Animal Farm Themes and Symbolism

December 24, 2023

animal farm themes symbolism

“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” This chillingly memorable quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm has warned generations of readers about the dangers of revolutionary movements descending into totalitarian cruelty. The story of an animal revolt at Manor Farm was, famously, a thinly veiled allegory of Russian Communist history. It narrates how a squadron of pigs, representing the Soviet political elite, use propaganda and violence to exploit their animal comrades. Orwell struggled early on to find a publisher for Animal Farm. Its unfavorable treatment of Stalinism was unpopular when Russia was working with the Allies in the war against fascism. But the novella gained wider readership amid the Cold War, with multiple translations promoted by the US State Department (Read on for Animal Farm Symbolism and Themes).

The CIA even helped produce a film adaptation in the 1950s. Ironically, a novella about the dangers of state manipulation owes its canonicity to its effectiveness as anti-Communist propaganda. However, Animal Farm deserves reassessment as a complex work of fiction rather than a simple history lesson on the U.S.S.R. While this article explains how Animal Farm allegorizes Soviet history, it also points to richer themes and symbolism that often escape attention for what they can tell us about revolutionary politics.

Animal Farm Themes – Political Allegory

Much of Animal Farm’s appeal for first-time readers entails the ease of identifying its allegorical plot mechanics. If you want to go deep on how the allegory works, Harold Bloom’s study guide is a good starting place. As Bloom noted, Orwell’s novella mounted a vigorous critique of the Russian Revolution in the guise of a realistic fable. The plot covers events in Soviet history from the 1917 October Revolution to the Second World War. The animal revolt against the farmer Mr. Jones is precipitated by Old Major’s speeches about the tyranny of man. These speeches evoke both Karl Marx’s writings about global, class-based oppression and Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary rhetoric. Thus, the fictional creed of “Animalism” comes to resemble Marxism, which seeks to ground a utopian reimagining of social relations in a scientific understanding of economic exploitation known as “historical materialism.”

Notably, the narrative cultivates considerable sympathy for the animal’s thinly allegorized Marxian cause in the early stages of the revolution. However, the thrust of Orwell’s allegorical critique lies in the hasty corruption of this cause in the revolution’s aftermath. Old Major’s swinish successors are Napoleon and Snowball, who represent Stalin and Leon Trotsky, respectively. Like the other pigs, these characters serve as stand-ins for Soviet political leaders and elite intelligentsia. Using Old Major’s ideas, they force Mr. Jones’s removal from the farm, directly paralleling the abdication of the Russian Tsar. Napoleon’s subsequent totalitarian command and violent ousting of Snowball allegorize Stalin’s rise to power and assassination of Trotsky. Napoleon then takes credit for Snowball’s plan to build a windmill – symbolic of Lenin’s modernization plans. The animals endure food shortages and grueling work to build the windmill. And despite his commitment to the ideals of Animal Farm, the ailing workhorse Boxer is sold to a glue factory.

Political Allegory (Cont.)

This grim windmill building sequence loosely parallels Russia’s industrialization and forced agricultural collectivization in the 1930s. In this era, grain exports were used to support rapid modernization, which historians have linked to endemic and costly famines. In response to famine, many Soviet peasants joined wealthier Ukrainian “kulaks” in agitating against Stalin’s agricultural collectivization. The subsequent suppression of the kulaks and the Great Purge Trials focused on peasant resistance resulted in 20 million estimated deaths. Orwell’s novella best captures these events through the rebellion of the hens. Though they initially refuse to surrender their eggs to the pigs, many are starved, and the rest capitulate. The short-lived Russo-German alliance is briefly alluded to in Napoleon’s relationship to the farmer Frederick. Frederick betrays Napoleon, paralleling Hitler’s betrayal of his non-aggression pact with Stalin and the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Finally, the book’s conclusion sees the pigs and neighboring farmers enjoying an uneasy truce over a game of cards. This conveys the U.S.S.R’s relationship with Western Allied powers after 1943. The narrator notes that Napoleon and the farmer Pilkington, suspicious of each other, “played an ace of spades simultaneously.” Thus, the ending hints at the coming Cold War and the polarized division of world politics after World War II.

Animal Farm Themes – Satire

As in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell’s realistic treatment of animal thought exposes the moral and intellectual failures of humanity. Thus, many critics have positioned Orwell’s brand of animal-based commentary on human foibles in the tradition of Swiftian satire. In his early review of Animal Farm, Northrop Frye notes how it parallels Swift’s Tale of a Tub. Both works adopt a classic satirical formula in illuminating “the corruption of principle by expediency.”  This idea manifests in the novella’s most memorable quote, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” The gradual revision of Animal Farm’s commandments is equal parts absurdly hilarious and dread-inducing. Combining a bitter worldview and ironic humor, Orwell successfully pillories Napoleon/Stalinism as not only mendacious and self-interested, but also buffoonish. The Death of Stalin, a film by Armando Iannucci that translates the slapstick humor of Veep to the Soviet context, owes much to Orwell’s earlier satirical example.

Theme – Totalitarianism

In the context of its allegory, Orwell’s novella suggests that totalitarianism and hypocrisy are natural outcomes of conspiratorial political movements. Orwell’s journalistic and essayistic writings were replete with warnings about the dangers of totalitarianism in the modern age. In addition to Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco revealed the potential for unchecked cruelty and aggression, abetted by nationalistic ideologies. Perhaps most pointedly, the novella paints the exploited classes of animals as noble in their loyalist stupidity. The animals fail to act as the principles of Animalism go to rot and the corrupt pigs act like men. Then the pigs begin to trade with other farmers for their own material benefit while the other animals starve.

Orwell told friend Geoffrey Gorer that the first instance of the pigs acting self-interestedly was the story’s key passage. When the pigs argue they alone deserve extra milk and apples, the other animals’ timid protest is easily quelled. If the other animals had intervened and overthrown the pigs, Napoleon’s totalitarianism would have been effectively thwarted. Instead, the donkey Benjamin’s cynicism about the pigs fails to stir the other animals to action. As a critical outsider, Benjamin evokes Orwell’s own disillusionment with revolutionary idealism. Like Orwell, he can only passively watch as the other animals suffer at the hands of leaders they stubbornly trust. By provocatively comparing the proletariat to dumb animals, Orwell suggests that revolutions are doomed by the ignorance of the lower classes. In this view, truly egalitarian social democracy without the hypocrisy of political and intellectual elites depends upon comprehensive education.

Animal Farm Themes – Revolutionary Optimism

In a comic register, Animal Farm explores feelings of political despair and disillusionment that return in Orwell’s far bleaker 1984. Both works evoke Orwell’s cynicism about the lethal combination of a broken working class and strong, totalitarian state. However, in contrast with 1984, the ending of Animal Farm offers a glimmer of hope to some readers. In the last scene, the exploited animals see the pigs and men together, unable to tell the difference between them. In his book on Orwell, Raymond Williams argued that this “is a moment of gained consciousness, a potentially liberating discovery.” Williams provides a strong counter to attempts to reduce Orwell’s story to bitter historical observation and analogy. Instead, the ending opens up Animal Farm’s “active and stimulating critique” of revolutionary politics. Rather than cutting off any revolutionary movement at the knees, the novella offers pointed lessons about avoiding false liberation.

Animal Farm Themes – Animal and Ecological Exploitation

Yes, Animal Farm is indeed about Russian Communism. But this fact makes it easy to miss that it is more literally about animals. Orwell explained his inspiration for the story coming from seeing a young boy whipping a tired horse. He wrote: “If only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them.” The story’s allegorical force stems from Orwell noticing the similarity between animal and human exploitation. But readers often focus on the latter, ignoring the former. Orwell’s focus on animals suggests his thinking on exploitation extends beyond political history. Through his fable of a farm, Orwell brings attention to the many ways humans relate to animals and nature. Undoubtedly, this side will become harder for readers invested in rethinking their relationship with the planet to ignore.

Animal Farm Symbolism – The Windmill

In an allegory saturated with symbolism, the windmill is one of the more obviously symbolic figures. It is dreamed up by the visionary Snowball and becomes the locus of perpetual exploited labor under Napoleon’s regime. The windmill represents Trotsky’s dream of a modernized Russia. Stalin attempted to realize this dream through the endlessly deferred and destructive Five-Year Plan. The figure of the windmill thus condenses the incompetence, ruthlessness, and outsized human costs of Stalinism’s social engineering.

Animal Farm Symbolism – Ribbons and Whiskey

Ribbons and whiskey are both human goods that the pigs eventually adopt, representing their inexorable corruption. Both materials are initially outlawed under the commandments of Animalism, which forbid wearing human clothes and drinking alcohol. However, early on, Napoleon gets comically drunk on Mr. Jones’s whiskey stash. Regretting his hangover, Napoleon forces a change to the commandments: “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.” The pigs’ fondness for drink leads to more trade with humans, culminating in the tragic betrayal of Boxer for whiskey. The pigs also start to wear signifying green ribbons in a breach of the commandment about human dress.

Intriguingly, the use of ribbons is not confined to the pigs. The vain cart horse Molly becomes alienated from life on Animal Farm and absconds to a neighboring human-run farm. There, she is spotted by other animals wearing a scarlet ribbon. A notable female-gendered character, Molly’s association with materialism and the color scarlet mark her as a “fallen woman” type. The novella seems to use this stereotype to explore the dangerous allure of Western-style consumerism. Both Animalism and Communism are ostensibly opposed to human capitalism and consumer culture. But the pigs ultimately mirror the exiled Molly by adopting ribbons, illuminating their hypocrisy as the political elite.

Animal Farm Symbolism – Commandments

Animal Farm’s symbolic use of Animalism’s Commandments attests to Orwell’s considerable skill as a writer. The slow but steady revision of the Commandments helps the reader track Animal Farm’s gradual descent into totalitarianism. This aspect of the story was also arguably informed by the author’s extensive experience working in media. At news outlets including the BBC, Orwell experienced first-hand the subtle power of language to influence popular beliefs. In Animal Farm, the pigs’ control of the Commandments represents the elite capture of language through media. The sheep, who mindlessly repeat the Commandments, perhaps represent publishers and pundits who become the useful idiots of fascists.

While the pigs are chiefly responsible for subverting the tenets of Animalism, the narrative crucially implicates the other animals. Their failure to keep track of the changes enables the pigs to seize power. Through this, the narrative unfolds a dispiriting message about the fragility of memory and its relationship to totalitarianism. Like Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” Animal Farm turns a critical eye on nationalism, which leads everyday people to passively endorse invented traditions. In both stories, people and animals accept the lies rulers tell them, even when it leads to their own destruction.

Additional Resources

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