Animal Farm is an allegorical novel about a group of farm animals who overthrow their human farmer and set up a farm to serve in the interest of the animals who inhabit it.
The novel was written by George Orwell as a cautionary tale against Stalinism. The plot of the book mimics the Russian Revolution of 1917, the death of Lenin and the subsequent rise of Stalin.
It’s an interesting take on the ideology of communism and how the best ideas can be corrupted by those with nefarious aims. As well as being one of the best George Orwell books.
The book deals with the ideas of freedom, rebellion and how power corrupts. Orwell was a fierce critic of Stalin and the book is a cautionary tale about what can happen when a cult of personality is allowed to develop around one person.
I enjoyed reading this book as it weaves an interesting tale about how the animals come to believe in a cause, which only a select few benefit from.
If you’re interested in how the ideals of a revolution can be corrupted, then Animal Farm is a good novel to read t understand how it can.
It’s a satirical novel, but an enjoyable and illuminating one nonetheless.
Animal Farm summary
Takeaway 1 Revolutions don’t always work out for the better
The story of Animal Farm is a tale of revolution by the animals, who overthrow the farmer and set up a farm run by and for the animals.
They introduce the idea of animalism, which posits that all animals are equal and that “four legs are good and two legs are bad.”
While the revolution has honest principles it soon becomes corrupted when the boar who led the revolution, Old Major, dies.
Upon his death, his ideas become corrupted and manipulated by the two other boars involved in the revolution Napoleon and Snowball.
As time goes on the revolution starts to drift away from the tenets established by Old Major and ends up becoming akin to the regime ruled by the humans.
Revolutions always start off with the principle of realising a certain section of society from oppression, but in most cases, they create problems.
The primary problem is that a power vacuum opens up after the revolution which must be filled by somebody. If the wrong person fills the vacuum the revolution can end up making things worse for ordinary people going against the aims of the revolution in the first place.
This has happened time and time again in many places around the world and is emphasised in the novel.
You have to be careful what you wish for when it comes to revolutions. They don’t always turn out for the better.
Takeaway 2 The new elites resemble the old elites
One of the striking parts of Animal Farm is how the boars that usher in the revolution slowly come to resemble the people they overthrew.
Once Napoleon gains control of the farm he entrenches his power step-by-step by purging those who do not agree with him and cutting himself off from the other animals.
This culminates in a remarkable passage at the end of the book where some of the animals observe him playing cards with human farmers, walking on two legs and drinking whiskey.
While this is unlikely to happen anytime soon in the real world, it’s a perfect demonstration of what can happen when power becomes entrenched at the top.
Napoleon may have believed in the revolution at first, but as the novel progresses he reverts to the rule that was laid down before.
This is emphasised by the changing of one of the Seven Commandments of Animalism from “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
His transition shows that in most revolutions although the leaders may preach about everyone being in it together, the reality is very different.
Takeaway 3 A naive working class is dangerous
A recurring theme throughout Animal Farm is the dedication of the animals to the cause of Animalism despite when it’s obvious that the tenets are no longer being followed.
This is exemplified by the workhorse Boxer who when presented with a dilemma declares that “Napoleon is always right.”
The novel shows that this is not the case and is exemplified by the fact that Napoleon becomes the very thing he overthrew in the first place at the end of the novel.
The refusal of Boxer to question authority is a critique of the working class by Orwell. Due to the animal’s lack of education, they do not know any better.
When they are informed about new decisions by Napoleon or one of his companions, they may question it, but once it has been explained away they accept it.
This culminates in them being just as oppressed as they were before but thinking they are freer due to their lack of understanding and naivety.
This is a portrayal of society in many regimes, not just authoritarian ones. If a section of society is ill-informed it can lead to disastrous consequences.
Animal Farm shows what can happen when an inability to question authority and accept what you are told is commonplace.
- “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
- “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
- “All that year the animals worked like slaves. But they were happy in their work; they grudged no effort or sacrifice, well aware that everything they did was for the benefit of themselves and those of their kind who would come after them, and not for a pack of idle, thieving human beings.”
- “The human beings did not hate Animal Farm any less now that it was prospering; indeed, they hated it more than ever.”
- “They had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.”
Animal Farm review
The book is an allegory of Revolutionary Russia and its aftermath and Orwell does a fantastic job illustrating the absurdity of the regime.
The use of the farm and animals makes it a clear and easy guide to what happened. This also makes the book more accessible to children who can learn about the terrors of totalitarian regimes as a result.
The genius of Orwell is that he is able to distil the essence of a political regime into simple language. Reading the book, you’re willing the animals to realise what is happening to them.
But they don’t it until it’s too late, and tyranny has well and truly set in. Animal Farm should be required reading for everyone who wants to understand what life outside a democracy looks like.
We are blessed in the modern age to live in stable political regimes, but that doesn’t mean that democracies can’t die.
All of us take democracy for granted but it’s not outside the realms of possibility that we could wake up one day and realise it’s gone.
Orwell knew this as he lived through the Second World War and fought against Fascism while in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War.
Animal Farm is a fantastic book and the more of us that read it, the more aware we are of how fragile our political systems are to demagogues.
Who should read Animal Farm?
Animal Farm is an easily accessible book for almost anyone and for that reason, most people will enjoy it.
If you want an overview of how Soviet Russia worked, then it’s a good book to read, as it’s essentially a metaphor for what happened following the revolution.