Animal Farm, which was written by George Orwell and published in 1945, is a timeless tale of power, corruption and tyranny. While the story was a reaction to the the Russian Revolution and the oppression that followed, there’s a lot the book can tell us about every society and government and the way power can be abused.
Before we dive into the novel, it’s important to understand a little about Orwell’s life.
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, British India in 1903. His father worked for the Indian civil service and although his family was poor—Orwell described them as ‘lower-upper-middle-class”—he managed to get a scholarship to attend St Cyprian’s School, an elite preparatory boarding school in East Sussex. And it could be said that his hatred of cruelty and oppression began here. Orwell attended the school from 1911 to 1916 and in an essay titled ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, which was published after this death, he describes the cruelty and snobbery he experienced at the school: “Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people—in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”
In 1917, Orwell received a place at Eaton College where he studied until he was eighteen. Unable to afford university, his parents encouraged him to join the Imperial Police in British India, and he was assigned to Burma which, at the time, was a province of India.
In the essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, Orwell describes how repulsed he was by the British Empire: “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.”
During his time in Burma, Orwell attended local churches and became fluent in Burmese. According to Christopher Hitchens in Why Orwell Matters, he harboured contempt for British settlers who spent their entire lives in the region without bothering to learn the language. Ultimately, these experiences led Orwell to argue in favour of Indian independence. In 1928, after a bout of Denghi Fever and a holiday in England, he decided to leave the Imperial Police and become a writer. For the next seven years, he wrote essays and novels, including Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. During this time, he was preoccupied with ideas of class, poverty and socialism. He fervently argued that our goal should be a world of “free and equal human beings.” As always, this writing was on the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden.
In 1936, Orwell travelled to Spain where he fought in the Spanish Civil War, going the struggle against the fascist, military revolt. As Christopher Hitchens notes: “When Spain was menaced by fascism he was among the first to shoulder a rifle and feel the weight of a pack.” The squalor and horror of the Spanish Civil War was a defining moment for Orwell: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” After being shot in the throat, Orwell returned to England in the middle of 1937. Because of these injuries, he was unable to serve in the Second World War. During that time, he joined the Home Guard, continued writing and worked with the BBC.
It was during the Second World War that Orwell started writing Animal Farm. The novel is his response to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the tyranny that followed. At the time, there were many British intellectuals who praised what they called the ‘great Soviet experiment’ and ignored the atrocities committed in the name of communism. Although Orwell was a life long socialist, it was clear that the communist government in the USSR had become a brutal and repressive regime. Animal Farm doesn’t shy away from this inconvenient fact. As Christopher Hitchens notes: “In the late 1940s, a dystopian novel based on the notorious horrors of ‘National Socialism’ would probably have been very well-received. But it would have done nothing to shake the complacency of Western intellectuals concerning the system of state terror for which, at the time, so many of them had either a blind spot or a soft spot.” Orwell’s self-confessed ability for “facing unpleasant facts” is one of the reason his work and ideas continue to resonate.
In 1948, Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book—which is a dystopian novel about a repressive government—received critical acclaim.
Orwell continued to write until his death from tuberculosis in 1950.
During his life, Orwell wrote about society, politics, power, oppression and tyranny. HIs commentary on totalitarianism was so influential that the word Orwellian has become an adjective to describe anything that threatens a free and open society.
Knowing a little about Orwell’s life will help you to understand Animal Farm. Orwell believed in democracy, in freedom, in socialism, and the goal of achieving a world of “free and equal human beings.” A cautionary tale about power, corruption and oppression, Animal Farm is an important book that is still relevant today.
Now that you know a little more about George Orwell, it’s time learn about some of the political terminology you’ll need to know to engage with the book and find out more about the Russian Revolution.