Satire is loosely defined as art that ridicules a specific topic in order to provoke readers into changing their opinion of it. By attacking what they see as human folly, satirists usually imply their own opinions on how the thing being attacked can be remedied. Perhaps the most famous work of British satire is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), where the inhabitants of the different lands Gulliver visits embody what Swift saw as the prominent vices and corruptions of his time. As a child, Orwell discovered and devoured Swift’s novel, which became one of his favorite books. Like Gulliver’s Travels, Animal Farm is a satirical novel in which Orwell, like Swift, attacks what he saw as some of the prominent follies of his time. These various satirical targets comprise the major themes of Orwell’s novel.
Broadly speaking, Animal Farm satirizes politicians, specifically their rhetoric, ability to manipulate others, and insatiable lust for power. Despite his seemingly altruistic motives, Napoleon is presented as the epitome of a power-hungry individual who masks all of his actions with the excuse that they are done for the betterment of the farm. His stealing the milk and apples, for example, is explained by the lie that these foods have nutrients essential to pigs, who need these nutrients to carry on their managerial work. His running Snowball off the farm is explained by the lie that Snowball was actually a traitor, working for Jones — and that the farm will fare better without him. Each time that Napoleon and the other pigs wish to break one of the Seven Commandments, they legitimize their transgressions by changing the Commandment’s original language. Whenever the farm suffers a setback, Napoleon blames Snowball’s treachery — which the reader, of course, knows is untrue. Napoleon’s walking on two legs, wearing a derby hat, and toasting Pilkington reflect the degree to which he (and the other pigs) completely disregard the plights of the other animals in favor of satisfying their own cravings for power. Thus, the dominant theme of Animal Farm is the tendency for those who espouse the most virtuous ideas to become the worst enemies of the people whose lives they are claiming to improve.
Role of the Populace
Orwell, however, does not imply that Napoleon is the only cause for Animal Farm’s decline. He also satirizes the different kinds of people whose attitudes allow rulers like Napoleon to succeed. Mollie, whose only concerns are materialistic, is like people who are so self-centered that they lack any political sense or understanding of what is happening around them. Apolitical people like Mollie — who care nothing for justice or equality — offer no resistance to tyrants like Napoleon. Boxer is likened to the kind of blindly devoted citizen whose reliance on slogans (“Napoleon is always right”) prevents him from examining in more detail his own situation: Although Boxer is a sympathetic character, his ignorance is almost infuriating, and Orwell suggests that this unquestioning ignorance allows rulers like Napoleon to grow stronger. Even Benjamin, the donkey, contributes to Napoleon’s rise, because his only stand on what is occurring is a cynical dismissal of the facts: Although he is correct in stating that “Life would go on as it had always gone on — that is, badly,” he, too, does nothing to stop the pigs’ ascension or even raise the other animals’ awareness of what is happening. His only action is to warn Boxer of his impending death at the knacker’s — but this is futile as it occurs too late to do Boxer any good.
Religion and Tyranny
Another theme of Orwell’s novel that also strikes a satiric note is the idea of religion being the “opium of the people” (as Karl Marx famously wrote). Moses the raven’s talk of Sugarcandy Mountain originally annoys many of the animals, since Moses, known as a “teller of tales,” seems an unreliable source. At this point, the animals are still hopeful for a better future and therefore dismiss Moses’ stories of a paradise elsewhere. As their lives worsen, however, the animals begin to believe him, because “Their lives now, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; Was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?” Here, Orwell mocks the futile dreaming of a better place that clearly does not exist. The pigs allow Moses to stay on the farm — and even encourage his presence by rewarding him with beer — because they know that his stories of Sugarcandy Mountain will keep the animals docile: As long as there is some better world somewhere — even after death — the animals will trudge through this one. Thus Orwell implies that religious devotion — viewed by many as a noble character trait — can actually distort the ways in which one thinks of his or her life on earth.
A final noteworthy (and again, satiric) theme is the way in which people proclaim their allegiance to each other, only to betray their true intentions at a later time. Directly related to the idea that the rulers of the rebellion (the pigs) eventually betray the ideals for which they presumably fought, this theme is dramatized in a number of relationships involving the novel’s human characters. Pilkington and Jones; Frederick, for example, only listen to Jones in the Red Lion because they secretly hope to gain something from their neighbor’s misery. Similarly, Frederick’s buying the firewood from Napoleon seems to form an alliance that is shattered when the pig learns of Frederick’s forged banknotes. The novel’s final scene demonstrates that, despite all the friendly talk and flattery that passes between Pilkington and Napoleon, each is still trying to cheat the other (as seen when both play the ace of spades simultaneously). Of course, only one of the two is technically cheating, but Orwell does not indicate which one because such a fact is unimportant: The “friendly” game of cards is a facade that hides each ruler’s desire to destroy the other.
Thus, as Swift used fantastic places to explore the themes of political corruption in the eighteenth century, so Orwell does with his own fantastic setting to satirize the twentieth. According to Orwell, rulers such as Napoleon will continue to grow in number — and in power — unless people become more politically aware and more wary of these leader’s “noble” ideals.