Study Guide

Animal Farm Themes

By George Orwell

  • Power: Leadership and Corruption

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    There's a reason you don't want your prom queen to also be your school president: absolute power corrupts absolutely, and pretty soon she'll be sending out her minions to stake out the best parking spot. In Animal Farm, the pigs no sooner weasel their way into power than they start taking milk for themselves—and pretty soon, they've moved on to harder stuff. Like whiskey. So, is there any hope? Does Orwell offer any model of government that doesn't just get corrupted?

    Animal Farm

    Questions About Power: Leadership and Corruption

    1. Are the pigs self-serving from the start, or are they corrupted by their power? (By the way, the world has never been able to agree on this.)
    2. What qualities allow the pigs to gain power in the first place, and what qualities enable them to keep their power? Are these different?
    3. How do you define power, anyway? What does it mean to have power on Animal Farm? Is it possible for leaders to have this kind of power without abusing it?

    Chew on This

    Although they definitely get worse as the story progresses, the pigs are greedy from the start.

    When Napoleon takes over, Animal Farm is doomed. Snowball was no angel, but he was a sound leader. Napoleon is just bad to the (delicious) bone.

  • Power: Control over the Intellectually Inferior

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    American conservative William F. Buckley once said that he'd rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phonebook than the 2000 faculty members of Harvard. (Somewhat ironic, coming from a guy who went to Yale and then founded an intellectually rigorous journal.) But our point is, Orwell might have agreed: in Animal Farm pigs take control because they're the smartest animals on the farm and then turn right around and start abusing that power.

    But you can't just blame the eggheads. The pigs would never have succeeded if they other animals hadn't blindly gone along with it. Moral of the story: you don't need to go to Yale, but you do need to form some opinions of your own.

    Questions About Power: Control over the Intellectually Inferior

    1. Truth: the sheep seem completely useless. But are they, really? At the end of the day, do we actually need these less intellectual workers to keep everyone all nice and cozy in merino sweaters?
    2. Do the sheep have a certain power? You know, the kind of power that only a numerous group of brainwashed and brainwashing individuals can have?
    3. Is Orwell suggesting that intellectuals are inherently untrustworthy, or does being smart just make people susceptible to thinking other people are abuse-worthy?

    Chew on This

    The pigs and sheep are both to blame for the disaster on Animal Farm—both the intellectuals and the people who are happy to let others do the thinking for them.

    Orwell isn't saying that intellectuals are evil, but he is saying that being smart tends to make people believe it's okay to be unethical.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    Animal Farm runs on pig fat and lies. By the end, "truth" has become so malleable that the animals can't even remember what actually happened. A lie is something that contradicts the pigs' agenda; a truth is something that supports it. Napoleon might try to justify the lies by thinking they're for the good of the cause, but his propaganda machine is still cranking out the myths. Is our narrator the only source of unbiased fact? Or could you say that Animal Farm is a kind of anti-communist propaganda of its own?

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What specific tools does Squealer use to deceive the animals, and why do they work so well?
    2. You might have noticed that several different animals, and humans, use deception. How do the animals use it differently, if at all? Are the motivations different? The outcomes? The style?
    3. The animals are dumb, but they're not that dumb. Well, the sheep are. But the rest have an inclination that something is rotten in the state of Animal Farm. So why don't they do anything about it?

    Chew on This

    While the pigs are able to convince some of the animals of their lies, they ultimately can't convince the majority of animals.

    The pigs' ability to alter the official record of the past is their most powerful tool of control.

  • Rules and Order

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    Out with the old, in with the new: in Animal Farm, the animals get rid of an old set of rules just to find themselves oppressed by a new one. At first, new commandments and traditions are supposed to energize and unite the animals. But these rules turn out to be not so much rules as easily changed suggestions—especially because most of the animals don't read so good (and don't remember so good, either). Instead of preserving order, rules are used to deceive and abuse. Gee, it's a good thing that never happens in our world.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. The animals establish tons of traditions on the farm, and certain routines become cyclic and expected. Is the action of the plot itself — that is, the cycle of oppression-rebellion-corruption, a routine tradition? Could it be? Maybe Benjamin hints at this when he says, "Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey."
    2. What rules change? Why do they get altered in this order? Which changes are the most significant?
    3. Do the Seven Commandments seem like solid rules? Could a society that truly lived by those rules succeed?

    Chew on This

    The shifting rules, customs, and traditions of Animal Farm parallel the decay of Animalism and the ideals of Old Major.

    Although the pigs have many ways of oppressing the other animals, their use of rules and order is the most powerful.

  • Foolishness and Folly

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    Talk about blaming the victim: it sounds a lot like Orwell is faulting the lower-class animals for not being smart enough to realize what's going on. Either they fail to recognize their oppression, or they ignore it because they want to wear ribbons in their hair (ahem, Mollie). But you could also see the pigs as having follies of their own. A drunk pig stumbling around on two legs? Sounds pretty foolish to us.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Some character pretty much always fools (Mollie, the sheep) and some that are generally wise (Benjamin). Do they ever step out of these roles? Do we ever see a moment of clarity from Mollie, or foolishness from Benjamin?
    2. Are these foolish animals born foolish, or made foolish by the actions of others? If you are born a fool, are you stuck that way or can you learn to stop being such a fool? Do the animals?
    3. Is Old Major's dream foolish, or does it just get ruined by the foolishness of others?

    Chew on This

    The lower-class animals end up oppressed not just because the pigs are mean to them (although they are) but because they're inherently idiots.

    The pigs may be more intelligent than the rest of the animals, but the humans ultimately make them into fools.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

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    Do you dream of a world full of pillows in which you can lie around eating Doritos and listening to drone music all day? Keep dreaming. (Eventually, you're going to have to get up and pee.) Animal Farm may be a specific criticism of one dream—the dream of a communist Russia—but it's also a criticism of utopian ideals in general. The problem is people. No matter how great your manifesto, it can only be put into action by people—flawed, selfish, stupid, and vain people.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Old Major's dream is pretty clear, but what about the dreams of other animals? Do we ever lean what they want directly, or are they just going on with his vision?
    2. How does Old Major's dream die? What happens to turn hope into despair? (Or is it despair at all? Do the animals still have hope at the end?)
    3. What the difference, in Animal Farm, between a dream and a plan? Is the whole disaster Old Major's fault for not having a clear plan to make his dream a reality?

    Chew on This

    Old Major's dream is just that: a dream. There's no way it could ever be a reality.

    Although one disaster after another hits Animal Farm, the animals never lose hope that someday their vision of a collective future will come true.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

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    Keep an eye on your local Mensa chapter: they may look like harmless nerds, but they're just waiting for the right opportunity to oppress us all. Or, something like that. In Animal Farm, the communist revolution quickly sours when it turns out that the animals all have different innate gifts—and some of those gifts, like cleverness, are particularly good at oppressing animals with other gifts, like brute strength. Is Orwell suggesting that smart people are always going to end up oppressing us because they understand financial derivatives and we can barely balance our checkbook?

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. One of the coolest things about Animal Farm, besides the talking pigs, is the fact that we know all these things the animals don't. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't work that way—usually. Look around: do you feel like you're being oppressed? Are you a pig or a sheep? Or a horse? Or a cynical donkey?
    2. The animals are really concerned about controlling the image of their farm in the outside world. Is this the same kind of manipulation that the pigs perform within the farm? Are the working class animals also responsible, in some ways, for the attempted deception of the outside world?
    3. Is Orwell suggesting that we need to be extra suspicious of clever people?

    Chew on This

    In Animal Farm, cleverness is more powerful than strength.

    When Napoleon violently ousts Snowball, Orwell suggests that brute force is more important than intellect.

  • Violence

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    For a fairy tale about a self-governing farm, Animal Farm sure does pile up the bodies. Old Major may have dreamed about animals frolicking in green pastures, but the reality is more like bloody corpses and split hooves. From the violent Rebellion to the violent Battle of the Windmill to the violent executions, Napoleon's reign is one big ick-fest. Does Animal Farm use violence to invalidate Old Major's ideas? Or is violence the reason everything goes wrong?

    Questions About Violence

    1. What different kinds of violence do we see in Animal Farm? What are the tools of violence, and who is fighting whom here? Do the sides shift over the course of the book?
    2. How is it that Napoleon executes such extremes of violence, and still has the other animals convinced he's a good guy?
    3. Are there any animals who don't become violent if provoked? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    At first, violence is restricted to animal-on-human violence. As the pigs become increasingly corrupt, animal-on-animal violence becomes more common.

    The working class animals are strong enough that they always present a potential for violent rebellion against the pigs.

  • Pride

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    The animals in Animal Farm don't have much in the way of food, dignity, or leisure—but they do have pride. They take pride in banding together to overthrow their first oppressive leader, and that common feeling makes them willing to endure their second oppressive leader. Napoleon is smart enough to use that pride to manipulate the animals into obedience and then to convince them that the whole system isn't just failing and corrupt. And… it seems to work. Hm. We feel like this is a good lesson for our ultimate Internet takeover.

    Questions About Pride

    1. In general, is pride beneficial or harmful to the animals? For the pigs? For the humans?
    2. What do the pigs seem to take pride in? What do the rest of the animals take pride in?
    3. Do the humans seem to take pride in anything?
    4. Boxer takes a lot of pride in his work. But isn't that supposed to be a good thing? When does taking pride in your work go wrong?

    Chew on This

    While the pigs use pride to control the other animals, their own pride controls them in much the same way.

    Pride initially sparks the animals' rebellion, but it quickly becomes just another tool of oppression.

  • Religion

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    Karl Marx may have said that religion was the opiate of the masses, but he also said that it was the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless condition." In other words, it just might be the only thing that gets you out of bed in the morning—if you're an oppressed laborer, that is. So, what does Animal Farm do with this? Moses might be a manipulative liar, but his little tale about "Sugarcandy Mountain" is also the only thing that keeps the animals going after a long day of hauling hay. We don't blame them for wanting to believe it—but we can blame the pigs for using it against them.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why would Orwell choose a raven as the main proponent of religion? What associations do we have with ravens?
    2. Why call the raven Moses? It sounds like a biblical reference, i.e., Orwell beating you over the head with the club of literary significance. Yet Moses the raven doesn't do anything resembling Moses the man (leading a great big horde of people out of oppression and into freedom). What gives?
    3. What's going on with Moses and the Joneses? Is there really a connection between corrupt power and religion?

    Chew on This

    Orwell is suggesting that the only reason religion exists is to make people feel better about their horrible conditions.

    Although they play very different roles, Moses and Napoleon derive power from and interact with the other animals in similar ways, making clear a connection between dictatorship and religion.