“Animal Farm” as a Portrait of Boxer (also, Considerable Talk of Donkeys)

I have a confession to make, my dear friends: I am a donkey.

This may come as a shock to some of you. Others will have seen it coming these many moons. Regardless, I feel I owe you all an explanation.

Let me start with a question. Who is familiar with Animal Farm?

Most of us, I’d hazard a guess, are.  Have been since the cradle, or at least, like, high school. It’s an icon of Western culture, what! Some animals are more equal than others. Political fable. Animals overthrow their human oppressors, institute self-government, become a direct metaphor for Soviet Russia, and end up worse off than they started. The pigs may have begun with good intentions (who knows), but by the end they are walking on two legs –  no different than the humans.

All that I knew without having actually read the thing. And perhaps it made me rather reluctant to do so.

Others may differ, but I’m rarely much on overt allegory. I want to read a story, not a message. I knew George Orwell was a wonderful essayist (“Shooting an Elephant” was a highlight of things-you-have-to-read-because-high-school), but a good essayist does not (of necessity) a good novelist make.

Still, as they say, if you never try nothin’, you ain’t never gon’ find nothin’.

(I don’t know if anyone actually says that. But just said it in my best sassy Southern accent, so that makes it true.)

So all right, I thought, I will try George Orwell. 1984 sounds dreadful (sorry, 1984 fans), so I will try Animal Farm. 

So then I did.

And I liked it?

And also I am a donkey.

(Never fear. The donkey thing will soon be explained; but first I have to pontificate on why I liked it.)

George Orwell has an effortless writing style, akin to E. B. White’s in its wry simplicity and easy, unique turn of phrase (though, of course, it’s not as good as E. B. White’s, because what is?). It’s what makes his essays so readable. It’s also what made Animal Farm work.

Animal Farm is about (and from the perspective of) a passel of uneducated animals. They see the world as they see it – no frills, no pretension. They’re unhappily oppressed, but what are they going to do about it? No one has ever done anything about it.

Then the pigs (subtle, discerning, intelligent animals) come to them with a plan. With ideals. With the tantalizing dream of something better. Who could resist that? Who in his right mind would want to resist that?

Not the animals, certainly. They are hesitant at first, unsure exactly what they are offered, afraid of the cruel farmer. (Ideals are all well and good, but Mr. Jones has the power.) Gradually the dream takes hold. The seven commandments are painted on the barn wall, the last and most important of which is, All animals are equal.

Ideals lead, as true ideals always do, to action. To battle. The animals triumph; the humans are vanquished. Freedom is theirs.

The animals aren’t sure what to do with it. What does one do with freedom, when one has no experience of it, and one has still to eat?

Fortunately, the pigs have answers.

The pigs have gotten the animals this far. Without the pigs, they’d still be languishing under Mr. Jones’s tyranny. Who better than the pigs to entrust with the safekeeping of this freedom that, but for the pigs, they’d never have achieved?

Alas for the animals, generals do not always make good governors. Alas, power corrupts. Alas, professing pure-hearted interest in the welfare of all the animals alike does not always guarantee that the pigs’ hearts in question are quite so pure as their profession might lead one to believe.

It goes downhill from there, basically. As I expected.

What I didn’t expect was Boxer. One doesn’t expect to get emotionally attached to not-so-bright plough-horses, you know.

(By the way, the following section does contain spoilers. If you care.)

Boxer is one of the major forces behind the revolution. It might not have got off the ground at all if it wasn’t for him. He took to heart the vision of Old Major, he hung on the pigs’ words with cart-horse humility and doglike devotion, he memorized the seven commandments, he inspired the others continually with his unfaltering devotion to the cause. He was one of the bravest in battle. When the new freedom was achieved, he worked harder than anyone else. When disaster struck and they had to start again from the beginning, he worked still harder – not for himself, because his days were running out, but for the coming generations, for the others.

And when his body gave out and he was no more use to the regime, and would have done nothing but lie in the barn eating hay in the well-deserved rest of his old age, the pigs sent him to the knacker’s.

(You don’t want to know how near I came to tears over a fictional cart-horse.)

Not all the animals knew what was going on when the van came up to the farm to take Boxer away. But Benjamin the donkey did. Benjamin the donkey had known what was going on the whole time. He was smart. [This is true, by the way, that donkeys are smart. They’re literal escape artists, let me tell you.] He kept his eyes open and his mouth shut. He didn’t say much before the revolution and he didn’t say much after. But when he realized the kind of reward the pigs were offering Boxer for a lifetime of humble and devoted service, he – well, in modern parlance, he flipped.

He tried frantically to rescue his friend, and when that didn’t work and he was still a little frantic, he stirred up the animals. Mostly by calling them fools. Because that, after all, is what he had thought them the whole time. Even Boxer, probably, slaving devotedly for the animals who sent him off to the knacker’s the moment his usefulness ended.

Benjamin is a grand cynic. He never believed in the false paradise. Until his friend was taken, he never did anything about it, and he never did anything about it afterward either. The pigs came and explained to the animals that it wasn’t the knacker’s van at all, that Boxer had gone to a good place to die in peace and well-deserved comfort. Benjamin had settled by then and did not object to this. He went on keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut – except with Clover, the horse who shared his grief. She was not clever like Benjamin, but she knew what had happened, as he did. She was perhaps luckier, because it only made her sad, where it made Benjamin bitter.

If the animals hadn’t been foolish, perhaps the atrocities of Animal Farm would never have come to pass. But Benjamin was clever enough, and he did nothing to stop them. He was clever enough to know he hadn’t a chance.

And Benjamin, you see, is me. I’m a fairly intelligent person. I’m not blind to bad things happening in the world, and I’m not naive enough to believe everyone’s professions of good faith. In fact, I’m cynic enough to believe pretty much nobody’s professions of good faith. But do I do anything about it? No. Do I say anything about it? No. Because I know that nothing I do, and nothing I say, will change anything. I’m completely powerless, and I know it. And sometimes it makes me very, very bitter.

What was the proper thing for Benjamin to have done? I don’t know. Perhaps there was nothing he could have done. But I wonder. There are a lot of us like Benjamin, I think. A lot like Clover, but a lot like Benjamin. Can we really do nothing? And if so, is that really an excuse to do nothing?

I feel like those are important questions to ask yourself. (But what do I know, I’m just a donkey.)

…This has been Sad and Vaguely Political Thoughts With Sarah. If you’re thinking it has to do with current politics, you’re kind of right but only insofar as it also has to do with politics like…two years ago? I dunno. I wrote this post before COVID was even dreamed of, and then it just sat in my drafts for forever and a day. And then today I posted it because who says you have to make good decisions when you’re an adult? Actually I have been musing in this vein recently too, so it just seemed like a good time to empty out that drafts folder.

I hope y’all are having as beautifully rainy an October day as I am. ✌️

Author: sarahseele

A Christian, cat owner, college kid, and writer. Fond of stories. Fond of rain.

10 thoughts on ““Animal Farm” as a Portrait of Boxer (also, Considerable Talk of Donkeys)”

  1. Oooffff, George Orwell. I think he was incredibly prescient and skilled in writing, but I just don’t like his books. They make me sad. And/or angry. And/or grossed out. Never bored, true, just…other unpleasant emotions. XD

    You are not alone in being close to tears over a fictional cart-horse. That part of the book has stuck with me like nothing else did in the book, mostly because of my incredible horror and disbelief over the whole thing. I was in…oh, probably middle school. I was innocent. And then…Boxer. I STILL remember my feeling of helpless injustice as I read and reread that paragraph, hoping it would change.

    Ugh.

    Good points about Benjamin, though! I can definitely relate to knowing one can’t do anything, so doing nothing…but I think we sometimes underestimate the power of one person’s voice. Idk, that doesn’t mean I’m going out and speaking out for justice all the time, but…I do think that we can do SOMETHING. Maybe. Even if it’s just making ourselves better, because, as Chesterton says and I think about a lot, “I am what’s wrong with the world.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That surprises me, actually. I /understand/ the sentiment, but I didn’t expect you to express it, because…you like Silence. And The Power and the Glory. And Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby. Granted, I’ve only read one of those myself, but they seem like the same idea, the book is unpleasant but you like it because it’s PROFOUND despite the unpleasantness. So I’m honestly quite curious why George Orwell doesn’t fall into that same category for you.

      But anyway. Yes. BOXER. *sobs* I actually really meant to write a character study of him – he’s so interesting because the revolution is his fault to a large extent, but his intentions are good, and that’s just…such an interesting thing to think about, and to think about the real-world parallels of – but then I realized I wasn’t qualified to write a character study of Boxer, so it ended up being more about Benjamin instead.
      But Boxer is absolutely my favorite character, and OH SAM. You read it in MIDDLE SCHOOL???! That is awful. I am so sorry for your trauma. You POOR thing. 😥 XD

      Ok, I think I JUST now got what Chesterton is saying there. So thank you?!? That is very much…yes. Working on ourselves is all we can do, sometimes, and it’s always important. “I am what’s wrong with the world.” MAN THAT’S ACTUALLY SO GOOD.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the difference between Orwell and Silence/The Power and the Glory/Brideshead Revisited/The Great Gatsby is the amount of hope. And also, the characters. And the goals, I guess.

        The Power and the Glory is horribly tragic, but there is hope. In Brideshead Revisited, there is hope, though subtle hope. Perhaps a little less in Gatsby and Silence, but there is *something*. Something that says that there is more than we can see. And I find that Orwell lacks that. There’s no sense of something higher, something in human (or animal) nature that will endure, withstand, grow, live.

        Also, I just don’t find his characters as compelling and lovable, most of the time. There are a few in Animal Farm, yes, but mostly, they’re bland, irritating, frustrating, horrible. As contrasted with the whisky priest, many of the characters in Brideshead, and Father Sebastian, all of whom I love. They have their flaws, but they are lovable, they are human, they are people, well-drawn and living. Even in Gatsby, Jay gives me the feeling of a deeply flawed human who is *real*. I don’t get that with Orwell. I don’t know if he even believes in human nature/the soul/the ability of humanity to transcend. I don’t think he does, and so his books grate.

        Also, I think that Orwell, a lot of the time, simply wants to make a point. And yes, the points need to be made, but writing is not just about making points, so I think there’s something missing there.

        AND at a young age I was quite scarred by the (to me at that age) explicit scenes in 1984, so there’s that, too. XD

        Does that make more sense? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

        (I KNOW Chesterton is always the best, especially if it takes some time and contemplation to figure out what he’s getting at.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That makes LOTS of sense, thank you!!

        To first address the thing about Orwell wanting to make a point more so than tell a story: that is indeed a grave fault in a writer of fiction. There was enough story in Animal Farm to still work for me, but I see what you’re talking about. Orwell was an essayist first and foremost, a genre in which making a point IS the point, and I think that shows. Have you ever read any of his essays? They’re very good. My favorite is Shooting an Elephant – which is, indeed, saddening and angering and horrifying and gross, as per the Orwell trademark, but is also so…good. Because he makes his point WELL. Such that in a way I rather think it’s immaterial whether or not he /actually believed/ in the existence of the soul, because that whole essay is a cry of anger against empires, policies, and modes of life that try to force the soul out of man, whether in dramatic or in small and seemingly-petty ways.

        Orwell reminds me of The Abolition of Man, actually. Human beings have souls, but there is such a thing as trying to squash the soul out of people, and while that can’t be ENTIRELY done, it can be done with much practical success. Orwell may not believe that human nature MUST AND SHALL endure, but I like him because he is properly afraid that it won’t – which means he values it, whether or not he quite realizes that he does. And I find that endearing.

        Also. I think it’s SO interesting what you said about hope. I would think that I’d agree, that my condition for liking tragic literature be that there’s at least some tangible hope, but (and this is such a weird thought!) I don’t think it is.
        I think, actually, if I’m going to like a tragedy, it has almost nothing to do with the amount of hope involved and everything to do with the clarity and perceived truth of the story. If the tragedy is crushing and final, but the events leading to it are CLEAR and the characters’ actions ring true…I may well like it. If, on the other hand, the events are a muddy swirl of vague misery, and the characters believe something that isn’t true which is never contradicted (having their downfall be a result of it counts as contradiction in my book, even if the character is never aware of it), then I will probably loathe it. Moral clarity is the thing for me, much more than hope. (In other words, you have much more of a taste for realistic novels than I do. My appetite is almost exclusively for myth and romance.) George Orwell has at least something of that moral clarity…which is why I like him…and you are right indeed that he runs short on hope…which explains why you don’t.
        Oh, that was so interesting. I love having conversations with you. 😀 XD

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  2. A few thoughts from Mllm. Tomato:

    First: I truly enjoyed reading your post, Sarah! 🙂 You summed up Animal Farm perfectly. I’m glad to hear that you decided to and have read it! And yes, 1984 is another classic I have on my shelf right underneath Animal Farm but I haven’t got the focus to read it. Yet. I’m conflicted concerning this. AF is a undoubtedly a masterpiece though.

    BRIEF ASIDE: Can I convince you to be an editor or at least a beta reader for my books when I’ve finished writing and self-editing them in the probably-far-rather-than-near-future? Because you write absolutely beautifully and I’m beyond impressed and inspired and again feel so blessed to have found you so I can read your writing! 🙂 I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say that your elegant prose = my reader brain/heart eating DESSERT of the most delicious kind (like cheesecake. Or custard. Or just ice cream in general). ❤ ❤ <# I know I’ve said this before but I’m just reminded again of how in awe I am and you belong on my list of role model writers so I thought you should know.

    Second, I completely feel what you’re saying about being a donkey like Benjamin. With the exception that I like to think that I try to do SOMEthing. But of course, compared to the scale and scope of our Issues Today, I think my “something” is rather minuscule. Regardless, I try to stay strong in the faith personally (I mean, what’s the use of trying to change society for the good if I can’t even identify what objective truth is and reform myself?). And I make sure to vote while TRYING to stay up to date. And I try to support people who are doing the same and fighting for justice and liberty.

    Do you recall that quote that they usually attribute to Edmund Burke? The one about evil will succeed when good men do nothing? I find myself reminded of that quote a lot. Especially when I think my efforts at societal change are too minuscule for any visible effect.

    The other thing I try to remind myself is The Butterfly Effect.

    I guess I’m obviously in the “trying to cheer you up” mode right now. XD

    I think one of the enemy’s strategies is misdirection and misinformation, which includes the lie that nothing that WE do or can do will change ANYTHING, as you said. And I don’t want to give into that. I don’t hold that as the truth that Christ offers, for we are told that our weakness is His Strength, and we are supposed to be as salt, light, yeast in this world.

    Recently I’ve been especially depressed with all the latest developments of the state’s deterioration, as well as the impact on my life and work, which in turn created more stress and ultimately depression for my part while I was trying to adapt to the “new normal.” It’s been very hard for me: trying to handle the emotional instability I’ve been experiencing, since I tend to focus/act logically normally. I posted “Short: Mikrokosmos” some weeks ago as part of my Recalibration response to this issue of mine.

    So in conclusion, my answers to your two questions “Can we really do nothing? And if so, is that really an excuse to do nothing?” are No and No. I think this mindset is VERY tempting (I do it too often) but is CYCLICAL: the one encourages the other and it goes round and round and round into eternity if we let ourselves think this way … and the enemy would have already won. For morale is always the root that one should target and attempt to disrupt and weaken as much as possible in war. The mind controls everything, and if defeat is already on the back burner ready to be taken out I think it’s impossible to give our 100% in the Present Here and Now to what we can and should do to try to fight for all that is good in this shattered world that is both dark and bitter. (Yes, I probably partially quoted Samwise/Tolkien there. 😉

    P.S. Maybe this is why I have “The Enemy’s Gate Is Down” posted on my mind wall quite prominently.

    P.P.S. Everything you said at the end reminded me of my history classes years back in which my professor asked the wonderfully delightful set of questions that basically goes like this: Should Christians try to do everything we can to do reform this world even though we know that it’s sinking like the Titanic? Or should we just watch it sink to the depths and do nothing? Or shall we “help it along,” as it were?
    Ha. That last option sounds disturbing until I’ve experienced people do it. And THAT, my friend, is even MORE disturbing than the thought of it as an option. O.O

    (Wow. My ending note here is so not cheerful, which is opposite of what I’d planned. Just pretend that my actual ending note is before the post script. And oh my goodness, I just glanced at my lower word count bar and it says that this is over 1000. I guess these are not just a “few” thoughts. 😛 I’m making a record here and feel like I’m on a Discussion Forum again back in school. xD Thank you for the opportunity!)

    What do you think? I would love to know your thoughts or if you have any questions regarding my super long and rambly and I-hope-I-made-sense comment. Please let me know if I need to clarify on anything. 🙂 Again, I really enjoyed your post. I appreciate that you decided to post this, even after all that time in your draft folder, and the thoughts you’ve instigated on my end. I’ve a small suspicion that we’re actually rather alike in this (except when it comes to Ender and superhero movies ;), but I’m interested to know for certain. ❤ I’m so happy to have decided to take the time to save this to a PDF tonight before I left work so I can read what you wrote and respond! ^-^

    ~Mllm. Tomato (writer of extremely long, essay-length comments)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhhhh thank you for this comment!! I loved it SO MUCH. It was very encouraging AND gave me lots of stuff to think about, so truly thank you. I greatly appreciate your essay. 😆

      “what’s the use of trying to change society for the good if I can’t even identify what objective truth is and reform myself?” <<<-best way I’ve heard that put. First remove the beam from your own eye, that you may see clearly to cast the mote out of your brother’s eye, and whatnot. And it’s definitely true that one must plod along trying to do one’s bit if one ever wants to be entrusted with (and succeed at) a greater task.
      I guess where I stick at, to some extent, is where does “my bit” end? When I feel very strongly that something should be said, but I don’t know how to say it very loud or to whom to say it, should I still fight for a way to say it? When I feel very strongly that something should be done, but I don’t exactly know how and don’t see any possibility of being able to affect ANYTHING by myself, should I be looking tirelessly for a way to do it anyway? It feels so inadequate to just go along, trying to be a good person, to fulfill my ordinary duties, and to be charitable and only speak up if directly asked for my opinion or do more if directly offered the opportunity – although it shouldn’t feel inadequate, because I don’t succeed fully at even that, technically.
      I think about that Edmund Burke quote a lot, actually. It’s just…so true. And sometimes I am very afraid that I AM doing nothing.
      But, truly, I AM incapable on my own, and you’re so right that we must rely on God’s grace. And…ask for it more, I think. I forget to ask.

      I’m sorry it’s been hard for you, and – I’ve never thought to do this before, but I’m gonna pray for you.
      Also, “Short: Mikrokosmos” was a beautiful bit of writing that blessed me immensely when I read it, so thank you for sharing it.

      This paragraph is the BEST. You are so right that the mindset is cyclical.

      What’s “The Enemy’s Gate Is Down”?

      That makes me think of LOTR and Tolkien’s philosophy. Seeing history as a “long defeat,” but, as Samwise says, there’s some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for. We WILL lose; the Entwives will go away; the Elves will depart Middle-earth for ever; the hobbits, even, will hide deeper and deeper in the woods; the time of Men will come and evil will always return; but there will always be good in the world worth fighting for. It will always be our responsibility to fight for it. In whatever way, large or small, we know how.
      The thought of people “helping it along” IS extremely disturbing, and it’s even more disturbing that …yeah, I know of such people. Man.

      Re: the brief aside: you are seriously so sweet, and I’m so pleased my writing gives you pleasure. I would LOVE to read your writing when you’re done. I have, however, on three separate occasions, promised someone to beta-read for them, ended up not having time, and completely broken my promise. Which I feel very bad about and am determined not to do again. SO. I am not going to make any definite promises, but I very much WANT to beta-read/edit for you when the time is right (because…I actually really love critiquing and editing? And I don’t do it nearly as much anymore as I used to), so please please please let me know. At the very least I’ll read it and give you general feedback, and hopefully it’ll work out for me to do much more. 🙂

      OH. ALSO. Semi-random but did you ever read this post of Elisha’s? https://thevoyagingstoryteller.wordpress.com/2020/07/29/time-travel-hobbits-and-why-you-make-a-difference/
      Your mentioning the Butterfly Effect and our conversation topic of trying to accomplish good in the world made me think of it; she talks about some of the same things, but with hobbits and time travel, and I found her post really awesome and thought-provoking and encouraging back in the day, and you made me remember it, so…you might like it. (Since I’m just showering you with links here lately, after all. 😂😂)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s not too much I can say on the topic, having not yet read Animal Farm. But I think that I should now read it sooner rather than later.
    I have read 1984, and yes, it is dreadful. Which is, in a strange way, why I kind of liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That does make sense. I mean, technically Animal Farm is dreadful and that’s why I like /it/. But…it’s still hard to make myself read something I know is dreadful. XD

      Like

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