Animal Farm Historical and Social Context
by George Orwell

Animal Farm book cover
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Political Themes

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The animals are presented as illustrative of the utopian dream of socialism pitted against the vices of capitalism represented by the humans in the story. Neither political ideology is presented in a favorable light, but whereas the evils of capitalism are taken for granted, it is the futility of the socialist ideal on which the work primarily focuses. Yet the means by which it levels this criticism at Communism—that is, in terms of a relatively simple and two-dimensional beast fable—does little to illuminate either the virtues or the vices of that complex ideology.

Animal Farm perhaps works best not as a specific allegory of the Russian Revolution but rather as a fable about the basic nature of human beings, both in isolation and in groups, which militates against any utopian ideal. What Orwell has seized upon is precisely those qualities of animals that humans share which make such an ideal impossible—qualities such as sloth, stupidity, fear, and greed. The central irony of the fable is that although the animals initially rebel against the humans because of behavior which humans usually call “beastly,” the animals themselves, as the work progresses, become more and more like humans—that is, more and more base and beastly.

What is most demoniacally human about the pigs is their use of language not only to manipulate the immediate behavior of the animals through propaganda, emotive language, and meaningless doubletalk but also to manipulate history, and thus challenge the nature of actuality itself. This manipulation, however, is only one primary means of the pigs’ control; another, equally important, is the threat of brute force as manifested by Napoleon’s pack of vicious trained dogs. In the final image of the allegory, the realization is that humans prove to be no better than animals, and animals prove to be no better than humans.

The great ideal of the windmill, itself a Quixotic gesture of idealism, cannot be achieved because the animals, like humans, are basically limited by their own natures, and because nature itself is blindly indifferent to the aspirations of man. Orwell’s own pessimistic view in the work seems to be echoed by the cynical donkey, Benjamin: “Things never had been, nor ever could be much better or worse—hunger, hardship, disappointment being . . . the unalterable law of life.” The law of man is the law of the jungle after all; the truth of “power corrupts” is the same as the truth of “the fittest shall survive.”

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Ever since Orwell wrote Animal Farm readers have enjoyed it as a simple animal story. While it is possible to read the book without being aware of the historical background in which Orwell wrote it, knowing the world's situation during the 1940s adds interest to the novel. The reader understands why the political implications of the book were so important to Orwell, and is encouraged to read the book again, looking for its less obvious political and societal references. As the date of the original publication of the work becomes more remote, the historical events that preceded it lose their immediacy, but Orwell's story remains viable. In fact, Orwell emphasized the universality and timelessness of his message by not setting the story in any particular era, and, while placing the farm in England, not making that fact important.

World War II

The target of Orwell's satire in Animal Farm was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the U.S.S.R., or the Soviet Union), which at the time the work was written was a military ally of Great Britain during World War II. The book's publication was delayed until after fighting had ended on the war's European front in May 1945. When England declared war on Germany in September 1939, it would not have seemed likely that by the war's end England and the U.S.S.R. would be allies. Just a week before, the world community had been stunned by news of a Soviet-German...

(The entire section is 2,150 words.)