Study Guide – The Themes of Orwell’s Animal Farm

“The creatures 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.”

Orwell’s text on the rise of communism, and the subsequent results, deals with a few key themes that you can single out and focus on for your exams. We’re going to break a few of these down for you and give you a helping hand with wrapping your head around the novel. 

Power Corrupts

The most prevalent theme throughout the text is how power corrupts, which is expected given the social commentary that the novel puts forward. 

This theme is put to use in two primary ways, through the character of Mr. Jones, and Napoleon’s rise to power on the farm. 

As the head of the farm, Mr. Jones’s attitude towards the animals that are subjected to his rule is immediately established as one that is exploitative and cruel. Right at the beginning of the story, Major gives a speech highlighting this, “every one of you will scream your lives out at the block within a year.”

It is here that we also see the connection between power and violence established, as Mr. Jones fires his rifle out into the night to silence the noisy animals. This is a clear and profound metaphor on how a weaponized authoritarian state uses the threat of gunfire to silence any sort of protest, or ‘social noise.’ 

This already existing power of Mr. Jones is contrasted with the rise to power of Napoleon and Major, which represent Stalin and Trotsky, respectively. It is through this contrast that we see how the overthrowing of an already corrupt power leads to an even worse one, which is a situation that often mirrors reality. 

On the flip side of the power dynamic, we have Napoleon. Through his rise to power, we see how he turns from a pig of the people into a crazed and power-hungry murder, with the extent of his horrors being proportional to the power that he wields. 

The first example of this takes place the very day after the revolution. The pigs end up keeping the milk and the apple on the farm to themselves, beginning what eventually ends up as a total seizure of assets by the pig’s government body. 

The story is structured in such a way as to allow the corruption of Napoleon to occur at a natural rate. It starts with the apples and milk, and then progresses to using the sheep to silence Major in chapter five, and ultimately ends up with him killing Snowball to consolidate power. This arc reaches its climax with the introduction of the ‘one rule,’ which is the famous, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Ultimately, Napoleon ends up working with the very power that he set out to destroy at the beginning of the story when the difference between him and the cruel old regime being non-existent.

Equality and Intelligence 

Moving on from the corruption of power, the book deals with the communist ideal that a perfect society is one in which all people are equal. While nice in theory, it is impossible to introduce such an ideology due to the nature of power corrupting that we just talked about. 

Major is the character that is primarily used to establish the presence of this theme in the text, and it is his speeches that are the driving force for the ideal. However, this theme of equality is naturally interwoven with the theme of the importance of intelligence. 

There are two primary reasons that a genuinely equal society cannot be implemented on the farm. The first is because of the corruption mentioned above. The second is that not all of the animals are of equal intelligence; in other words, there is a natural inequality to life. The pigs are the most intelligent animals on the farm, and the animals of lesser intelligence look to them as their leaders, creating a hierarchy that is visually represented when the pigs sit down in front of Major during his speech. It is this hierarchy that is one of the primary reasons that the revolution ultimately fails, along with Major’s ignorance towards said hierarchy.

The theme of equality culminates when the pigs tell the animals that there will be no more debates in Chapter Five, coming back to the central team of power corrupting. 

Rise to Power

Another sub-theme that runs throughout Napoleon’s story is how dictators rise to power. It is through this gradual descent into tyranny that we see the steps that he, along with other notable dictators, takes to secure his power. 

First is the use of violence. When Snowball is kicked off the farm, the animals are left “silent and terrified.” This mirrors the opening of the novel when Mr. Jones fires off into the night in order also to silence the animals. 

Through Squealer, Napoleon also dictates the flow of information, as well as rewrites history. Squealer is Napoleon’s propaganda production, similar to how a dictatorship would have the media. He creates a warped account of the battle of the Cowshed to make Napoleon into the hero, and snowball into the villain. 

A great example of the total corruption of power Napoleon goes through is how he goes about trying to create a cult of personality for himself. He becomes hugely egotistical, calling himself “president,” and awarding himself medals, which is a visual parallel with Stalin. He gives himself a personal bodyguard and food tester and requires the animals of the farm to praise his leadership with “spontaneous demonstrations.”

Napoleon’s dogs are a representation of a dictatorship police force. They are there to invoke fear into the animals of the farm, quelling any sort of dissidence or action, “Squealer spoke so persuasively, and the three dogs who happened to be with him growled so threateningly, that they accepted his explanation without further questions.”

An essential step in Napoleon’s rise to power is the vilifying of Snowball, turning him into this phantom menace, and using him to create a culture of fear. This is a tactic that is more in line with the structure of Nazi Germany. However, Russia did also use it in relation to the west and capitalism as a whole. 

Snowball is said to be “causing all kinds of mischief” on the farm and creates an external enemy for the animals to band together against, and given how Napoleon controls this enemy, it allows him to exert more control on the animals. We see the same literary element used by Orwell in “1984” with Goldstein, which is a parallel you may wish to point out.

Education and Learning

This is another subtheme that supports the overarching corruption of power, as well as the theme of equality and intelligence. 

We already see how the pigs are the farm’s most intelligent animals, and as a result, take control, but the concept of education continues onwards throughout the text. 

The pigs are able to read, which is used throughout the book for them to achieve knowledge in various forms, and, in turn, solidify and grasp power. 

For example, Snowball has read a book about Caesar’s campaigns. As a result, he is able to prepare for Mr. Jones’s attack properly. 

He also read Farmer and Stockbreeder, and as a result has “innovations and improvements,” that he believes could be made to the farm. He has a plan for a windmill as a result of reading “Electricity for Beginners.“

Contrast how Snowball’s reading is described and portrayed with the reading of the other animals on the farm. 

Mr. Jones reads the “News of the World,” which was a tabloid that was notorious for running scandal and other exaggerated stories in order to increase sales. 

Muriel is seen in chapter three, reading “scraps of newspaper which she found on the rubbish head,” and Mollie “refused to learn any but the six letters which spelt her own name.”

It’s through this contrast that we can see just how vital being properly educated is in the acquisition of power, and how being unintelligent and ignorant leads to subjugation under a cruel regime. 

There are two contrasting views of education portrayed in the novel, one of Snowball’s and one of Napoleon’s. Snowball wants to educate all of the animals on the farm, attempting to realize that true equality. Napoleon, on the other hand, focuses his efforts on a small group. We see Snowball’s attempt fail, and Napoleon’s succeed. 

Power and Language

Orwell concerned himself much with the power of language and the manipulation of it to distort the truth and control the masses. This is evident in “Animal Farm” through the language he uses in the text. 

‘Equal,’ in the language of the animals, loses its meaning at the text goes on. It starts off with being a revolutionary idea to aspire to and ends up being intentionally dishonest and oxymoronic with the rule “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The word has lost its value and meaning as a result of how it is being used by the powers. 

This ties back to the idea of equality and intelligence, and the over-reliance the undereducated animals of the farm have on the pigs. When everyone is starving, Squealer tells them “they had more oats, more hay, more turnips than they ever had in Jones’s day,” and that the animals, “believed every word of it.”

It is in examples like this that we see the propaganda of Napoleon’s farm come to light. He has Squealer present information in manipulative ways, attempting to stir an emotional response, and hide the truth. He is described as being able to “turn black into white.” 

Squealer’s role on the farm is representative of his name. Squealing is a loud, screeching, and obnoxious noise, and Squealer’s position as the regime’s mouthpiece could be described the same way. 

Key Takeaways

There are two key themes present in the novel:

  • How power corrupts
  • Equality and Intelligence

The most visceral example of the corruption of power to focus on is Napoleon’s slow descent into madness and tyranny. As the text goes on, the nature and depravity of his actions see a gradual increase, going from merely gaining power to outright murder and authoritarian police tactics.

The main point of equality and intelligence to highlight is the natural inequality between the animals based on intelligence. Despite the goals for an equal society, it is impossible because the pigs are smarter than the others, and as a result, the animals on the farm look to them for leadership. 

There are then supporting subplots that you can point out to back up your two main points. 

  • Rise to Power

Napoleon’s rise to power is based on violence and deceit. He uses the dogs to silence the masses in the same way that Mr. Jones did. He also uses information and language to manipulate the truth to his advantage, which helps him gain power. This backs up the corruption of power, as we see the worsening of Napoleon proportionally to the amount of power he gains. It also backs up equality and intelligence, as it is the lack of intelligence that allows the animals to be manipulated by Napoleon so easily. 

  • Education and Learning

Reading is used as a visual metaphor to describe and contrast the vast differences between the pigs and the rest of the farm animals. We see Snowball reading technical books, whereas Muriel reads scraps of paper from the trash. This reinforces the notion of equality and intelligence, as the oppressed animals have a far lower reading ability than that of the pigs, and that is consciously highlighted. 

  • Power and Language

The relationship between language and power can be used to back up both of the novel’s major themes. The spread of information is controlled by Napoleon through Squealer, which in turn allows him to generate more power. Not only that, but it enables him to manipulate the farm as he sees fit, as we see with the vilification of Snowball.