During the war years Orwell came up with the idea for Animal Farm, a novel that was initially rejected by British and American publishers, who feared the repercussions of promoting a work critical of the Soviet Union, then a military ally. When Animal Farm finally appeared in May 1945, however, it met with unprecedented public attention. As a result, Orwell achieved overnight recognition and financial independence.
In 1947 Orwell settled on the island of Jura off the west coast of Scotland. Here, although physically ill and increasingly pessimistic about the state of the world, he completed Nineteen Eighty-Four, a work of immense critical and cultural importance. The novel was published in 1949 just months before Orwell's premature death from a tubercular haemorrhage on January 23, 1950.
Conceived and written as a satire, Animal Farm is generally acknowledged as presenting many of Orwell's views on humanity and politics. The novel relates the overthrow of a farmer's tyrannical rule by the animals in his barnyard and the animals' abortive efforts to establish an "egalitarian" society. Clearly alluding to political events in Russia from the Revolution to World War II, Animal Farm primarily attacks the extremes of Stalinism, yet goes beyond to dissect the anatomy of revolution and the lure of power. The weighty political implications of the novel, however, are deftly interwoven into a fantastic tale of animals that talk, walk on their hind legs, write laws, spout propaganda, and commit crimes, all in the name of equality. Once the animals have attained freedom and begun to organize the farmyard themselves, it becomes obvious that the depiction of their behaviour is a parody of human political and social hierarchies.
The novel takes place on Manor Farm, which is renamed Animal Farm after the animals expel Mr Jones, the farmer, from its grounds. It is a typical barnyard, except that the animals have assumed the farmer's tasks. Their aspirations are high; they write seven commandments on the wall of the barn, including "All animals are created equal", and "Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy", and thus stake their claim. They build a windmill—an object of much contention—which later has to be rebuilt several times after being destroyed by a storm and then by a band of farmers with dynamite. Initially, the animals pledge to preserve the manor house as a museum, but as the power structure becomes more unbalanced, the pigs move into the house and it becomes their domain. The farmhouse symbolizes the new totalitarian rule of the pigs and is indicative of the "revised" commandment: "All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others." By restricting all the action to the farmyard, Orwell creates a microcosm of society.
Modelled on a relatively simple premise, the novel begins as the animals of Manor Farm unite against farmer Jones to overthrow his tyrannical rule. Understandably ecstatic over their sudden and rather unexpected good fortune, the animals create a new order for the future based on equality and equity. The paint is hardly dry on their barnyard manifesto, however, when the hated forces and attitudes that triggered their revolt begin to re-emerge, eventually destroying their dream of emancipation. Orwell passes judgement on the outcome of revolution, comparing the ideological promises made in its name with the reality of their application.
In essence, Orwell does not condemn revolution but agonizes over the betrayal of its ideals. Possessing superior knowledge, the pigs assume leadership of the farm, taking a first step towards replacing the tyranny of the past with a new and more terrifying threat for the future. The pigs learn to control the means of communication and literally create their own truth to dispense to the inhabitants of the farm; this is perhaps the most pessimistic aspect of the novel. In the end, pigs are indistinguishable from farmers and the ideals of the revolution seem distant in the face of terror, manipulation, and despair.
The idea of revolution appears in a dream to old Major, a pig renowned for his wisdom and benevolence. But as the dream becomes reality, responsibility falls on the two most "pre-eminent" pigs, Snowball and Napoleon. Thinly disguised, the pigs represent the principal figures behind the emergence of the Soviet Union—Major and Snowball are Lenin and Trotsky, and Napoleon is Stalin.
Although a clear distinction is made at the beginning of the novel between Jones, as the representative human, and the community of animals inhabiting the farm, the focus quickly shifts to the animals once Jones has been overthrown and specifically to the rivalry that develops between Snowball and Napoleon.
The novel follows the ruthless Napoleon in his quest for individual power. Driving Snowball into exile, Napoleon imposes his oppressive authority on the animals through the manipulation of language, as demonstrated by Squealer, the voice of the revolution who is capable of turning "black into white", and the menacing presence of a private army of fierce watchdogs capable of enforcing adherence to his regime.
The failure of the revolution is largely the result of self-defeatism, cynicism, and the inability of the animals either to recognize or resist the oppression imposed on them by Napoleon. Even the basic goodness of the animals, as characterized by the horse Boxer, a symbol of strength, self-sacrifice, and trust, cannot prevent the demise of idealism into blind allegiance and delusion.
An extremely disciplined writer, Orwell consistently used language to enhance the development of plot while providing insight into thematic concerns. This is especially true in Animal Farm, an imaginative examination of the interaction of language and political method. Written in a pure, subtle, and simplistic style, among Animal Farm’s strengths are its use of descriptive imagery and its clarity of purpose. Although the novel begins with a relatively light tone, throughout the course of the story the mood gradually becomes more menacing. Coming full circle, the novel ends with a tremendous sense of futility and loss as even the memory of the revolution fades into quiet and passive oblivion.
Orwell conceived of Animal Farm as an allegorical beast fable, drawing on a literary convention attributed to Aesop dating from the 7th century BC. The beast fable was intended to satirize human folly and provide moral instruction. Orwell was undoubtedly influenced by the work of the 17th-century French writer La Fontaine and in his own century by Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book and Just So Stories.
Orwell was working in the tradition of the 18th-century satirists Dryden, Swift, and Pope. Animal Farm is consistently and appropriately compared to Swift's Gulliver's Travels as having the capacity to entertain the reader while also pointing an accusing finger at the limitations of human kindness and decency. In the 20th century, satire is generally employed in fictional narrative, as it is in Animal Farm, to criticize with the ultimate goal of improvement. In this capacity, Orwell joins the company of Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley, as well as the American writers Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis.
During the mid-1930s Orwell, like many of his literary contemporaries, became increasingly preoccupied with the social and political concerns of the age. This period would ultimately define his artistic purpose and direction as a writer and simultaneously crystallize his prophetic vision of the future. Unquestionably a literary extension of Orwell's political development, Animal Farm is most often seen as a satire on totalitarian communism and the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. Orwell recognized the tendency of emerging political regimes to replace poverty with a form of security based on social and economic servitude. Committed to the preservation of intellectual liberty, he further realized the inherent danger of sacrificing this ideal to governmental control.
Discuss the pigs' idea of "animalism". What happens to this theory as the novel progresses?
Boxer and Clover, the two carthorses, are described as the "most faithful disciples". What makes them such?
Why is the windmill such an important object in the novel?
Examine the novel's ending and particularly the final paragraph. Has Napoleon compromised the integrity of the farm?
Why is the song “Beasts of England” important to the animals in the beginning of the novel? Why is the song later abolished?
What happens to the original Seven Commandments? Why are they later revised?
Discuss how the events of the Battle of the Cowshed are changed later in the novel in order to present Snowball in a bad light.
Why are the sheep taken to a corner of the farm at the end of the novel and kept there for a week?
Compare Snowball and Napoleon. Why do they disagree? Do you think the farm could have functioned with both pigs as leaders?
Moses, the tame raven, speaks of Sugarcandy Mountain. What is its significance? Why do the animals hate him?
Research the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its origins. What similarities do you see between it and the events in Animal Farm? Are the major characters in each of the revolutions alike? Why or why not?
Why does Napoleon take great efforts to downplay Snowball's contribution to the rebellion and to denounce his memory? List the episodes in which Squealer and Napoleon retell events in order to discredit Snowball. Why do the other animals believe them?
Read Nineteen Eighty-Four and discuss any similarities it has to Animal Farm.
The animals react differently to the revolution—some are trusting, some resist. Discuss the way Orwell characterizes the different breeds of animal. Are they symbolic of the different human classes?
How do the pigs take advantage of the other animals' lack of intelligence? Explain some of the situations where the pigs use this to their advantage. How is language important to the pigs and the novel in general? Would the revolution have been more successful if all the animals were indeed equal?
Similar in theme to Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four is both an indictment of political oppression and a vigorous attack on the corruption of language. Throughout the novel, Orwell is relentless in his disparaging analysis of totalitarian society, demonstrating how language can be used as a tool of government to exercise and ensure control over its people.
An animated film version of Animal Farm aimed at adults was made in 1954, directed and produced by John Halas and Joy Batchelor.
Source: Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Copyright by Gale Group, Inc. Reprinted by permission.