Friday, May 27, 2011

Do Not Feed the Animals

I read Animal Farm in a couple of sittings (actually a couple of walkings) this week and thoroughly enjoyed it. Afterwards, I read a little bit about it and found, as I expected, explanations that said the story was meant as an allegory for Stalin's totalitarian regime. One source (Sparknotes, perhaps?) even said that to understand the story better, we need to understand the history of the Soviet Union. These views seem totally backwards to me. Surely Orwell meant for his story to say something about the Soviet Union and not the other way around.

Sure, it adds depth to my experience of the novel to find that Napoleon corresponds to Stalin. But the pig clearly also has a connection with Napoleon Buonaparte, and the allusion to the Corsican dictator of France who attacked Russia points out things about Stalin: that he claimed to stand for populist revolution but really wanted an emperor's crown, that he had no qualms about killing, that he thought of Russia as land to rule and not as a great people, and so on. The use of Napoleon's name also tells me something about Orwell: that he saw dictators as all cut from the same mildewed cloth. But all these thoughts go from (or through) the fairy tale to the real world, not the other way around.

For in order to work, an allegory has to make sense as a story first without any specific reference outside its world. What do you think of this story?
A wise, kind man once had two daughters. The younger daughter had a doll, but the older daughter believed having dolls was immoral. So one day the two sisters got into a terrible fistfight. Nothing their father could do stopped the fighting, so he announced that he would declare the doll a real girl. Then he called in some cousins to help his firstborn win the fight, after which he took the doll away from the defeated girl. The older daughter said the doll should be her sister, and then a friend of the younger daughter killed the girls' father.
I think my story is pretty bad. Why would any girl consider having dolls immoral? Childish, maybe; immoral, no. How is it that their father can't get between them and stop the pummeling? What wise man would declare a doll a real girl? What kind man would ask people to beat up his daughter? And where does the murder come from? The story doesn't make sense. And it still doesn't make sense if I tell you that it is an allegory of the American Civil War. Oh, you can attach references now to the characters and events of my story, but this knowledge doesn't make it a good story. Specific real-world correspondences do not explain allegory. Q.E.D.

Animal Farm works, and it works because it makes sense on its own. Or not actually on its own, to be precise. It works because it rings true to life -- all of life, not just in the twentieth-century Soviet Union. Its dictator reminds us of all dictators (including the dictator each of us can be at times). Squealer works because he reminds me of every shameless toady I've ever known. I don't care what Soviet officer he represents; knowing would only give me a name. Everything I would know about the man, I would know from what I have read of Squealer. If, on the other hand, I became more interested in that history and read about Stalin's administration and learned more about this propogandist, I'm sure I'd shake my head sometimes while reading and mutter "Squealer" in disgust. In either case, history doesn't help me understand Orwell; Orwell helps me understand history.

Perhaps surprisingly, Soviet history is not on my reading plan, and I don't know enough about it already to catch all the allusions in Orwell's "fairy tale." So, if the book is about anything for me other than talking animals who take over a farm, it's about the social structures I'm familiar with. Since the story works as a story, it points to all of them: the United States government, the news media, my university. Animal Farm tells of rules that change at the whim of leaders, leaders who don't follow the rules even after they change them, sincere but gullible workers who have faith in leaders because faith is a good thing, slogans too simple to mean anything, spin doctors, grand visions that invoke a devotion great enough to make people justify acts they know are wrong, and endless awards that do more for the granter than for the grantee. This is not a story from half a century and half a world away. It is the story of life under the sun.

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