Animal Farm, first published in 1945, is an allegorical novel by British author George Orwell (a pseudonym for Eric Arthur Blair). Because the book takes aim at the policies of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, a British ally in World War II, publication was delayed until the war ended. The first edition sold out in a month, nine foreign editions were published the following year, and the book has been a brisk seller ever since. Unlike 1984, Orwell’s later anti-totalitarian novel, Animal Farm is presented in the approachable form of a fable. In deceptively simple and deeply ironic prose, Orwell tells the story of the animals of Manor Farm who work hard but are treated poorly by their drunken master, Mr. Jones. After the animals overthrow Jones and form the collective Animal Farm, they gambol about in exuberant joy; the Seven Commandments painted on the barn decree the equality of all animals and forbid the animals from taking up Man’s tyrannous ways. It’s not long, though, until the despotic boar Napoleon and his canine secret police begin to chip away at the animals’ hard-won freedoms; soon their lives very much resemble those they lived before the Rebellion, only worse. Their subjugation now comes at the hands of their fellow animals, those once sworn to be their comrades. Presenting the novel as a beast fable contributes greatly to its brilliance; the familiarity and the simplicity of the literary form belie the terror and the suffering that soon descend upon Orwell’s animals.
Orwell wrote in the Preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm that the idea for the book’s form came to him while watching a small boy whipping a giant cart-horse travelling along a path:
It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.
While the cart-horse incident engendered the allegorical format, it was Orwell’s experiences in Spain fighting in the Spanish Civil War that first propelled him to write a book exposing the “Soviet Myth” to the West. Shot in the throat by a Fascist sniper and then hunted by the Communists, Orwell was lucky to escape Spain alive. As the Communist purges began in Spain concurrently with those in the Soviet Union, Orwell saw friends killed, arrested, and tortured for mere suspicion of disloyalty. A devoted British Socialist, Orwell was one of a small minority who criticized Stalin at a time when Hitler was the enemy and Stalin a British ally. Observing England’s positive reaction to the Soviet propaganda machine, Orwell felt horrified and betrayed, but it also served as “a valuable object lesson” for the author. Watching “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries” led Orwell to write his classic satire that addresses this same conundrum. Readers may not be surprised by Napoleon’s thirst for power, but they still wince each time the animals swallow the official rubbish fed them to justify his tyranny once he gains power.
Animal Farm operates beautifully on a political level, a reaction against the West’s blind embrace of Soviet communism. Envisioning an animal utopia, the boar, Old Major, describes elemental Marxist theory: He lays out the struggle between the bourgeoisie, the property owners, and the proletariat, the workers who produce goods and perform services but neither profit nor enjoy the fruits of their labor. In Marxism, this capitalist system ends through a proletariat revolution that ushers in true socialism in its place, just as the Rebellion does for the animals of Animal Farm. In a socialist society, labor is per
formed based on need, not profit, and there is co-ownership of property; these are all tenets laid out in the foundational doctrine of Animalism. The allusions to Soviet Communist history abound, from giving Snowball a role eerily reminiscent of Leon Trotsky’s, to Napoleon’s industrialization of the farm and his own “Great Purge” of confessed spies and traitors.
Whether Animal Farm is read as a sly satire of the human condition or as a cautionary tale about totalitarian rule, there is undeniable power in the universal truths Orwell lays bare. The subtle shades of privilege and exceptionalism, as well as the rationale for their acceptance, are observed daily on an international level, and they also can be found in everyday classroom dynamics. More disturbing still is our propensity for believing what is most convenient, even in the face of clear injustice, rather than facing more difficult truths and acting on them. It is in this last capacity that Animal Farm succeeds on the highest level: This story demands that readers think.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Animal Farm works as both a fable and an allegory.
2. Identify and discuss how the different characters are used as allegorical figures.
3. Explain how the novel addresses themes related to idealism, justice, power, and corruption.
4. Identify hierarchical or class structures among the animals in the novel, and explain how and why they shift.
5. Identify and define the forms of propaganda that appear in the novel, and explain how propaganda is used to control and manipulate the animals.
6. Explain how the author uses style and point of view to deliver the novel’s message.
7. Discuss the various ways the novel’s title can be interpreted as the novel progresses.
8. Identify how a utopian and idealistic vision can be corrupted.