Animal Farm | Study Guide

George Orwell

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Course Hero’s video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of the context of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm.

Animal Farm | Context


The Russian Revolution and Its Aftermath

On its surface, Animal Farm seems to be a simple tale about talking animals on a farm—a children's story, some might think. But this surface is the allegory, or story with a hidden political meaning, of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the civil war that followed (1918–20), and the later rise of Stalin's dictatorship in the Soviet Union. The novel draws clear parallels between Josef Stalin and the pig Napoleon. To serve his own ends, Napoleon distorts Old Major's idealized dream of equality and brotherhood for all animals as he rules the farm. In the same way, Stalin distorted the ideals of Marxist communism to feed his own desire for power and control in the Soviet Union. While Marxist communism gave workers control of production, Stalin's version gave the state control of production, paving the way for totalitarian rule. Stalin was an active participant in the Revolution of 1917, which overthrew Russia's Tsar Nicolas II. Stalin remained a high-ranking member of the government under Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the Soviet Union after the revolution. Then Stalin led the Communist Party in the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953. In the same way in which Napoleon finds himself in conflict with the intellectual Snowball, Stalin battled Leon Trotsky, who had essentially served as Lenin's second-in-command, for the direction of the party and the Soviet Union after Lenin's death in 1924. After driving Trotsky into exile in 1929, Stalin took full control of the party and the country.

Once Stalin took control of the Soviet Union, he focused on eliminating any perceived threats to his power, culminating in the Great Purge of the late 1930s during which he had millions of people, including his political opponents, imprisoned or killed. In 1939 he entered into an alliance with Hitler (which ended in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union). In the meantime Stalin and his close supporters remained comfortable while the people of the Soviet Union suffered deprivation and hardship, both during wartime and after. The government used propaganda to inspire loyalty in the populace, and as in the world of Animal Farm, where propaganda failed, fear and intimidation succeeded.

Adult Satire

Animal Farm was Orwell's first novel to enjoy wide commercial success. However, when it was first published booksellers placed it in the children's section of their stores because they did not realize it was adult satire, or a work that makes use of literary techniques, such as humor, irony, or hyperbole, to criticize a figure, event, or issue. Orwell himself traveled from store to store convincing them to shelve it with adult books, where it remains categorized.

The novel continues to have contemporary relevance. While the specific content of the novel addresses Soviet Russia, it also serves as a broader cautionary tale by showing how a corrupt and selfish leader who uses fear and ignorance to gain control can lead to a totalitarian government. In this way the novel warns against complacency in the populace. Orwell wrote the following response to a query from fellow political writer Dwight Macdonald: "Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job." In this respect Animal Farm continues to have relevance for citizens who live under all forms of government.

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