I commemorated the New Year by reading George Orwell's Animal Farm for the first time. I came away with mixed feelings. I'm not generally enthusiastic about allegories, mainly because they're usually so focused on making observations about history that they fail to present these observations in a compelling way. By applying the narrative of the Russian Revolution, and particularly the rise of Stalinism, to a British farm, Orwell removes his readers from the realities of the Soviet Union and allows them to view the events in a dehumanized, almost more objective way. It’s an interesting idea that has been used successfully in other tales. But the novel ultimately left me disappointed, for two reasons. First, Orwell uses the farm to parallel the Stalinist regime, rather than symbolize it. Second, Animal Farm reads much more as a subjective history than as an individual's story. As a result, readers are kept at arms distance throughout. On the subject of symbolism versus narrative: compare Orwell's technique with that of graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus. Like Orwell, Spiegelman uses animals in place of humans to expose the true nature of totalitarian atrocities. But Spiegelman succeeds where Orwell fails in that he creates a sincere emotional bond between his readers and his characters. The reason is that Spiegelman merely uses animals as symbols, rather than as actual components of the narrative. The Jews in his story may look like mice and the Germans may look like cats, but he never attempts to hide the fact that they are in fact Jews and Germans, not mice and cats. In doing so, he preserves their essential humanity while still utilizing an interesting symbolic device.
Orwell, by contrast, makes his animal substitutes crucial elements of the narrative, rather than simple symbols. They are not animals representing humans; rather, they are animals with the characteristics of humans. By the time the novel reaches its climax, with pigs walking on their hind legs, wielding whips, and discussing business deals with humans, the whole affair has become ludicrous. And while Orwell may have made serious points about the rise of Soviet Communism, he has failed to convey the true weight of Stalin's actions.
Why? Because the story ends with pigs talking to men, not men talking to men. Orwell has committed too heavily to his symbols and built his story around them, rather than building them around his story. In a sense, he boxed himself in. If he had used animals as mere symbols, as Spiegelman did, rather than as actual narrative elements, his satirical aims would have been better served. Instead, he crossed the line between clever and ridiculous, and left this reader unsatisfied.
I also believe that Orwell committed an error by focusing on history rather than character throughout Animal Farm. No figure in the story, with the exception of the donkey Benjamin, ever feels developed beyond any basic allegorical need. Napoleon is obviously Stalin, and receives no further development. The same is true of Snowball/Trotsky, Squealer/Propaganda Minister, Boxer/Overly Loyal Worker, et cetera. Each character is there solely to make a point about historical events. Contrast that with Orwell's own Nineteen Eighty-Four, which presents Winston Smith as a fully developed character who undergoes an unmistakable transformation that embodies the crucial thematic components of the work as a whole. Smith's arc conveys essential truths about the human condition. No character in Animal Farm does the same. In fact, no character in Animal Farm undergoes any noticeable individual transformation. They are part of the experience, but the experience is not part of them.
Because there are no character arcs to compliment the narrative arc, there is less of an emotional hook for readers. The aforementioned Benjamin might have been a good central character if Orwell he had thought he needed one. Instead, Benjamin is reduced to the role of passive observer. He occasionally makes cryptic comments on events, but does almost nothing throughout the story and again serves only an allegorical function. For this reader, that is not enough.
I hate to be hard on one of the classics of twentieth century western literature, especially since it so brutally condemns Stalinist Russia, but I can't help but think that Animal Farm is a tragically flawed novel. It doesn't measure up to Orwell's own Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it doesn't measure up to its own reputation. It is a compelling narrative presented in an uncompelling way, and for that reason, I did not enjoy it in the way I thought I would. I still liked it, I still recognize its merit, and I still recommend it to anyone interested in perspectives on Communism in action. But keep your expectations low.