Fat Books & Thin Women

Classic Read: George Orwell’s Animal Farm

George Orwell calls Animal Farm a “fairy story,” which at first seemed an odd way of labeling the work but, now that I’ve finished, seems perfect.

It’s partly that a fairy tale is the best name for Orwell’s story, in which we don’t have characters so much as we have representations of characters, and partly that a fairy tale is the perfect means of couching Orwell’s political commentary precisely because characters don’t need to be “characters” or have distinct and developing personalities of their own.

It is, too, that Animal Farm has so well taken on certain attributes of the fairy tale in its own life as a book. This was my first time reading Orwell’s novel/fable/fairy story, but the book is one so ingrained in our literary and political culture that I was familiar with the story and its most famous line, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” long before reading it. As with the stories of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, Orwell’s is one you can be familiar with and reference even without having read it.

I’m not, generally speaking, interested in the intersection of literature and politics because the result of such marriages always seems so lacking to me. (Not a strong political commentary nor a strong piece of literature, but the bastard child of the two.) Again, though, Orwell’s labeling of his book frees it from the limitations of such meldings of politics and literature, because fairy tales by their nature don’t require the sort of strong characterization needed for a good work of literature. Orwell’s farm and its animals are so clearly stand-ins for people (the pigs Snowball and Napoleon being Trotsky and Stalin) or meant to encompass huge classes of people (the horse Boxer, who never manages to learn the alphabet past “A, B, C, D” but who works nobly and tirelessly for the farm’s goals) that he avoids the whole question of whether his characters are, well, well-characterized. They’re well-characterized in the way they need to be for this book, and that’s the beginning and end of it.

Animal Farm is especially interesting as a book that suggests how totalitarianism was viewed back when Orwell was writing. The popular view may not have been the right one, but as Russell Baker writes in the preface to the Signet Classic edition, Animal Farm helps to capture what it was about totalitarianism that led to decades of policies (I am thinking solely from an American perspective – give me a break, I grew up learning about the Red Scare and the domino theory and the Vietnam War) aimed at ending Communist expansion.

Animal Farm is a quick and affecting read, and one that’s doubly interesting for its own history as a book. Orwell chose well in defining his work as a fairy story and his writing, clean and simple, serves the story rather than announcing itself worthy of attention for itself alone. The prose is what it needs to be, what it should be, for this type of story. Animal Farm strikes me as one of those rare cases when subject and style are perfectly matched.

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I don’t know how I haven’t read this yet. I’ve read 1984 multiple times and enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London; I even own Animal Farm, I’ve just never read it. I must remedy this.

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

this was the first orwell i read. i’m not sure how it happened, but i better read 1984 soon to continue remedying this situation.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’ve read this one twice, the first time long before I knew anything about Russian history and the second afterwards, and both times I really enjoyed the book and got a lot out of it.

Comment by Amanda

I really enjoyed Animal Farm. It turned out to be much more accessible than I thought. On a related note,I read a review of a different Orwell this morning from Park Benches and Bookends that you may be interested in: http://pbbookends.blogspot.com/2011/02/coming-up-for-air-by-george-orwell.html

I added this lesser known Orwell to my TBR today.

Comment by Brenna

This is one of those books that I “got” right off the bat. Maybe it was because I grew up in a kibbutz in Israel but it spoke volumes to me.

Great review.

Comment by Man of la Book

I read this when I was young, and while I didn’t know the background of Russian history and totalitarianism, it scared the hell out of me as an idea of the inevitable corruption of all rulers. I took it as saying that no revolution can succeed because the governing group will always end up oppressing the non-governed. Now maybe that isn’t what the book really says. But the scene at the end is so powerful I’ve never forgotten it. It’s one of the most compelling books I’ve read and probably one I should re-read.

Comment by curlygeek04

if you’re interested in orwell, i highly recommend this essay, especially parts I and III (II meanders a little but is still good):


Comment by mike keane

it is in my opinion the most profound defense of literature i’ve ever read.

Comment by mike keane

thanks for the link – i’m gonna read this soon.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude (02/28/11) Yann Martel – Life of Pi (02/22/11) George Orwell – Animal Farm (02/21/11) Paula McLain – The Paris Wife (02/20/11) Howard Jacobson – The Finkler […]

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