Un-herding the animals of Animal Farm
What do the ducks, hens and geese tell us about Orwell's classic?
George Orwell’s Animal Farm was published 75 years ago today. It is one of the greatest allegories ever written — and one of the most familiar.
Or is it?
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Most of us understand the broad symbolism of the story. The animals seizing their farm from Jones the farmer are the people of Russia rising up against the ruling class. On Animal Farm, as in the Soviet Union, a new ruling class then takes control. These are the pigs (the Communist elite) who unleash the dogs (the secret police) to enforce their will. Most of the other animals — especially the horses, the cattle and the sheep — represent the people, who find themselves exploited, lied to and terrorised by their new masters.
By the end of the story, the rule of the pigs is as oppressive as the rule of man ever was. Furthermore the pigs are doing deals with the humans (capitalists) who still run the neighbouring farms (countries). The final line is devastating:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
However, there are other animals on Animal Farm who don’t fit within the class structure outlined above. As such they expose the flaws in the Soviet Communism that Orwell abhorred, but also of the democratic socialism that he did believe in.
One of the most obvious of the misfits is Moses the raven, who symbolises religion in general and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. He is a pet of the Joneses, a “clever talker” who tells “lies” about “Sugarcandy Mountain” — the heaven that good animals go to when they die. Orwell isn’t satirising Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ line here, but agreeing with it. Indeed, come the revolution, he has Moses simply flap-off; there’s no allegory of the savage persecution that the Soviets inflicted on the faithful. Moses reappears much later in the story, a reference to Stalin restoring some freedom of worship as a morale-boosting measure during the Second World War. But, for Orwell, this is just another betrayal of socialism, not an opportunity to explore its spiritual emptiness.
While we’re on the subject of birds, it’s worth mentioning the hens, ducks and geese of Animal Farm. If the hoofed animals (certainly the horses) represent the urban industrial workers, then the winged creatures (certainly the hens) represent the peasantry. Socialists have always had a problem with countryfolk and vice versa. There’s something resolutely un-progressive about a scratching a living from the earth, but it’s also threatening — given the dependency of the city on the countryside for its sustenance. In the story, the hens have their eggs expropriated by the pigs and, when they protest, they have their rations cut: a somewhat underpowered metaphor for the murder of millions by famine-genocide.
The rats, rabbits and other wild creatures of Animal Farm represent the ‘lowest’ group of misfits. Though unquestionably downtrodden, they’re also deemed unproductive and thus don’t count as either workers or even peasants. What place is there for them in a Communist — sorry, Animalist — society? Early on, the animals have a vote on whether “rats are comrades”. Generously, most vote in favour, but the question is never really resolved.
Nor is the question as to who exactly Orwell meant by the farm’s feral creatures. However, in the Road to Wigan Pier he likens a “common lodging house” to a “sewer full of rats”. Clearly, he wrestled with own prejudices, especially against the common people at their poorest and most chaotic. It’s a reminder that for many intellectuals of the age, socialism was as much about taming the masses as setting them free.
I’d love to say something about Benjamin the donkey and Muriel the goat, but I’m running out of space. So I’ll conclude with a beast that’s given no name — the cat. She’s the most mysterious of all Orwell’s animals. Many interpretations have been placed upon her — for instance, that she represents espionage, criminality, prostitution or the idle bourgeoisie. But, whether intended by the author or not, I think she represents independence of spirit and practical self-sufficiency.
Orwell saw the middle-class (especially the upper-middle-class to which he belonged) as a useless relic of a bygone age — one that “should sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong.” He failed to see that a rising section of the working class had every intention of moving, by its own efforts, in the other direction.
While the cat of Animal Farm is portrayed as aloof, duplicitous and parasitical, the reality is that cats have not only made a vital contribution to human agriculture by controlling vermin, but have also done so on their own initiative. Alone of all God’s creatures, they tamed themselves.
These most extraordinary of animals stand as symbols of the most extraordinary human beings: the pioneers, self-starters, entrepreneurs and innovators on whom progress actually depends.
There’s a naive, foolish and dangerous tendency, particularly within the left to see humanity as a caricature, to give it a cartoon like simplicity. Orwell falls for it as much as Marx. In a fundamental devaluation of humanity itself; love and hate, our hopes, fears and aspirations, our love of beauty and thirst for meaning are not celebrated but explained away as mere constructs.
One cannot fail to notice the fundamental difference reading people like Roger Scruton or Jordan Peterson; their recognition of the complexity, the divinity of man.
Jordan Peterson is the man who, at one point in his recent book, draws on evolutionary psychology to suggest that we should imitate lobsters, aspiring, apparently, to be like the dominant male lobster who produces more seratonin, and is thus, we are to assume, happier. Is this a recognition of the divinity of man? It’s as crudely materialist as any Marxist rhetoric. Indeed, Peterson is offering advice on the complexities of human conduct based on the behaviour of an exceedingly primitive creature which does not even have a brain. Given the enormous difference between us and it, I’m left wondering as to whether a writer who can seriously advance such a comparison perhaps resembles a lobster, in this one particular, a little too much for his own good!
Strikes me as a very limited understanding of Peterson’s argument His discussion of myth and indeed the whole of “Twelve Rules” is certanly not as anti-cultural as implied here.
You have misread Peterson regarding his depiction of lobsters and why people should behave somewhat like their stance. He certainly does not refer to happiness as part of that advice.
Thank you Basil, the chapter (re lobsters) in 12 Rules is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”. It concludes:
“Thus strengthened and emboldened, you may choose to embrace Being, and work for its furtherance and improvement. Thus strengthened, you may be able to stand, even during the illness of a loved one, even during the death of a parent, and allow others to find strength alongside you when they would otherwise be overwhelmed with despair. Thus emboldened, you will embark on the voyage of your life, let your light shine, so to speak, on the heavenly hill, and pursue your rightful destiny. Then the meaning of your life may be sufficient to keep the corrupting influence of mortal despair at bay.
Then you may be able to accept the terrible burden of the World and find joy.”
I can’t see why you came to the conclusion you have; perhaps you’re just regurgitating another’s opinion.
So the chapter starts by comparing human beings to brainless crustaceans, and ends by sounding off like an hippie high on cannabis who dropped out of college after attending one hazily remembered introductory seminar on Buddhism.
Really, I’m not persuaded by this man.
Well said indeed.
I to was totally baffled by that Lobster analogy, I suspect he ‘slipped it in’ as a joke, trusting that more than a few ‘pseuds’ would pick it up, which they have duly done. Bravo!
Research into human bio chemistry shows a definite physical response to an open, forthright stance. The lobster analogy simply illustrates how ancient that response is. Standing straight with your shoulders back improves your well being and how others treat you. You see it every day and it’s why we say “keep your chin up”.
This is ancient wisdom, I suspect that folk are being deliberately obtuse or mischievous in misrepresenting it.
We have a saying in New Zealand along the same lines:
Te tiro atu to kanohi ki tairawhiti ana tera whiti te ra kite ataata ka hinga ki muri kia koe
Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.
Incidentally what has happened to Dr Peterson recently?
Is he “standing up straight with his shoulders back” for example?
Quite a piece of tragedy–through a lot of suffering he overcame a “bennie” addiction and then contracted covid-19.
Many thanks, I thought he had been rather quiet recently.
An unfortunate, if not merely ignorant, comment. He is trying very hard to ‘stand up straight’ but has, I am very sorry to report, been seriously ill for more than 18 months.
Ignorance is one of the reasons one might ask a question, is it not?
Not all of us are at the ‘centre of the known world’ and thus know everything.
Here, in Arcadia news is sparse, and rumour rife.
Perhaps you are not “potty trained” as we say here?
Excellent piece, Peter–especially the unexpected conclusion. I’ve never thought about the allegory quite that way, but I can see it’s correct. OTOH, I think it’s a little unfair (while not untrue) to point out the “underpowered metaphor for the murder of millions by famine-genocide.” After all, Orwell had enough problems publishing the book as it was; even TS Eliot rejected it.
“The pioneers, self-starters, entrepreneurs and innovators on whom progress actually depends.” Well, in recent years the entrepreneurs and innovators have spent their time ensuring that we can have a slicker mobile phone every two years and engineering social media networks that have reduced our political and journalistic culture to the level of adversarial soundbites and drastically reduced our attention span. We managed perfectly well without these things 25 years ago and their effect on society and on individual human beings is largely pernicious. Perhaps Mr Franklin, who claims to be a conservative, needs to question the desirability of progress?
It’s less about the desirability of progress than making a more careful assessment of what constitutes progress.
Conservatism doesn’t necessarily align with corporatism. In America there is a decidedly anti-corporate strain of conservatism on the rise, particularly against big tech, which is perceived as aiding left wing causes.
I’d like there to be a Luddite strain of conservatism on the rise.
In your final line you say “question the desirability of progress”. The addition of the word ‘such’ before progress might have been better?
Well, maybe – actually I toyed with the idea of adding “this kind of” when I posted it – but I guess I was wondering why there are now apparently no self-described conservatives who could say with Lord Salisbury, “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”
Yes, those were the days “when the sun never set” etc.
Days of certainty, honey for tea, and Evensong in the darkened choir of say, Lincoln Cathedral.
O what bliss indeed!
Of course it probably didn’t seem like that at time (well, honey and evensong were to be had, no doubt… but certainty, probably not!).
I suppose I was being more polemical than I feel – and if I’m a conservative then I mean that to be read with a very small “c” indeed – but I just find it strange that so many people claim the label “conservative” while not apparently wishing to conserve anything, nor apparently being willing to entertain the possibility that the past may, in certain respects, have been better than the present.
The NeuroGeneration are the pioneers, self-starters, entrepreneurs and innovators who are pushing the boundaries of technology and human experience. Tan Le with her company Emotiv are living examples of progress – the questions they ask of mankind require a new Orwell to examine.
Well, indeed, just as the questions the Soviet Union asked of mankind required the old Orwell. Whether it’s good to push boundaries or not depends on what boundaries are being pushed and in what direction. I don’t imagine Tan Le will have anything to say about human experience that’s half as interesting as what we heard more than a century ago from George Eliot or Tolstoy.
Good piece. Animal Farm is effective satire, but you have to overlook a good many flaws. The portrayal of Moses struck me as especially facile and unfair when I first read the book in my teens.
I read it a long time ago, Caroline, and to be honest I can’t remember Moses at all. It was the poor horse being taken away to the slaughter house that lingers in my memory. RIchard Pipes wrote in “Russia under the Bolshevik Regime” that “[n]ext to the economic hardships, no actions of Lenin’s government brought greater suffering to the population at large … than the profanation of its religious beliefs.” He ascribes the derisory or non-existent attention paid to these Communist abominations by Western historians to “the secularism of modern historians.” I suppose the portrayal of Moses in “Animal Farm” can be ascribed to the secularism of modern novelists. No-one would ever mistake Orwell for a mystic. Just the same, in that book , “1984”, “Homage to Catalonia” and many of the essays, Orwell was a very great writer, such as the world rarely sees.
Interesting that Putin has allied himself with that raven-type thingy.
In the 1950s cartoon, the cat gets killed during the purge of the hens and chickens.
When I was a my second (Grammar) school, Animal Farm was and still is one of my favourite books. Late 50’s early 60’s. Many of my teachers were not happy that I enjoyed/liked the book so much. It has shaped my politics since. I am, what I describe as a Genghis Khan Socialist. I think that is how Orwell’ thoughts went. I am sickened by the obscene riches of many (Â£20,000 on a 4 year olds birthday party etc.). But would hate the idea of a socialist government that has forgotten it’s roots and acted as many socialists in power end up. Very very rich!
I can’t be stuffed to stress about some 20K$ birthday party. I’m moreso empathetic for the spoiled and ruined kid getting that birthday than anything else.
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