I have been surprised just how many books I already owned have surprised me in the past several weeks. Yes, I meant that sentence to read that way, but now it strikes me as awkward. Ah, well. Since I started Book a Day (which would be going much better if I didn’t keep misplacing the books I am currently reading–curse you ADHD), I have read a number of novellas which I pulled off the shelf one fanciful day in January. Nearly all of them were not what I imagined them to be when I become their owner (often by gifting) or what I foresaw through their innocent spine. Animal Farm was another surprise.
(Fun fact: out of all the random, short books I could have grabbed off my somewhat random shelves and out of all the orders I could have stacked those books in, I read Animal Farm at the same time my daughter was assigned to read it in seventh grade. Perhaps I’ll let her have her say here, later.)
Nearly everyone knows the gist of Animal Farm, right? George Orwell–author of Nineteen Eighty-Four–used childlike, pastoral, fairy tale to expose political realities. The book is bleak and alarmist, in the sense that Orwell (not to be confused with Orson Welles (whose real name was George and directed Citizen Cane and broadcasted War of the Worlds) or even H.G. Wells, who was also a political novelist and wrote The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and–drumroll–War of the Worlds) is trying to warn people about something menacing, something devious while also exposing the truth behind an existing system. So why would my read have been surprising?
Surprise number one: It was engaging and fun to read. I expected a political satire to be dry. I didn’t expect a pastoral setting, memorable characters, and for everything from friendship to violence to crash up onto the screen of my imagination. It wasn’t as gripping as a John Grisham (I’ve never actually read one, but you know), but it was more entertaining than expected.
Surprise number two: It mostly just felt like a story, not political satire. While consciously meant as a critique of Stalin, the portrayal of human nature (which is made more clear by humans allegorically being animals) is universal. We can all learn that while a regime or even revolution may have inclusive and high-thinking goals, there are always going to be people who can exploit that for power, for monetary gain, for whatever. And that’s only the surface of the lesson, as there are many layers to peel on this onion, many facets to explore. (Please excuse the mixed metaphor.)
Surprise number three: It just dove right in there with the whimsy and magic realism. (Maybe this would be categorized as fantasy as opposed to magic realism, but the point is it has that feeling like, oh this is just an ordinary life that I recognize and–whoops!—there goes a pig plowing the field and calling rebellion meetings.) Even though the magic part of it eventually leads to more shocking scenes, and all the characters are despicable in their own way (some more than others), still I enjoyed the playfulness.
Surprise number four: The political satire was funny and though-provoking. For an adult. It is almost a pity that they assign this book so much to kids in junior high and even high school because it would take a very specific child to even half-appreciate this book for what it is. Then again, there aren’t too many adults reading assigned books, and if you missed it earlier the chances of picking it up are probably somewhat small. Then again, you would likely have underappreciated it as a teen, and would be predisposed to not read it later. It’s a lose-lose, and I think this book is most poignant to adults, especially from middle ages on. (In another sour twist of fate, Animal Farm could do the most good by educating the kids and teens, but I just think–like much of history–the broader scope is lost on most, if not all of, them until they have more experience. But maybe I’m just not giving teens enough credit. Perhaps it does make some impression on them through internal images of green flags and the windmill, somewhat how I remember the eye of Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
As the book progresses, it does get more obviously political and allegorical. Still, I was just dying to know what was going to happen to these animal characters, and kept on chuckling and gasping until I had finished the story out to its somewhat hackneyed end.