“Animal Farm” by the renowned British author George Orwell is undeniably a literary masterpiece and one of the greatest short novels ever written, and certainly one of the most controversial. In this 50th anniversary commemorative edition illustrated by renowned British illustrator Ralph Steadman, Orwell weaves truth with delusion, idealism with realism, and integrity with deception to spin a satirical tale of the Soviet revolution of 1917 whose historic recurrence resonates to this day.
Animal Farm – Book Review
This allegorical fable, in which historical figures are characterised by farm animals, tells of an animal rebellion against the Man, Mr Jones, who owns the Manor Farm. The animals, in a planned uprising, overthrow the rule of Man and free themselves from the yoke of hard labour which benefitted Mr Jones alone. The dream of collectively running the farm and enjoying the fruits of their own labours becomes a beautiful reality following the rebellion. Seven commandments for the new order of farm life are agreed upon, each prohibiting a perverse behaviour observed in the ways of their oppressor, Man, and culminating with the proclamation that all animals are equal:
Although successful at first, the new farm order based on the principles of freedom and equality begins to gradually morph into something else after the pigs self-proclaim their species as the smartest and most fit for planning and organising the farm life. The new Animal Farm sees the rise of the rule of pigs, the power struggles between the pig leaders Napoleon and Snowball, the manipulation and misuse of power by Napoleon to rid the farm of Snowball and eventually, the turning of Napoleon (a metaphoric Joseph Stalin) into a tyrant, arguably far worse one than the expelled Mr Jones.
Over time, the pigs emulate the nastiest behaviours of their two-legged adversary, which were prohibited by the original seven commandments. Little by little, through propaganda and manipulating the working-class aminals, the pig regime imparts a series of add-ons and interpretations to the original commandments – all for the greater good and benefit of all animals, of course. Thus, the commandment of sleeping in beds was now only considered bad when done “with sheets”, and killing another animal was not allowed, except “without cause”. These amendments culminate with the replacement of all previous commandments with one essential postulate stating that “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Animal Farm – From its Genesis to Publication
“Animal Farm” was written between November 1943 and February 1944 in response to Orwell’s disillusionment with the hypocrisy of Soviet socialism which he saw evolving into an order that betrayed its own ideological ideals of freedom and equality, an order that gave birth to a dictatorship and tyrannical rule.
Orwell said that the idea for “Animal Farm” was conceived as far back as 1937, presumably arising from his experience fighting for the Republican militia in the Spanish Civil War against Francisco Franco’s Fascist uprising. Orwell left for Spain in December 1936 saying “This fascism … somebody’s got to stop it.” He almost paid for these strong convictions with his life and was lucky to survive a gunshot wound through his neck.
Orwell’s Spanish experience had a profound effect on his writing. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write”, Orwell said:
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”
“Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”“Why I Write” – George Orwell
He was also fully conscious of the fact that the book would be controversial and in all likelihood would not be published. In February 1944 he wrote to his friend, the Russian academic Gleb Struve:
“I am writing a little squib which might amuse you when it comes out, but is so not O.K. politically that I don’t feel certain in advance that anyone will publish it.”
He was right. Four publishers rejected his manuscript because it might offend one of Britain’s greatest political allies and could potentially upset the alliance between Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. In a letter to Victor Gollancz who published Orwells first four novels, Orwell offered Gollancz first refusal but was realistically pessimistic about the likelihood of its acceptance:
“I have just finished a book and the typing will be completed in a few days. You have the first refusal of my fiction books, and I think this comes under the heading of fiction. It is a little fairy story, about 30,000 words, with a political meaning. But I must tell you that it is – I think – anti-Stalin. I don’t know whether in that case you will want to see it.”
And indeed Gollancz did not. The publisher Jonathan Cape had initially accepted Animal Farm but subsequently rejected the book after an official at the British Ministry of Information called Peter Smollett – who was consequently revealed as a Soviet agent – advised him that the book would be very unhelpful in the current political situation.
So it was not until 1945 when Secker and Warburg who published Orwell’s personal account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War “Homage To Catalonia” agreed to publish “Animal Farm”. It had great commercial success when it was finally released, partly due to the wartime alliance giving way to the Cold War.
Orwell penned a prescient essay called “The Freedom of the Press” intended as a preface for “Animal Farm” in which he lamented British self-censorship of the press and the suppression of criticism of the USSR. He reflected on how he faced self-censorship from British publishers who refused to publish his book.
“The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.”“The Freedom of the Press” – George Orwell
Unfortunately, this self-censorship continued even when “Animal Farm” was published. Orwell’s damning preface was not included in the book. Secker and Warburg who published the first edition of Animal Farm in 1945 did not include an introduction either. The publisher had provided space for a preface in the author’s proof composited from the manuscript, but no preface was supplied, and the page numbers had to be renumbered at the last minute.
It was not until 1972 when British librarian and scholar Ian Angus discovered the original typescript titled “The Freedom of the Press” and it was finally published by Bernard Crick in The Times Literary Supplement on 15 September 1972. By 2009 however, most editions of the book still refused to include Orwell’s preface.
Fortunately, this 50th-anniversary commemorative edition includes Orwell’s introduction to the English language version in its entirety as well as a preface he wrote in 1947 for the Ukrainian text. Both are perspicacious and prescient contemplations from the man affectionately termed “The Conscience of His Generation”.
Animal Farm – Allegory Overview
The fable is narrated in plain unembellished language, styled in short clear sentences. This style of narration is visibly at odds with the ornately manipulative language that the pig elite use in their speeches and propaganda to obscure, skew and ‘re-write’ historical facts. The stylistic contrast between the novel’s narration and the manipulative expression of the pigs bears out the polarity of the truth and the political deception.
The plot of “Animal Farm” revolves around the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the major events that followed. Its protagonists are modelled on historic personalities at the helm of the young (if ill-fated) Soviet Union state. The fable reflects the rise to power by Joseph Stalin and the ensuing atrocities committed by his dictatorship. Though in the preface to this edition George Orwell disclaims against the strict historical ordering of the events:
“Although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they are dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story.”
The pig Old Major, whom we meet at the start of the novel, is prototyped on Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx. Old Major’s dream about a world where all animals are free from the tyranny of Man gives rise to the philosophy of Animalism – a nod to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Those who, like myself, grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s-1990s were routinely taught this ideology at school.
Two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, are metaphoric Joseph Stalin and his competing contender for leadership Leon Trotsky. Following a power struggle with Stalin, Trotsky was falsely accused of treason, expelled from the Soviet Union and ultimately assassinated on Stalin’s orders. A similar fate awaits Snowball, who is accused of being an enemy and is chased off the Animal Farm. Snowball is demonised and blamed for any misfortune that descends on the Farm, be it economic, logistical or of a natural order.
Napoleon’s right-hand pig, Squealer, is modelled on Stalin’s protégé Vyacheslav Molotov, whose name associates in the historic narrative with the 1939 non-aggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany, known as Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This Pact is alluded to in the “Animal Farm” episode where the pigs sell a pile of timber from the Animal Farm (Soviet Union) to Mr Frederick of the neighbouring Pinchfield farm (Adolf Hitler in Germany).
Napoleon’s menacing dogs, baring teeth at any sign of protest or disagreement from other animals and ripping and killing the animals accused of treason, are an allusion to Soviet NKVD, the major force of Stalin’s regime used for suppression and execution of those denounced as enemies of the Soviet state.
The Animal Farm’s neighbour Mr Pilkington of Foxwood Farm is a pointer to Winston Churchill and England and potentially other Western Allies of the Soviet Union in WWII. At the same time, the windmill that the animals build and re-build on their liberated farm may be seen as a reference to the Five-Year Plans, masterminded by Trotsky and launched by Stalin in 1928. The Plans benefited Soviet Union’s economy through industrialisation but at the same time instigated widespread famine leaving the farmers and peasants starving.
The Battle of Cowshed in “Animal Farm” derives from the Russian Civil War when the supporters of the monarchy, backed by the Western capitalist nations, attempted to recapture Russia from the Bolsheviks. The Battle of Windmill may be seen as referring to the Battle of Stalingrad during WWII, which has gone down as one of the most horrific battles with horrendous losses on both the Russian and German sides.
The concluding chapter of “Animal Farm” tells of the meeting between Mr Pilkington (Winston Churchill), the neighbouring farmers (allies and the United States) and the pigs (Soviet Union’s leadership) in an allusion to the Tehran Conference of 1943, during which the participating countries met to discuss the concerted efforts to defeat Germany, end WWII and map out a postwar world.
Goerge Orwell’s reflection on the novel’s concluding events, quoted below, is bewilderingly prescient:
“A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.”
Indeed just how right Orwell was on the above point is in plain sight today. The geopolitical power struggles, akin to the ones he referred to, continue to shatter the world with wars and conflict, with millions of families and children displaced and dispersed around the world for no good reason other than the unjustifiable political, ideological and financial gains of the few in power.
Illustrated Animal Farm – Ralph Steadman
An illustrated “Animal Farm” was in Orwell’s mind from the very beginning. In October 1945 he wrote to his publisher Frederic Warburg suggesting that the political cartoonist David Low might illustrate “Animal Farm”, on the back of a letter Low wrote stating “he had a good time with Animal Farm – an excellent bit of satire – it would illustrate perfectly”. This proposal went no further, unfortunately. Then in 1956, a trial issue produced by Secker & Warburg illustrated by John Driver was rejected. It was not until 1984 that the Folio Society published an edition illustrated by Quentin Blake.
This edition of “Animal Farm” is greatly enhanced with abundant illustrations that fit this allegorical fable like a glove. Who better to illustrate this satirical masterpiece by a celebrated English author than a celebrated English artist and cartoonist – Ralph Steadman. Steadman showed his considerable satirical skills when illustrating Alice in Wonderland some 25 years earlier which was included in “Illustating Alice”. This edition was published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first publication of “Animal Farm” in the United States and features 100 full-colour and two-tone illustrations. Ralph Steadman’s genius in delivering punchy visuals found fertile ground here.
Your background research and explanations are top notch. I also must compliment you on your great photos – it’s difficult to photograph some books, and you did a superb job with these ones.
Thank you for your kind words. I am so glad you’ve stepped by and checked this one out. Yes, I know what you mean regarding photographing some books, it could be tricky especially with the glossy paper or if white turns out of different tone in every image…
My phone likes nature, but not books. Very often books turn out bluish in hue, I had this problem with Steadman. Your photos are perfect
I had that problem with JVL “Alice”, in fact battled with it for days and had to accept that white balance was off and visibly different between black and white and colour fragments, or white borders etc. Dennis Hall must have put a spell over his paper to make it impossible to reproduce properly. :)))
I now ask Marta to fix “impossible” pictures for me 🙂 She is a whizz :))
Wish I’d known this when doing JVL post. 🤷♀️ Oh well, next time I might ask for it too (yet another talent of Marta’s!)
As always, the depth of your research is incredible. Animal Farm is so well known, but the background information on Orwell and his difficulties in getting it published was something I was unaware of. Likewise, I had no real understanding of the Soviet Revolution in 1917. Your “allegory overview” was so insightful.
I’m now going to go back and read this classic piece of literature again, this time through a different lens. Thank you.
Thanks for your feedback, Richard! I am very glad that you’ve learned something new here and found some insights. Curious to hear about what the experience of re-reading it would bring about for you.
Oh! book reviews 16+))) I thought it was childhood here)))
Mashenika, why is it 16+ do you think? My son has just read it for his English class in high school (under 16’s). I think it’s a historical satire that isn’t M-rated, but appropriate as soon as children (teenagers more likely) develop some interest in understanding the world’s history / modern history.
Because I think a child should be sufficiently prepared in history to understand that this work is not specifically about the Soviet Union. This basis can be applied to any state where there was a revolution.🤗
Masha, in his own Preface to “Animal Farm” Orwell explained that this book resulted from his disillusionment with the hypocrisy of the Soviet regime following the 1917 Revolution (a very different aftermath to any other revolution in any other state, isn’t it). He also said this about it (I quote): “It was of the utmost importance to me that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was”. As for the kids, I totally agree that in order to understand this fable for what it is they need to be sufficiently conversant in historical context underpinning it. In this instance, it is the context of a very turbulent period of Russia’s sad past. At son’s school they read this for “English” class in tandem with doing respective studies in their “History” class (very cleverly mixed curriculum). I don’t think Orwell’s own Preface is usually published with Russian editions of “Animal Farm”, right? You can find it online, it’s a very worthy read – a brilliant and prescient reflection on a few things that still resonate till nowadays.
According to the preface, it turns out that this is a commissioned work? In this light, the dates of creation become especially cynical for me personally. Political technologies, so vividly and accurately described by Orwell, are the age-old classics of manipulating consciousness and planting ideas in society, not only the Soviet one.
“Animal Farm” was not a comissionned work, in fact it was very unwelcome in Britain and noone wanted to publish it, as Britain was an ally of USSR at the time. Orwell’s Preface is talking about his own stance and his own (very apt) perception about the Soviet regime, which has inspired this book; nothing cynical. But I totally agree with you on the point that manipulation through propaganda and ruling through fear weren’t only the Soviet regime’s tactic. These are indeed what any totalitarian regime has, is and will use to advance its agenda…
Another superb review, Natalia. You’ve captured the essence of this classic, along with the illustrations, so well.
Glad to see you’ve stepped by again, Eiry and thanks a lot for your kind words about this review.
This is an excellent review of this important book. Steadman’s illustrations perfectly complement Orwell’s text.
Thanks for your feedback, Gavin. Agreed, it’s a very important book. And I think Steadman’s style lends itself perfectly to illustrating this controversial fable.
Why “controversial”? Lolita is controversial, Animal Farm is not 😉
Controversial in so far as the history of its publication – its multiple initial rejections on political grounds, that British reticence towards it, etc. as referenced in Orwell’s lament titled “Freedom of Speech”… As for the fable itself, I agree, its political allegory is too transparent to cause any controversy around its meaning or message.
Yes, publishers did not want to publish Orwell’s book, as they did not want to upset the Soviet Union.
But there was no controversy about publishing it.
Probably there would be *now*, in Russia 😉
Although the officials there would just officially proclaim it to be a criticism of Western Decadence ;))
I understand that some officials there have already proclaimed exactly this, albeit in regards to “1984”. I am reading the latter now as have only seen that old “1984” film so far. Never judge a book by its movie though, isn’t that what they say. Interestingly, I don’t recall Orwell to have been on the Soviet school’s reading lists, from which I used to read voraciously, including some articles penned by Lenin, beleive it or not… Could have read Anne of Green Gables instead (I hear you say!:)