Originally called Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
by George Orwell
approx. 32,000 words,
A political fairy tale
Animal Farm is a work I include on the list of greats only under protest.
It's not that I dislike Orwell. I like most of his work very much. Nor do I consider Animal Farm particularly bad. It's very well done for what it is.
It just does not have the qualities of the greatest literature. I suspect the qualities that have led to its iconic status—and to its placement at number 31 on the Modern Library list of top English-language novels of the twentieth century, ahead of some of the best works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Lawrence and Conrad—are polemical, rather than literary.
Not that I have anything against political novels either, as many of my other choices should prove. But let me ask this: if Animal Farm were a satire on naked, rapacious capitalism, would it be called a modern classic today? How much does its reputation as an attack on communism and the Russian Revolution lead its admirers to overlook its slightness?
Furthermore, much of the admiration for Animal Farm comes from a misunderstanding of its political message. It is not, as many in the West seem to think, a denunciation of revolution in general, nor of socialism in particular. Orwell was some kind of anarcho-socialist himself and his criticisms were directed from within the left at others on the left—namely, at those he considered traitors to the revolution.
The example of the pigs who end up living off the sweat of the other animals, just as the overthrown humans once did, is not meant to illustrate that all revolutions end up replacing one set of exploiters with another, but rather to warn those who would make revolution to beware would-be leaders who would betray the revolution for their personal power and comfort. That obviously was the danger Orwell saw the Soviet experiment falling prey to.
If they had this in mind, would conservative critics still consider Animal Farm a great novel?
Or would they notice then that there is hardly any characterization in this story apart from some one-dimensional labelling (Napoleon is supposedly like Stalin, Snowball is Trotsky, Squealer is a conniving propagandist, Boxer is simple and hardworking, etc.). Little insight into the human heart is revealed, except in the most simplistic, cynical terms (greed overcomes goodwill, people will believe anything). The plot of course is implausible in the extreme, except as an allegory.
Now this does not make the story bad as a fable. In fact, Orwell's subtitle for Animal Farm was A Fairy Story, which has been dropped for most editions around the world. I happened to re-read the book recently while also dipping into Grimm's Fairy Tales. The juxtaposition made me notice that Animal Farm really works in this context, as a far-fetched story of talking animals representing the absurdly exaggerated characteristics of humans, with a moral to be decoded from its conclusion. Which is okay.
It's just not among the greatest literature of modern times in my opinion.