OCTOBER 22, 2013
I’VE BEEN READING GEORGE ORWELL for a long time, since I discovered Animal Farm at the age of 11 (if I remember correctly, I picked it up because I liked the picture on the cover). No writer meant more to me as a teenager — it’s no exaggeration to say that my interest in political literature stems almost entirely from that early exposure to his novels and essays. But today, I find myself feeling more and more ambivalent about him. So when Melville House published a new, 10th-anniversary edition of Snowball’s Chance, John Reed’s satire of Animal Farm, it seemed to me like a good opportunity to evaluate the original book anew, to read it in the light of someone less sympathetic to the Orwell persona than that 11-year-old kid.
Because he captures a particular kind of dissent so well, — a distrust of authority, a contempt for the slipperiness of modern political discourse — and because his literary visions of totalitarianism are so striking, critics and readers often talk about Orwell’s work in personal, even moral terms. In 1952, Lionel Trilling summarized him by declaring, “He told the truth, and told it in an exemplary way,” setting a tone that has carried on pretty much right through today. When a radical like Occupy Wall Street–supporter David Graeber wants to discuss the corrosive role money plays in American politics, he invokes George Orwell to do it. When a conservative like Newt Gingrich wants to inveigh against “government-run health care,” he turns to Orwell too. And when Edward Snowden leaked information about the National Security Agency’s electronic eavesdropping program, 1984 shot up the Amazon rankings, as inspired people turned to Orwell to make sense of the modern surveillance state. For someone weaned on Orwell, a man who, writing of Gandhi himself, famously declared, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” it is a bit unsettling to see the man born Eric Arthur Blair turned into a kind of secular saint. And like any saint, Orwell has a canon — and Animal Farm, the book that made him internationally famous, sits right at its center.
The novella, of course, tells the story of the animals that live on the Manor Farm. One day, a respected elderly pig named Old Major gives a speech urging the animals to revolt against Jones, the human who owns the farm. When Old Major dies soon after, a pair of younger pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, quickly takes up his dream of an animal-run farm, eventually leading a rebellion against Jones and his men. While the early days of the newly renamed Animal Farm are almost idyllic, the pigs slowly begin to accrue more and more power (and special privileges), especially after Napoleon wins a power struggle with Snowball and forces him off the farm. Eventually, Animal Farm becomes Manor Farm yet again, and the animals end up oppressed as thoroughly by Napoleon and the pigs as they were by Jones and the humans. The story ends with the revelation that the animals’ great law has been rewritten: where once it declared simply, “All animals are equal,” at the novella’s close it is amended with, “But some animals are more equal than others.”
In the world of Reed’s novel, Napoleon and most of the other key pigs that led the farm through revolution and then into tyranny have died, and most of the other animals have long since forgotten (or never knew) life before Napoleon’s Stalinesque tyranny. One day, Napoleon’s onetime rival Snowball returns to the farm, and introduces them to “a better way” he has learned in the human village. Reed’s Snowball, a reinvention of Orwell’s committed revolutionary, is a natural politician, who occasionally helps out tending the fields — “with his own hooves!” — and introduces a new “commandment” for the animals to live by: “All animals are born equal — what they become is their own affair.” Reed wrote Snowball’s Chance in 2001, during the weeks after the September 11 attacks. Like Animal Farm, it is a work of outrage, much of it aimed at the consumerism and foreign policy of the turn-of-the-millennium US. But Reed was upfront from the beginning that he was also taking aim at Orwell himself, announcing at the time, “My intention is to blast Orwell. I’m really doing my best to annihilate him.” Snowball’s Chance is not merely a continuation of Orwell’s novella; it is a deconstruction of it.
For example, one of the most touching scenes in Orwell’s novella concerns the death of Boxer, a noble but naïve horse who lives by the twin mottos “I will work harder” and “Napoleon is always right.” In the end, Napoleon exploits Boxer’s loyalty by working him to the breaking point, then selling him to a glue factory. When the animals realize what is happening, they attempt to warn him that the supposed “veterinary” van he is riding is taking him to his death:
All the animals took up the cry of “Get out, Boxer, get out!” […] But a moment later his face disappeared from the window and there was the sound of a tremendous drumming of hoofs inside the van. He was trying to kick his way out. The time had been when a few kicks from Boxer’s hoofs would have smashed the van to matchwood. But alas! His strength had left him.
Reed sends up the scene subtly, where Snowball dedicates a mural to the horse’s memory:
To conclude the Meeting, it was additionally revealed that the old portrait of Napoleon had been replaced — this time with the image of some hard-working horse named Boxer, whom nobody but the pigs, and presumably Benjamin, remembered. It certainly was a moving depiction […] In the rendering, the brave horse pulled a cart of stone up an endless slope.
The overt sentimentality of the image hints at Snowball’s cynicism — he will invoke the name of Boxer as a way of discrediting his old foe Napoleon, yet he will himself exploit the animals just as cruelly — but it also reminds the reader of how sentimental, and even melodramatic, Boxer’s end is in the original novella. Orwell’s depiction of Boxer is far more sincere than the one of Snowball’s mural — but it is no less emotionally manipulative. Score one for Reed.
Snowball’s Chance, however, is rarely all that subtle itself. In Reed’s telling, the farm (now called Animal Farm again, just as it was at the height of the revolution) seems to prosper. The animals gain electricity and heated stalls, and everyone learns to walk on two legs and wear clothes — the way the pigs did at the end of Animal Farm. With the help of some aggressive lawsuits, Animal Farm manages to take over two neighboring farms. Other animals begin to flock to the farm; when a dispute breaks out about how to handle the newcomers, Snowball even puts it to a vote (the newcomers get to stay). Eventually, Snowball puts forth his most ambitious plan of all — to transform the newly expanded Animal Farm into Animal Fair, a potentially lucrative entertainment destination for the people of the village. Unfortunately, Reed doesn’t manage to fully exploit the fair’s satirical potential. The animals’ hypocritical decision to sell meat at the fair while making a big show of “banning” foie gras seems like more of a shot at gentrification than at capitalism, and puns like the chicken’s heavily leveraged “Henron” side business are already dated. More importantly, while Reed hints at the role of debt in Animal Fair’s apparent success, he neglects to fully explore this debt’s role in making Snowball’s plans possible. Animal Farm never lets its targets slip away so easily. Score one for Orwell.
Beyond that, Orwell’s novella deftly uses the trappings of fables — to the point of invoking tropes such as greedy pigs, loyal horses, stubborn donkeys, and mindless sheep — to create a world that is accessible to a wide audience. I’m certainly not the only person who first encountered Animal Farm in my preteen years; young people are drawn to the book precisely because it is so easy to understand, it utilizes general tropes familiar from children’s stories, and it is written in such a basic, plainspoken style. Reed mimics that style well, but he doesn’t do much beyond that. Orwell, however, uses that style to great purpose. Animal Farm’s simple fable-like voice belies a great sensitivity to how political leaders — and their intellectual enablers — use language to shade and even distort reality. Animal Farm’s satire allows Orwell to show this particularly effective means of propaganda in plain, easily accessible terms.
“Four legs good, two legs bad,” the catchy, ultimately empty phrase that the pigs teach the sheep — who then conveniently bleat it whenever one or more of the animals try to publicly question the pigs — is the perfect encapsulation of the mindless talking points that still dominate political discourse today. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” captures the hypocrisy of any system that gives lip service to equality while allowing power to accrue only to a small elite. Nothing in Snowball’s Chance is anywhere near as memorable. And the comparison between the two books now makes clear that Orwell’s artistic achievement shouldn’t be dismissed so easily, even by those of us who have grown skeptical of Orwell the icon. One of the reasons Animal Farm is so effective as satire is because every aspect of the book is pointed to the same end — the novella connects because it never loses its focus.
But it’s the character of Moses who best underscores the differences between the two works. Both Orwell and Reed utilize the crafty raven, who tells the animals reassuring stories about a faraway paradise they will go to in the afterlife. Moses is one of Animal Farm’s most well rendered characters, telling tales about a place called Sugarcandy Mountain, where “it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges.” Regardless of one’s own religious views, Orwell’s satire bites hard — Moses is a tool of the oppressive Mr. Jones, and his stories are obviously lies. I cannot think of a more brutal satire of religion, at least not in a book that gets invoked by Republican presidential candidates. Though unsubtle, Sugarcandy Mountain is memorable and cutting.
In Snowball’s Chance, Moses’s stories are just as implausible as ever — perhaps more so. But he is asked to play a very different narrative role. And he doesn’t quite fill it. He feeds the beavers a similar story about the “Sugarcandy Lodestar” and encourages them to keep to an ambiguous “beaver code” which, in Reed’s telling
Disallowed, specifically, any indulging in lemon meringue pies, and, more generally, any indulging in pies, period. So, as a matter of course [the beavers’ leader] Diso was intensely concerned when Moses reported the new Pig Farm [the beavers’ name for Animal Farm] credo, “We all like pie,” as it was undoubtedly a threat to the Ancient Beaver Code, if not, indeed, a direct assault on it.
Reed is satirizing religious zealotry here, for certain, but he’s not doing it anywhere near as well as Orwell satirized religious corruption in Animal Farm. As a result, the beavers themselves remain fuzzy, hard-to-understand characters, even when they help launch a 9/11–esque attack on Animal Fair.
Reed attempts to do more than Orwell — satirizing both turn-of-the-millennium US and Islamist terror in the same book — but his ambitions get away from him. Reed’s sprawling, not fully coherent book underlines why Orwell focused Animal Farm the way he did: political satire needs to be clear and concise in order to be effective. Again, in a direct comparison between the two works, Animal Farm inevitably comes across as the winner. If Reed wants to “destroy” Orwell with Snowball’s Chance, he fails.
However, even if Reed does not manage to equal Orwell’s achievement, upon deeper reflection, his book does cast Animal Farm in a new light — one that makes the original’s limitations clearer. The first, and most superficial, is that the novel’s most obvious satire is aimed at something that no longer exists: the Soviet Union. By repurposing Orwell’s animals for more contemporary satire, Reed also reminds us that there is something odd in 2013 in reading a book mocking a system and a nation that have been extinct for some time.
That doesn’t necessarily make the novella dated. Animal Farm takes on more than just one totalitarian state at one moment in history. As Orwell explained in a letter to his friend Dwight Macdonald,
I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters.
Even so, this is hardly a novel idea — in fact, it recalls the longstanding conservative case against revolution, most obviously associated with Edmund Burke. There’s an irony in this, in that Orwell presents himself as a man of the left. As he declares in his essay “Why I Write,” written in the same period as Animal Farm
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
In the context of considering Orwell’s “exemplary truth,” Trilling notes:
A politics which is presumed to be available to everyone is a relatively new thing in the world […] And those of us who set store by ideas and ideals have never been quite able to learn that just because they do have power nowadays, there is a direct connection between their power and another kind of power, the old, unabashed cynical power of force.
Orwell, with his innate dislike for ideology and abstraction, understood this on a fundamental level. It made him sensitive to the excesses of totalitarianism at a time when many were not, and that sensitivity is a prerequisite to any kind of political literature — to any reasonable politics at all. But a political literature, and a political understanding, that stops there is a deeply impoverished one. Problems exist, and they need to be addressed — and only shouting “no” will not accomplish that. Reed’s novel fails on many levels, but it succeeds in convincing the reader that merely removing Napoleon and his “Animalism” does not by itself guarantee that Animal Farm would be a happier place — and in so doing, he finally strikes a blow at Orwell’s original novella. Essentially, Orwell’s late, dystopian works — Animal Farm and 1984 — are the beginning of a conversation, not its end.
No less than T.S. Eliot (no one’s idea of a radical) declined to publish Animal Farm on the ground that it was too contrary to lead the reader anywhere, telling Orwell, “The effect is simply one of negation.” This cuts to the heart of the case against the novella. The book works much harder — and is more successful — at arguing against totalitarianism and violent revolution, than it does arguing for democratic socialism, or anything else. Orwell’s focus stems from his story’s simplicity — but he takes that simplicity so far that he limits its power. Where a book like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World at least gives readers a glimpse of a freer (if more physically demanding) life outside the World State, Animal Farm (like Orwell’s other great dystopia, 1984) is absolute in its totalitarianism. This is a strength, in that it means the reader is given space to think for herself. But it’s also a weakness, in that it also means the book can be used to shield bad ideas. Since Orwell only offers us a “no,” we are free to fill in the “yes” for ourselves. Which means it’s very easy for anyone to appropriate him. Gingrich and Graeber might both use Orwell to argue against “totalitarianism” — but they feel free to define totalitarianism in very different ways. And there is nothing in Animal Farm that could be read as contradicting either of them.
In his famous essay on Charles Dickens, Orwell famously observes, “All art is propaganda […] On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.” Satire in particular walks a fine line between the two, in that it needs a target in order to flourish — satire that refuses to take a side ends up mushy and dull — but if it depends too much on its target, it risks turning into nothing more than empty sloganeering. Animal Farm certainly is art — “Four legs good, two legs bad” is memorable because it is both insightful and aesthetically effective — but it also takes the reader by the hand a little too much. Orwell ultimately doesn’t give the reader much space to think about anything beyond that initial “no.” And that strikes me as a missed opportunity. Rereading the book today, one can’t help but appreciate other, more complex satirical works, like Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx, which deftly skewers Soviet-style totalitarianism, but also expands its gaze beyond that — to Russian history, to the role of literature, and on to human nature itself — and never offers the reader a single, simple message. Due to its accessibility, Animal Farm remains a valuable gateway into political satire and politically engaged fiction. But the point of a gate is that eventually we need to pass through it.