One summer evening when I was in high school, I was sitting in the parking lot of my part-time job (Captain D’s, worse job I ever had, by the way). It was just before 5pm and was hurriedly finishing a book.
After I read the last words and my eyes slid off into the white space beneath, I gingerly closed the book, laid it gently on the passenger seat, closed my eyes, and let out my breath in a rush. I glanced at the book cover – a grey pig and donkey (each with yellow, demonic eyes) stood back to back above a dark blue band embellished with the author’s name. And behind them marched the title: Animal Farm.
I started this book as an amusement (my high school didn’t assign awesome literature like this so I had to discover it on my own). But my amusement became fright soon enough. I still don’t understand why Animal Farm had such a powerful and immediate effect on me. I knew less about politics and government than an ostrich with her head in the sand. However, Orwell made something shift in me as I read his little package of TNT. I think he made me realize that when power lies in only one set of hands, that set of hands will ALWAYS use it for ill purposes. History is filled with examples of horrid kings and dictators, but those entries into humanity’s fallacy could not do to me what Orwell did with his story about a menagerie of idealistic animals. Only they could teach me the dangerous and pernicious nature of a totalitarian government.
The most shocking aspect of this experience was the mindset I brought to it. I came to Animal Farm thinking the Russian Revolution was a romantic, adventurous period in history. The fairytale of Anastasia and the glitter of the Russian court can sometimes camouflage the horror of that time (and the many decades following it). All too often, people believe fictions that do more harm than good because they dilute or remove the lesson, the truth. These fictions are more insidious the more pleasurable they are. Too often, we concentrate on the romance and drama, ignore the darkness and suffering. Sometimes I think people today walk around in a perpetual state of hypnosis, drugged by reality TV and sports. But in that moment, sitting in my car, Orwell stripped away all that glamor and myth from life, and made me see the naked, shivering reality beneath. I could SEE and understand.
The animals of the farm also taught me how easy it is to become a fanatic about one’s ideals; or how effortlessly our ideals can be twisted for the benefit of selfish, greedy people. Communism and the beautiful society it sought to create were corrupted beyond recognition through the laziness, dark desires, and greed of a small group of people.
Orwell could have been writing about any religion in the world, though. Shared spirituality, or religion, should represent a safe place for people to retreat to when life grows burdensome. Christians have beautiful precepts of love and sacrifice and mutual support to guide us. Our teacher and model was the son of God, for crying out loud! Jesus was humanity perfected, whose sole purpose was the liberation of everyone – present and future. But, people are people. Some, who profess to love and follow Christ use him and other Christians as stepping stones to their own ambitions. Worse, they brandish the Bible and Jesus like a weapon, warding off those they find unacceptable.
Animal Farm was written as a satire. Orwell meant to poke fun at a self-righteous, destructive group of people. But besides the ability to laugh at the many debacles we, as humans, get into, it’s important to perceive the need to keep our convictions as pure as possible. To allow other people to rearrange our ideals for their own agendas is to, in fact, allow OURSELVES to be used and twisted – and ultimately discarded.