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Themes in George Orwell's Animal Farm

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THEMES OF ‘ANIMAL FARM’

Although Orwell aims his satire at dictatorship—Communism, Fascism, and Capitalism—Animal Farm has its structure largely based on the events of the Russian Revolution that took place between 1917 and 1944, when Orwell was writing the novella. Much of what happens in the novella symbolically describes specific developments in the history of Russian Communism, and several of the animal characters are based on real participants in the Russian Revolution. Due to the universal relevance of the novella’s themes, we do not need to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Marxist Leninism or Russian history in order to appreciate Orwell’s satire of them.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas investigated in a literary work. Animal Farm is most famous in the West as a harsh analysis of the history and language of the Russian Revolution. Retelling the story of the emergence and development of Soviet communism in the form of an animal fable, Animal Farm allegorizes the rise to power of the dictator Joseph Stalin. In the novella, the overthrow of the human oppressor Mr. Jones by a democratic coalition of animals quickly gives way to the consolidation of power among the pigs. Much like the Soviet intelligentsia, the pigs establish themselves as the ruling class in the new society.
The struggle for domination between Leon Trotsky and Stalin emerges in the enmity between the pigs Snowball and Napoleon. In both the historical and fictional cases, the idealistic but politically less powerful figure (Trotsky and Snowball) is expelled from the revolutionary state by the wicked and violent usurper of power (Stalin and Napoleon). The purges and show trials with which Stalin eliminated his enemies and solidified his political base find expression in Animal Farm as the false confessions and executions of animals whom Napoleon distrusts following the collapse of the windmill. Stalin’s tyrannical rule and eventual abandonment of the founding principles of the Russian Revolution are represented by the pigs’ turn to violent government and the adoption of human traits and behaviours, the trappings of their original oppressors.
Although Orwell believed strongly in socialist ideals, he felt that the Soviet Union realized these ideals in a terribly bad form. His novella creates its most powerful ironies in the moments in which Orwell depicts the corruption of Animalist ideals by those in power. For Animal Farm serves not so much to condemn tyranny or dictatorship as to accuse the horrifying hypocrisy of tyrannies that base themselves on, and owe their initial power to, ideologies of liberation and equality. The gradual disintegration and perversion of the Seven Commandments illustrates this hypocrisy with vivid force, as do Squealer’s elaborate philosophical justifications for the pigs’ blatantly unprincipled actions. Thus, the novella analyses the violence of the Stalinist government against the human beings it ruled, and also points to Soviet communism’s violence against human logic, language, and ideals.
Animal Farm offers commentary on the development of class tyranny and the human tendency to maintain and re-establish class structures even in societies that supposedly stand for total equality. The novella illustrates how classes that are initially unified in the face of a common enemy, as the animals are against the humans, may become internally divided when that enemy is eliminated. The expulsion of Mr. Jones creates a power vacuum, and it is only so long before the next oppressor assumes authoritarian control. The natural division between intellectual and physical labour quickly comes to express itself as a new set of class divisions, with the “brainworkers” (as the pigs claim to be) using their superior intelligence to control society to their own benefit. Orwell never clarifies in Animal Farm whether this negative state of affairs constitutes an inherent aspect of society or merely an outcome dependent on the integrity of a society’s intelligentsia. In either case, the novella points to the force of this tendency toward class stratification in many communities and the threat that it poses to democracy and freedom.
One of the novella’s most impressive actions is its portrayal not just of the figures in power but also of the oppressed people themselves. Animal Farm is not told from the viewpoint of any particular character, though occasionally it does slip into Clover’s consciousness. Rather, the story is told from the point of view of the common animals as a whole. Innocent, loyal, and hardworking, these animals give Orwell a chance to sketch how situations of oppression arise not only from the motives and plans of the oppressors but also from the simplicity of the oppressed that are not necessarily in a position to be better educated or informed. When presented with a problem, Boxer prefers not to puzzle out the implications of various possible actions but instead to repeat to himself, “Napoleon is always right.” Animal Farm demonstrates how the inability or unwillingness to question authority condemns the working class to suffer the full extent of the ruling class’s oppression.
One of Orwell’s central concerns, both in Animal Farm and in 1984, is the way in which language can be used as an instrument of control. In Animal Farm, the pigs gradually twist and change an expression of socialist revolution to justify their behaviour and to keep the other animals in the dark. The animals heartily grip Major’s visionary ideal of socialism, but after Major dies, the pigs gradually twist the meaning of his words. As a result, the other animals seem unable to oppose the pigs without also opposing the ideals of the Rebellion. By the end of the novella, after Squealer’s repeated reconfigurations of the Seven Commandments in order to allow the pigs’ treacheries, the main principle of the farm can be openly stated as “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This shocking misuse of the word “equal” and of the ideal of equality in general typifies the pigs’ method, which becomes increasingly bold as the novel progresses. Orwell’s stylish revelation of this misuse of language remains one of the most compelling and enduring features of Animal Farm.

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