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This is one of those books that have become such an integral part of culture that you just have to read them if you call yourself a book lover. At least I've always felt like that, and it's been on my wishlist for quite some time, so I was very happy when I came across this charming little edition from Penguin.
George Orwell initially named this Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale, but the second part of the title has been largely dropped, something that I found quite interesting. It reminded me more of Aesop's fables than of any fairy tales I've come across. The introduction to this edition, written by Peter Davison, was short but very informative. I was particularly amused to read about some of the initial reactions from publishing houses to the book. Can you believe it was once rejected on the grounds that there was no market for children's books? I wonder what it felt like for Orwell to hear things like this - I hope he felt at least some amusement, but it does show some of the sad ignorance (even from apparently literate people) that we encounter eventually in the book.
The story begins when the animals of Manor farm, owned by an incompetent farmer named Mr. Jones, decide that they had enough of being mistreated and subjected to the whims of the evil humans, who did no work but took all the fruits of the animals' labour to themselves. Old Major, a pig, gathers the animals and gives them a vision of a better future, of a society ruled by animals, where there were no humans to answer to and every animal was treated equally. They succeed quite rapidly at overthrowing Mr. Jones, and the guidance of the farm is taken over by the pigs, the most literate and intelligent of the animals. Two of the pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, quickly come into disagreement with one another over many things - Snowball keeping true to their vision of equality of rights among animals (to which they gave the name of Animalism), putting his brain to work to figure out ways of making their lives easier and better, while Napoleon works secretly to overthrow him and seize control of the animals and the farm.
For anyone with a basic knowledge of recent history, it's very easy to read this as an allegory for the Soviet Union. Old Major might be a representation of Karl Marx (this is what I originally thought - but I've read some people argue that he might just be a representation of the socialist ideals, which I guess makes sense as well), Napoleon represents Stalin, slowly corrupting the ideals, twisting them to fit his own agenda, all the while taking advantage of the ignorance and illiteracy of the other animals to convince them, by the use of propaganda (here represented by the pig Squealer) that all these changes were for the animals' benefit. While I read this I thought of Snowball being a representative for Trotsky, who was deported from the Soviet Union for opposing Stalin - in the story, he is chased out of the farm by Napoleon's dogs, whom he had trained since puppies to serve as bodyguards and law enforcers.
The story unfolds as little by little the initial dream of an ideal society where everyone is a comrade and an equal to everyone else is corrupted cunningly by the desire of a few to get power for themselves. The fact that one knows how it's going to end (since the story is very well-known, and almost everyone knows at least a bit about the USSR and Stalin) does nothing to diminish the power of the story. At times it's painful to see how easily most of the animals were deceived, and it's all too obvious that this happens all the time with humans. And that is the true moral of the story. It's not a book against Socialism. To me, it's more like a mirror to society, with anthropophormized animals in the place of actual humans or groups of humans (hence my initial opinion of classifying this as fable). Some individuals corrupt ideals to fit their own agenda, but they can only do this if the "masses" are easily deceived - either because they're too ignorant, because they don't care, because they're scared or because they no longer remember clearly what things were like in the past. Look at any dictatorship and you will find these things in common.
Overall, I thought this was a brilliant work. I'm very happy to finally have read it, and recommend it to everyone.