An introduction to Animal Farm

George Orwell’s Animal Farm combines animal fable with political satire targeting Stalinist Russia. John Sutherland describes the novel’s genesis, its struggle to find a publisher, and its eventual success.

                                 ‘I like animals.’ ~ George Orwell

George Orwell is famous as a political writer, essayist, thinker and, supremely, novelist. One can easily overlook another consistent feature in Orwell’s life – his desire to be a small-holding farmer of an old-fashioned ‘English’ kind. It crops up in rather odd ways.

Living in London during the Second World War, for example, he kept chickens in the backyard (his wife, Eileen, rather resented getting up at dawn, after a night of air-raid alarms to feed them). His longest-lasting residence was a cottage in Wallington, near London, where he kept chickens, goats and geese (a fowl he particularly liked).

Photograph of Orwell feeding Muriel the goat by Collings

Photograph of Orwell feeding Muriel the goat by Collings

Orwell feeding his goats at Wallington.

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Orwell's domestic diary 1939–40

Orwell's Domestic Diary 1939-1940

Orwell kept a domestic diary in which he recorded information about the weather and his farm animals, including his goat Muriel, who inspired the homonymous character in Animal Farm.

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Orwell’s happiest years, although he was suffering terribly from terminal TB, were those which, enriched by the runaway sales of Animal Farm (his first bestseller), he spent on his farm proper, Barnhill, on the Hebridean island of Jura. It did not, alas, last long.

To put it at its simplest, old-fashioned farms were a foundation of the England Orwell loved.

Political fable and satire

Animal fables for children are a revered genre. One thinks of Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows, Walt Disney and Sesame Street offprints.

Animal Farm belongs to a quite different tradition. It belongs in a line of moral animal fables which goes as far back as Aesop, and which was brought to its most powerful 20th-century form in Kipling’s Jungle Book. One could call it the animal fable based on sociopolitical ideas, aimed at an adult as much as at a child reader.

Kipling – the arch exponent of British imperialism – was a writer with whom Orwell had a lifelong and love-hate relationship. But an even closer connection, as regards Animal Farm, was Jonathan Swift. At the age of eight, young Eric Blair (his name at birth; ‘George Orwell’ was his pen name) was given Gulliver’s Travels as his birthday present. He found the book the night before and read it in his bedroom, cover to cover. It stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Children's illustrated edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1864

1864 illustrated edition of Gulliver's Travels [page: frontispiece]

19th century illustrated edition of Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels, one of the literary influences of Animal Farm.

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Animal Farm: a tract with a political motive

Animal Farm, like the first book of Gulliver’s Travels (a satire on Queen Anne’s court), began as a tract with a political motive. Farmer Jones’s Manor Farm is an Orwellian Lilliput, satirising the pretensions of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its prompt corruption by a new, more ruthless power elite than even the Czarist regime under Ivan the Terrible.

Manor Farm was once owned by aristocrats – lords of the manor. Hence its name. Before the ‘Rebellion’ it has become the property of a gentleman farmer, who is in fact, a drunken, philistine brute, lower, morally, than the animals he owns and exploits.

The clever pigs make the political analysis that the animals slave, and are harvested, for the sole benefit of their owner. What right has Jones to exploit them, their labour and their very flesh on his table? They draw up a political code – ‘Animalism’ (ch. 2). Its slogans are ‘All Animals Are Equal’ (ch. 2) and ‘Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad’ (ch. 3).

The pigs mastermind a successful uprising, calling it a ‘Rebellion’. After much bloodshed the animals take over the farm. Power then has its universal effect. Having ruthlessly secured their leadership, the pigs install a totalitarian state, complete with canine police, thought control, liquidation and purges. They reserve for themselves creature comforts and owners’ privileges.

For the lower animals, life is, if anything, even harder than it was under Jones:

But if there were hardships to be borne, they were partly offset by the fact that life nowadays had a greater dignity than it had had before. There were more songs, more speeches, more processions. Napoleon had commanded that once a week there should be held something called a Spontaneous Demonstration, the object of which was to celebrate the struggles and triumphs of Animal Farm. (ch. 9)

In the fable’s controversial conclusion the pigs – now owners of a highly profitable enterprise (for them and their dogs) – make peace with their ‘fellow’ human farmers. The animals look, in perplexity, through the windows of the farm-house:

The creatures outside 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. (ch. 10)

The new guiding slogan for the future of the farm is: ‘All Animals Are Equal But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others’ (ch. 10).

An enigmatic parable

Like all the best parables (Jesus Christ’s par excellence) Animal Farm is richly enigmatic. Is Orwell only thinking about Stalinist Russia of the 1930s and 1940s? Or is Animal Farm a statement about human society everywhere and at all times?

Socialists, particularly, have objected violently to Orwell’s depiction of the working classes as irredeemably ‘lower’ animals. William Empson (literary critic and close friend of Orwell’s as he was composing Animal Farm) felt that there was a danger that readers might misunderstand the book’s allegory. He wrote, ‘it was horrible to think of the evil men, stinking Tories, who would gain by his telling the truth.’[1]

Within Orwell’s animal kingdom there is no real equality – despite the proclamations of ‘Animalism’ (‘All Animals Are Equal’) – and no potential for class mobility among the lower orders: the sheep will always bray slogans mindlessly, the chickens will always run round in circles clucking senselessly, the horses (principally Boxer) will always work brainlessly, the dogs will always savage their fellow animals ruthlessly. Only the pigs have higher mentality and a capacity to change? Into what? So many Joneses. So it was, so it will be. Forever.

War and Stalinism

Orwell's review of Assignment in Utopia, from New English Weekly

Orwell's review of Assignment in Utopia, from New English Weekly

Orwell’s review of the American reporter Eugene Lyons’s memoir Assignment in Utopia, a very critical account of the Stalinist regime.

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The core elements of what was published as Animal Farm in 1945 had taken shape embryonically in Orwell’s mind during his service in the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936–37 and, more specifically, the Stalinist purges in Barcelona in which he and his wife almost lost their lives. He was, conflictedly, always thereafter ‘a man of the left’, but one who loathed Soviet Stalinism. The conflict was heightened by the fact that during the Second World War, as Orwell was writing Animal Farm (with his wife’s assistance, biographers have plausibly suggested), the Soviet Union was the Allies’ closest ally in the fight against Hitler.

A draft of what Orwell called his ‘Fairy Story’ was finished in summer 1944 and submitted to his publisher Victor Gollancz. Gollancz was an old-time communist and rejected the book by return of post. Other publishers were reluctant, post-Stalingrad, to launch something so virulently anti-Soviet. The British, at this period, loved ‘Uncle Joe’; he was, as Churchill put it, tearing the guts out of the Nazi Empire while the allies were preparing, relatively bloodlessly, their second front. Soviet losses in the Second World War (which Russians called the ‘Great Patriotic War’) were massive – tens of millions more than the Allies’ casualties.

T S Eliot, at Faber, to whom Orwell next submitted Animal Farm, praised the clear prose but felt, in his usual way, that since the pigs were the most intelligent beasts they should indeed run things. What the farm needed was more benign piggery. Five American publishers were uninterested. It was too English. And too anti-Soviet.

Letter from T S Eliot (Faber) to George Orwell rejecting Animal Farm, 13 July 1944

Letter from T S Eliot (Faber) to George Orwell rejecting Animal Farm, 13 July 1944

T S Eliot, then editor at Faber & Faber, wrote to George Orwell rejecting Animal Farm. In his letter Eliot argues that the novel’s ‘point of view, which I take to be generally Trotskyite, is not convincing.’

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Animal Farm had to await the end of the hot war and the onset of the cold war (a term Orwell invented). It was finally published in August 1945, as the bells were ringing for VJ day and the Iron Curtain was about to fall across Europe. Once the book was out, the money flooded in. So much so that within a few months Orwell had to incorporate himself, to protect his income from the then punitive rates of British tax. George Orwell was now a limited company. That, too, was a fable.

Animal Farm was not, in its life to come, merely a fable: it was destined to become a pre-emptive weapon in the cold war: something Orwell never intended. J Edgar Hoover himself was solicited for an endorsement. He liked the book, but the FBI did not give out endorsements. Over the following years Animal Farm was disseminated behind the Iron Curtain as black propaganda.

In her study of the CIA’s cold war culture-war Frances Stonor Saunders describes how the CIA covertly acquired the subsidiary rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s second wife and widow Sonia.[2] The film was produced in England and released in 1954, the ending radically changed to predict the eventual overthrow of swine-human totalitarianism by the unquenchable forces of Western democracy. It was a wholly non-Orwellian happy ending.

The cold war is over, but Animal Farm continues to sell. Posterity has passed its verdict. This is a book which contains perennially valid truths.

Footnotes

[1] Quoted in John Haffenden, William Empson, Volume 2: Against the Christians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 48.

[2] Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta, 1999).

© John Sutherland

  • John Sutherland
  • John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL. He has taught principally in the UK, at the University of Edinburgh and UCL, and in the US at the California Institute of Technology. He has written over thirty books. Among his fields of special interest are Victorian Literature and Publishing History. He is a well known writer and reviewer in the British and American press.

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More articles on: Literature 1900–1950

More articles on: Power and conflict

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