Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1370
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm over four months between November 1943 and February 1944, toward the end of World War II. It is a fable that, excepting certain liberties taken with chronology, references the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath. Though Orwell had never been to the Soviet Union, he wanted to impress upon Socialist Brits the understanding that the USSR could not offer the Socialist utopia that it had long promulgated. Though Stalin was an ally of the British during the war, the values of Stalin’s government were, in Orwell’s view, no nobler than those of Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan. Orwell, who had witnessed British imperialism in Burma (now Myanmar) and acted as a volunteer soldier against Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain, understood how governments that promised social improvements in exchange for obedience inevitably sought to undermine public will and establish total rule.
Orwell got the idea for Animal Farm shortly after returning to England from Spain in 1937. He observed a boy flogging a cart-horse and wondered what would happen if abused animals realized their true strength and rebelled against humans. From here, he drew an analogy between this boy’s treatment of the cart-horse and the upper class’s treatment of the working classes. To ensure that the reading public would understand the complexities of communism, as well as wanting the novel to be translated easily into other languages, Orwell told the story as a fable. Originally, it was titled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. The subtitle, which may have been influenced by Orwell’s fondness for fairy tales, was dropped in subsequent publications. Orwell’s choice to tell the story as though it were a children’s tale may also have helped the public read about the cruelest elements of Stalin’s regime—including pogroms and exile to gulags—with greater ease, as it’s far easier to imagine such things happening to imaginary anthropomorphic animals than it is to think about the humans who actually endured this suffering.
In the first few chapters, Manor Farm, an English farm first presided over by Mr. Jones, is overtaken by a group of livestock, led by a firebrand pig named Old Major—a porcine version of Vladimir Lenin. Old Major is the visionary who, in the first chapter, tells the animals that, if only they “get rid of Man,” they can claim ownership of their own labor. To maintain the purity of this vision, Old Major warns the pigs to be careful not to become like man—that is, they should never wear clothing, sleep in a house, or adopt man’s vices, such as drinking. This is rather ironic, as humans frequently reference pigs to discourage gluttonous, unsanitary, or greedy behavior among themselves. No person wants to be regarded as a pig, yet here, no pig wants to be regarded as human. However, the pigs have no sui generis mode of operation. The animals on this farm have no original ideology beyond wanting to avoid behaving like humans, and thus, the philosophy of Animalism remains hollow, only serving to define the animals against what they are not—humans.
After Old Major dies in his sleep, three days after his momentous speech encouraging their uprising, the pigs become the leaders of the farm, due to their being the cleverest. Here, Orwell subtly sets the reader up to see how easily hierarchies can form. Though the other animals accept that the pigs should lead, they also blindly follow them, unconcerned with becoming literate, which makes them depend completely on the pigs for information. This blind obedience, reinforced by a lack of education and the distraction of incessant work, illustrates how the Soviet proletariat was manipulated by those in power.
Two pigs—Napoleon and Snowball—come to power after Old Major’s death. Napoleon, who becomes a tyrant, is a stand-in for Joseph Stalin. Orwell names him after one of history’s best-known and most cunning tyrants, Napoleon Bonaparte, so that when the character is introduced, the reader knows immediately what to expect from him. Napoleon is protected by vicious guard dogs and a propaganda minister pig, unflatteringly named Squealer. Snowball, intellectual and progressive, symbolizes Leon Trotsky. It is he who forms “the principles of Animalism,” or the Seven Commandments, which are based mainly on the animals’ commitment not to become like their human oppressors. Though all three are in positions of leadership, an ideological divide develops between Napoleon and Snowball. Ultimately, Napoleon’s efforts to erase Snowball’s contributions succeeds, leading Animal Farm down a regressive and oppressive path.
Snowball institutes both the Seven Commandments and Animal Farm’s flag—green to represent the fields of England with a symbol of a hoof and horn to “[signify] the future Republic of the Animals.” The flag is a take on the USSR’s red flag, meant to symbolize the blood of those slain in the revolution, with a hammer and scythe—the tools of both industrialism and agrarianism—to represent the modern proletariat and the serf of yesteryear. Both the commandments and the flag transform over the course of the novel, but it’s the revision of the commandments that most impacts the shift in power on Animal Farm.
Unable to read, the animals only sense that their founding document is undergoing constant revision to suit the increasing personal demands of those in power, though they can never be certain. In Animal Farm’s early days, Snowball assists those who are less intelligent or unable to achieve literacy by encouraging them to remember one maxim which, he says, “contained the essential principle of Animalism: ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ ”
In regard to this maxim, Clover serves as Animal Farm’s conscience. Though she cannot read, she becomes hyperaware of the discrepancies between the standards that were initially set when Animal Farm came into existence and the subtle adjustments that are enforced under Napoleon’s rule. She observes that Napoleon does business with human farmers. She then learns that the pigs are sleeping in the humans’ former beds. Her sense of betrayal culminates in seeing, years later, that Napoleon and his favorite sow are wearing clothes and that both Napoleon and Squealer have begun walking on their hind legs.
By now, too, the Seven Commandments have been reduced to one: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” The utopian vision of a totally equal society collapses under the seemingly instinctive need to position oneself above others. Capable of formulating ideas and of walking on their hind legs, Napoleon models himself after the humans and renames Animal Farm “Manor Farm.” The cycle of history results in one tyrant—Mr. Jones—being replaced by another. A farm that was named to indicate a territory in which all animals would share an equal stake reverts back to a name that indicates the stratification between species. The pigs and the guard dogs became wealthier, while the other animals’ statuses remain the same—not unlike the oligarchy that reaped rewards in the USSR while the proletariat struggled to obtain basic resources. Napoleon becomes a lord of the manor, just as Mr. Jones had been; Stalin became a ruler of extraordinary power, just as Tsar Nicholas II had been before 1917.
Too burdened by hunger, discomfort, and endless toil, the animals no longer have the mental energy to question their condition, let alone rise above it. Napoleon and Squealer’s manipulation over the years, accomplished through revisionist history and propaganda, lead the animals to be so uncertain of their own good sense and ignorant of history that they place their faith in Squealer, who rings a tone of optimism. Here, Orwell draws a parallel to the machinations of Stalinist Russia. The propagandists kept the public’s frustrations at bay by promising that conditions would improve, as long as they maintained faith. This was not unlike tactics used by leaders in capitalist countries who also quelled complaints of poverty and desperation with the promise of better times through reforms. The difference was that, in capitalist democracies, the citizenry could hope for change after the election of a new leader. No such thing was possible in the Soviet Union.
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