll just repeat whatever is said to them enough. Orwell uses sheep as an allegory for people we would call sheep in our society. I don’t know if this is very clever or was just extremely convenient. I find the sheep creepy as fuck. I think it’s the fact that they stay the closest to actual animals, so it’s eerie when they speak. The maxim they spread at the start of the story is “four legs good, two legs bad”. By the end of the book, this had changed to “Four legs good, two legs better”.
This book lathers “communism=bad" on very thickly. However, it should be noted that Orwell was outspoken in his belief in democratic socialism, putting him far left on the political scale. He was very against totalitarianism, which is easy to see if you’ve read this and his most famous novel 1984. This has historically been the issue with communism. It starts with the best intentions, but slowly the power skews to very few people who rule everyone else. This is an extremely basic description (and my opinion) of communism in action.
The thing about Animal Farm is that it has transcended its original allegory and can now be seen in many situations in our current world. Read it with an open mind and you’ll see how it reflects many situations in history and now. This is what makes this book amazing. It’s simple enough for the themes to be relevant now, but it’s deep enough to convey characters that you can genuinely love (Boxer) and hate (those fucking pigs).
I haven’t listened to the audio book. Sorry Audible, I’m not spending a credit or $15NZD on a book that’s only three hours long. However, it seems to have good reviews and the narrator Simon Callow has an impressive list of audio books under his belt.
This book is for you if:
- You want a book to read in an afternoon. Even a slow reader can finish this book in a day if they clear their schedule and get into it.
- You have feelings and you like crushing said feelings with sadness and anger. This sounds like a bad thing, but I believe a book should make you feel things. Animal Farm made me feel all the things.
- You’ve read 1984 and liked it. It explores similar themes (propaganda, totalitarianism etc), but is much more concise. This is the better of the two in my opinion.
This book might not be for you if:
- Allegories aren’t your thing. Fair enough, go read some non-fiction and live your life. Also, don’t read the Bible.
- You get emotional about animals dying in books. Yes, animals die in this book, and not in nice ways.
- You hate books with talking animals. Especially if the animals talk to humans.
TL;DR Animal Farm is the story of how power can overthrow even the best of intentions if left in the wrong hands. It’s powerful themes and allegories hit me right in the gut and resurge whenever I think of this book. If I were ever going to recommend a book to someone looking for something thought-provoking, this would be it. Heck, it’s a book I recommend everyone read/listen to at some point in their lives.
R. M. Waenga