Orwell's Difficulties in Having the Book Published
Animal Farm was written by Orwell between November 1943 and February, 1944, after the Battle of Stalingrad and before the Allied invasion of Normandy. This was the time when the Allies had first become victorious and when they had developed a strong feeling of solidarity with the Russians.The book was rejected by various publishers—Gollancz, Cape, and Faber—for political reasons. These publishers did not think it expedient to give offence to Soviet Russia which was a close ally of the western democracies in the war against Hitler and which was the obvious target of satire in the book. Even though Orwell could understand the reasons for the refusal of these publishers to accept his book, he was yet shocked by their attitude. T.S. Eliot, a director of Faber, had, however, some soothing words to say about the book. Eliot compared Orwell to Swift and praised the literary qualities of the fable in Orwell's book. But Eliot, who wrongly assumed that the most intellectual animals were best qualified to run the farm, was unwilling to publish the book on the ground that it was a negative, Trotskyite criticism of Soviet Russia. Eliot thus expressed his
reaction to the book:
We agree that it is a distinguished piece of writing; that the fable is very skilfully handled, and that the narrative keeps one's interest on its own plane—and that is something very few authors have achieved since Gulliver's Travels. On the other hand, we have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the present time.
My own dissatisfaction with the apologue is that the effect is simply one of negation. It ought to excite some sympathy with what the author wants, as well as sympathy with his objections to something: and the positive point of view which I take to be generally Trotskyite is not convincing............And, after all, your pigs are far more intellectual than the other animals and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn't have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.
Published in August, 1945, at a Crucial Time
Orwell felt very offended by the letters of rejection which he received from the various publishers. In July he wrote to his agent that if Seeker and Warburg did not publish it, he would publish it himself and that he had already half-arranged for the necessary financial backing. However, eventually the book was published by Secker and Warburg in August, 1945, at a crucial time in world history. During the previous four months, Roosevelt, Mussolini, and Hitler had died; Churchill had been voted out of office; Germany had surrendered; and the atomic bomb had exploded over Hiroshima (in Japan). Of the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin), only Stalin still survived.
The Success of "Animal Farm"
That mouth was also a turning-point in Orwell's life, because half a million copies of Animal Farm were sold through the American Book-of-the-Month Club, and it was translated into thirty-nine languages. By 1950 Orwell had earned a lot of money from the book and had become prosperous for the first time in his writing career. Radio versions of Animal Farm were broadcast by the B.B.C. in 1947 and 1952, and the book was made into an extremely effective animated cartoon in 1954. By 1972 the sales of this book in various editions had reached eleven million. However, the reactions of the critics to this book varied. The judgments of the critics were influenced mainly by their own attitudes toward Stalinist Russia. Those who favoured Stalin's regime in Russia disapproved of the book, and found fault with it, while those who were themselves critical of Stalin's policies or who felt more inclined towards Trotsky had nothing but praise for it. One of the critics of the latter category wrote that Animal Farm was "the most compact and witty expression of the left-wing British reaction to Soviet Communism and a wise, compassionate and illuminating fable for our times." The adverse criticisms of the book included the view that the parallelism of Stalinism and Czarism was complete nonsense and that the final metamorphosis of pigs into humans at the end was a fantastic disruption of the sober logic of the tale.
Orwell's Exposure of the Totalitarian Regime in Russia
The driving force behind Animal Farm (and also Nineteen Eighty-Four) was Orwell's intense disgust with totalitarianism, combined with an even stronger disgust with its defenders among the left-wing intellectuals. From 1935 onwards Orwell had begun to feel more and more convinced that Russia had taken the wrong path and had become a tyrannical dictatorship. He therefore thought it necessary in the interest of world socialism to expose the Stalin myth. In the nineteen-thirties and forties, especially after Russia had come into the war, a large number of the younger British intellectuals had joined the British Communist Party or had become its sympathizers. Orwell strongly disapproved of these British intellectuals because in his opinion they were supporting the Stalinist propaganda, which Orwell thought to be all lies, at the cost of truth, freedom, and ultimately of literature. He wrote Animal Farm to expose the reality of the Russian Revolution and the betrayal of the Revolution by the Soviet regime under Stalin.
Orwell, a Leftist Despite His Condemnation
The starting-point of any successful satire is an aggressive, combative attitude to political experience. This had been the starting-point of Swift, the greatest of the English satirists. In Orwell's opinion, Swift was politically one of those persons who are driven into a sort of perverse Toryism in politics by the follies of the liberal and progressive party of the moment. However, Orwell said that he did not feel compelled to give up his socialistic ideas or to join the Tories in England. He continued to support the Left of the English Labour Party, even though he became a strong and determined foe of Communism as being practised in Soviet Russia. Animal Farm is a book which brings into a clear focus Orwell's hatred of, and antagonism towards, the working of the Communist system in Russia. Although Animal Farm seems to be a gay book, animated by an abundance of wit and humour, yet the inspiration behind it came from Orwell's indignation at, and disgust with, Communism in Russia, even though the satire in the book goes beyond a condemnation of Russia and extends to all revolutions because, in Orwell's view, every revolution is, in the long run, betrayed by the new leadership which emerges and which soon itself becomes dictatorial like the regime which it had ousted.
Orwell's Choice of the Animal Fable
For the writing of Animal Farm Orwell chose a very ancient genre, based on the animal stories found in the folk-tales of all primitive cultures and reflecting a familiarity and sympathy with animals which Orwell definitely shared. The central figure in such stories is often the trickster: the spider in America, and the fox in Europe. In Animal Farm, the trickster is a pig. The animal stories written by the Greek author, Aesop, are well-known. The technique employed by Aesop was subsequently perfected by the French writer, La Fontaine. An animal story by La Fontaine always carries a moral or political lesson. Orwell has given the following account of how the idea for the writing of Animal Farm came to him:
I saw a little boy, perhaps, ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. 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. I proceeded to analyze Marx's theory from the animals' point of view.
And Orwell has also stated that since the Spanish Civil War he had been convinced that "the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement." (It is necessary clearly to understand the difference between Socialism and Communism in order to be able to appreciate Orwell's attitude towards both these forms of government). In the opinion of some, the cart-horse Boxer in Orwell's book represents the long-suffering Russian workers and peasants, and is the hero of the tale. Once Orwell had this image of the exploitation of the poor by the rich in his mind, he went on to develop Old Major's (that is Karl Marx's) theory of revolution as applied to animals. Orwell used the tradition of the animal-story with great confidence and deftness. And, since he wanted to reach the widest possible readership through translations into other languages, he also parodied the style of children's books.
An Allegorical Book
Animal Farm also belongs to the genre of allegory, because it has a point-to-point correspondence with the events of Russian history from 1917 to 1943—the war of intervention, the New Economic Plan, the First Five-Year Plan, the expulsion of Trotsky and the seizing of supreme power by Stalin, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the German invasion of Russia, etc. etc. It is also an apocalypse, like the Book of Daniel in the Bible, in that it moves imperceptibly from the past through the present to the future. It therefore ends with prophecy. Though literally the last episode, when the pigs sit down to drink with the farmers, is meant to represent the Teheran Conference, when Stalin met the allied leaders, it is also a forecast of Russian politics. And to a great extent the forecast has proved true because the Russians have become as imperialistic in their handling of subject-nations as any of the past empires ever had been.
Previous Attacks on Stalinist Russia
Animal Farm belongs to the category of the following books:
(1) The Revolution Betrayed, which was written in 1937 by Trotsky after he had been driven out of power by Stalin.
(2) Return From the U.S.S.R., written by the French author, Andre Gide in 1937.
(3) Darkness at Noon written by Arthur Koestler in 1941.
All these books were strong attacks on the Stalinist regime, and they all preceded Animal Farm. But Animal Farm also anticipated a famous attack on Soviet Russia. This was a book called The God That Failed which was compiled in 1949 by Crossman. Yet another denunciation of the Soviet regime came in a book called The New Class (1957) by Djilas.
A Summing-Up of the Message of "Animal Farm"
In an essay written in 1946 (a year after the publication of Animal Farm) Orwell wrote:
History consists of a series of swindles in which the masses are first lured into revolt by the promise of utopia and then, when they have done their job, enslaved over again by new masters.
This remark is in fact a summing-up of the message of Animal Farm. In his preface, written in 1947, to one of the editions of Animal Farm, Orwell wrote:
The man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the U.S.S.R. and were a sort of supplement to them. Nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.
The Animals in the Book, Thoroughly Convincing
Orwell in this book fused his artistic and political purposes so well that the animals are thoroughly convincing on the literal level. His precise portrayal of the beasts is based on his actual experience as a farmer at a place called Wallington where he had lived from 1936 to 1940 and had kept a large number of animals. Orwell has himself said that the most important animals in the story are the pigs and their dogs who are frightening and ferocious. Orwell in his book has made use of the repulsive associations of the swine which had figured in Homer's Odyssey. He was also influenced by the talking horses in Swift's book Gulliver's Travels. In Swift's book the yahoos worked like slaves for the Houyhnhnms as in Orwell's book the other animals work like slaves for the pigs. Orwell seems really to have disliked pigs, and his hostility to the pigs continued even after the writing of Animal Farm. In 1948 when he was staying on the island of Jura, he wrote: "I have tried the experiment of keeping a pig. They really are disgusting brutes."
Orwell described Animal Farm as a fairy story. In fact, it is an animal fable which points two morals, one universal, the other topical. It exposes the corruptibility of man, showing how the reformer abuses power when he seizes it from the tyrant, and how in a revolutionary situation the most ruthless man will oust his colleagues as rivals, and exploit the workers by cruelty and lies. The parallel with Russia was so obvious and unwelcome at a time when Russia was an ally of Britain that Orwell had considerable difficulty in getting the book published.
A Comparison with "Gulliver's Travels"
Animal Farm has many of the virtues of Gulliver's Travels: the appeal of the simple narrative, the sharply-defined descriptions, the implicit comment on the folly and villainy of mankind, the effect of complete naturalness once the opening situation has been accepted. In one respect Animal Farm is finer than Gulliver's Travels—the characterization is more varied, with Boxer, the loyal, hard-working cart-horse; Squealer, the dictator's yes-man; Benjamin, the donkey, intent on survival; and Mollie, the vain white mare.
A Child's Story; A Morality; A Political Satire
The fable was particularly suited to Orwell's talents. Human relationships were the weak point of several of his novels, but the animals, each representing one quality, corresponded to his stern, moral view of life Animal Farm enabled him to present politics and economics in terms of morality with great effect. He was so clear-sighted and wrote such lucid prose that he was able to create a detailed and convincing picture of a strange world. It is a book that can be enjoyed on different levels: as a child's story, as a morality, as a political satire. It has another uncommon virtue—brevity. In a short compass it says all that a powerful mind has to say on an important aspect of life.
Some Opinions About "Animal Farm"
Some of the opinions expressed by critics about Animal Farm may briefly be quoted here to indicate the varying reactions to the book:
(1) "This novel is one of the two modern works of fiction before which the critic must abdicate. There is so much truth in this (namely, Animal Farm) that I find it very difficult to say anything useful about the book and yet a study of Orwell cannot ignore it altogether." (Tom Hopkinson)
(2) "The story of Animal Farm is so familiar that it hardly needs detailed recapitulation. The interpretation of the fable is plain enough. As I say, there is no difficulty in interpreting the symbolism of the story." (Christopher Hollis)
(3) "Animal Farm is so well-known that it cannot be necessary to more than mention some of its major felicities." (Richard Rees)
(4) "The story is too well-known for anything, but a brief summary to be given here." (Edward Thomas)
(5) "Orwell produced a book so clear in intention and writing that the critic is usually rather nonplussed as to what he should say about it; all is so magnificently there." (George Woodcock)
The book has been rightly interpreted in terms of Soviet history, though it has not been sufficiently recognized that the fable is extremely subtle and sophisticated. Animal Farm brilliantly presents a satiric allegory of Communist Russia in which almost every detail has its political significance.