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1. Approaching the Text
A novel is not like a poem. My eye can take in a sonnet by Keats in its entirety, but a novel stretches over many pages. It is harder to see it as a whole.
The text I have chosen is Animal Farm, by George Orwell. It tells the story of a farm which is taken over by the animals. They drive out the humans, and run the farm by themselves. You might think it is a paradise for the animals, but it doesn't work out like that. The way it ends up is that the pigs, led by an old pig called Napoleon, take control, and for all the other animals things are just as bad as they were before, when the humans were in control. In the end, the pigs are inside the farmhouse, drinking and playing cards with humans, and the other animals are outside, looking through the window: 'The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig again: but already it was impossible to say which was which'. The story is Orwell's satiric allegory of communism and the Russian revolution.
A crucial point in the story is when Boxer, a hardworking carthorse, becomes too old to work any more. He has given his life to the farm, and expects that in his old age he will be given a green field to rest in until the end of his days. One day Boxer falls sick. A van comes to collect Boxer, and his old friend, Benjamin the donkey, arrives just as he is being taken away:
The animals crowded round the van. 'Good-bye, Boxer!' they chorused, 'good-bye!'
'Fools! Fools! shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. 'Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?'
That gave the animals pause, and there was a hush. Muriel began to spell out the words. But Benjamin pushed her aside and in the midst of a deadly silence he read:
'"Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon. Dealer in Hides and Bone-Meal. Kennels Supplied." Do you not understand what that means? They are taking Boxer to the knacker's!'
A cry of horror burst from all the animals.... (pp. 81-82)
Three days later, Squealer, one of the pigs, tells the animals that Boxer has died in hospital:
He had, he said, been present during Boxer's last hours.
'It was the most affecting sight I have ever seen!' said Squealer, lifting his trotter and wiping away a tear. 'I was at his bedside at the very last. And at the end, almost too weak to speak, he whispered in my ear that his sole sorrow was to have passed on before the windmill was finished. "Forward, comrades!" he whispered. "Forward in the name of the Rebellion. Long live Animal Farm! Long live Comrade Napoleon! Napoleon is always right." Those were his very last words, comrades.'
Here Squealer's demeanour suddenly changed. He fell silent for a moment, and his little eyes darted suspicious glances from side to side before he proceeded.
It had come to his knowledge, he said, that a foolish and wicked rumour had been circulated at the time of Boxer's removal. Some of the animals had noticed that the van which took Boxer away was marked 'Horse Slaughterer', and had actually jumped to the conclusion that Boxer was being sent to the knacker's. It was almost unbelievable, said Squealer, that any animal could be so stupid. surely, he cried indignantly, whisking his tail from side to side, surely they knew their beloved Leader, Comrade Napoleon, better than that? But the explanation was really very simple. The van had previously been the property of the knacker, and had been bought by the veterinary surgeon, who had not yet painted the old name out. That was how the mistake had arisen.
The animals were enormously relieved to hear this... (p. 83)
Quite clearly the pigs are guilty. They have betrayed Boxer, whose bones will be boiled down into glue. Equally clearly, the other animals, with the exception of Benjamin, are innocent; they are giving Boxer a sentimental farewell when in fact he is going to his death, and when Squealer offers an explanation they again accept it in all innocence.
Then I start to wonder. If the animals weren't so simple-minded, if there were more of them who could see the truth, like Benjamin, it would not be so easy for the pigs to trick and control them. Perhaps by being innocent they play a part in their own downfall.
If so, this is a good example of something we often find in literature - character is destiny. To see whether it is true in this case, I need to check through the text and look for other examples of the animals putting power into the hands of the pigs through their own innocence or simplicity. On page 19 I find: 'It was always the pigs who put forward the resolutions. The other animals understood how to vote, but could never think of any resolutions of their own.' On pages 61-62 Squealer reads out statistics proving that conditions on the farm have improved greatly since the humans were driven out: 'The animals saw no reason to disbelieve him, especially as they could no longer remember very clearly what conditions had been like before the Rebellion'.
These passages suggest that these animals are not very clever, and on page 17 we read of the pigs that, 'With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should assume the leadership'. So, once again, I find Orwell putting across the idea that one's fate, or destiny, is a natural consequence of what one is.
Turning now to published criticisms of Animal Farm I find the opinion that 'The inhabitants of this world seem to deserve their fate.' (R.A. Lee, in George Orwell's Animal Farm: Bloom's Notes, edited by H. Bloom, page 42.) I notice, though, that Lee includes Benjamin, with his 'tired, cynical belief that things never change', whereas I had felt that Benjamin was a bit of an exception, unlike the other animals.
2. Writing about the Text
Having prepared my ideas as shown above, by analysing a crucial part of the text, then searching elsewhere in the text to find further examples of my conclusions, and by studying the relationship between plot and character, I am now in a position to write a short commentary. Of course, if I was planning to write a full-length essay, I would have to develop my ideas further (for example, to what extent are the animals controlled by fear, and what exactly are the steps by which the pigs become indistinguishable from humans?), and look at a wider range of published criticisms.
For now, though, I will content myself with writing something like the following:
One of the most striking features about Orwell's Animal Farm is, not merely that the pigs trick the other animals and take control of them, but that the other animals allow them to do so by their ignorance and their readiness to believe the pigs' lies. In the weekly meetings, the other animals 'could never think of any resolutions' (19), thus leaving it to the pigs to make the policies. When told by Squealer how much better things are on the farm, 'The animals saw no reason to disbelieve him, especially as they could no longer remember very clearly what conditions had been like before the Rebellion' (61-62). Even when they have seen Boxer taken away in a knacker's van (81-82), they accept Squealer's flimsy explanation (83).
Benjamin, almost alone among the animals, distrusts the pigs; but perhaps that is because he distrusts everything: 'Benjamin professed...that things had never been, nor ever could be, much better or much worse - hunger, hardship and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life' (87).
Boxer, with all his strength, Clover, with her gentle heart, even the pigs themselves, with all their intelligence - all of them are caught up in a process that is beyond their control. The pigs do not become leaders for any other reason than that 'With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should' do so (17): '...everyone, the good and the bad, the deserving and the wicked, are not only contributors to the tyranny, are not only powerless before it, but are unable to understand it.' (R.A. Lee, in Bloom, 42.)
Orwell shows convincingly how power corrupts those who wield it and destroys those who suffer under it. He does not, however, seem to offer much hope.
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