Themes in Animal Farm
What is a theme?
In this context, it is not the song that you hear at the start of your favourite Netflix series. A theme in a story links to the main idea or topic explored in that story.
Why are themes important?
‘Animal Farm’ is a didactic novella: the story has a moral message that is intended to inform and educate the reader. By exploring the themes of the novella, you are the able to discuss the didactic nature of the story and Orwell’s message, which are essential skills to secure a top grade in your English Literature exam. We are going to focus on 5 key themes in ‘Animal Farm’: Class and equality; power; education; language, and religion.
Class and equality
Orwell explores the Russian class system through the animals in ‘Animal Farm’. Before the revolution, we see a rigid system where Mr Jones represents the ruling class, and the animals symbolise the working class or proletariat. After the revolution, we see a time where the animals have an equal say – however, this does not last long. Through this allegory (a story with a hidden moral or political meaning), Orwell explores the socialist desire in Russia to create a classless, and more equal society. In the novella, this type of society appears good in theory but in reality, is difficult to achieve.
Exam focus: Perhaps Orwell is trying to expose how difficult it is to create a fair and classless society. Consider whether he wants us to support socialism or if he is warning us of the dangers of trusting the wrong people.
At the start of the novella, Mr Jones is in charge. He is controlling, he forgets to feed the animals, and he steals eggs and milk from them. Mr Jones remains a fixed reference point through the book to warn the animals of the oppression they faced.
However, after the revolution, we still see the animals face oppression. There becomes a natural order of power amongst the animals which begins with the pigs at the top of the hierarchy due to their intelligence, allowing the pigs to dominate. Even Snowball, who is said to represent the true meaning of socialism, takes milk from the cows showing that they are not all equal. This inequality is reinforced when the Commandments change from “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". The pigs begin to replicate the class structure of Russia, something that all of the animals want to escape from. The animals succeed only when they are equal – like they are just after the revolution.
Exam focus: When the animals are united, they succeed. Yet, when individual greed is encountered, we see society begin to fall apart. Consider what Orwell wants us to think of equality. Perhaps he is issuing a warning about human nature.
In ‘Animal Farm’, we see the relationship between power and control. The novella is a satire (a story that exposes and criticises) of politicians and their ability to use power to manipulate others for personal gain. At the start, the animals gain power over Mr Jones and we see the animals have equal power and control. However, this is short-lived as the pigs slowly take control. Napoleon is a clear example of how a communist state can be destroyed because of one person’s quest for personal power. Napoleon appears to be altruistic, but many of the decisions are for his own gain rather than for all of the animals. We see this through the number of lies Napoleon tells: he steals milk and apples, explaining that pigs need nutrients to carry on their managerial work; he lies that Snowball is a traitor and blames him for any problems on the farm; and, he amends the wording of the Commandments so that he can break them. We also see that power and violence are closely linked. In order to obtain and secure power, Napoleon uses dogs and guns to instil fear and exert physical control over animals.
Exam focus: note the parallels between Napoleon and Stalin as leaders. What might Orwell’s message be about power and control? Does Orwell issue to the reader any warnings?
Through the theme of power, we are also shown the dangers of being tolerant or ignorant to change. Mollie, for example, is presented as materialistic and self-centred. Rather than engaging with the rebellion, she is more concerned about her beauty. Boxer’s blinding belief in the system means that he ignores his own doubts. He becomes a victim of the system he believes in. Lastly, Benjamin, the donkey is cynical and aware of the dangers they all face. Yet, he fails to act on it, instead stating that "Life would go on as it had always gone on — that is, badly".
Exam focus: Orwell’s message could be that dictatorships are only allowed to succeed if people don’t stand up for things. Consider what warning Orwell might be giving to the readers about not stepping up against those in power?
Education in the novella is crucial as it is correlated with power: the pigs are the most intelligent and, as a result, they are at the top of the hierarchy. Orwell uses education to explore a different aspect of control that can be seen in governments across the world. Education can be used in two ways: to empower those who are less fortunate, or to keep people oppressed.
Through Snowball and Napoleon, we can see these two approaches in education in practice. Snowball values education as a means of improving the lives of all of the animals. He begins to educate them all and tries to teach everyone to read and write. Snowball wants education for all to liberate everyone so that they can think for themselves and to ensure equality – a key Communist principle. Napoleon, on the other hand, chooses to focus on educating a few only, such as the pig, creating dominance in the farm as the animals fail to understand much of what is said. This leads to a hierarchy with the pigs at the top – which then becomes a dictatorship. We even see a lack of education in the character of Mr Jones, who reads the tabloid newspaper ‘News of the World’. The scandalous newspaper (that has now been removed from circulation due to its involvement in the phone-hacking scandal) could symbolise Mr Jones’ lack of intellect and the ease in which he is overthrown.
Exam focus: Consider why Orwell places such an importance on education in the novella. Is he offering the reader a choice about how they can gain power and independence?
Orwell explores how language impacts education and power. Language is important in the novella as it used to manipulate and mislead people. This could also be said for how language is used in totalitarian states, such as Communist Russia.
We see the impact of language and power through the character of Squealer who is presented as the head of propaganda He uses a variety of techniques to deliberately confuse the animals and continuously uses rhetorical questions to remind the animals about their lives under Mr Jones. This threat scares the animals back into submission. He uses impressive statistics which the animals struggle to argue against, his ability to use language to persuade enables the animals to be controlled.
Napoleon also seeks to reduce language by anyone other than the pigs. He simplifies the language, reducing Old Major’s maxim to “four legs good, two legs bad”. This simple phrase becomes a chant which is used to silence any dissent among the less intelligent animals. Orwell also manipulates language in the way that he chooses to write the novella. His style is simple and transparent. ‘Animal Farm’ is presented as a fairy tale or fable and this style allows the reader to understand the political allegory in a simple way. The symbols used are obvious, such as the farm representing Russia and Napoleon as Stalin.
Exam focus: What does Snowball represent in the novella? By using a fable and simple language, is Orwell trying to educate the masses against oppression?
We can also see elements of religion in ‘Animal Farm’ through the commandments and Sugarcandy Mountain. Religion, along with education and language, can be used as a means to control and manipulate people. The animals outline “animalism” in the Seven Commandments which echoes Christianity's Ten Commandments as outlined in the Bible. Throughout the story, the Seven Commandments are amended to suit the pigs’ agenda. Perhaps Orwell does this to highlight how the animals still follow the path of humans when outlining rules. We also see the use of religion through Moses’ description of Sugarcandy Mountain, which is evocative of heaven. At the start of the novella, Moses is presented as unreliable and the animals have no interest in his tales as they believe they are creating their own paradise. However, when their life is no better after the revolution, they begin to believe Moses and Sugarcandy Mountain gives them hope of a better future.
The pigs allow Moses to stay and it is worth questioning why. The story of Sugarcandy Mountain gives the animals faith. This may make them more accepting of their current conditions if they believe there is a better life waiting for them in death. This devotion to a better afterlife can be used to change the way people live their lives, as in many religious states across the world. By allowing Moses to spread this story, Orwell could demonstrate how powerful regimes use religion to further gain control.
Exam focus: Consider what Orwell’s views of religion might be here. Rather than religion simply creating hope, how can it also be leveraged to manipulate people?
Look at the example response below. Note how the student focuses on evaluating the theme and linking it to Orwell's message. Try to replicate this in your own responses!
Q: How is the theme of education presented in the novella?
A: Orwell uses education as a tool that can be used to defend or attack, to empower or oppress. In particular, he uses the character of Snowball to present education as liberating for all of the animals. After the revolution, Snowball begins to educate all of the animals, developing their ability to read and write. In this way, Snowball presents knowledge as the key to freedom and equality.
In many ways, Orwell is symbolised through Snowball, through his drive to educate the masses. Orwell chooses to write ‘Animal Farm’ as a fable, allowing the reader to understand the political allegory in a simple way. In doing this, Orwell, like Snowball, is trying to inform and empower the reader by warning them of the dangers of oppressive political regimes.
So, that's the key five themes covered. In order to help you to secure top grades, try to link the themes to Orwell's message. This will support your argument and help you to develop a top grade response!
You should always refer to your own text when working through these examples. These quotations are for reference only.