Animal Farm

The Trouble from Within: Animal Farm (George Orwell) by Dr Jennifer Minter

In Animal Farm, George Orwell depicts a “utopian” society based on the principles of “Animalism” that promises harmony and equality among the animals.  Led by the pigs, the animals overthrow the humans on the farm and take ownership of the means of production. However, the gradual erosion of the animals’ rights from within their very ranks prompts the question as to whether such a political vision is achievable.  Not only do the pigs exploit their fellow workers, but Napoleon and Snowball vie for leadership with disastrous consequences. Gradually, Napoleon installs himself as the leader supposedly working in the best interests of the animals. However, he systematically undermines the animals’ principles and subverts the revolution. He proves the old adage, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Orwell wrote Animal Farm primarily as an allegory of the Russian Revolution thinly disguised as an animal fable. One of major themes of the book is the betrayal of the Russian Revolution and the way that good will and sound principles can fall victim to ambition, selfishness and hypocrisy.  Animal Farm follows the events of the Russian Revolution quite closely with characters from the book representing real-life people or groups.

Farmer Jones represents Czar Nicolas II who was the leader of Russia before the Revolution. At the beginning, Orwell shows Jones as a drunken, neglectful farmer who cares very little about his animals. The farm was in a terrible state:  “The fields were full of weeds, the buildings wanted roofing, the hedges were neglected, and the animals were underfed”.

Old Major: The principles of Animalism

The concept of the rebellion is initiated by Old Major (representing a mixture of Marx and Lenin). One day Old Major gathers all the animals after he has a special dream. Old Major says that no animal in England is free because of the humans. Animals should eliminate humans so that they can live an enjoyable life. The principles of Animalism, as set forth by Old Major, and the pigs are similar to Communist principles regarding equality and the ownership of production. Everyone works for themselves and everyone gets the same payment as Old Major says ‘Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own.’

The pigs install themselves as the natural leaders because of their superior intelligence.  Napoleon (representing Joseph Stalin) and Snowball (Leon Trotsky) vie for power.  Snowball appears to be the brains behind the revolution and is inspirational during the revolution; he is “brilliant and inventive” but is outsmarted by Napoleon. As far as Orwell was concerned, Stalin represented the main force behind the threat to true Socialism. Stalin claimed to be committed to making a fair and equal society but he shamelessly, and brutally, betrayeded the revolution.

Old Major’s dream

In his “dream”, the wise and authoritative figure of Old Major presents the ideals of a fair, equal and communist-oriented society, whereby the animals would live in harmony. Reflecting Marx’s communist theories about labour and production, Old Major believes that it is critical to harness their strength, which lies in the fact that they should own the products of their labour. In contrast, man rules over animals but produces nothing. “Nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings.” According to Old Major, if they overthrow man, they will eliminate the source of their exploitation.  They will establish a fair and harmonious society if they can harness, and distribute equally, the products of their labour.

During his powerful but simple oration, the wise father figure stimulates feelings of resentment and anger by suggesting that man is shamefully exploiting the animals for his own greed. “Man serves the interests of no creature except himself.” By presenting man as the common enemy, Old Major seeks to foster a strong sense of unity among the animals.  Old Major advises the animals to treat each other as equals. They must not “tyrannize over each other”; they are all brothers. Critical to their harmony is the creation of a distance from Man and his vices. His prophetic warning — “we must not come to resemble him” — cautions the animals. They will live in peace and prosperity so long as they “do not adopt his vices”.

Thereafter, Orwell traces the demise of the pigs who, intoxicated by power, status and privileges, increasingly come to resemble the detested enemy.

Animalism and the Seven Commandments

The rule of Animalism are outlined in the Seven Commandments that are gradually undermined by the pigs in their grab for power.

  1. Four  legs good, two legs bad — Four legs good, two legs better.
  2. All animals are equal — All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
  3. No animal shall sleep in a bed — No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheet
  4. No animal shall drink alcohol — No animal shall drink alcohol excess
  5. No animal shall kill any other animal — No animal shall kill any other animal with out reasons.

How and why do the pigs exploit their position of power? 

  • Language and propaganda: According to Orwell, language, information and knowledge are powerful tools and for the pigs, become grist for the propaganda machine. The pigs are the only literate animals and are therefore able to control the terms of the debate. Because most animals cannot read, the pigs are able to manipulate the facts and twist the commandments to suit themselves. The other animals cannot verify the facts and as their memories become dimmer, they are have no option but to trust the pigs.  Napoleon uses propaganda to good effect and eventually recasts Snowball as Jones’ spy.  Eventually, Squealer’s role is to articulate Napoleon’s leadership plans. He manipulates language to justify and extol Napoleon’s actions.
    • For example, the pigs confiscate the milk and the apples and use the milk in their mash.  Using their powers of persuasion (the process of reverse psychology), the pigs set themselves up as the disadvantaged party and tell the animals that they are prioritising “your welfare”.  In order to conceal their hypocritical gesture, they convince the animals that they are taking the food in a spirit of selflessness; according to the magnanimous pigs, they want to ensure that they are suitably clever and astute enough to be able to protect their welfare. After all, they are the “brain workers”. By brainwashing and deceiving the animals, and convincing them of their good spirit, the other animals are silenced. They defer to the pigs’ superior powers of persuasion.
  • Scapegoating: Napoleon transforms  Snowball into the enemy. Initially, Snowball was courageous and helped win the rebellion, fighting gallantly against Jones, but Napoleon and Squealer  soon amend the “facts” to present Snowball as a traitor. Evidently, as Orwell shows, corrupt leaders need an enemy which diverts people’s  attention from the problems that occur.
  • Hero-worshipping: Napoleon transforms himself into an idol: an object of worship so that the animals admire him and therefore believe that he is trustworthy. He is rarely seen.  It is purported that Napoleon was the saviour of the Battle of the Cowshed and endangered his lives to protect the animals. By exploiting their authority, the pigs create a distance and ensure that Napoleon is suitably revered.
  • The reign of terror: Napoleon uses fear and terror to silence the animals and to make them obedient.  One of the most insidious rules that is undermined by the pigs is the one to avoid killing other animals. This fundamental principle of  Animalism essentially protects the rights of all animals to live without fear. However, Napoleon further entrenches his rule by implementing the rule of terror and using yet another commandment as a political tool. He believes that it is possible to kill “with reason” and so accuses his enemies of an elaborate conspiracy.
    • Napoleon uses the threat of Mr Jones’s return as justification for the pigs’ privileges.
    • Napoleon kidnaps the dogs from birth and uses them for his own cruel plans. He uses the dogs as a pseudo army to entrench his power and intimidate all opposition.  During a meeting, they seize four pigs and drag them “squealing with pain and terror” to Napoleon’s feet and extract false confessions of insubordination. The taste of blood makes the dogs even fiercer. The hens, who hide their eggs,  are indignant at the fact that their eggs are confiscated, as were the apples and the milk. They intuitively sense that the pigs are exploiting them and undermining the charter of freedom. After confessing, their “disobedience”, they are slaughtered.

The rivalry between Napoleon and Snowball

As an eloquent leader, Snowball had an innovative and progressive vision for the farm; he devises the windmill plan which he believes would so improve the mechanisms of production that it would enhance their lifestyle, help them become self-sufficient (even superior to man) and the animals would be able to “graze at their ease in the fields” or read for pleasure. This scheme would help the animals transform the farm and realistically apply the Old Major’s social theories. In contrast, “Napoleon had produced no schemes of his own.” (35)  and so the battle of the windmill becomes the bitterest controversy of all. Napoleon is envious of Snowball’s superior ideas; he remains “aloof” and becomes so resentful that he contemptuously  and suddenly, “lifted his leg, urinated over the plans and walked out without uttering a word”. (36)

Immediately after Snowball’s expulsion, Napoleon supports the windmill project. Once again, Squealer explains that Napoleon had the ideas and that Snowball had stolen them “from among Napoleon’s papers”.

Likewise, it is the same jealousy and desire for singular glory that is behind Napoleon’s attempt to reframe the Battle of the Cowshed with himself as saviour and Snowball as the traitor.

The battle of the cowshed: rewriting history

Napoleon and Squealer deliberately change the historical facts of the Battle of the Cowshed in order to psychologically intimidate the animals, entrench their rule and undermine the enemy, Snowball.  Because the animals (except for the pigs) cannot read, they do not appreciate the full extent of the lies.

Napoleon fabricates the historical Battle of the Cowshed, the founding myth of the rebellion, and recasts Snowball as the enemy of the revolution. During the original battle, Snowball heroically fights Mr Jones during an audacious and glorious move whereby he endangers his own life to selflessly motivate, inspire and protect the animals.  The Battle of the Cowshed is commemorated on October 12th every year.

In the fabricated version, Squealer informs the animals that Snowball was a traitor and he fled at the critical moment of the battle. His injury was apparently staged and his involvement was in fact treacherous. Once again, through the subtle use of psychology Squealer recasts the entire historical story and recasts Napoleon as the hero. He explains, “the plot was for Snowball, at the critical moment, to give the signal for flight and leave the field to the enemy”. He was in league with Jones from the start and in fact attempted to “lure” the animals to their doom. He would have succeeded if not for “our heroic Leader, Comrade Napoleon”. Snowball is Jones’s “secret agent” and been in league with him from the start.

Orwell suggests that the pigs can achieve this reinterpretation because of the “secret documents” which only they, as the privileged literate leaders, can read. In other words, they use their position of power and their literacy skills to intimidate and silence the other animals.  Boxer attempts to defend Snowball’s credentials because he had first-hand eye-witness evidence,  but without success.

Accordingly, access to knowledge and information empowers the leaders.  In the wrong hands, such a monopoly can be dangerous. Squealer is so persuasive and manipulative that he convinces the animals, once again through reverse psychology, that Snowball had designed to “leave the field to the enemy”. He states, “I could show you this if you could read it”.

The workers: Boxer

The betrayal of Boxer represents the absolute betrayal of the animals’ rights and equality.  Representing the typically loyal, honest, hard working, man in Russia, Boxer, whose name possibly originates from the Boxer Rebellion in China, a catalyst for the rise of communsim in China, is also limited due to a lack of education. His maxims “Napoleon is always right” and “I must work harder” lead to his downfall. Instead of crushing the dogs during an assault, he defers to Napoleon’s leadership. Napoleon “sharply ordered Boxer to let the dog go”, which he did. His greatest flaw is to underestimate the power of the pigs and believe that they will look after him. Boxer expected to retire with Benjamin and looks forward to the “peaceful days that he would spend in the corner of the pasture”. Instead, the pigs ruthlessly sell his carcass to the knackery.

Eventually, the pigs subvert and manipulate the rules to such an extent that they transform into the enemy they despise. Initially, the pigs constantly refer to the return of Jones as a threat to silence and intimidate the animals. Their fear of Jones’s return is forever present as is eventually the collusion of Snowball. However, the pigs soon transform into the enemy in many insidious ways, starting with the use of the beds and then sheets and alcohol.  As Orwell so aptly shows the pigs have so ruthlessly exploited and manipulated the rules as political tools that they have shamelessly turned into the oppressors.  Orwell’s message is that any society which has leaders with absolute power is ultimately doomed to failure due to the inevitability of leaders manipulating power for their own personal benefit.

By Dr Jennifer Minter, Animal Farm: the trouble from within, www.englishworks.com.au

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  1. See Sample Plans/Essays on Animal Farm and Other Notes
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©  English Works (2014). Please attribute quotes.  Disclaimer: These notes are designed as teaching aids only to be used in conjunction with workshops conducted by English Works.