Animal Farm by George Orwell – Summary and Themes | History Hit

Animal Farm by George Orwell – Summary and Themes

Analysis and summary of the key themes in George Orwell's classic fairytale about the Russian Revolution.

Image Credit: SMD90 / Jemastock / Shutterstock

Animal Farm is a novella written by George Orwell, published in 1945. The book tells the story of a group of animals who live on a farm and overthrow their human farmer. The animals then establish their own government, led by the pigs. However, over time, the pigs begin to abuse their power and the other animals start to rebel.

The book is an allegory for the Soviet Union, and it critiques the Stalinist regime. Orwell believed that Stalinism was a form of authoritarianism, where those in power abused their authority and oppressed the people. Though described as a ‘fairy story’, Animal Farm derives nearly all of its events and characters from real historical events or groups of people.

Here’s a brief analysis of the key themes in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The Soviet Union

Animal Farm broadly attacks all forms of totalitarianism. However, it specifically targets the then Soviet Union, which, in the decades before and during World War Two, became a totalitarian state under Stalin. The first section of the book parallels the final years of the 19th century, where Russia was ruled by Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Like Mr. Jones, the Tsar was seen as decadent and uncaring that millions of Russians were starving and angry. Just as the animals overthrow their oppressors at Manor Farm, so did the Russian people overthrow the Tsar via the Russian Revolution.

However, a democratic coalition of animals which represent Lenin (Old Major), Stalin (Napoleon) and Trotsky (Snowball) quickly gives way to the consolidation of power among the pigs. The pigs then establish themselves as the new ruling class and manipulate the other animals into bending to their will, to the extent that some even confess to, and are executed for, imaginary crimes. Moreover, the blame for the failings of the harvest and the destruction of the windmill are laid at the feet of external forces or characters, such as the exiled Snowball.

Just like Napoleon with Animalism, Stalin eventually abandoned the founding principles of the Russian Revolution in pursuit of tyrannical rule and the consolidation of his own power. The pigs’ journey into violent government and the adoption of human behaviours and even clothing demonstrate that they have become the oppressors that the revolution was initially designed to overthrow.

Abuse of the working class

Though the novel is never specifically narrated from one character, it depicts both despotic rulers, as outlined above, and oppressed workers. More specifically, the novel is told from the perspective of the common animals as a collective. The pigs quickly distance themselves from the other animals by claiming that they themselves are ‘mindworkers’, leaving the common animals to do the physical labour on the farm. The common animals such as Clover and Boxer are depicted as loyal and hardworking but ultimately gullible, with little access to education or a union which might allow them to understand how they are being manipulated.

For instance, hardworking Boxer chooses to accept Napoleon’s often puzzling and damaging rulings by telling himself that ‘Napoleon is always right’. However, when Boxer grows weak and his usefulness expires, he is sent to the knacker’s yard. Orwell thus demonstrates how the inability or unwillingness to question authority entraps the working class in an inescapable cycle of abuse.

Language and propaganda

Throughout the novel, language is weaponised to create a power imbalance between the common animals and the pigs, with the aim of consolidating the pigs’ power and political rulings. Moreover, Orwell points out that education – or lack of it – allows for power abuses to occur because some are able to understand language, while others aren’t.

At the beginning of the novel, the animals are broadly educated to the same level. However, after the rebellion, Napoleon and Snowball reveal that they have distilled Old Major’s ideas into the theory of Animalism, and that they have also taught themselves to read. This allows the pigs to distance themselves as an intellectual class, and refer to themselves as ‘mindworkers’ who know what is best for everyone. This allows them to be propelled to power.

Moreover, the common animals are either unintelligent or occupied with too much manual labour to be able to be educated, which thus keeps them subservient to the educated pigs. This is encapsulated in Napoleon’s demand that they build a school for his children, which allows the pigs to consolidate their educational power for another generation, and quite literally occupies the common animals with a manual task.

The common animals having no education also means that they struggle to question the Seven Commandments as they are changed in the pigs’ favour. Instead, the pigs project an image of power because of their education which means that animals such as Boxer obey them unquestioningly. The most famous slogan from the book, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” is almost meaningless; however, because the language sounds similar to the original ideals of Animalism, characters like Squealer are able to manipulate the common animals into believing that the principle still benefits them.

Human abuse of animals

In addition to the animals being an allegory for humans exploiting one another, Orwell draws a more literal comparison between the abuse of animals at the hands of humans. For instance, the initial rebellion occurs because Mr. Jones has forgotten to feed all of the animals again; their anger at being mistreated is justified.

We learn of the animals’ perception of the cruelty of Mr. Jones’ farm, which is home to equipment similar to many farms today: “…wipe out the last traces of Jones’s hated reign. The harness-room at the end of the stables was broken open; the bits, the nose-rings, the dog-chains, the cruel knives with which Mr. Jones had been used to castrate the pigs and lambs, were all flung down the well”.

Chapters of Animal Farm

Animal Farm – Chapter 1
Animal Farm – Chapter 2
Animal Farm – Chapter 3
Animal Farm – Chapter 4
Animal Farm – Chapter 5
Animal Farm – Chapter 6
Animal Farm – Chapter 7
Animal Farm – Chapter 8
Animal Farm – Chapter 9
Animal Farm – Chapter 10

For an overview of the novel’s key characters and what they represent, click here.

Tags: George Orwell

Lucy Davidson