Animal Farm is a satirical fable set on Manor Farm, a typical English farm. Orwell employs a third-person narrator, who reports events without commenting on them directly. The narrator describes things as the animals perceive them.
Old Major calls a meeting of all the animals in the big barn. He announces that he may die soon and relates to them the insights he has gathered in his life. Old Major tells the animals that human beings are the sole reason that “No animal in England is free” and that “The life of an animal is misery and slavery.” Therefore the animals must take charge of their destiny by overthrowing Man in a great Rebellion. He relates his dream of rebellion.
Old Major dies soon after the meeting and the other animals prepare for the Rebellion under Snowball, Napoleon, and Squealer’s leadership. One night, Mr. Jones passes out drunk, creating the perfect opportunity for the animals to rebel. They are so hungry that they break into the store-shed. When Jones and his men try to whip them into submission, the animals run them off the farm. The animals burn all reminders of their former bondage but agree to preserve the farmhouse “as a museum.” Snowball changes the name of the farm to “Animal Farm” and comes up with Seven Commandments, which are to form the basis of Animalism. They are:
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 animals shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7. All animals are equal.
The pigs milk the cows, and then the animals go out to begin the harvest. When they return, the milk has disappeared mysteriously. The first harvest is a great success. The animals adhere to the tenets of Animalism happily, and with good result. Each animal works according to his ability and gets a fair share of food.
Every Sunday, Snowball and Napoleon lead a meeting of all the animals in the big barn. The pigs are the most intelligent animals, so they think up resolutions for the other animals to debate. Soon after, the pigs set up a study-center for themselves in the harness-room. Snowball embarks on various campaigns for social and economic improvement. Napoleon opposes whatever Snowball does. Because most of the animals lack the intelligence to memorize the Seven Commandments, Snowball reduces them to the single maxim, “Four legs good, two legs bad.” The sheep take to chanting this at meetings.
As time goes by, the pigs increase their control over the animals and award themselves increasing privileges. They quell the animals’ questions and protests by threatening Mr. Jones’s return. During this time, Napoleon also confiscates nine newborn puppies and secludes them in a loft in order to “educate” them.
By late summer, Snowball’s and Napoleon’s pigeon-messengers have spread news of the Rebellion across half of England. Animals on other farms have begun lashing out against their human masters and singing the revolutionary song “Beasts of England.” Jones and other farmers try to recapture Animal Farm but fail. The animals celebrate their victory in what they call “The Battle of the Cowshed.”
The animals agree to let the pigs make all the resolutions. Snowball and Napoleon continue to be at odds and eventually clash over the windmill. Snowball wants to build a windmill in order to shorten the work week and provide the farm electricity, but Napoleon opposes it. Napoleon summons nine fierce dogs (the puppies he trained) to run Snowball off the farm. Napoleon announces that Sunday meetings will cease and that the pigs will make all the decisions in the animals’ best interest. At this point, Boxer takes on his own personal maxims, “I will work harder” and “Napoleon is always right.” In the spring, Napoleon announces plans to build the windmill, claiming that it was his idea all along—rewriting history.
Building the windmill forces the animals to work harder and on Sundays. Shortages begin to occur, so Napoleon opens up trade with the human world. Through Squealer, he lies that no resolutions against interaction with humans or the use of money had ever been passed. Napoleon enlists Whymper to be his intermediary, and the pigs move into the farmhouse. Squealer assures the animals that there is no resolution against this, but Clover and Muriel discovers that one of the resolutions has been changed to: “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.” Squealer convinces her that there was never a resolution against beds at all.
One night, strong winds shake the farm and the animals awake to discover the windmill destroyed. Napoleon blames Snowball and sentences the expelled pig to death.
In the winter, as conditions become worse on Animal Farm, Napoleon deceives the human world into thinking Animal Farm is prospering. He signs a contract for a quota of four hundred eggs per week, inciting a hen rebellion that results in several deaths. Around the same time, Napoleon begins negotiating with Frederick and Pilkington to sell Animal Farm’s store of timber. He also spreads propaganda against Snowball, claiming that Snowball was always a spy and a collaborator while Napoleon was the true hero of the Battle of the Cowshed, and Squealer warns against Snowball’s secret agents.
Four days later, Napoleon holds an assembly in which he makes several animals confess to treachery and then has the dogs execute them. The dogs try to get Boxer to confess but leave him alone when they cannot overpower him. Afterwards, Clover and some other animals huddle together on a hill overlooking the farm. They reminisce about Animalism’s ideals and consider how much they differ from the violence and terror of Napoleon’s reign. They sing “Beasts of England,” but Squealer informs them that the song is useless now that the Rebellion is completed and that it is now forbidden. The new anthem begins with the lyrics: “Animal Farm, Animal Farm, / Never through me shalt thou come to harm!”
Another commandment is changed to read: “No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.” Clover and Muriel convince themselves that the commandment has always been this way. Squealer begins reading the animals statistics regularly to convince them that production is increasing. Napoleon seldom appears in public. The animals now call him “our Leader, Comrade Napoleon.” They attribute all misfortunes to Snowball and all success and luck to Napoleon.
Napoleon continues to negotiate with the farmers and eventually decides to sell the timber to Mr. Pilkington. At last, the windmill is finished and named “Napoleon Mill.” Soon after, Napoleon announces that he will sell the timber to Frederick, quickly changing his allegiance and disavowing his earlier vilification of Frederick. Napoleon says that Pilkington and Snowball have been collaborating. Frederick pays for the timber in fake cash, and the next morning, Frederick and his men invade the farm and blow up the windmill. The animals manage to chase the humans off, though many die or are injured in what they call “The Battle of the Windmill.”
After the battle, the pigs discover a case of whisky in the farmhouse. They drink to excess and soon, Squealer reports that Napoleon is dying and, as his last action, has made the consumption of alcohol punishable by death. But Napoleon recovers quickly and then sends Whymper to procure manuals on brewing alcohol. Squealer changes another commandment to “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.”
Napoleon plans to build a schoolhouse for the thirty-one young pigs he has parented. Towards the end of the winter, Napoleon begins increasing propaganda to distract the animals from inequality and hardship. He creates special “Spontaneous Demonstrations” in which the animals march around and celebrate their triumphs.
In April, Napoleon declares the farm a Republic and is elected unanimously as President. The animals continue to work feverishly, most of all Boxer. One day, Boxer collapses while overexerting himself. Napoleon promises to send him to the veterinarian in Willingdon. A few days later, a horse-slaughterer takes Boxer away in his van. The animals are none the wiser until Benjamin reads the lettering on the side of the van. A few days later, Squealer reports that Boxer died in the hospital despite receiving the best possible care. He claims that Boxer’s last words glorified Animal Farm and Napoleon. He also claims that the van belongs to the veterinarian, who recently bought it from the horse slaughterer and had not yet managed to paint over the lettering. Napoleon promises to honor Boxer with a special banquet. But the pigs use the money from his slaughter to buy a case of whisky, which they drink on the day appointed for the banquet.
Years go by, and though Animal Farm’s population has increased, only a few animals that remember the Rebellion remain. Conditions are still harsh despite technological improvements. The pigs and dogs continue to do no manual labor, instead devoting themselves to organizational work. One day, Squealer takes the sheep out to a deserted pasture where, he says, he is teaching them a song. On the day the sheep return, the pigs walk around the yard on their hind legs as the sheep chant, “Four legs good, two legs better.” The other animals are horrified. Clover consults the barn wall again. This time Benjamin reads to her. The Seven Commandments have been replaced with a single maxim: “All animals are equal / But some animals are more equal than others.”
The pigs continue the longstanding pattern of awarding themselves more and more privileges. They buy a telephone and subscribe to magazines. They even wear Jones’s clothing. One night, Napoleon holds a conciliatory banquet for the farmers. Pilkington makes a speech in which he says he wants to emulate Animal Farm’s long work hours and low rations. Napoleon announces that the farm will be called “Manor Farm” again, the animals will call each other “Comrade” no longer, and they no longer will march ceremoniously past Old Major’s skull (a practice he denies understanding). He also declares that the farm’s flag will be plain green, devoid of the symbols of the Rebellion. As the animals peer through the windows to watch the humans and pigs play poker, they cannot distinguish between them.
About Animal Farm
Animal Farm was published on the heels of World War II, in England in 1945 and in the United States in 1946. George Orwell wrote the book during the war as a cautionary fable in order to expose the seriousness of the dangers posed by Stalinism and totalitarian government. Orwell faced several obstacles in getting the novel published. First, he was putting forward an anti-Stalin book during a time when Western support for the Soviet Union was still high due to its support in Allied victories against Germany. Second, Orwell was not yet the literary star he would quickly become. For those reasons, Animal Farm appeared only at the war’s end, during the same month that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The tragically violent events of the war set the stage well for Orwell’s fictional manifesto against totalitarianism.
Animal Farm was Orwell’s first highly successful novel (the second being 1984), and it helped launch him out of the minor fame of an essayist into the stratosphere of acclaimed fiction. Despite publishers’ initial hesitance toward the book, the public in both Britain and the United States met it with enthusiasm. In the United States alone, it sold 600,000 copies in four years. Animal Farm was translated into many languages, proving its universal reach.
Animal Farm is an allegory or fable, a fairy tale for adults. Orwell uses animal characters in order to draw the reader away from the world of current events into a fantasy space where the reader can grasp ideas and principles more crisply. At the same time, Orwell personifies the animals in the tradition of allegory so that they symbolize real historical figures. In their own universe, people can become desensitized even to terrible things like deception, mistreatment, and violence. By demonstrating how these things occur in an allegorical world, Orwell makes them more clearly understood in the real world. For instance, in Animal Farm’s public execution, Orwell lays bare the matter of execution by having the dogs rip out the supposed traitors’ throats. In this scene, the reader is led to focus not as much on the means of execution as on the animalistic, atrocious reality of execution itself.
Animal Farm is also a powerful satire. Orwell uses irony to undermine the tenets of totalitarianism, specifically that of Stalinism.
Almost instantly after the novel’s publication, it became the subject of revisionism. In one instance, the CIA made an animated film version of the book in which they eliminated the final scene and replaced it with a new revolution in which the animals overthrow the pigs (see the 1999 Hallmark film version for another change in ending). They distributed the film as anti-communist propaganda, which is ironic when one considers the novel’s own censure of the propagandist rewriting of history. This revision and others over the years (whether in changing the story or interpreting it) contributed to the public’s general misunderstanding of Orwell. Though he was staunchly anti-Stalinist, he was certainly not a capitalist. In fact, he was a revolutionary socialist. During his lifetime, Orwell did little to detract from his skewed public image. He was a man of contradictions--Louis Menand calls him “a middle-class intellectual who despised the middle class and was contemptuous of intellectuals, a Socialist whose abuse of Socialists ... was as vicious as any Tory’s.”
Animal Farm is universally appealing for both the obvious and the subtle messages of the fable. While the allegory’s characters and events are deeply or specifically symbolic, Orwell’s narrator softens some of the punches by including a gentle and un-opinionated narrator. The third-person narrator is outside the animals’ world, so he does not relate any of the lies, hardships, or atrocities firsthand. Rather, he is a quiet observer.
Moreover, the narrator relates the tale from the perspective of the animals other than the dogs and pigs. In this way, the narrator’s approach to the story resembles Orwell’s approach to life. That is, just as Orwell developed empathy for the working class by experiencing working-class life firsthand, the narrator’s tale is based on the experience of someone who is not quite an insider but no longer just an outsider. The narrator’s animal perspective, as well as his reluctance to opine, fits well with the naivete of the animal characters.
One example of the narrator’s indifferent approach to the tale is evident when the pigs use the money from Boxer’s slaughter to buy a case of whisky. Rather than relating this event in stark terms, the narrator states impartially that on the day appointed for Boxer’s memorial banquet, a carton arrives at the farmhouse followed by loud singing and “the word went round that from somewhere or other the pigs had acquired the money to buy themselves another case of whisky” (126). The scene also exemplifies how the narrator’s naïve perspective produces an drily ironic effect.
Here are two other examples of ironic humor in the novel. In Chapter I, the narrator describes “Beasts of England” as “a stirring tune, something between ‘Clementine’ and ‘La Cucaracha’” (32). Anyone familiar with those two songs knows that they are childish ditties. In Chapter IX, the narrator reports that the pigs find “a large bottle of pink medicine” in the farmhouse’s medicine cabinet. They send it out to Boxer, who is deathly ill. We can assume that the medicine, being pink, is the antacid Pepto-Bismol, hardly useful to someone on his deathbed. By lightening his allegory with ironic humor, Orwell makes the story more palatable without taking away from his message.
The donkey. He is the oldest animal on the farm and stereotypically stubborn and crotchety. He is also intelligent, being the only animal (aside from the pigs) that can read fluently. He never laughs, preferring to make cynical comments, especially the cryptic line, “donkeys live a long time.” Despite Benjamin’s unfriendly nature, he has a special affinity for Boxer. The Rebellion does not change Benjamin’s personality, although he eventually helps the animals read the lettering on the side of the van and the maxim that replaces the Seven Commandments. Benjamin represents the human (and also stereotypically Russian) tendency towards apathy; he holds fast to the idea that life is inherently hard and that efforts for change are futile. Benjamin bears a similarity to Orwell himself. Over the course of his career, Orwell became politically pessimistic and predicted the overtake of the West by totalitarian governments.
Bluebell, Jessie, and Pincher
The dogs. When Bluebell and Jessie give birth to puppies, Napoleon confiscates them and secludes them in a loft, where he transforms them into fierce, elitist guard dogs.
The male of the two horses on the farm. He is “an enormous beast, nearly eighteen hands high, and as strong as any two ordinary horses put together. A white stripe down his nose gave him a somewhat stupid appearance, and in fact he was not of first-rate intelligence, but he was universally respected for his steadiness of character and tremendous powers of work” (26). Boxer has a special affinity for Benjamin. With his determination to be a good public servant and his penchant for hard work, Boxer becomes Napoleon’s greatest supporter. He works tirelessly for the cause of Animal Farm, operating under his personal maxims, “I will work harder” and “Napoleon is always right.” The only time Boxer doubts propaganda is when Squealer tries to rewrite the story of Snowball’s valor at the Battle of the Cowshed, a “treachery” for which he is nearly executed. But Boxer recants his doubts when he learns that the altered story of the battle is directly from Napoleon. After Boxer is injured while defending the farm in the Battle of the Windmill, Napoleon sends him to be slaughtered for profit. The pigs use the money from the slaughter to buy themselves a case of whisky. Boxer is not pugnacious despite his name, but he is as strong as his name implies. In this way, Boxer is a painfully ironic character. He is strong enough to kill another animal, even a human, with a single blow from his hoof, and the dogs cannot manage to overpower him in Chapter VII. Still, Boxer lacks the intelligence and the nerve to sense that he is being used. Boxer represents the peasant or working class, a faction of humanity with a great combined strength--enough to overthrow a manipulative government--but which is uneducated enough to take propaganda to heart and believe unconditionally in the government’s cause.
The female of the two horses on the farm. She is “a stout motherly mare approaching middle life, who had never quite got her figure back after her fourth foal.” Clover is Boxer’s faithful companion as well as a motherly figure to the other animals. Like Boxer, Clover is not intelligent enough to read, so she enlists Muriel to read the altered Seven Commandments to her. She sees the incongruities in the government’s policies and actions, but she is not smart or defiant enough to fight for the restoration of justice. Clover represents those people who remember a time before the Revolution and therefore half-realize that the government is lying about its success and adherence to its principles, but are helpless to change anything.
Nine puppies, which Napoleon confiscates and secludes in a loft. Napoleon rears them into fierce, elitist dogs that act as his security guards. The dogs are the only animals other than the pigs that are given special privileges. They also act as executioners, tearing out the throats of animals that confess to treachery. The dogs represent the NKVD and more specifically the KGB, agencies Joseph Stalin fostered and used to terrorize and commit atrocities upon the Soviet Union’s populace.
The owner of Pinchfield, the small farm adjacent to Manor Farm. He is a hard-nosed individual who is known for his frequent legal troubles and demanding business style. He cheats the animals out of their timber by paying for it with fake banknotes. Frederick represents Adolf Hitler. Rumors of the exotic and cruel animal tortures Frederick enacts on his farm are meant to echo the horror stories emerging from Nazi Germany. Frederick’s agreement to buy the timber represents the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty, and his subsequent betrayal of the pact and invasion of Animal Farm represents the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
The owner of Manor Farm and a drunkard. His animals overthrow him in the Rebellion. When he tries to recapture his property, they defeat him, steal his gun, and drive him off again. Mr. Jones dies in a home for alcoholics in another part of the country. He represents the kind of corrupt and fatally flawed government that results in discontent and revolution among the populace. More specifically, Jones represents the latter days of imperial Russia and its last leader, the wealthy but ineffective Czar Nicholas II.
A pig with “a remarkable gift for composing songs and poems.” Under Napoleon’s rule, Minimus sits with him and Squealer on the barn platform during meetings. Minimus composes propaganda songs and poems under Napoleon’s rule. Though we never hear Minimus complain about his duties as propaganda writer, he represents the Soviet Union’s artists, who were forced to use their talents to glorify communism rather than express their personal feelings or beliefs.
The white mare that draws Mr. Jones’s trap. Her personality is superficial and adolescent. For example, when she arrives at the big meeting in Chapter 1, Orwell writes, “Mollie … Came mincing daintily in, chewing a lump of sugar. She took a place near the front and began flirting her white mane, hoping to draw attention to the red ribbons it was plaited with” (27). Mollie is the only animal not to fight in the Battle of the Cowshed, instead hiding in her stall. She eventually flees the farm and is last seen, bedecked in ribbons, eating sugar and letting her new owner stroke her nose. Mollie represents the class of nobles who, unwilling to conform to the new regime, fled Russia after the Revolution.
A tame raven that is Mr. Jones’s “especial pet.” He is a spy, a gossip, and a “clever talker” (37). He is also the only animal not present for Old Major’s meeting. Moses gets in the way of the pigs’ efforts to spread Animalism by inventing a story about an animal heaven called Sugarcandy Mountain. Moses disappears for several years during Napoleon’s rule. When he returns, he still insists on the existence of Sugarcandy Mountain. Moses represents religion, which gives people hope of a better life in heaven. His name connects him to the Judeo-Christian religions specifically, but he can be said to represent the spiritual alternative in general. The pigs dislike Moses’s stories of Sugarcandy Mountain, just as the Soviet government opposed religion, not wanting its people to subscribe to a system of belief outside of communism. Though the Soviet government suppressed religion aggressively, the pigs on Animal Farm let Moses come and go as he pleases and even give him a ration of beer when he returns from his long absence.
The white goat. Muriel can read fairly well and helps Clover decipher the alterations to the Seven Commandments. Muriel is not opinionated, but she represents a subtle, revelatory influence because of her willingness to help bring things to light (as opposed to Benjamin).
One of the leaders among the pigs, Napoleon is a “large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar” that is up for sale. He is the only Berkshire boar on the farm. He is “not much of a talker” and has “a reputation for getting his own way” (35). Napoleon expels Snowball from the farm and takes over. He modifies his opinions and policies and rewrites history continually to benefit the pigs. Napoleon awards special privileges to the pigs and especially to himself. For example, he dines on Mr. Jones’s fine china, wears Mr. Jones’s dress clothes, and smokes a pipe. As time goes on, Napoleon becomes a figure in the shadows, increasingly secluding himself and making few public appearances. Eventually, Napoleon holds a conciliatory meeting with the neighboring human farmers and effectively takes over Mr. Jones’s position as dictator. Napoleon represents the type of dictator or tyrant who shirks the common good, instead seeking more and more power in order to create his own regime. Orwell reflects Napoleon’s greed for power with a name that invokes Napoleon Bonaparte, the very successful French leader who became “Emperor” and brashly invaded Russia before being defeated by Russia. But Napoleon the pig more directly represents Stalin in his constantly changing policies and actions, his secret activities, his intentional deception and manipulation of the populace, and his use of fear tactics and atrocities.
A prize Middle White boar that the Joneses exhibited under the name “Willingdon Beauty.” He is, “stout … But still a majestic-looking pig, with a wise and benevolent appearance” (26). In addition to his laurels in the exhibition world, Major is highly respected among his fellow farm animals. His age is twelve years, which makes him a senior among them, and he also claims to have had over four hundred children. He is the one who calls the meeting in the first chapter to discuss his strange dream. Major claims to “understand the nature of life on this earth as well as any animal now living” (28). Months after his death, the pigs disinter his skull and place it at the base of the flagpole beside the gun. Major symbolizes two historical figures. First, he represents Karl Marx, the father of Marxism. Marx’s political hypotheses about working-class consciousness and division of labor worked infinitely better in theory than in practice, especially when corrupt leaders twisted them for their personal gain. Second, Major represents Vladimir Lenin, the foremost of the three authors of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. Lenin died during the Soviet Union’s early years, leaving Trotsky (Snowball) and Stalin (Napoleon) to vie for his leadership position.
The owner of Foxwood, the large, unkempt farm adjacent to Manor Farm. He is an easy-going man who prefers pursuing his hobbies to maintaining his land. At the book’s end, Mr. Pilkington offers a toast to the future cooperation between human farms and Animal Farm. He also says he plans to emulate Animal Farm’s low rations and long work hours. Pilkington can be seen to represent the Allies. Allied countries explored the possibility of trade with the Soviet Union in the years leading up to World War II but kept a watchful distance. Ominously, as Friedrich Hayek points out in The Road to Serfdom (1944), communist principles had strong proponents among many Allied nations as well. Pilkington’s unwillingness to save Animal Farm from Frederick and his men parodies the Allies’ initial hesitance to enter the War. Napoleon’s and Pilkington’s poker game at the end of the book suggests the beginnings of a power struggle that would later become the Cold War.
A pig that Napoleon enlists as his taster, lest someone try to poison him.
The sheep are loyal to the tenets of Animal Farm, often breaking into a chorus of “Four legs good, two legs bad” and later, “Four legs good, two legs better!” The Sheep--true to the typical symbolic meaning of “sheep”--represent those people who have little understanding of their situation and thus are willing to follow their government blindly.
One of the leaders among the pigs, Snowball is a young pig that is up for sale. He is more intelligent than Napoleon but lacks Napoleon’s depth of character. He is also a brilliant orator. Snowball, who represents Leon Trotsky, is a progressive politician and aims to improve Animal Farm with a windmill and other technological advances, but Napoleon expels him before he can do so. In his absence, Snowball comes to represent an abstract idea of evil. The animals blame misfortunes on him, including the windmill’s destruction, and entertain the idea that he is lurking on one of the neighboring farms, plotting revenge. Napoleon uses the animals’ fear of Snowball to create new propaganda and changes history to make it seem as though Snowball was always a spy and a traitor. Snowball’s name is symbolic in this way. Napoleon encourages the animals’ fear of him to grow or snowball so that it becomes so great it is almost palpable. Snowball’s name may also refer to Trotsky’s call (following Marx) to encourage a revolution outside the Soviet Union that would “snowball” into an international proletariat revolution. Snowball can more generally be said to represent systems of belief outside of communism, which the government demonizes in order to lionize its own system.
The best known of the porker pigs, Squealer has “very round cheeks, twinkling eyes, nimble movements, and a shrill voice.” He is also “a brilliant talker” who is talented in the art of argument. The other pigs say Squealer “could turn black into white” (35). Under Napoleon’s rule, Squealer acts as the liaison to the other animals. He lies to them, rewriting history and reading them encouraging, but false, statistics. Squealer is especially good at playing on the animals’ ignorance and gullibility. He represents the propaganda machine of a totalitarian government.
A solicitor in Willingdon who acts as Animal Farm’s intermediary to the human world. He is “a sly-looking little man with side whiskers.” He visits the farm every Monday to get his orders and is paid in commissions. Mr. Whymper’s business-minded attitude towards Animal Farm, which allows him to ignore the injustices and atrocities committed there, make him a parody of nations that conducted business with the Soviet Union while turning a blind eye to its internal affairs.
The Soviet Union under Stalinism
Animal Farm is a satire of totalitarian governments in their many guises. But Orwell composed the book for a more specific purpose: to serve as a cautionary tale about Stalinism. It was for this reason that he faced such difficulty in getting the book published; by the time Animal Farm was ready to meet its readers, the Allies were cooperating with the Soviet Union. The allegorical characters of the novel represent specific historical figures and different factions of Imperial Russian and Soviet society. These include Karl Marx (Major), Vladimir Lenin (Major), Leon Trotsky (Snowball), Joseph Stalin (Napoleon), Adolf Hitler (Frederick), the Allies (Pilkington), the peasants (Boxer), the elite (Mollie), and the church (Moses).
The resemblance of some of the novel’s events to events in Soviet history is indubitable. For example, Snowball’s and Napoleon’s power struggle is a direct allegory of Trotsky’s and Stalin’s. Frederick’s trade agreement with Napoleon, and his subsequent breaking of the agreement, represents the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that preceded World War II. The following Battle of the Windmill represents World War II itself.
Despite his fairy-tale clarity in satirizing some historical events, Orwell is less specific about others. For example, the executions in Chapter VII conflate the Red Terror with the Great Purge. The executions themselves bear resemblance to both events, although their details connect them more to the Moscow Trials than to the Red Terror. Squealer’s subsequent announcement that the executions have ended the Rebellion connects them to the period of the Red Terror, however. Orwell leaves some ambiguity in the identities of the Rebellion and the Battle of the Cowshed. These ambiguities help the reader focus on the overall satire of Stalinism and the broader warning about the evils of totalitarian government.
The Inevitability of Totalitarianism
Orwell held the pessimistic belief that totalitarianism was inevitable, even in the West. According to Russell Baker, who wrote the preface to Animal Farm’s 1996 Signet Classics version, Orwell’s pessimism stemmed from his having grown up in an age of dictatorship. Witnessing Hitler’s and Stalin’s movements from afar, as well as fighting totalitarianism in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell came to believe in the rise of a new species of autocrat, worse even than the tyrants of old. This cynicism is reflected in both of his highly successful novels, Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell emphasizes the insidiousness of totalitarianism early in the novel, when the pigs take the fresh milk and apples. The pigs justify their actions on the basis of their superiority; they are smart and need more nutrition than the other animals to fuel their brainpower. There is no scientific basis for the pigs’ claim—in fact, if anyone needs more food to fuel their labor, it is the manual laborers—but they can count on the animals’ being too ignorant to realize that. In this way, Orwell makes the point that totalitarianism need not be blatant in order to be operating. It can hide under the guise of the “greater good” as it did in the Soviet Union before the totalitarianism became obvious.
Orwell uses a cyclical structure in Animal Farm, which helps advance the idea of totalitarianism’s predictability. The novel begins with Jones as autocratic tyrant and ends with Napoleon not only in Jones’s position, but in his clothes as well. Over the course of the novel, Napoleon essentially becomes Jones just as Stalin becomes an autocrat after pretending to espouse equality and freedom. Orwell cements this idea in the book’s final scene, where he writes, “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. 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” (139). The circularity of Orwell’s story prevents the reader from imagining a better future for Animal Farm. After all, even if another Rebellion were to take place, its leaders would eventually come to emulate Napoleon.
According to Baker, technology turned out to be the force freeing people from Orwell’s age of dictators. But “technology” can be just another banner under which to rally the people. While Orwell does portray technology as a source of progress in Animal Farm, he points out that it is useless unless it is in the people’s hands. Most notably, even when the windmill is finished it is used for milling corn instead of its original purpose of supplying the animals with electricity in their stalls.
Intelligence and Education as Tools of Oppression
From the very beginning of the novel, we become aware of education’s role in stratifying Animal Farm’s population. Following Major’s death, the pigs are the ones that take on the task of organizing and mobilizing the other animals because they are “generally recognized as being the cleverest of the animals” (35). At first, the pigs are loyal to their fellow animals and to the revolutionary cause. They translate Major’s vision of the future faithfully into the Seven Commandments of Animalism. However, it is not long before the pigs’ intelligence and education turn from tools of enlightenment to implements of oppression. The moment the pigs are faced with something material that they want—the fresh milk—they abandon their morals and use their superior intellect and knowledge to deceive the other animals.
The pigs also limit the other animals’ opportunities to gain intelligence and education early on. They teach themselves to read and write from a children’s book but destroy it before the other animals can have the same chance. Indeed, most of the animals never learn more than a few letters of the alphabet. Once the pigs cement their status as the educated elite, they use their mental advantage to manipulate the other animals. For example, knowing that the other animals cannot read the Seven Commandments, they revise them whenever they like. The pigs also use their literacy to learn trades from manuals, giving them an opportunity for economic specialization and advancement. Content in the role of the intelligentsia, the pigs forgo manual labor in favor of bookkeeping and organizing. This shows that the pigs have not only the advantage of opportunity, but also the opportunity to reject whatever opportunities they like. The pigs’ intelligence and education allow them to bring the other animals into submission through the use of propaganda and revisionism. At the book’s end, we witness Napoleon’s preparations to educate a new generation of pigs and indoctrinate them into the code of oppression.
Propaganda and Duplicity
Working as a propagandist during World War II, Orwell experienced firsthand both the immense power and the dishonesty of propaganda. Many types of governments make use of propaganda, not only totalitarian ones. Consider, for instance, the arguments that led many United States citizens to go along with the idea of invading Iraq after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Propaganda serves the positive task of uniting the people, sometimes at the cost of misleading them. Orwell takes a firm stance on the harmfulness of propaganda in Animal Farm while acknowledging its value for rallying a mistreated and disillusioned populace.
In Chapter IX, Orwell demonstrates the positive value of propaganda. By this point, the animals are so downtrodden that they are desperate for something in which to believe. (Note the irony, though: it is Napoleon who has robbed them of their belief in the original version of Animalism.) The falsely optimistic statistics, the songs, and especially the Spontaneous Demonstrations give the animals something to live for. This chapter is an exception in terms of portraying propaganda in a positive light. For the majority of Animal Farm, Orwell skewers propaganda and exposes its nature as deception.
Squealer represents a totalitarian government’s propaganda machine. Eloquent to a fault, he can make the animals believe almost anything. This fact is especially clear in Squealer’s interactions with Clover and Muriel. Each time Clover suspects that the Seven Commandments have been changed, Squealer manages to convince her that she is wrong. After the executions, Napoleon abolishes the singing of “Beasts of England” in favor of a new anthem, the lyrics of which contain a promise never to harm Animal Farm. In this propagandist maneuver, Napoleon replaces the revolutionary spirit of “Beasts of England” with the exact opposite, a promise not to rebel. In addition to being a source of manipulation, propaganda is an agent of fear and terror. Orwell demonstrates this quite clearly with Napoleon’s vilification of Snowball and his assurances that Snowball could attack the animals at any minute. He uses similar fear tactics regarding Frederick and Pilkington. The most egregious example of propaganda in the novel is the maxim that replaces the Seven Commandments: “All animals are equal / But some animals are more equal than others.” The idea of “more equal” is mathematically improbable and a nonsensical manipulation of language, but by this time, the animals are too brainwashed to notice.
Violence and Terror as Means of Control
In Animal Farm, Orwell criticizes the ways that dictators use violence and terror to frighten their populaces into submission. Violence is one of the yokes from which the animals wish to free themselves when they prepare for the Rebellion. Not only does Jones overwork the animals and steal the products of their labor, but he can whip or slaughter them at his discretion. Once the pigs gain control of the animals, they, like Jones, discover how useful violence and terror can be. They use this knowledge to their full advantage. The foremost example of violence and terror in the novel is the pattern of public executions. The executions can be said to represent both the Red Terror and the Great Purge, but they stand more broadly for the abuse of power. For example, they are also similar to the Taliban’s public executions in Kabul’s soccer stadium in modern Afghanistan.
Capital punishment for criminals is a hotly debated issue. Killing suspected criminals, as Napoleon does, is quite another issue. The executions perhaps best symbolize the Moscow Trials, which were show trials that Stalin arranged to instill fear in the Soviet people. To witnesses at the time, the accused traitors’ confessions seemed to be given freely. In fact, they were coerced. Napoleon likely coerces confessions from many of the animals that he executes. Orwell’s use of the allegory genre serves him well in the execution scene. Execution with weapons is a violent and horrifying act, but many people have become desensitized to it. Orwell’s allegorical executioners, the dogs that kill cruelly, portray the bloody and inescapably animalistic side of execution.
Terror comes also in threats and propaganda. Each time the animals dare to question an aspect of Napoleon’s regime, Squealer threatens them with Jones’s return. This is doubly threatening to the animals because it would mean another battle that, if lost, would result in a return to their former lifestyle of submission. Jones’s return is such a serious threat that it quashes the animals’ curiosity without fail. The other major example of fear tactics in the novel is the threat of Snowball and his collaborators. Napoleon is able to vilify Snowball in the latter’s absence and to make the animals believe that his return, like Jones’s, is imminent. Snowball is a worse threat than Jones, because Jones is at least safely out of Animal Farm. Snowball is “proved” to be not only lurking along Animal Farm’s borders but infiltrating the farm. Napoleon’s public investigation of Snowball’s whereabouts cements the animals’ fear of Snowball’s influence. In modern language, Snowball is pegged as the terrorist responsible for the infringements on the rights and liberties instigated by the pigs.
Exploitation and the Need for Human Rights
Exploitation is the issue around which the animals unite. Initially, the animals do not realize Jones is exploiting them. For this reason, Old Major’s speech is a revelation of momentous proportions. Major explains to the animals that they are enslaved and exploited and that Man is to blame. He teaches them not only what exploitation means, but also the fact that it is not inevitable. Orwell suggests that exploitation is, in fact, bound to happen when one class of society has an advantage over another. The opposite of exploitation, according to Major, is the state of being “rich and free.” Major’s ideas about animal rights symbolize the importance—and scarcity—of human rights in an oppressive regime. Gaining freedom does not necessarily lead people also to become rich, but it is better to be poor and free than poor and exploited.
All the animals on Animal Farm are exploited under Napoleon’s control, save the pigs. Even the dogs, which work closely with the pigs, are exploited. The dogs face perhaps even a worse form of exploitation than the other animals, because they are made into agents of intimidation and death. Whereas Napoleon exploits the other animals’ physical strength and their ignorance, he exploits the dogs’ viciousness and turns them into villains against their parents’ wishes.
Boxer’s life is a particularly sad example of exploitation because he exploits himself, believing wholeheartedly in Napoleon’s goodness. In the end, Napoleon turns the tables and exploits Boxer, having him slaughtered for profit. By the end of the novel, we see clearly how the animals participate in their own exploitation. They are beginning to build a schoolhouse for the thirty-one young pigs Napoleon has fathered (perhaps an oblique reference to the “Thirty Tyrants” of ancient Greece). That schoolhouse will never benefit the animals that build it; rather, it will be used to educate the pigs and indoctrinate them into the cycle of exploiting others. Throughout the novel, Orwell shows us how the lack of human rights results in total helplessness. However, though it underscores the need for human rights, the novel does not suggest how to achieve them. After all, once the animals expel Jones and gain rights for themselves, the pigs take those rights away and the cycle of exploitation continues with new players.
Apathy and Acceptance
In the beginning of Animal Farm, the idea of freedom rouses the animals as if from a long slumber. Immediately following Major’s death, the animals begin preparing themselves for the Rebellion; just the idea of revolution is enough to motivate them, since they do not expect it to happen in their lifetimes. By the book’s end, the animals have become as apathetic as Benjamin always was. Despite the many hardships and injustices they face, the animals’ pride as well as Napoleon’s propaganda keep them invested in the “greater good” and the illusion of freedom. If Benjamin is the harbinger of apathy, Boxer is its antithesis. Strong not only in body but also in spirit, Boxer will make any sacrifice for the benefit of Animal Farm. With Boxer’s eventual betrayal by the leaders he served so unconditionally, Orwell lays bare another type of apathy—theirs. Far from truly considering Boxer a loyal comrade, the pigs treat him as apathetically as they would a mere object. Symbolically, they even make a profit by having him turned into literal objects—glue and bone meal.
Boxer’s enthusiasm does not give him an advantage, but the other animals’ eventual apathy gives them a defense mechanism against the painful reality of their lives. It is no coincidence that Animal Farm’s most apathetic and cynical animal, Benjamin, is one of those that survives the longest. Benjamin’s emotional detachment from situations, whether they are good or bad, keeps him from being disappointed. In his apathy and cynicism, Benjamin represents the stereotypical “gloomy” Russian and also the perennially pessimistic Orwell himself.