George Orwell wrote Animal Farm over the winter of 1943 to 1944, calling it a ‘fairy tale’ in which he creates an allegory of the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s corruption of the communist ideal. It has continuing resonance all around the world wherever politicians and leaders manipulate their populations and ‘spin’ events to support their own prosperity at the cost of their supporters.
Using language to control
Orwell shows that when words are used to sound meaningful while really masking nonsense, people (or animals) can be confused or tricked by those who control the official words. When the Major’s thoughts are codified into the ‘seven commandments’, the words he used are simplified and standardised – reasonable enough, we might think. But this is the first step towards the slogans “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” and “four legs good, two legs better”.
Corruption of ideals
The great experiment of Animal Farm begins as a ‘dream’ – the dream of the well-respected prize boar, the Old Major. Who can disagree with the simple facts as he states them?
“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits.”
The plan to find a better life – a life of freedom – is applauded by the animals exactly as it is applauded in our human world. But Orwell’s ‘fairy tale’ succeeds in showing that having high ideals is no guarantee of success. Neither are these ideals impossible to corrupt. The first observable instance is when we are told that the three pigs ‘had elaborated old Major's teachings into a complete system of thought’. Their ‘Animalism’ seems to inherently favour their point of view. Sugar, for instance, is a bourgeois luxury (and something the pigs have never enjoyed), so there will be no need for sugar ‘after the Rebellion’. And on the first day of freedom, Napoleon appropriates the milk of the cows for the pigs. It seems hard to argue that Napoleon and Snowball ever believed in the Old Major’s ideal except as an opportunity for their own profit and power.
Humour as criticism
Orwell uses humour throughout the story to draw attention to his characters’ actions, and then to allow his reader to swallow them. For instance, Squealer’s justification for the pigs taking the apple and milk is laced with deceit – obvious to us, less so to the animals.
"You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself.”
This protest is so blatantly dishonest that we must laugh – yet whenever we mistrust politicians or people in authority when they make similar protestations of disinterest, we will remember the pigs and their ‘spin’.
Napoleon’s characterisation is relatively simplistic, but by no means unbelievable. There is very little chance for us to see from Napoleon’s perspective, since the story retains a detached narrative voice throughout, and all his actions are reported in a dry and factual manner. In fact, the best interpretations we get for Napoleon’s motivation are the spurious propaganda disseminated by Squealer.
Named after the French Emperor, Napoleon also follows his namesake in betraying the democratic ideals which propelled him into his position. Although he represents Joseph Stalin within the allegory of the Russian Revolution, Napoleon is also a depiction of an ruthless leader willing to use violence to enforce his will upon a population.
Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, the socialist who worked alongside Joseph Stalin but was forced to flee Russia before being murdered in Mexico. Snowball’s key moments are his spearheading of the Battle of the Cowshed, which demonstrates his intellectual and tactical superiority over Napoleon and the other pigs, since he had ‘studied an old book of Julius Caesar's campaigns’ and his plans for the windmill. Orwell doesn’t create a picture of an ideal idealist in Snowball – he is a participant in the pigs’ preparation for taking power – but he does seem to hold sincere dreams of a better life. Why else would he have ploughed through all of Farmer Jones’ books in addition to Caesar, 'One Thousand Useful Things to Do About the House', 'Every Man His Own Bricklayer', and 'Electricity for Beginners'?
Snowball is quickly frightened away by the threat of violence and becomes a scapegoat for any failures the animals fall into – or perhaps a ‘scapepig’? Anyway, his popularity and high profile are still useful to Napoleon when he is gone.
The Old Major
The Old Major is the spark on the fuse of the Rebellion. His ‘dream’ is a parallel to the philosophy of Karl Marx, who inspired socialists and communists to begin their own human experiment in reordering society. Like Marx, the Old Major dies before he can see what comes of his dream, and so the reader isn’t challenged to hold an opinion on the character or his beliefs – only on how they are carried out by his followers.
The cat is a minor character, but I find her interesting because she stands to one side of most of the animals. As an opportunist and an individualist, she escapes Napoleon’s purges and surfs the political tide, always looking ‘for the warmest place’. She is not interested in listening to the address in the barn at the beginning of the story, avoids work and purrs ‘so affectionately’ that she is let off from taking her share of the work. She disappears from the story when Napoleon begins to execute other animals, suggesting that she has decided that her time to leave the farm has come. While in character for a cat, this might prompt us to ask why more animals don’t leave. But Orwell’s character here is really untouched by the Rebellion and the new order at animal farm, and a real individualist always would be.
Whether you approach Animal Farm by analysing the allegory, or looking at one particular character, consider the writer’s decision to feature certain events and skip over others. In a way, his retelling has as much of an agenda as Squealer’s propaganda – but Orwell has created a lasting and resonant fantasy to reveal the real way that people act in their own interest.
allegory A story which uses an extended metaphor to create a fictional version of another story, often drawn from history or everyday human experience.
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More GCSE analyses: Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies