We were covering Nineteen Eighty-four, and a student asked whethere we were going to work on Animal farm, too. I said no. It’s not just that we have so little time we normally only cover one work by each author in the syllabus. And it isn ‘t only that I don’t want to give space only to books that depict reality (past present and futire) as gloomy: this is what my teachers did, and as a depressed teenager it didn’t help, so after teaching the whole “Dystopian pack” ( Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Zamjatin and Golding’s Lord of the flies, for good measure) once I started reducing.
With Animal farm I have a personal problem. It is a great book, every single word in it is carefully chosen and every episode finds echoes in European history, but it has become too heart-breaking for me. Because George Orwell wrote Animal farm as an allegory, where every character stands for a historic character (Napoleon for Stalin, Snowball for Trotzky etc.) or a social class, and there you are. Boxer and Clover. The work horses who work harder and harder to support the community. They are supposed to stand for the best part of the working class, people with ideals, who end up with very little after a life of hard work while leaders have privileges. It is sad enough, but when I picked Animal farm up again after years, as I was going to cover it with my students, a veil was dropped.
Boxer and Clover, the two work horses. For me they stand for the millions and millions of animals we have used to build civilization over millennia, and then sent to the knacker. And the chicken, and the sheep – who Orwell dismisses as stupid and gullible, while I know better now, having learnt from Keats that sheep are not stupid, but simple. There is a difference.
I still respect Animal farm as an extremely well written and well conceived story of betrayed ideals, but I cannot forgive it its lack of reckognition of animals’ plight. Unfortunately, like many other intellectuals, Orwell only cared for human suffering, but no human being has ever been so utterly exploited as animals have been and still are. So completely deprived of the right to happiness which I believe all sentient beings have. No human being can suffer the way an animal does, except maybe little children.
Human beings can understand their predicament and try to see ways out of it, individual or collective. They can be in chains and plot a revolt or at least imagine it. We have minds that can hope and dream of a better future. Animals do not. They know only here and now, and although I can’t say for sure, I don’t think they can see a different future. I don’t want to have to talk of Boxer as a metaphor for betrayed proletarians again, while in my mind’s eye, I see the knacker’s van taking him to die.