Animal Farm Themes
The themes of Animal Farm deal with the dangers of totalitarianism, class conflict and exploitation, and identity and competition.
- The dangers of totalitarianism: In an allegory for the rise of Stalin's regime, farm animals revolt to create an equal society, only to see their utopian dreams destroyed by oppressive, totalitarian rule.
- Class conflict and exploitation: Old Major encourages the animals (the working class) to rebel against the humans (the upper class). Soon, however, a new class hierarchy develops, placing pigs at the top.
- Identity and Competition: The pigs eventually become indistinguishable from humans and, having conquered the farm, turn their attention outward to the human world.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Dangers of Totalitarianism
Orwell uses the narrative of Animal Farm to trace the development of totalitarianism. Though Animal Farm begins as a noble project, it inevitably fails. Not only do its leaders, Napoleon and Squealer, repeat the failures of their predecessor, Mr. Jones, they exacerbate them through their urge to demonstrate that they are distinct from and superior to the other animals.
Though Snowball, Napoleon, and Squealer initially lead on equal footing, Orwell provides the reader with clues about Animal Farm’s fate through his descriptions of each lead pig’s character in the first chapter. Though Snowball is regarded as brilliant by the other animals, they don’t think that he has Napoleon’s “same depth of character.” Napoleon, on the other hand, doesn’t say much, but has “a reputation for getting his own way.” Squealer, like Snowball, is “a brilliant talker” and, worse, an adept liar with the ability to “turn black into white.” After Napoleon and Squealer exile Snowball, whose intellectual capacity seems less impressive to the animals than Napoleon’s strength of personality, the two remaining leaders combine their forces of iron will and manipulation to control the other animals. Napoleon usurps power from Snowball by brute force—that is, frightening him off with attack dogs. Other pigs who dare to challenge Napoleon’s power, particularly his suspension of Sunday meetings in favor of setting up “a special committee of pigs” that would answer the animals’ questions, are also threatened by the dogs.
Tyrants, Orwell shows, combine mortal fear with a monopoly on information and education to maintain control, leaving the general populace uninformed, weak, and voiceless. Though the other animals instinctively object to Napoleon’s sudden cancellation of all Sunday-morning meetings—a pillar within Animal Farm’s new communal government—they lack the education to articulate their arguments, in addition to fearing the consequences of rebuttal.
Class Conflict and Exploitation
Animal Farm is inhabited by pigs, sheep, horses, and other livestock, as well as cats and dogs. All of the animals have different strengths and talents, but it is the pigs who dominate—due to their superior intelligence. This hierarchy of species, which forms out of the necessity of building a new system of governance, becomes a metaphor for the class system. The upper classes have more education and resources than the proletariat, which seems to make them natural leaders, but their advantages do not exempt them from vices.
After Animal Farm becomes prosperous, earning it both the resentment and eventual respect of the humans, the pigs become richer while the other animals see little change in their status. Over the years, the gap between species becomes a chasm, with all animals that are not pigs experiencing hunger, cold, and knowing nothing but a life of endless toil.
While the pigs are the coordinators of the farm, the horses, particularly Clover and Boxer, are the workers who ensure that it functions. In the third chapter, Orwell describes how the horses “[know] every inch of the field” and “[understand] the business of mowing and raking,” while the pigs never work and only supervise the other animals. In this passage is the first clue that the pigs, who are already beginning to exhibit the tendencies of human farmers, will become the other animals’ new masters.
Identity and Competition
The rebellion on Animal Farm, initiated by the revolutionary pig leader, Old Major, begins as a result of the farm animals’ discontent with “the tyranny of human beings,” as described in a speech that the revolutionary makes in the first chapter. After overthrowing Mr. Jones and others like him, Old Major contends, the animals will be able to enjoy...
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the fruits of their own labor.
Initially, the animals’ contention with humans analogizes with the proletariat’s discontent with the ruling class during the Russian Revolution. As Animal Farm prospers, however, leading the pigs to form an economic alliance with neighboring farmers—a move that had initially been forbidden in the original Seven Commandments—the rivalry with the humans takes a new shape. After the pigs install themselves as a ruling class, to whom the other animals must answer, it is only the pigs who interact with the outside world. At this point, the rivalry is only really between pigs and humans and becomes a metaphor for the competition between the East and West and Communism versus Capitalism.
After the pigs, particularly Napoleon and Squealer, begin to mimic human behavior—walking on their hind legs and wearing clothes—the line of demarcation between the animals and humans becomes unclear. This becomes especially poignant at the end of the novel when a card game erupts into a fight after Napoleon and a neighboring farmer, Mr. Pilkington, both play an ace of spades. The fact that both play the trump card means not only that each side seeks to be dominant but that they are also willing to cheat each other to win (there can only be one ace of spades in a deck). The pigs have so expertly morphed themselves into human-like creatures that the other animals can no longer tell them apart. In his preface to the Ukrainian edition of the novel, Orwell noted that he did not mean for this moment to suggest reconciliation between the pigs and the humans. On the contrary, the conflict was meant to reflect his prediction that the détente that resulted after the 1943 Tehran Conference—a meeting of Josef Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill—would not last. The goals of the West, centered on their supposed emphasis of democratic values, could not be reconciled with the ambitions of a ruthless totalitarian regime.