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In fact, there are a lot of talking pigs. And talking horses and birds and cows, for that matter. But George Orwell's Animal Farm is no Jim Henson-inspired comedy about a pig who just wants to be a sheepdog, or bittersweet tale about interspecies love—it's a biting satire about tyrannical governments and a dark warning about the perils of Russian communism.
Today, Animal Farm is a classic. (In fact, we have a sneaking suspicion that you're here because you're being required to read it.) But when Orwell wrote the book in 1943-44, he could hardly find a publisher. In fact, no one took him up on it until 1945, and even then readers weren't too keen on it.
You see, Animal Farm takes a blow at the Soviet Union, especially its leader Josef Stalin—but the Soviet Union was an ally in the U.S.'s fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. Criticism of Stalin wasn't banned in wartime British press, but it wasn't exactly encouraged, either. Stalin may have been bad, but Hitler was worse. When publishing house Faber & Faber rejected Orwell, an editor pointed out that it was simply distasteful to depict Stalin as "a pig."
But Orwell was no knee-jerk anticommunist. In fact, he was a socialist, a simple word for a complex and varied set of beliefs. Let's just say that socialists believe that the means of production (like factories or businesses) should be controlled by the workers for the good of everyone, rather than controlled by a tiny subset of owners for their own profit. In other words, Wal-Mart should be owned by Wal-Mart employees, rather than by the Walton family. (Does that sound crazy? There are co-ops and employee-owned business today that operate in just that way.)
Since communism is an extreme form of socialism, Orwell actually fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. Their enemy was Spanish leader Francisco Franco and his fascist followers, who believed in strong, militaristic national identity united under an authoritarian leader—think the Wizard World under Voldemort, or Mordor under Sauron. But Orwell quickly realized that the communists he was fighting for could be just as totalitarian and oppressive as the fascists.
In fact, his time in Spain made him realize "how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries" (source). And that's where Animal Farm comes in: it shows Stalin's version of communism as the exact opposite of socialist values—as a brutal, oppressive, and unequal regime. Not that he saw Western leaders as much better. Brutal, drunken humans represent western leaders in Animal Farm—and the animals are more afraid of the humans regaining control than they are of the Stalinist pigs.
Orwell satirizes all political tyranny. He's just generous like that.
Okay. But why animals? Why not just write an essay? (Orwell was pretty good at the ol' essay-writing gig, after all.) Or why not write a novel with actual people, like his 1949 political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four?
Well, come on. If you're going to get a lecture about the evils of political tyranny, wouldn't you rather hear it from a talking horse?
Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and said, "I'm going to be the President of the United States one day"? Or—let's take it down a notch—have you ever run for class president on a platform of better cafeteria food and free sodas for all?
As your election gift, we'll wrap up for you our very own dog-eared copy of Animal Farm. Using barnyard animals, it provides (practically in bullet point form, and in less than 200 pages) over 200 years of knowledge about leadership and power, distilling all of the mistakes great (and not-so-great) leaders have made over time. Chief among them? Letting the power go to your head and keeping all the free soda for yourself.
Seriously, Mr. or Ms. Future President. Go read this book right now.
1999 TV Movie
A TV movie with animatronics technology. Voices of Kelsey Grammar, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patrick Stewart.
An animated movie version of Animal Farm.
Now In Full Color
Fun fact about this 1954 adaptation: every single animal is voiced by the same guy. Talk about low budget.
Okay, we'll just be over here wondering why IMBD has classified this 1999 adaptation as "comedy" and "family."
Changes in Commandments
Comprehensive revised version of the commandments, showing all tracked changes.
Squealer falls off the ladder while altering the commandments in this 1950 comic strip.
The Green and White
Here's the extremely restrained cover of Animal Farm's first edition.
Benjamin, Is That You?
In this 1933 photo, Orwell looks like he has a bit of the old grumpy donkey in him.
Original Preface to the Book
Orwell’s original preface to Animal Farm. Discusses issues of censorship.
Letters From the Author
Letters from Orwell regarding Animal Farm.
Read All About It
Check out Orwell's original preface. Can you see why he'd have trouble publishing it?
Your Morning Cry
Here's Orwell's classic essay, "Shooting an Elephant." It's about shooting an elephant. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Honest, Decent, and Wrong
Everything you know is wrong: star New Yorker essayist Louis Menand upends Orwell's legacy.
Two Legs Good
This little guy would not agree with Snowball's maxim. Honestly, is this the best thing you've ever seen, or what?
Complete and Searchable
Can't get enough Orwell? This site has enough to keep you occupied through a whole Russian winter.
Keep the Commandments
Hm. Was it "No animal shall sleep in a bed to excess," or "No animals shall drink in sheets?" No worries: you can check out a comprehensive revised version of the commandments right here.
Brown University has a neat little online exhibition of some Orwell documents.
Not All That Animates Is Disney
Even cute little piggies can't make us feel good about this 1954 animated adaptation.
Betcha Can't Choose Just One
We couldn't decide which of these fan renditions of "Beasts of England" we liked best.
Everything's Better With an Accent
British actress Tamsin Greig narrates Animal Farm.
Listen While You Work
The nice thing about an audio book is that you can still harvest the hay while you "read."