Today we had a mini-book group meeting in honor of a mini (in terms of size, not wallop) book. Several of us had decided to read Animal Farm, and of course we wanted to talk about it. Initially we were going to meet at the home of another group member, but that backfired. So, since we were all going to be at the same park on Monday, we decided to scare the children into playing at a decent distance from us with Orwellian stories of what might happen if they disobeyed authority, and have a little book chat in broad daylight, outside, with grass and stuff. There were no brownies in attendance, but a truly excellent hummus on dazzling parmesan flatbread, a little leftover shortbread from the last official meeting, and what may well be the last bag ever of the limited-time-only-because-there-is-no-justice-in-the-world dark-chocolate M&Ms made a reasonably impressive substitute.
K. said that she was pleasantly surprised at how much she enjoyed the book and found it, as she put it, an "easy read." It's true -- Orwell's style is so deceptively simple, his word choices always so perfectly fitted to the point, that he makes almost any other writer look flowery and overblown by comparison. (Hemingway might be able to share the same shelf without embarrassment, and Twain would hold his head high; but Melville would certainly cough and remember an urgent appointment elsewhere.) It would be a mistake to underestimate Orwell's skill as a writer, though he encourages us to do so by making the art of flawless storytelling look not only easy but inevitable. But most of the focus on his work seems to be on his prescience (1984) and his engaging choice of metaphors (AF).
A.K. said that her son, who had read it along with her, had been initially put off by the premise. I could see how a young reader might be momentarily baffled, even affronted, by Orwell's unapologetic anthropomorphism. The animals are people, pure and simple, while remaining just as truly their genuine animal selves -- a nice trick if a writer can manage it, and not many could. The characters are real and recognizable. We've all known Mollies, pretty shallow creatures more concerned with their creature comforts than with any greater good, no matter how dire the situation at hand; and cats who are never around when the hard work needs doing but never miss a meal (and always have the most entertaining excuses for their previous absences); and bad-tempered donkeys like Benjamin, cynical and bitter of speech, but capable of harboring surprising depth of affection for unlikely recipients. I myself used to call my husband "Boxer," because, like that too-strong horse in the story, his only proffered solution to any given problem was always "I will work harder."
Of all the characters, K. especially enjoyed Squealer, the pig who plays spin doctor for Napoleon (Stalin). We talked wryly of how handy it was to be able to rewrite history as he did -- "Oh, no, comrades, that's not how it happened! Don't you remember? It was like this..." -- and I mentioned a book of Stalin-era photographs that I had looked through a few years ago. Trotsky and other undesirables had been airbrushed out; the book had side-by-side examples of the pictures before and after they'd been doctored. Very creepy. As was the recent news that apparently they've found the actual icepick that did Trotsky in.
A.K. pointed out that AF is a puzzling read if you have no knowledge of fairly recent Russian history. On the other hand, AF is a decent introduction to same. It was one of the first books my then-boyfriend, later husband, bought for me while we were dating. I was fifteen, and as ignorant as they come. He told me to just substitute the name Stalin for Napoleon, Trotsky for Snowball, and hapless oppressed Russian peasants for pretty much all the rest of the animals, and I'd be fine. Turned out he was right.
The funny thing is, for a book that's a pure and perfect metaphor for pre-Soviet and Stalinist Russia, AF stands up awfully well on its own as a just-plain story. I put this forward, and everyone agreed. We started puzzling out why.
One reason is that the writing is so assured -- you have an immediate faith that a truth is being told here. Orwell's writing in AF is also often bleakly humorous. If Orwell had been killingly serious, the book would have been too much. That wasn't his style. I gave a startled laugh when the animals, having chased off the humans and taken over the farm, exuberantly explore their new domain, eventually making their way to the farm house. Here they are intimidated, subdued. Eventually they tiptoe inside, looking about and speaking in awed whispers. Although nothing else in the house is touched, "some hams hanging in the kitchen were taken out for burial." There is something grimly absurd about this, as there is in (earlier) Major the pig solemnly pronouncing that all animals are comrades just before some barn rats scuttle up to see what's going on and are immediately chased off by the dogs.
But these flashes of almost-humor throw the genuine tragedies into starker relief. I cried the first time I read the book and got to Boxer's death, but sadness gives way to sick horror at Squealer's telling of the event:
"It was the most affecting sight I have ever seen!" said Squealer, lifting his trotter and wiping away a tear. "I was at his bedside at the very last. And at the end, almost too weak to speak, he whispered in my ear that his sole sorrow was to have passed on before the windmill was finished. 'Forward, comrades!' he whispered. 'Forward in the name of the Rebellion. Long live Animal Farm! Long live Comrade Napoleon! Napoleon is always right.' Those were his very last words, comrades."
As Boxer, too old and weak to do any more work for the farm, has been sold to the knackers (and the profit on his life pocketed by that very Napoleon), this little speech is almost more horrifying a betrayal than the sale itself. Elie Weisel once said that the Holocaust took not only his father's life, but his father's death. The corruption of Animal Farm has taken everything from Boxer -- his strength, his health, and, at the very last, his faith in the revolution and its leaders. Having taken his life, almost as an aside, now it has taken away his murder as well. Unable to speak for himself, the simple worker who could never learn more than the first four letters of the alphabet is now a hideously eloquent mouthpiece for his executioners.
This scene, and others like it, might almost be too much for the reader. Certainly they could never add up to the "easy read" K. described were it not for Orwell's use of animal characters instead of human beings. They are a distancing device that, conversely, brings us closer to the horror of the events portrayed by giving us a reassuring margin of safety. These are, after all, only animals. And so, confident that, as we've been informed by the novel's subtitle, this is merely a fairy story, we walk unhesitatingly to the edge of the darkness and peer inquiringly into it, rather than fleeing as we would in "real" life.
But in the end, the book is more than a "once upon a time" retelling of Stalin's rise to power. The metaphor encompasses more than it ever aimed for. It became something greater than itself. Though we should certainly remember to regard it as an unblinking stare at a very specific chapter of Russian history, the continuing survival of this slim and perfect story can be credited to the fact that it can be read as is. A deeper background knowledge only makes the reading richer.
Got a question or comment?
Write to the Book Lady.
If you found this essay helpful,
please visit the Filthy Lucre page