'Animal Farm' Themes and Symbols

George Orwell's Animal Farm is a political allegory about revolution and power. Through the tale of a group of farm animals who overthrow the owner of the farm, Animal Farm explores themes of totalitarianism, the corruption of ideals, and the power of language.

Political Allegory

Orwell frames his story as a political allegory; every character represents a figure from the Russian Revolution. Mr. Jones, the original human owner of the farm, represents the ineffective and incompetent Czar Nicholas II. The pigs represent key members of Bolshevik leadership: Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin, Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, and Squealer represents Vyacheslav Molotov. Other animals represent the working classes of Russia: initially passionate about revolution eventually manipulated into supporting a regime that was just as incompetent and arguably more brutal than the previous one.

Totalitarianism

Orwell argues that any revolution led by a small, conspiratorial group can only degenerate into oppression and tyranny. He makes this argument through the allegory of the farm. The revolution begins with firm principles of equality and justice, and initially, the results are positive, as the animals get to labor for their own direct benefit. However, as Orwell demonstrates, revolutionary leaders can become as corrupt and incompetent as the government they overthrew.

The pigs adopt the human ways they once fiercely opposed (drinking whiskey, sleeping in beds), and they make business deals with farmers that benefit them alone. Meanwhile, the other animals see only negative changes in their lives. They continue to support Napoleon and work harder than ever despite the decline in quality of living. Eventually, the promises of heated stalls and electric light—what they've been working for all along—become fantasy.

Animal Farm suggests that totalitarianism and hypocrisy are endemic to the human condition. Without education and true empowerment of the lower classes, Orwell argues, society will always default to tyranny.

Corruption of Ideals

The pigs’ descent into corruption is a key element of the novel. Orwell, a socialist, believed the Russian Revolution had been corrupted by power-seekers like Stalin from the start.

The animals' revolution is initially led by Snowball, the key architect of Animalism; at first, Napoleon is a secondary player, much like Stalin. However, Napoleon plots in secret to seize power and drive Snowball away, undermining Snowball's policies and training the dogs to be his enforcers. The principles of equality and solidarity that inspired the animals become mere tools for Napoleon to seize power. The gradual erosion of these values reflects Orwell’s criticism of Stalin as nothing more than a tyrant hanging onto power through the fiction of a communist revolution.

Orwell doesn’t reserve his vitriol for the leaders, however. The animals representing the people of Russia are depicted as complicit in this corruption through inaction, fear, and ignorance. Their dedication to Napoleon and the imaginary benefits of his leadership enable the pigs to maintain their hold on power, and the ability of the pigs to convince the other animals that their lives were better even as their lives become demonstrably worse is Orwell’s condemnation of the choice to submit to propaganda and magical thinking.

Power of Language

Animal Farm explores how propaganda can be used to control people. From the start of the novel, Orwell depicts the animals being manipulated by common propaganda techniques, including songs, slogans, and ever-changing information. Singing "Beasts of England" evokes an emotional response that reinforces the animals' loyalty to both Animalism and the pigs. The adoption of slogans like Napoleon is always right or four legs good, two legs bad demonstrates their unfamiliarity with the complex philosophical and political concepts underlying the revolution. The constant alteration of the Seven Commandments of Animalism demonstrates how those in control of information can manipulate the rest of a population.

The pigs, who serve as the leaders of the farm, are the only animals with a strong command of language. Snowball is an eloquent speaker who composes the philosophy of Animalism and persuades his fellow beasts with the power of his oratory. Squealer is adept at lying and spinning stories to maintain control. (For example, when the other animals are upset about Boxer’s cruel fate, Squealer quickly composes a fiction to defuse their anger and confuse the issue.) Napoleon, while not as smart or as eloquent as Snowball, is skilled at imposing his own false view on everyone around him, as when he falsely inserts himself into the historical record of the Battle of the Cowshed.

Symbols

As an allegorical novel, Animal Farm is rife with symbolism. Just as the animals represent individuals or groups from Russian history, the farm itself represents Russia, and the surrounding farms represent the European powers that witnessed the Russian Revolution. Orwell’s choices about which objects, events, or concepts to highlight are not driven by plot as in narrative fiction. Instead, his choices are carefully calibrated to evoke a desired response from the reader.

Whiskey

Whiskey represents corruption. When Animalism is founded, one of the commandments is ‛No animal shall drink alcohol.’ Slowly, however, Napoleon and the other pigs come to enjoy whiskey and its effects. The commandment is changed to ‛No animal shall drink alcohol to excess’ after Napoleon experiences his first hangover and learns how to moderate his whiskey consumption. When Boxer is sold to the Knacker, Napoleon uses the money to purchase whiskey. With this act, Napoleon fully embodies the human qualities that the animals once revolted against.

The Windmill

The windmill represents the attempt to modernize Russia and the general incompetence of Stalin’s regime. Snowball initially proposes the Windmill as a way of improving the farm’s living conditions; when Snowball is driven off, Napoleon claims it as his own idea, but his mismanagement of the project and the attacks from other landowners mean the project takes far longer to complete than expected. The final product is of inferior quality, much like many of the projects undertaken by the Soviets post-revolution. In the end the Windmill is used to enrich Napoleon and the other pigs at the expense of the other animals.

The Commandments

The Seven Commandments of Animalism, written on the barn wall for all to see, represent the power of propaganda and the malleable nature of history and information when the people are ignorant of the facts. The commandments are altered throughout the novel; each time they are changed indicates that the animals have moved even further away from their original principles.