Fiction Reviews

Animal Farm

(1945 / 2020) George Orwell, Harvill Secker, £12.99 / Can$27.99, hrdbk, xviii + 123pp, ISBN 978-1-787-30252-5

(1945 / 2021) George Orwell, Penguin, £14.99, 144pp, ISBN 978-0-241-45386-5


Like most of us, I first encountered Animal Farm when I was at school. It was given to another class and although I can’t remember the book that we were given, I can distinctly remember the chatter that Animal Farm created. It spilled out from that class to the rest of us, to break and lunchtimes. I read it in my own time because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I’ve seen the same effect again with my own children, my daughter having read it in year 8. Soon it will be my son’s turn and he’s already familiar with some of it, such is the power of Orwell’s tale of a farm taken over by the animals.

For those unfamiliar with it, the story begins when the animals, tired of working for what they perceive to be a cruel and lazy human owner, decide to rebel. The humans are driven out and the animals take over the running of the farm, armed with a vision of a blissful utopia in which work is fairly rewarded, everyone has enough, and those too old or too ill to work are taken care of. At first everything goes well. The hens are told that they will be able to keep their eggs and hatch them instead of them being taken away and sold at market. The horses are promised plenty of food and heat in the stables. Rules that promote equality are painted on the side of the barn so that they won’t be forgotten. The animals are better than humans at many of the tasks such as sowing the crops and weeding. It seems as if things really will be better.

But things soon start to go wrong. Organisation is needed if the farm is to thrive, as the animals have different skills and so can’t all do the same job. This requires leadership, and the pigs are more than happy to provide it. Led by the devious Napoleon, the pigs slowly begin to take advantage of the naivete and ignorance of the others and improve their own situation to the detriment of everyone else (whilst merrily gaslighting the others into believing they are really working for the good of the farm). Slowly but surely, the utopian vision starts to fall apart. The pigs move into the house. They get drunk. The promised food doesn’t appear. Eggs are taken to be sold at market. The animals find themselves working more and more for less and less. The pigs control all of this, stringing the other animals along with lies and false promises, and when that doesn’t work, brute force. Life slips back into the patterns of before, until eventually, things turn full circle and the animals are confronted with the truth of the situation, which is that even when all animals are equal, some are more equal than others.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, returning to the book as an adult. I wasn’t disappointed. Orwell famously wrote the book as a way to explain Marxism, the Russian Revolution and the direction he believed the communist leadership would inevitably head towards, but there is plenty in it that resonates today. Control and manipulation of written language, rewriting and reinterpreting history and the power of mantras are all things we’re seeing influence public discourse, push political decision making and create tribes, particularly online. Twitter in particular likes a mantra, given that the design of the platform requires complex ideas to be simplified and reduced to fit into 140 characters. ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ and its evolution into ‘four legs good, two legs better’ wouldn’t seem out of place there. Propaganda still works in the same way. Power and greed still motivate much of human behaviour. Rules are regularly tweaked to suit.

The appeal of this particular version of Animal Farm (given that a cheap second-hand copy can easily be found) is the beautiful cover and dust jacket that it has been given. The pattern on the cover is very stylish and slightly retro in design, making it something that has visual appeal both on the bookshelf and for the inevitable Instagram photo. With the Harvill Secker edition, there’s an informative introduction by Christopher Hitchens, and appendices which include Orwell’s intended preface to the book. This gives the reader background information about the novel and about Orwell, as the context in which the book was written adds much weight to the story itself.

The Harvill Secker edition has been printed on good quality paper with font of a sensible size. The hardback itself is plain black with a grass green end paper. It would make a lovely gift for a bibliophile, especially if combined with the other reprints, or for anyone interested in politics. Highly recommended.

Jane O'Reilly

See also Jonathan's take on Animal Farm.


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