Benjamin is a wise donkey, “the oldest animal on the farm and the worst tempered. He seldom talked, and when he did, it was usually to make some cynical remark” (1.3). For all his bad temper, Benjamin seems to be the most intelligent animal on the farm, even more intelligent than the pigs, though probably less cunning. Though he tries to act completely uninterested and detached from everything happening on the farm, it’s clear that he is faithful to Boxer, and often tries to help his horse friend.
After the rebellion, the other animals want to know what Benjamin thinks of the new organization of Animal Farm. The only thing that he’ll say is, “Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey” (3.4). Later, he refuses to grow enthusiastic about the windmill, and when the other animals want to know why, he makes the same claim, “donkeys live a long time” (6.17). Benjamin has long-term vision; he seems to operate on a different time-scale than everyone else, so doesn’t become excited over what he sees as passing phases or fads.
What’s sad about Benjamin is that, for all his wisdom, he refuses to act. He seems to regard things as being guided by fate. You get the sense that he sees all actions (including his own) as pointless, and at times he seems to revel in the futility of other animals’ efforts at order. When he realizes that the humans are going to blow up the windmill, the narrator tells us, “Slowly, and with an air of almost amusement, Benjamin nodded his long muzzle” (8.19). Part of Benjamin seems to enjoy the fact that the windmill is going to come crashing down.
Yet Benjamin pays a price for his own inaction. After Boxer is injured, Benjamin stays with him and Clover and helps take care of his friend. One suspects that Benjamin should be able to see what is coming when the pigs say that Boxer is going to be taken to a hospital at Willingdon. He waits until the last possible minute to do something. Only when Boxer is actually being taken away does Benjamin come running to alert the other animals; “it was the first time that they had ever seen Benjamin excited—indeed it was the first time that anyone had ever seen him gallop” (9.16). Even then, the other animals think that Benjamin simply wants them to say farewell to Boxer. Benjamin has to explain to them that Boxer is on his way to be slaughtered.
After Boxer’s death, the old donkey is “more morose and taciturn than ever” (10.2). When the other animals want to know whether things were better before or after the Rebellion, he replies with a characteristically cynical answer, “things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse – hunger, hardship, and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life” (10.6). One can only wonder to what extent Benjamin’s bleak viewpoint is a result of his own guilt. He can’t help but think that perhaps if he had spoken up against the pigs sooner, then Boxer would not have worked himself to a breaking-point and been sold off to the knackers (men who slaughter old farm animals).
It has been suggested by Morris Dickstein and other critics that there might be something of Orwell himself in the cynical old donkey. It’s easy to see in Benjamin something of a writers’ point of view. He is philosophical and removed, and always speaks with an all-knowing air. Yet simply by writing Animal Farm, Orwell creates a sharp distinction between himself and Benjamin. Both see injustice, but Orwell speaks out against it rather than letting it unfold with a sense of resignation and dark amusement.