George Orwell (1903-50) is one of the twentieth century’s most quotable writers. Although many of his most repeated statements come from his essays or from his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a few of his most famous quotations are found in his 1945 novella, Animal Farm.
But the meaning of these quotations is often misunderstood, so let’s take a closer look at some of the key quotations from Orwell’s Animal Farm and place them in context.
‘Man is the only creature that consumes without producing.’
This quotation arrives early on in Animal Farm, when Old Major – who, in Orwell’s allegory for the Soviet Union, represents Lenin – addresses the animals of Manor Farm and inspires them to rise up against their master, the farmer Mr Jones.
Major tells his fellow animals that man, unlike cows, chickens, horses, and so on, ‘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.’ And yet, in spite of this apparent lack of usefulness, man ‘is lord of all the animals.’
It is worth pointing out how cleverly Orwell sows the seeds for what will happen later in the book: note that pigs do none of these things either (despite their later usefulness as meat when they are slaughtered), so Orwell has already foreshadowed the way the pigs of the farm will take charge and become, effectively, like men. Both men and pigs, according to Major’s speech, are useless compared with other animals, yet they are the two creatures that will be ‘lord’ over the farm.
‘Let’s face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short.’
This quotation also appears in Old Major’s speech near the beginning of Animal Farm. The line is probably an allusion to Thomas Hobbes’s famous assertion from his 1651 book Leviathan: Hobbes wrote that men’s lives are lived in ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan i.xiii.9).
In Leviathan, Hobbes made the case for, essentially, a strong dictatorship – arguing that a ruler must have absolute power over their subjects in order to maintain the rule of law. Given the way Animal Farm will descend into a totalitarian regime reminiscent of Stalinist Russia, this allusion foreshadows the later events of the novella.
‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’
Inspired by Major’s rousing speech calling for revolution, the pigs draw up seven commandments for the animals of the farm. These begin: ‘Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.’ The animals of the renamed Manor Farm – now known as Animal Farm, of course – found their own political ideology, Animalism, which is designed to echo the name (and values) of Communism.
However, once the pigs begin acting like their ousted human overlord, walking about on two legs rather than four, this slogan is subtly altered. Napoleon (modelled on Stalin) is caught walking about the place on two legs. And the sheep (whose name is a byword for gullibility and willingness to follow orders, of course) become the chief propagandistic tool at the pigs’ disposal, bleating in unison the altered slogan: ‘Four legs good, two legs BETTER! Four legs good, two legs BETTER! Four legs good, two legs BETTER!’
We have analysed this quotation in more detail here.
‘Can you not understand that liberty is worth more than just ribbons?’
This line is spoken by Snowball when Mollie asks him if she will be allowed to wear ribbons in her mane. Snowball replies by telling her that ‘those ribbons that you are so devoted to are the badge of slavery. Can you not understand that liberty is worth more than ribbons?’ Mollie agrees with this reasoning, at least outwardly, but Orwell’s narrator notes that she doesn’t sound very convinced.
Freedom to wear something is obviously liberty, whereas being told not to wear something is the opposite. Once again, Orwell reveals the hypocrisy and irony of a totalitarian regime which says, ‘doing this thing isn’t freedom, so stop doing that, I order you.’
‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’
After one of the pigs stands up on his hind legs, 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 cleverness of Orwell’s writing lies in the political doublethink (to use an Orwellian word) that is involved to make sense of the paradox: how can some animals be more equal than others? What saves it from being pure nonsense is the fact that the pigs do consider themselves equals among themselves: all animals are equal within their two groups (pigs are equals, and the rest of the animals, the ‘proles’, are equals within their group), and one group (the pigs) enjoy a better life of quality than the rest.
We have analysed this quotation in more detail here.
‘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.’
The closing words of Animal Farm form one of the novella’s most famous quotations. The positioning of the (non-porcine) animals outside in the cold while the pigs lord it up inside the warmth of the house (living, to all intents and purposes, like men) reinforces the two-tier society that has developed, with the Haves (the pigs) and Have-Nots (the animals who do all of the work). Everything has gone full circle – or, arguably, it has become worse than before, since the pigs have turned against their fellow animals.