Four legs good, two legs bad
Written four years before 1984, this novel was Orwell’s first attempt “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole” (‘Why I Write’ – George Orwell). Yes, on the surface it’s about animals, but this allegorical tale is really about the Soviet Government under Stalin. It begins when Old Major, the farms resident boar, summons the other animal together to teach them a revolutionary song, ‘Beasts of England’. He refers to humans as parasites and encourages the animals to rebel. Poor Old Major then dies, without living to see the rebellion.
Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon then assume command and begin their revolt, driving the drunken farmer away in the process before renaming the place ‘Animal Farm’. Seven commandments are then drawn up in order to unify the animals against humans:
- Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
- Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
- No animal shall wear clothes.
- No animal shall sleep in a bed.
- No animal shall drink alcohol.
- No animal shall kill any other animal.
- All animals are equal.
the most important of these is ‘all animals are equal’. All the pigs then elevate themselves to positions of leadership and keep back extra food, for their own health purposes. All the other animals are promised better lives once their windmill is built. Unfortunately this means lots of hard work, but it will all be worth it, they are assured. When a violent storm destroys the windmill Napoleon (the Stalin figure) convinces the other animals that Snowball (Trotsky) is the saboteur. With Snowball as a scapegoat, Napoleon then kills any animals who associate with his rival. ‘Beast of England’ is replaced with an anthem glorifying Napoleon as his megalomania grows.
During a war with a neighbouring farmer, many of the animals receive devastating injuries, but work has to continue anyway. Somehow the animals still convince themselves that life is better than it was under their previous farmer. Boxer, a hardworking horse is particularly injured and so Napoleon decides he should go to a vet. When the van arrives to take him away, Benjamin, a clever Donkey, realizes that it is a knackers van and Boxer has in fact been sold as scrap in order that napoleon can buy whisky.
As the years pass , the pigs learn to walk on two legs, seeing it as being more refined. The commandments are amended slightly to take in their new human traits:
- No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
- No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
- No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.
Eventually, these are condensed into one ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ and their previous motto of ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ becomes ‘ four legs good, two legs better.’
By the end the animals realize that they can no longer distinguish between pigs and humans as the power has turned them into everything they hated at the beginning.
Animal Farm was initially rejected by publishers because of fears it may sour relations with USSR. It received criticism for being too gentle, too clumsy and too dull. I didn’t find that true in the slightest. Perhaps the animals are stereotyped and perhaps, as has been suggested, Orwell could have just written a direct attack which would have been more honest. But Orwell was a writer and this is a story. It’s never going to stop governments or change the world, but it doesn’t have to. Novels are artistic, creative interesting ways of getting a story across. Taken in this context, as it should be, Animal Farm is a great story. That is enough for me.
“It had become usual to give Napoleon the credit for every successful achievement and every stroke of good fortune. You would often hear one hen remark to another, “Under the guidance of our leader, Comrade Napoleon, I have laid five eggs in six days” or two cows, enjoying a drink at the pool, would exclaim, “thanks to the leadership of Comrade Napoleon, how excellent this water tastes!”…”
If you like an animal story for adults you might like Watership Down
If you like a good dystopian story you might like The Handmaids Tale