Napoleon doesn’t play much of a role in the initial rebellion, which happens largely by chance. Yet he’s introduced, along with Snowball, as being one of the most intelligent pigs around. The narrator describes him as “a large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire on the farm, not much of a talker, but with a reputation for getting his way” (2.2). It’s worth noting that Snowball is a better public speaker, and is also better at winning popular favor. Yet it’s Napoleon, the more treacherous and cunning of the two pigs, that manages to get his way.
We see the first of many examples when Napoleon takes nine puppies from their parents and begins raising them himself. No one knows exactly what he is doing until the dogs suddenly appear, fully grown, to chase Snowball off the farm. When the dogs return to him, “it was noticed that they wagged their tails to him in the same way as the other dogs had been used to do to Mr. Jones” (5.15). Napoleon may not have as many ideas as Snowball, but he’s got a taste for power, and he learns from the best. In this case, Mr. Jones.
After Snowball is exiled, Napoleon is in complete control of the farm. He speaks relatively little because he has Squealer do his speaking for him. He eliminates all chance of open protest when he gets rid of the public meetings, saying that it is better if things are decided by committees, which will be presided over by himself. In general his public image is very tightly controlled:
In these days Napoleon rarely appeared in public, but spent all his time in the farmhouse, which was guarded at each door by fierce-looking dogs. When he did emerge, it was in a ceremonial manner, with an escort of six dogs who closely surrounded him and growled if anyone came too near. (7.5)
Napoleon protects himself on all fronts. With the help of Squealer and the other pigs, he re-writes history, turning Snowball into a villain, and increasing his own role in the Rebellion. He relies on the gullibility of the strongest animals, like Boxer the horse, and the apathy of the wisest, like Benjamin the donkey. When anyone questions Napoleon's version of history, he has a herd of sheep chant loudly over their protests.
All of this is not, of course, merely a study in one pig’s power play. Napoleon does not make sense unless you realize that he is a double for Joseph Stalin, who served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1922 until his death more than 30 years later. Like Napoleon, Stalin was a master at pulling strings behind the scenes. He grew a secret police force, the NKVD (later the KGB), which behaved a bit like Napoleon's dogs, ultimately proving its effectiveness by assassinating Leo Trotsky, Snowball’s double and one of Stalin’s chief rivals.
At the same time, Stalin kept tight control over the media, commissioning paintings of himself in which children gazed up at him adoringly. He used his political power to essentially re-write Russian history, giving himself a much larger role in the Revolution of 1917 than he had actually played, and later suggesting that he was solely and personally responsible for winning World War II. And get this: Nikita Khrushchev, who served under Stalin and was the next leader of Russia, remembered how at the same time Stalin was turning himself into a giant of Russian history, he wanted to make sure that he was “best known for his modesty.” Ha, right.
Like Stalin using his secret police force to ensure his own grip on power, Napoleon uses his attack dogs to get rid of the opposition by force, at the same time that he quiets dissent and manufactures his public image through Squealer and the bleating sheep. One of the biggest parallels between Napoleon and Stalin has to do with the way Animal Farm’s productivity slumps off while Napoleon is in control. He decides to fill the granaries with sand to hide the smaller harvest. This episode is an allusion to how Stalin disrupted agricultural production with his Five-Year-Plans (begun in 1928). When the Plans resulted in widespread famine across Russia, Stalin did his best to conceal coverage of the famines and to make it look like Russia was doing as well as before. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more details about the Five-Year-Plans.)
Whether or not Napoleon’s the most intelligent pig on the farm, we know that he’s certainly the most cunning, and by the end of the novel, Animal Farm is a machine that runs according to Napoleon’s will.
We get hints of Napoleon’s ruthless nature long before it erupts into full force. The first comes when he unleashes the dogs on Snowball, and they chase him out of the farm. The second comes when Napoleon squashes the hen rebellion by cutting off their food rations, causing a number of hens to die of starvation. But nothing measures up to what he does next.
Napoleon begins to demand that various animals come forward and make false confessions before the group. He gets rid of anyone that had the power to contradict him, and after they reveal themselves as traitors, “the dogs promptly tore their throats out” (7.25). In this way, Napoleon knocks off the four pigs who sometimes disagreed with him, and the hens who acted as ringleaders in the rebellion. The narrator describes the scene:
And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood, which had been unknown there since the time of Jones. (7.26)
The violence that erupts mid-way through Orwell’s "Fairy Tale," is an allusion to the Great Purge, also known as the Great Terror, which was overseen by Stalin in the late 1930s. Napoleon’s methods mirror Stalin’s own quite closely. Some people would just disappear; others were sent to the Gulag prison camps; others were forced to discredit themselves publicly by confessing to crimes they had never committed. All of these extreme methods were ways for Stalin to consolidate his power, to make sure that his position was unshakeable. (Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more details on the hen rebellion and Stalin's purges.)
There’s a key feature of Napoleon’s violence toward the other animals. We’re sorry to linger on it, but the narrator gives us the brutal detail that the dogs tear out their throats. What is so diabolical (cunning and evil) about Napoleon’s method is that he forces such animals to tell lies about themselves before they die. By robbing their right to free speech, he forces the animals to essentially kill any public respect they might have had. In this act, you could say that he metaphorically tears out their throats. A moment later, this violence is re-enacted in literal form when the dogs pounce on them.
Both Napoleon and Stalin were dictators. Dictators often do horribly violent things. What was so bizarre about Stalin, though, was the extent of the purges. Even from a dictator’s point of view, the level violence was unnecessary. It seemed to be fuelled by his own ferocious paranoia – his fear that the whole world was out to get at him – and perhaps also by a simple love of violence itself. Orwell works to echo these features of Stalin in Animal Farm, and Napoleon comes off as one messed-up pig.
What motivates Napoleon? As soon as he moves to power, it becomes clear that he has very little interest in Old Major’s prophecy. Napoleon doesn’t care much if all animals are equal or if they control the means of production, so what keeps him ticking? It’s actually not at all hard to pinpoint what motivates Napoleon: the pig’s got a lust for power and a case of good old-fashioned greed.
Almost as soon as Napoleon and Snowball seize power, Napoleon takes away some milk that the animals later find out the pigs have been drinking. A bit later, the pigs begin sleeping in the humans’ beds. Soon after, they begin drinking whiskey and having rowdy parties. By the end of the novel, Napoleon and Squealer wear human clothes and walk around on two legs.
To make sure all of this floats with the other animals, Napoleon keeps shifting the Commandments to make them say what he wants them to say. Squealer explains that the commandment didn’t say that you couldn’t sleep in a bed, only that you couldn’t sleep in a bed with sheets. Similarly, the commandment forbidding alcohol later forbids drinking alcohol to excess. Meanwhile, Napoleon denounces all the grand social dreams that gave birth to the idea of Animal Farm. He tells the other animals: “the truest happiness lay in working hard and living frugally” (10.4). In other words, Napoleon has taken the idea of prosperous living and kept it all for himself. Everyone else is out on their own.
Of course, Napoleon is largely a stand-in for Stalin, who lived a lavish lifestyle at the same time that famines were raging through the Russian countryside. It’s clear that Napoleon has made a mockery of Old Major’s ideas in the same way that Stalin made a mockery of Karl Marx’s ideas. The "worker's state" that actually existed under Stalin was more like a horrible, dark parody of what Marx thought a communist state would be. In fact, it looked a whole lot like fascism (theoretically the opposite of communism).
Napoleon’s namesake is significant when we consider the message we’re supposed to get from Napoleon the pig. He’s obviously named after Napoleon I, who fought in the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), but then consolidated power for himself and left the French Empire in a state that, in many ways, looked like the monarchy they had just overthrown.
When Karl Marx was writing his famous tract, The Communist Manifesto (1848), he was greatly inspired by the ideas at the heart of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. These principles no doubt helped give rise to the idea of the utopian state that Marx imagined as the end of history. To this day, people argue about whether or not Marx could have been right if only his theories had been implemented properly.
What Orwell seems to be saying with Napoleon the pig is this: "Hey Marx, didn’t you notice how the French Revolution ended?" In other words, Orwell seems to be arguing that idealist thinkers can imagine utopias, but there’s always going to be some pig that comes along to dash their dreams for his own self-interest. In 1799, he was named Napoleon. In 1922, he was named Stalin.