How is Animal Farm a satire of Stalinism or generally of totalitarianism?
Answer: A good way to answer this question is to pick a specific example of totalitarianism in any country, historical or current, and explain how the ideas Orwell puts forth in Animal Farm apply to it. Go back and forth between the historical facts and the events of the novel. Note the actions of the leaders, the mechanisms of fear and power, and the reactions of the people over time.
Elucidate the symbolism inherent in the characters' names.
Answer: The symbolism ranges from the obvious to the more cryptic. Compare Napoleon with the historical Frenchman and Moses with the figure from the Bible. Take Snowball as representative of something that grows larger and more forceful. Squealer has something to do with the spoken word. Boxer suggests strength. Make sure to consider each character at various stages of the story and to use specific examples from the text.
What does the narrator do, or fail to do, that makes the story's message possible?
Answer: The narrator lets the story tell itself to a large degree by relating what is said and done without moralization and reflection. The narrator speaks from the perspective of the animals other than the pigs, a kind of observer who can point out the significant details without interfering. The reader then can draw his own conclusions about the symbolism, concordance with historical events, and the awfulness of the events themselves.
What does the windmill represent?
Answer: The windmill's symbolic meaning changes during the course of the novel and means different things to different characters. It is to be for electricity but ends up being for economic production. As it is built, it is a locus of work without benefit and a medium of the pigs' power. For the humans, it is a dangerous symbol of the growing power of the farm. Consider also the relationship between the windmill and the biblical Tower of Babel.
What role does the written word play in Animal Farm?
Answer: Literacy is a source of power and a vehicle for propaganda. Some examples to consider are the Seven Commandments, "Beasts of England," the child's book, the manuals, the magazines, and the horse-slaughterer's van.
Examine the Seven Commandments and the way they change during the course of the novel from Old Major's death to the banquet Napoleon holds with the farmers.
Answer: The commandments begin as democratic ideals of equality and fraternity in a common animal identity, but they end in inequality when some animals are "more equal" than others. As the pigs take more control and assume their own liberties, they unilaterally change the commandments to fit their own desires. Consider especially the interactions between Clover, Muriel, and Squealer surrounding the Seven Commandments, determining how easy it is to change the fundamental rules of society on the farm, where most of the animals can do no better than to remember that four legs are good and two legs are bad.
Would Animal Farm be more effective as a nonfiction political treatise about the same subject?
Answer: Given the success of the novel, it is hard to see why Orwell might have chosen a different genre for his message. A nonfiction account would have had to work more accurately with the history, while Orwell's fiction has the benefit of ordering and shaping events in order to make the points as clear as possible from a theoretical and symbolic point of view. A political treatise could be more effective in treating the details and theoretical understandings at greater length and with more nuances, but the readership and audience for such a work would therefore become quite different as well, so the general population would be less likely to hear Orwell's warnings.
Can we perceive much of Orwell himself in the novel?
Answer: Orwell seems to be most like the narrator, who tells the story from the perspective of experience with the events related. We know from Orwell's history that he was a champion of the working class and did not much like the idea of being in a role where he had to exercise power to control people under him. Orwell seems to be a realist about the prospects for the socialist ideals he otherwise would promote.
Compare Animal Farm with Orwell's other famous novel, 1984.
Answer: Consider the ways in which both novels are allegories with a political message against the evils of state control and totalitarianism. How does totalitarian control affect the illiterate versus those who are educated and wish to exercise their human rights? Compare the political regimes in the two novels. Does the relative anonymity of the leaders affect the reactions of the people?
Pick a classic fairy tale or fable and examine it in comparison with Animal Farm.
Answer: A good way to answer such a question is to consider the function of animals as characters. For instance, each of the Three Little Pigs expresses a different approach to planning for the future and managing risk, which can lead to an analysis of how each character represents a moral or physical quality. In terms of narration, note the degree to which the narrator lets the characters speak in their own voices and lets the plot play out without editorializing. In terms of structure, consider how critical events shatter the calm (such as getting lost in the woods or encountering an enemy) and lead to a moral once some kind of order (for better or for worse) is restored.
Compare and contrast Napoleon and Snowball. What techniques do they use in their struggle for power? Does Snowball represent a morally legitimate political alternative to the corrupt leadership of Napoleon?
As Joseph Stalin did, Napoleon prefers to work behind the scenes to build his power through manipulation and deal-making, while Snowball devotes himself, as Leon Trotsky did, to winning popular support through his ideas, passionate speeches, and success in debates with his opponent. Snowball seems to work within the political system, while Napoleon willingly circumvents it. Napoleon, for instance, understands the role of force in political control, as is made clear by his use of the attack dogs to expel Snowball from the farm.
Despite Napoleon’s clearly bullying tactics, Orwell’s text doesn’t allow us to perceive Snowball as a preferable alternative. Snowball does nothing to prevent the consolidation of power in the hands of the pigs, nor does he stop the unequal distribution of goods in the pigs’ favor—he may even, in fact, be complicit in it early on. Furthermore, the ideals of Animal Farm—like Orwell’s ideal version of socialism—are rooted in democracy, with all of the animals deciding how their collective action should be undertaken. For any one animal to rise to greater power than any other would violate that ideal and essentially render Animal Farm indistinguishable from a human farm—an unavoidable eventuality by the end of the novella. Though their motives for power may be quite different—Napoleon seems to have a powerful, egocentric lust for control, while Snowball seems to think himself a genius who should be the one to guide the farm toward success—each represents a potential dictator. Neither pig has the other animals’ interests at heart, and thus neither represents the socialist ideals of Animal Farm.
Why do you think Orwell chose to use a fable in his condemnation of Soviet communism and totalitarianism? Fiction would seem a rather indirect method of political commentary; if Orwell had written an academic essay, he could have named names, pointed to details, and proven his case more systematically. What different opportunities of expression does a fable offer its author?
Historically, fables or parables have allowed writers to criticize individuals or institutions without endangering themselves: an author could always claim that he or she had aimed simply to write a fairy tale—a hypothetical, meaningless children’s story. Even now, when many nations protect freedom of speech, fables still come across as less accusatory, less threatening. Orwell never condemns Stalin outright, a move that might have alienated certain readers, since Stalin proved an ally against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces. Moreover, the language of a fable comes across as gentle, inviting, and unassuming: the reader feels drawn into the story and can follow the plot easily, rather than having to wade through a self-righteous polemic. In writing a fable, Orwell expands his potential audience and warms it to his argument before he even begins.
Because fables allow for the development of various characters, Orwell can use characterization to add an element of sympathy to his arguments. Especially by telling the story from the point of view of the animals, Orwell draws us in and allows us to identify with the working class that he portrays. Thus, a fable allows him to appeal more intensely to emotion than a political essay might enable him to do.
Additionally, in the case of Animal Farm, the lighthearted, pastoral, innocent atmosphere of the story stands in stark contrast to the dark, corrupt, malignant tendencies that it attempts to expose. This contrast adds to the story’s force of irony: just as the idyllic setting and presentation of the story belies its wretched subject matter, so too do we see the utopian ideals of socialism give way to a totalitarian regime in which the lower classes suffer.
Finally, by writing in the form of a fable, Orwell universalizes his message. Although the specific animals and events that he portrays clearly evoke particular parallels in the real world, their status as symbols allows them to signify beyond specific times and places. Orwell himself encourages this breadth of interpretation: while the character of Napoleon, for example, refers most directly to Stalin in deed and circumstance, his name evokes his resemblance to the French general-turned-autocrat Napoleon.
From whose perspective is Animal Farm told? Why would Orwell have chosen such a perspective?
Animal Farm is not told from any particular animal’s perspective; properly speaking, it doesn’t have a protagonist. Rather, it is told from the perspective of the common animals as a group: we read, for example, that “[t]he animals were stupefied. . . . It was some minutes before they could take it all in.” This technique enables Orwell to paint a large portrait of the average people who suffer under communism. Through this choice of narrative perspective, he shows the loyalty, naïveté, gullibility, and work ethic of the whole class of common animals. In this way, he can effectively explore the question of why large numbers of people would continue to accept and support the Russian communist government, for example, even while it kept them hungry and afraid and even after its stated goals had clearly and decisively failed.
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Animal Farm (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)