When a divide begins to open up between Napoleon and Snowball, it is noted that Napoleon has some trouble connecting with the crowd with his speeches, but he is “especially successful with the sheep” (5.8). He teaches them simplistic cheers, and has them chant at strategic times during public meetings. For example, “It was noticed that they [the sheep] were especially liable to break into ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ at crucial moments in Snowball’s speeches” (5.8). Later, Napoleon uses the sheep to chant and drown out the four pigs that protest the fact that he will eliminate public meetings.
The other key thing to notice about the sheep is how susceptible they are to abuses of language. At the end of the novel, we get Orwell’s ingenious and diabolical twist – the pigs begin to walk on two legs. To justify the change, Napoleon has Squealer teach the sheep to switch their cheer to “Four legs good, two legs better” (10.13). Obviously, the sheep are helping to gloss over the pigs’ hypocrisy, but there’s something more subtle going on here as well.
It’s easy to see that what the pigs are saying takes a 180 degree turn. With a little coaching from Squealer, they are suddenly spreading the exact opposite message of the one that they have been passing on for years. What takes a little more work is to realize why this possible. The reason, we’ll suggest, is that the very form of the chant – its simplicity and repeatability – allow it to be easily manipulated by those in power. The pigs aren’t just taking part in political hypocrisy; they’re taking place in a gross misuse of language.
As allegorical figures, the sheep stand in for the massive propaganda machine that Stalin set up as he came to power in Russia. Yet they might also be taken to represent the masses that were all too easily swayed by that same propaganda. The sheep’s adherence to simplistic slogans and repetition seems to destroy any possibility of independent thought, and allows Napoleon to fool the rest of the animals over and over again. For this reason, the sheep seem to be a commentary on the very nature of propaganda: it is not clear where propaganda begins and ends, but those who take it in unthinkingly and continue to spread it become part of the totalitarian regime, whether or not they realize it.The Sheep Timeline