George Orwell’s Animal Farm, stunningly illustrated by Ralph Steadman: a great allegory on how dictatorship, propaganda and political injustice work

George Orwell, Animal Farm. A Fairy Story. Pictures by Ralph Steadman

Published in 1995 by Secker & Warburg, London (first published in Great Britain in 1945), 180p/ In romana: Ferma animalelor, Editura Polirom


The result of preaching totalitarian doctrines is to weaken the instinct by means of which free peoples know what is or is not dangerous. (George Orwell’s Proposed Preface to Animal Farm)

Animal Farm is listed as one of the best novels of the 20th century and one of the best sold books when political regimes change. Written in 1943 it was first refused by several publishers that found the story too offensive but when it was finally printed in England in 1945 it shortly became a success. The accessible language, the allegory itself and the subtle political messages turned Animal Farm into a reference novel.

Built as an allegory, the story describes the events that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the Stalinist era followed. Orwell was born in India when it was still part of the British Empire, in a family of middle-class intellectuals but he despised this class and all his life he kept himself a solitary person, trying to use writing as a tool to draw attention upon political injustice and lies. Therefore his writing is very personal and often cruel. Animal Farm became one of the most controversial books of all times.


When Mr. Jones (Tsar Nicholas II), a disinterested alcoholic, ceases to take good care of his animals at the farm, old Major (Karl Marx), the highly regarded pig by all animals, organizes a meeting, encouraging his comrades to revolt:

Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it, our lives are miserable, laborious and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth… Man is the only enemy we have. Remove man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever.

After old Major’s death the animals vote a proclamation stating that all beasts are equal and their only enemy is the Man. Being the cleverest animals at the farm the pigs become responsible of organizing and educating all animals and Snowball (Leon Trotsky) and Napoleon (Josef Stalin), two young, bald pigs, become the new leaders. After the Rebellion, which is a success for the animals, Animalism is adopted and The Seven Commandments are elaborated:

  1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy
  2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings is a friend
  3. No animal shall wear clothes
  4. No animal shall sleep in a bed
  5. No animal shall drink alcohol
  6. No animal shall kill any other animal
  7. All animals are equal

The animals have now a flag, a hymn, equal food rations and shortly all of them became literate in some degree.

What follows is an example of Orwell’s genius. Authentically he describes in detail how oppression and propaganda work and how dictatorship is installed using by force and scaring the masses. When Snowball wants to modernize the farm and build a windmill, Napoleon uses the dogs to chase him away and to proclaim himself the only leader. Squealer, Napoleon’s loyal will shortly tell the animals that debates are now forbidden and loyalty and obedience are more important… Discipline, comrades, iron discipline!

It was about this time that the pigs suddenly moved into the farmhouse and took up their residence there. Again the animals seemed to remember that a resolution against this had been passed in the early days, and again Squealer was able to convince them that this was not the case. It was absolutely necessary, he said, that the pigs, who were the brains of the farm, should have a quiet place to work in. it was also more suited to the dignity of the Leader (for of late he had taken to speaking of Napoleon under the title of “Leader”) to live in a house than in a mere sty. Nevertheless some of the animals were disturbed when they heard that the pigs not only took their meals in the kitchen and used the drawing-room as a recreation room, but also slept in beds.

Years pass and the richer and more bombastic the pigs become the poorer and hungrier the other animals are. Napoleon awards himself medals and is the only candidate to be elected president of the republic, the hymn is abolished, the farm’s timber is sold for nothing and the horse is killed for being old and sick. Education is no longer a priority:

They were fine upstanding beasts, willing workers and good comrades, but very stupid. None of them proved able to learn the alphabet beyond the letter B. they accepted everything that they were told about the Rebellion and the Principles of Animalism, especially from Clover, for whom they had an almost filial respect; but it was doubtful they understood very much of it.

The initial seven principles were changed in time to eventually be reduced to one:

All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.

Orwell’s writing is fascinating, revolting and compelling at the same time. It is an example of how literature serves life and of how notions like freedom and democracy can be often misunderstood. The pigs and the humans did not become equal at the end of the story and their relation did nothing but to prove the ephemerality of debatable, dishonest and undiplomatic political alliances. When revolutionaries forget their principles, chaos and corruption is installed.

Ralph Steadman is well-known for his political caricatures but his illustrations of Orwell’s characters are outstanding art. Beyond the grotesque of the animals there is the real transformation they experience under the changes  of political regimes.



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