Fiction Reviews

Animal Farm

(1945 / 2021) George Orwell, Oxford University Press, 8.99, pbk, xxxiv + 97pp, ISBN 978-0-198-81373-6


The plot of this fantasy novella is well known. Farm animals rebel against the human farmers and take over. Soon the pigs are running everything and telling the other animals what to do. Eventually, the pigs end up as being as exploitative as the former human farmers.

Equally famously, the story is a parable, an allegory, on the changes in Russia with the communist takeover early in the 20th century. See Jane's review of Animal Farm.

Where this Oxford University Press (OUP) edition hugely scores is with the ancillary content: the mini Orwell biography before the copyright masthead page, notes on the text, a chronology of key events in Orwell's publishing life and, after the novella, 14 pages of reference notes on the story's text. Together, these enable you to dig into the detail of the story's foundations, understand what Orwell was getting at and just what he was criticising.

Perhaps it is the 20 pages of notes introducing the novella that are the most useful. There is so much in the story that every page has a real-life element to it. Orwell was fascinated by socialism and the communist experiment, and was a collector of communist leaflets: remember the early 20th century was pre-internet so printed leaflets and booklets where effectively the only way to get ideas out to significant numbers. He also followed events in Russia and had communist allies to talk with when in Barcelona fighting in the Spanish civil war. Though he himself never actually visited Russia.

The 14 pages of reference notes that follows the novella covers much of the same ground as the introductory notes but in reverse: they are not an overview of the politics inspiring the story but relate to specific points in the text and how they relate to politics.

All this additional material not only reveals the fine allegorical detail of the story to real-life counterparts, but also how predictive Orwell was that the communist experiment would not end happily.

Remember the book was written in 1944 and saw publication in 1945. This was the last year of World War II (WWII) and Russia was an ally with Great Britain, the USA and other allies against the axis nations. People in the West viewed Russia very favourably. Indeed it was not until 1946, after WWII ended, did Churchill make his Iron Curtain has fallen across Europe speech.

The ancillary material also reveals that Animal Farm almost never saw light of day: it had been rejected by a number of publishers, including Gollancz who ironically published Orwell's non-fiction and yet today is one of the UK's top three genre imprints! Yet it quickly became a substantive commercial success.

Above all, the additional material makes it clear that Animal Farm is not just of historical interest but has a message for today. Today, global inequality is far greater than back in the early 20th century. Today, the richest in the world can even have their own space programme, while the poorest still live on a dollar or two a day. And today, we can see that political spin, and even outright lies from our leaders, are not things confined to the archive of history. Just this past year of CoVID-19 the journal Science ran an editorial (18th September 2020) titled 'Trump lied about science', damning the US President and that he 'cost countless lives in the United States'.  Animal Farm is openly a fantasy: alas, politicians across the globe continue to peddle fantasies as fact and, as always, it is the ordinary citizen that pays the price.

This OUP paperback edition is the one genre aficionados need to fully decode Orwell's parable, even if they already have a decent hardback copy in their collection. Indeed, it well worth checking the OUP backlist out for other classic SF novels, such as by Wells and Verne, that also have much valuable ancillary content.

Jonathan Cowie


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