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The Revolt of the Animals
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B : overheated, and deeply problematic in its message
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The Revolt of the Animals opens with the dog Rex being mercilessly beaten -- as is then a human friend of his, the boy called Dummy.
Once the beloved pet dog of the manor, devoted to his Master, he is now driven out -- set upon even by the household dachshunds .... .
He remains in the vicinity as he regains his strength -- protected also by Dummy -- but sees now the humans as his enemy -- and that of the other animals as well.
All the people of the manor, with the foreman at their head, rose up against the wretched outlaw, swearing death to Rex.They don't manage to kill him, but he is driven out -- not only from the manor proper, but from his own community (and, after all: "he'd always lived in a group !"); soon: "He lived beyond the pale of all society, having become an object of pursuit and contempt".
Rex becomes convinced that the animals must be freed from their human bondage, and he incites them to rise up. His message catches on:
Suffering from time immemorial had prepared the soil for the sowing of the faith, and for blind obedience to him who had revealed the promised land to them.Rex is a commanding figure. From the first, Reymont compares him to a lion -- speaking of, for example, his: "lion-like physique" -- and, as he grows into his new role:
they no longer recognised him -- he had become so transformed by freedom. With his size, his coat, and his shape, he seemed to be a real lion. His voice was that of a lion, for when he roared in anger all of creation fell to the earth in fear.He becomes the king of this jungle -- so also: "For his permanent quarters he chose a hill on the pastures near the woods known by people as the Castle" -- and begins his quest to lead the animals subjugated by humans to freedom. They rise up and, at terrible cost to both men and beasts, break the old order. Rex leads them away from this scene of devastation, and away from men -- leading them to what he promises will be a better future; the promised land, however, remains elusive.
The one human companion they have along the way is Dummy -- but he, like many of the animals, eventually begins to wonder whether they've not all gone down the wrong road, and plants the seeds of rebellion. Yet again, Rex finds himself betrayed by Man -- though this threat too he is able to counter and defeat.
From the beginning, many of the animals are ambivalent about Rex's calls for freedom. Some have a decent life under the yoke of man, comfortable in their reliance on human masters who take care of and look after them. and feed them (even if, eventually, many of the animals are in turn fed on by the humans ...). Once away from men -- having found 'freedom' -- nature poses more of a challenge than many of the animals are up to or willing to bear. The weather is often harsh -- and food increasingly hard to come by. As Dummy cruelly points out:
You've got your freedom, what do you want food for ? If there are no men to sow fields, there will be nothing for you to eat. And as for men, they'll get along fine without you.Even Rex has his doubts about his followers: "Will this crowd of innumerable liberated slaves be able to make do in freedom ?" Reymont's answer is a resounding: No. His animals repeatedly express a strong preference for being led -- and taken care of --, with hunger the strongest driving force: while they can be moved to follow a strong leader like Rex, when he can't provide them with sufficient sustenance they long for the good old days:
Rescue us ! Lead us ! We want people ! We want masters ! We want food ! Lead us !For Reymont, the masses are sheep looking for and needing to be tended to by a greater power, a paternalistic elite that knows better.
Reymont acknowledges that the animals lived in a kind of pathetic slavery, a wise owl telling Rex that: "You live, you multiply, and you die -- all for the benefit of man. [...] Shame to those who have embraced slavery !" The owl lives the true freedom of the wilderness -- where, significantly, also: "We have no king; we are ruled by wise, ancient laws". Rex -- and the animals he then leads in revolt -- are unable to adapt to this world, something the owl already sensed was inevitable at the outset:
I advise you to return to your stripes, your brimming trough and warm corner of the sty. You need to be born free in order to appreciate freedom. Out of my sight, you mangy pelt !The strong leader, Rex, imposes a kind of order, but he leads his followers only down the road to perdition. By the end, the calls of those around him are: "Death to the tyrant ! Death to the betrayer ! Death to the murderer !" And, ultimately, the revolt of the animals is a dismal failure, having also caused great suffering and taken an enormous toll.
The Revolt of the Animals follows on the Russian Revolution and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. The novel was apparently long suppressed for being critical of Communism, but Reymont's allegory is a more complex and problematic one. Rex is dictatorial and brutal, and arguably his quest is doomed to failure: the promised land is always just out of reach, and so, for all intents and purposes, illusory. Yet the failure of the revolt, and of Rex's idealistic hope, to lead his followers to a paradisical world free of humans, is largely due to natural forces, the harsh conditions and, especially, the lack of food. On the farm, under the human masters, nature has ben tamed, and the humans see to it that the animals are fed (and, in many cases, fattened up for slaughter ...) -- but without man, starvation looms. Reymont clearly suggests that the natural and proper order is for beast to be subjugated by man. Ultimately, here, the vast majority of the animals just want to be taken care of -- even if that means being the slaves of humans -- since they don't have the wherewithal to survive in some comfort without man's help and guidance.
The Revolt of the Animals comes across as arch-reactionary. Reymont seems to suggest that the vast majority of people (as the animals are, of course, merely stand-ins here) are sheep who simply want and need to be led and taken care of, and who can't handle any sort of freedom. A little bit of hardship -- okay, a lot of hardship -- and their wills crumble. Significantly, food is what matters above all, and only what Reymont sees as a functioning society -- a working farm, with a master who oversees it -- can provide it. Independence and personal freedom are luxuries only the fewest can afford.
Reymont is particularly strong on describing how inhospitable Nature is, the novel filled with vivid scenes of it:
All was lost in the impenetrable greyness, and the earth, beneath these hurricanes of unending thunder, seemed to be hurtling into a depthless abyss. All of creation was paralysed in mortal horror. Incomprehensible powers were trampling the shivering earth. The lightning-bolts sang a hymn of destruction. Destruction howled the winds that rose in the darkness so that the universe seemed one huge bank of sand blown through limitless spaces.So, yeah, you can kind of see why the animals have a tough time of it ..... Only Man, apparently, is capable of taming Nature ......
For better and worse, much of the writing is overheated. The number of exclamation marks used is just one obvious indicator, the tendency towards repetition in the intoning of words another. In places it is effective and impresses -- "'Death ! Death ! Death ! cawed an unkindness of ravens passing by overhead" --, but it can also get to be a bit much
There's also considerable carnage in the book -- a great deal of violence, and also suffering, which can be hard to take.
The action is a bit busy, especially in the shifting of allegiances (which Reymont also relies on too much: far too many of the characters are, like the Master, whose favorite Rex used to be, change sides too readily and extremely). But there are some inspired bits, including Dummy's obsession with a doll -- and the shocking final scenes of the novel, with the animals "Liberated from chimeras", is certainly very strong.
Still, the message of The Revolt of the Animals -- not so much anti-Bolshevik as arch-reactionary, even feudal -- is awful. It is of interest and, at its best -- as in its ending, even as horrible as the world he portrays in it is --, literarily impressive, but it is also a very odd, problematic piece of work
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 January 2023
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Polish author Władysław Reymont (1867-1925) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1924.
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© 2023 the complete review