George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” — A Study Guide
Orwell uses a “fairy story” of seemingly cute animals to illustrate the horrors of authoritarianism, the corrupt nature of power, and reality control.
George Orwell is immortal. Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of the most relevant books of 2017, thanks in large part to the Trump administration’s “alternative facts”, tendencies that border on gaslighting, and blatant disregard for the truth, but Animal Farm is just as relevant for its commentary on similar themes.
Animal Farm — formally titled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story — is a novella that serves as a direct allegory for the Joseph Stalin era of the Soviet Union in the early 1900’s, but Orwell’s portrayal of authoritarianism makes Animal Farm allegorical to modern authoritarian or pseudo-authoritarian regimes, too, such as Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea.
Authoritarian governments are somewhat of a specialty of Orwell’s. It’s the most glaring connection between his two greatest works, and he was clearly deeply concerned about it. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Big Brother seems to share a similar creative lineage with Animal Farm’s Napoleon, with both being unquestioned leaders fueled by a cult of personality, lionized to the point that their reputation transcends them.
Years into Napoleon’s reign, he becomes more and more of a symbolic figurehead, only making public appearances during pivotal moments. Big Brother is that, taken to another level. Nobody has ever seen him and nobody is sure that he even exists. Both Big Brother and Napoleon have a reputation and orthodoxy so monstrous and dominant that they are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. They rule, effortlessly, because they imposed their vision of society so strongly and so thoroughly that their citizens don’t even consider questioning them. All that is good is attributed to them and all that is bad is reinterpreted as good, also which is attributed to them.
In one of the most influential works on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, sociologist Juan José Linz described authoritarian governments as having four qualities: limited political pluralism, manipulative use of emotion to strengthen legitimacy, minimal social mobilization, and vague executive power. By the end of his transformation from firebrand to authoritarian ruler, Napolean introduces each of these into Animal Farm.
“Animal Farm was proclaimed a Republic, and it became necessary to elect a President. There was only one candidate. Napoleon, who was elected unanimously.” Interestingly enough, limited political pluralism is one of the last things Napolean introduces. It’s more of a finishing touch for him, as opposed to it being the act that begins his reign.
A tactic that Napoleon began using much earlier was labeling the regime that came before him — that of the human Mr. Jones — as a lurking threat whom only under Napoleon’s leadership can Animal Farm stave off. It’s with the constant reminder of the days of Mr. Jones that Napoleon cements his legitimacy. His use of Snowball as a looming threat is similar.
To further cement his position, Napoleon then reduces the possibility of any social mobilization, by making an example of the hens who first rebel, cutting their food rations, then using the threat of punishment by death to prevent any other animals from following their lead. The hens ultimately capitulate.
And last, but certainly not least, the limits to Napoleon’s power are seemingly non-existent and ever-changing. At first, he hides under the guise of the other pigs, then after he separates himself, his executive powers continue to grow. Just as the limits to his powers start to take shape, Napoleon moves the boundaries. It begins with dividing rations for the animals, and ultimately escalates until the point of becoming the supreme leader of Animal Farm. His power is absolutely arbitrary and arbitrarily absolute.
Animal Farm is also about power, and how power can corrupt even the best of us. Before Napoleon rose to power, he was a well-meaning leader who appeared to genuinely want what was best for the animals and Animal Farm, but after he gradually accumulated more and more power, it became less and less about what was best for Animal Farm.
Napoleon, at first, despises Man, telling the other animals that “Man serves the interests of no creature except himself.” After he rose to power, things changed: “Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer — except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.” Then by the end, Napoleon had completed the transformation into that which he despised:
“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but it was impossible to say which was which.”
Power corrupts us. Studies show that it literally changes your brain. The desire for more power has no end, and no one man — in Animal Farm’s case, pig — should have all that power.
Memory and Control
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of The Party’s slogans — slogans are another common denominator between Orwell’s work — was that “Who controls the past, controls the future.” This is not only true for Big Brother, but also for Napoleon, who retroactively amends the Seven Commandments, leveraging his position of being inscrutable to manipulate the animals’ recollection of the past and forcing them to question themselves.
Napoleon, and Big Brother, don’t rule by brute force, but by leveraging the past and the future to control the present. Fear of the way things were before some distant time ago when Jones ran the Farm forces the animals to follow Napoleon, and hope of a better tomorrow, such as retirement, sometime in the near future, keeps them working hard. Neither the past nor the future are tangible. They’re both ideals Napoleon uses to control the animals and to exert his power over them, because control is the ultimate expression of power, and power is what drives authoritarianism.