In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the famous line from Orwell: ‘some animals are more equal than others’
Animal Farm very nearly didn’t make it into print at all. First, not long after Orwell completed the first draft in February 1944, his flat on Mortimer Crescent in London was bombed in June, and he feared the typescript had been destroyed. Orwell later found it in the rubble. Then, Orwell had difficulty finding a publisher. T. S. Eliot, at Faber and Faber, rejected it.
The novella was eventually published the following year, in 1945, and its relevance – as political satire, as animal fable, and as one of Orwell’s two great works of fiction – shows no signs of abating. Many people, even those who’ve never read it, know two quotations from Animal Farm: ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, and ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.
The novella is about the animals of Manor Farm who lead a rebellion against Mr Jones, who owns the farm and, by extension, them. Led by Napoleon and Snowball, they rename Manor Farm ‘Animal Farm’, and set about running things themselves, along the lines laid out in their seven commandments, where every animal is equal. Indeed, ‘all animals are equal’ is one of their commandments.
But before long, it becomes clear that the pigs – especially Napoleon and Snowball – consider themselves special, requiring special treatment, as the leaders of the animals. Napoleon engineers it so that when Mr Whymper, a man from a neighbouring farm with whom the pigs have started to trade, visits the farm, he overhears the animals giving a positive account of life on Animal Farm. Eventually, after he falls out with Napoleon, Snowball is banished from the farm.
As the novella progresses, Napoleon and Squealer (Napoleon’s one-man, or one-pig, propaganda machine) get fatter, and none of the animals is allowed to retire, as previously promised. The farm gets bigger and richer, but the luxuries the animals had been promised never materialised: they are told that the real pleasure is derived from hard work and frugal living.
Then, one day, the animals see one of the pigs up on his hind legs, walking on two legs like a human instead of on four like an animal. The other pigs follow; and Clover and Benjamin discover that the seven commandments written on the barn wall have been rubbed off, to be replace by one single commandment: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’
In an earlier Secret Library post, I looked at the way ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ – the other famous line from Animal Farm – becomes gradually corrupted as the novella progresses, before being subtly but entirely rewritten when the final word is altered from ‘bad’ to ‘better’.
But what about the other really famous quotation from Orwell’s novella, which many people, even those who have never read the book, know? What about ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’?
These words appear in capital letters on the barn door which had once displayed the seven commandments the animals had all been told to obey:
Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
No animal shall wear clothes.
No animal shall sleep in a bed.
No animal shall drink alcohol.
No animal shall kill any other animal.
All animals are equal.
The cleverness of Orwell’s writing lies in the political doublethink (to use an Orwellian word) that is involved to make sense of the paradox: how can some animals be more equal than others? What saves it from being pure nonsense is the fact that the pigs do consider themselves equals among themselves: they are all allowed (with the exception of Snowball, who’s long been booted out) to behave like humans, and shortly after the modified slogan appears on the barn door, they are listening to the wireless and reading newspapers. But the other animals, who are put to work on the farm and given barely enough food to live on, are not equal to the pigs.
In other words, like all the best lies, ‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’ contains a grain of sense which allows the bigger lie to flourish. By this stage of Animal Farm, however, the other animals can see that they’ve been hoodwinked, and are unable to resist their porcine overlords. One ruler, Mr Jones the farmer, has simply been replaced by several of them, who look remarkably similar to him. As the final sentence of the book has it: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
However, Orwell allows the word ‘equal’ to slip slowly in the novella: from denoting true egalitarianism when Old Major first pronounces ‘all animals are equal’, it starts to become qualified by ‘buts’ and political propaganda. This is evident when Squealer, the mouthpiece for Napoleon and his chief propagandist, explains to the rest of the animals about the new arrangements for the running of the farm, whereby the weekly meetings (in which all animals would be allowed to have their say) are being abolished, and all decisions would thereafter be made by ‘a special committee of pigs’:
‘Comrades,’ he said, ‘I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?’
In other words, ‘I know what’s best for you, better than you do yourself.’ Many totalitarian regimes begin in such a way. ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ is the crystallisation of such an attitude, and the totalitarian nature of this approach is neatly embodied by the fact that this one slogan replaces the seven slogans derived from Old Major’s original idealistic vision for an equal society – a vision that has, by the end of the novella, been so thoroughly corrupted.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.