By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Animal Farm is, after Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s most famous book. Published in 1945, the novella (at under 100 pages, it’s too short to be called a full-blown ‘novel’) tells the story of how a group of animals on a farm overthrow the farmer who puts them to work, and set up an equal society where all animals work and share the fruits of their labours.
However, as time goes on, it becomes clear that the society the animals have constructed is not equal at all. It’s well-known that the novella is an allegory for Communist Russia under Josef Stalin, who was leader of the Soviet Union when Orwell wrote the book. Before we dig deeper into the context and meaning of Animal Farm with some words of analysis, it might be worth refreshing our memories with a brief summary of the novella’s plot.
Animal Farm: plot summary
The novella opens with an old pig, named Major, addressing his fellow animals on Manor Farm. Major criticises Mr Jones, the farmer who owns Manor Farm, because he controls the animals, takes their produce (the hens’ eggs, the cows’ milk), but gives them little in return. Major tells the other animals that man, who walks on two feet unlike the animals who walk on four, is their enemy.
They sing a rousing song in favour of animals, ‘Beasts of England’. Old Major dies a few days later, but the other animals have been inspired by his message.
Two pigs in particular, Snowball and Napoleon, rouse the other animals to take action against Mr Jones and seize the farm for themselves. They draw up seven commandments which all animals should abide by: among other things, these commandments forbid an animal to kill another animal, and include the mantra ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, because animals (who walk on four legs) are their friends while their two-legged human overlords are evil. (We have analysed this famous slogan here.)
The animals lead a rebellion against Mr Jones, whom they drive from the farm. 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. 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.
Nevertheless, when Mr Jones and some of the other farmers lead a raid to try to reclaim the farm, the animals work together to defend the farm and see off the men. A young farmhand is knocked unconscious, and initially feared dead.
Things begin to fall apart: Napoleon’s windmill, which he has instructed the animals to build, is vandalised and he accuses Snowball of sabotaging it. Snowball is banished from the farm. During winter, many of the animals are on the brink of starvation.
Napoleon engineers it so that when Mr Whymper, a man from a neighbouring farm with whom the pigs have started to trade (so the animals can acquire the materials they need to build the windmill), visits the farm, he overhears the animals giving a positive account of life on Animal Farm.
Without consulting the hens first, Napoleon organises a deal with Mr Whymper which involves giving him many of the hens’ eggs. They rebel against him, but he starves them into submission, although not before nine hens have died. Napoleon then announces that Snowball has been visiting the farm at night and destroying things.
Napoleon also claims that Snowball has been in league with Mr Jones all the time, and that even at the Battle of the Cowshed (as the animals are now referring to the farmers’ unsuccessful raid on the farm) Snowball was trying to sabotage the fight so that Jones won.
The animals are sceptical about this, because they all saw Snowball bravely fighting alongside them. Napoleon declares he has discovered ‘secret documents’ which prove Snowball was in league with their enemy.
Life on Animal Farm becomes harder for the animals, and Boxer, while labouring hard to complete the windmill, falls and injures his lung. The pigs arrange for him to be taken away and treated, but when the van arrives and takes him away, they realise too late that the van belongs to a man who slaughters horses, and that Napoleon has arranged for Boxer to be taken away to the knacker’s yard and killed.
Squealer lies to the animals, though, and when he announces Boxer’s death two days later, he pretends that the van had been bought by a veterinary surgeon who hadn’t yet painted over the old sign on the side of the van. The pigs take to wearing green ribbons and order in another crate of whisky for them to drink; they don’t share this with the other animals.
A few years pass, and some of the animals die, Napoleon and Squealer 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 Squealer 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.’ The pigs start installing radio and a telephone in the farmhouse, and subscribe to newspapers.
Finally, the pigs invite humans into the farm to drink with them, and announce a new partnership between the pigs and humans. Napoleon announces to his human guests that the name of the farm is reverting from Animal Farm to the original name, Manor Farm.
The other animals from the farm, observing this through the window, can no longer tell which are the pigs and which are the men, because Napoleon and the other pigs are behaving so much like men now.
Things have gone full circle: the pigs are no different from Mr Jones (indeed, are worse).
Animal Farm: analysis
First, a very brief history lesson, by way of context for Animal Farm. In 1917, the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, was overthrown by Communist revolutionaries.
These revolutionaries replaced the aristocratic rule which had been a feature of Russian society for centuries with a new political system: Communism, whereby everyone was equal. Everyone works, but everyone benefits equally from the results of that work. Josef Stalin became leader of Communist Russia, or the Soviet Union, in the early 1920s.
However, it soon became apparent that Stalin’s Communist regime wasn’t working: huge swathes of the population were working hard, but didn’t have enough food to survive. They were starving to death.
But Stalin and his politicians, who themselves were well-off, did nothing to combat this problem, and indeed actively contributed to it. But they told the people that things were much better since the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar, than things had been before, under Nicholas II. The parallels with Orwell’s Animal Farm are crystal-clear.
Animal Farm is an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the formation of a Communist regime in Russia (as the Soviet Union). We offer a fuller definition of allegory in a separate post, but the key thing is that, although it was subtitled A Fairy Story, Orwell’s novella is far from being a straightforward tale for children. It’s also political allegory, and even satire.
The cleverness of Orwell’s approach is that he manages to infuse his story with this political meaning while also telling an engaging tale about greed, corruption, and ‘society’ in a more general sense.
One of the commonest techniques used in both Stalinist Russia and in Animal Farm is what’s known as ‘gaslighting’ (meaning to manipulate someone by psychological means so they begin to doubt their own sanity; the term is derived from the film adaptation of Gaslight, a play by Patrick Hamilton).
For instance, when Napoleon and the other pigs take to eating their meals and sleeping in the beds in the house at Animal Farm, Clover is convinced this goes against one of the seven commandments the animals drew up at the beginning of their revolution.
But one of the pigs has altered the commandment (‘No animal shall sleep in a bed’), adding the words ‘with sheets’ to the end of it. Napoleon and the other pigs have rewritten history, but they then convince Clover that she is the one who is mistaken, and that she’s misremembered what the wording of the commandment was.
Another example of this technique – which is a prominent feature of many totalitarian regimes, namely keep the masses ignorant as they’re easier to manipulate that way – is when Napoleon claims that Snowball has been in league with Mr Jones all along. When the animals question this, based on all of the evidence to the contrary, Napoleon and Squealer declare they have ‘secret documents’ which prove it.
But the other animals can’t read them, so they have to take his word for it. Squealer’s lie about the van that comes to take Boxer away (he claims it’s going to the vet, but it’s clear that Boxer is really being taken away to be slaughtered) is another such example.
Much as Stalin did in Communist Russia, Napoleon actively rewrites history, and manages to convince the animals that certain things never happened or that they are mistaken about something. This is a feature that has become more and more prominent in political society, even in non-totalitarian ones: witness our modern era of ‘fake news’ and media spin where it becomes difficult to ascertain what is true any more.
The pigs also convince the other animals that they deserve to eat the apples themselves because they work so hard to keep things running, and that they will have an extra hour in bed in the mornings. In other words, they begin to become the very thing they sought to overthrow: they become like man.
They also undo the mantra that ‘all animals are equal’, since the pigs clearly think they’re not like the other animals and deserve special treatment. Whenever the other animals question them, one question always succeeds in putting an end to further questioning: do they want to see Jones back running the farm? As the obvious answer is ‘no’, the pigs continue to get away with doing what they want.
Squealer is Napoleon’s propagandist, ensuring that the decisions Napoleon makes are ‘spun’ so that the other animals will accept them and carry on working hard.
And we can draw a pretty clear line between many of the major characters in Animal Farm and key figures of the Russian Revolution and Stalinist Russia. Napoleon, the leader of the animals, is Joseph Stalin; Old Major, whose speech rouses the animals to revolution, partly represents Vladimir Lenin, who spearheaded the Russian Revolution of 1917 (although he is also a representative of Karl Marx, whose ideas inspired the Revolution); Snowball, who falls out with Napoleon and is banished from the farm, represents Leon Trotsky, who was involved in the Revolution but later went to live in exile in Mexico.
Squealer, meanwhile, is based on Molotov (after whom the Molotov cocktail was named); Molotov was Stalin’s protégé, much as Squealer is encouraged by Napoleon to serve as Napoleon’s right-hand (or right-hoof?) man (pig).
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 because he feared that it was the wrong sort of political message for the time.
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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.