It remains a best-seller and features prominently on many lists of the greatest books of the 20th century.
The story takes place at The Manor Farm in the English countryside where Jones, the owner, exploits the animals’ labor and reaps all the profits. Old Major, a pig who has long lived on the farm, calls the other animals together and convinces them to overthrow the farmer and run things for themselves.
While the animals enjoy prosperity and happiness at first, the pigs, the most intelligent on the farm, take for themselves the supply of apples that have fallen to the ground in autumn and the extra milk from the cows, betraying the revolution’s founding idea that “all animals are equal.”
Their propagandist, Squealer, attempts to justify this theft to the other animals:
“Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health … We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organization of this farm depend on us,” he says.
“Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for YOUR sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back! Yes, Jones would come back!”
Not long after this, many of the animals begin to think back to the time when Jones was the owner, realizing that their current lives are no less difficult.
However, the propaganda that they are constantly subjected to makes them dread the return of the owner more than anything else. Under Napoleon’s brutal leadership and Squealer’s skillful propaganda, the pigs grow more and more powerful until the rest of the animals can do nothing but follow their orders.
The prospect of the return of Jones and his collaboration with the local butcher means the animals believe their very lives are at stake.
They put their concerns about overwork and limited food aside in the face of this danger. Everything on the farm becomes part of the war and the animals are constantly called on to sacrifice for an ideal society to come.
The book’s most poignant and tragic character is the workhorse Boxer, whose motto is always “work harder.” After tirelessly laboring to improve life on the farm, Boxer finally collapses in exhaustion. The pigs call a cart, promising it will take the heroic horse to the hospital. However, the other animals discover that the cart has the butcher shop’s markings on it.
Once again, Squealer the propagandist intervenes to explain that the van has been bought from the butcher, hence its markings.
Later, the animals are told that Boxer was made as comfortable as possible at the hospital and died in his sleep. The pigs decide to “honor” his death and encourage the rest of the farm to follow his example.
What the animals don’t realize is that Boxer was taken to the knacker to be made into glue and that the pigs took the money from this to buy more whiskey for themselves.
As time passes, life at the animal farm remains full of drudgery and endless work. While there is enough food to survive, none of the modern benefits promised by the revolution, such as electricity, heating, and water, ever materialize.
The pigs convince the other animals that it is better to live simply in freedom and go without these things.
One day, Squealer surprises all the other animals by walking on two feet, carrying a riding crop, and wearing human clothes. The struggle for equality for all becomes one of privilege for some, embodied in the new commandment: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
In the book’s final scene, the pigs invite the local farmers to join them for a banquet. As the other animals look inside the dining room in Jones’s farmhouse, they see no difference between their new masters and old oppressors.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Animal Farm represents George Orwell’s lament for the project of an equal society, which he saw as betrayed in his time by Stalin in the Soviet Union, but it also offers keen insights into the workings of tyranny that are entirely relevant today.
By instilling a deep fear of an unseen enemy, at first Jones and the other farmers in the area, then other animals who are accused of working behind the scenes to help them, the pigs are able to control the farm through fear.
The violence and cruelty of the leaders are justified by the ultimate goal of perfect equality and prosperity for all, which the animals naively believe will come to pass if they continue to work and obey.
Orwell’s parable shows that differences between people in a society, whether those of gender, class, or culture, will always exist. Attempts to flatten them out can only end in violence to the rights of individuals.
Difference is what gives vibrancy and dynamism to our world. The goal of making everyone the same inevitably makes society poorer, both materially and spiritually.
(The cover photo from Pinterest/Adobestock)