Animal Farm and the beast fable

Mercedes Aguirre explores how George Orwell rewrote the beast fable for the 20th century in Animal Farm.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the best-known examples of animal fable, a symbolic narrative in which animal characters are endowed with human qualities. The best-known beast fables in Western literature are the narratives attributed to Aesop, an ancient Greek story teller who is thought to have lived circa 620–564 BCE. Aesop’s fables were characterised by their brevity and clarity, and by the inclusion of an explicit moral at the end which summarised the lesson illustrated by the story. Showing human values through animal characters allowed readers to examine their behaviour from a distanced perspective.

Orwell’s satirical tale is a more developed version of the beast fable. Rather than stating a moral at the end, the emphasis is placed on the plot of the story, on the narration of different episodes that show the progressive degeneration of the pig-led administration of the farm. However, Orwell’s novella still contains some of the features that made beast fables traditionally popular: it is relatively brief and fast-paced and it is written in a straightforward style.

Most of the elements that form the plot of Animal Farm correspond directly to specific historical events relating to the Stalinist regime, and the pigs Napoleon and Snowball have an allegorical relationship to Stalin and Trotsky. However, Animal Farm can also be read as a broader fable warning against totalitarian regimes and their use of violent repression and propaganda campaigns.

Illustrated Aesop's Fables, 1857

1857 edition of Aesop's Fables [page: facing p. 12]

In this extract, from a 19th century edition of Aesop’s Fables illustrated by the Victorian artist Charles H Bennett, animals appear anthropomorphised and wearing human clothes.

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The animals of Animal Farm

Animal stories have traditionally been associated with children’s literature, and Orwell himself gave his novella the subtitle of ‘A Fairy Story’. While the subject matter of Animal Farm is unquestionably political, there is something whimsical and evocative about the use of talking animals as characters. The reader learns about the events on the farm through the perspective of the largely naïve, idealistic animals who witness, astonished, the evolution of the pig-led regime.

While Orwell gives us a grim description of the brutal and corrupt behaviour of the pigs in charge of the farm, the majority of the animals are portrayed sympathetically. Traditional fables were not so much stories about animals as about human qualities expressed symbolically though the figure of the animal. But in Animal Farm Orwell goes one step further. Episodes such as the exploitation of the hens for their eggs are written with true compassion for the mistreatment of animals.

Orwell himself was familiar with barnyard animals, as he kept goats and hens at his house in Wallington. In the preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, he explained to his readers that the idea to write the novel had occurred to him while he watched a boy driving a carthorse and repeatedly whipping it when it tried to turn. Orwell explained how ‘It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat’.[1]

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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The 1954 animated film version of Animal Farm by John Halas and Joy Batchelor also paid particular attention to the physique of the animals, and how their bodies – the birds’ lack of arms, for instance – would have conditioned their ability to run the farm. From the comedic interpretation of how an animal could do the work of a human farmer, to the portrayal of the physical suffering of Boxer the carthorse, the film makes an effort to understand the story through the perspective of the animal.

This clip from the 1954 film version of Orwell’s work shows the animals running the farm for the first time and performing traditionally human tasks.

Combining aesthetics and politics

Orwell considered himself to be a political writer. His purpose in writing Animal Farm was to expose the evils of the Stalinist regime to a reading public whom he felt had an unacceptably uncritical view of Stalin and his government. But he was also very conscious of the necessity to balance political commentary and aesthetics in his work. In his well-known essay ‘Why I Write’, published one year after Animal Farm, Orwell outlined his aims in combining politically motivated writing with artistic expression:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. ... But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.[2]

Animal Farm is indeed much more than political propaganda. By using the form of the fable, its straightforward use of language and the simplicity of the point of view of the animals, Orwell gave Animal Farm a lightness that would be difficult to find in a political essay, and is one of the reasons that accounts for its success. The use of animal characters adds a lyrical quality to a political theme, helping us understand the idealism that characterised the beginning of the revolution, and making us care deeply about the fate of the characters. At the same time, the symbolic system of the fable provides a structure for the story and it imbues it with the magical rhythm of children’s fairy tales.

Orwell's proposed introduction to Animal Farm

Orwell's proposed introduction to Animal Farm

Orwell wrote a preface for Animal Farm titled ‘The Freedom of the Press’ in which he criticised left wing intellectuals’ uncritical view Stalin. The preface was not finally used.

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While for most readers the meaning of Animal Farm is tied to its author’s disenchantment with communism, the novella can be read at different levels: as an allegorical narration of the Stalinist regime, as a fable about totalitarianism, or as a story about the betrayal of the revolutionary regime of the animals on a farm. In fact, when the work was published, several of Orwell’s acquaintances wrote to him praising Animal Farm and stating that both they and their children were greatly enjoying the work.

Footnotes

[1] George Orwell, ‘Appendix II: Orwell’s Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm’, in Animal Farm (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 118.

[2] ‘Why I Write’, Gangrel (Summer 1946).


Banner credit: Bridgeman Art Library, Halas and Batchelor Collection Ltd

  • Mercedes Aguirre
  • Dr Mercedes Aguirre is Curator of North American Collections at the British Library. Her research focuses on 1930s literature and war reportage. She is currently completing a book on British and American writers and the Spanish Civil War.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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More articles on: Power and conflict

More articles on: Literature 1900–1950

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