Updated: Aug 5
Studying Animal Farm for Edexcel GCSE (9-1) English Literature? These tips are for you!
Why study Animal Farm?
If you are studying George Orwell’s Animal Farm in school for English Literature, you will have realised by now that it is a highly political work of literature. I studied Animal Farm at GCSE, and I’ll admit that it wasn’t my favourite at the time, as I wasn’t really taught to explore the political topics properly.
Reading it more recently, however, I have realised just how important the book is; by reading it you can understand some political topics that would have otherwise been difficult to grasp. Who knows, maybe they will even influence who you will vote for in the future…
What type of book is Animal Farm?
There are a few different aspects to Animal Farm’s genre. Essentially, it is a dystopia, meaning that it is set in an imaginary society which is far worse than our own. Secondly, it is an allegory, meaning that specific elements of the story represent real life ideas and people, making it directly applicable for our daily life – but more on that later. Thirdly, it is a work of political satire, which means that it makes entertainment out of politics, and aims to expose the flaws in certain political systems.
Animal Farm Plot Summary
The novel starts off with a boar, Old Major, who lives along with many other animals at ‘Manor Farm’. He calls them all in for a meeting, telling them of a dream of revolution he has, where there aren’t any humans in charge of the animals. He inspires all the animals to work towards this end goal, even teaching them a song called “Beasts of England”. The lyrics to this include phrases like “all must toil for freedom’s sake”, and “Tryant Man shall be o’erthrown”. Inspiring, right?
Old Major dies soon after, and three younger pigs take his ideas and form a new one: ‘Animalism’. The animals manage to defeat the famer Mr Jones in a battle, and evict him from his own farm. The farm is then renamed as ‘Animal Farm’.
Snowball, one of the young pigs, teaches the animals to read, and another young pig Napoleon indoctrinates young puppies with the ideas of Animalism.
A dramatic scene occurs and is named the ‘Battle of the Cowshed’, where Mr Jones comes back and the animals conquer him. Napoleon and Snowball start finding it difficult to work together, and each want to have the most influence over the other animals. The division is shown when Snowball wants to build a windmill which generates electricity, but Napoleon goes against his idea.
A meeting is held to decide whether to go ahead with the windmill, and Snowball, having learnt from Old Major, gives a powerful speech. However, when it Napoleon’s turn, the nine puppies who are now attack dogs, chase Snowball away under Napoleon’s demand. He now decides that there will be no more voting, and that the pigs will make decisions amongst themselves for the good of them all.
Napoleon goes ahead with the windmill after all, and when things go wrong blame it on Snowball, pretending he returned to sabotage it. After this, he orders anyone who might have opposed his own leadership to be killed by the dogs. His aim, to make Snowball a villain.
Napoleon’s right hand man Squealer begins to justify any decision or action that Napoleon takes to the other animals, such as him becoming more and more human, which seems to go against every animalist value.
There is another dramatic demolition of the windmill, this time actually by a local farmer. One of the most loyal animalism followers, Boxer, is severely injured in the battle that ensued, and Squealer notifies everyone that he died in peace in hospital. In reality, he was sold by Napoleon for whisky money.
Years later, the gap between the pigs and the other animals has got even bigger, to the point where the pigs may as well be human, wearing clothes and walking upright. The seven commandments of animalism have now become just one: “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Napoleon starts allying with human farmers, and changes the name back to ‘Manor Farm’.
The novel ends on a poignant moment, where the other animals realise that they can no longer tell which are pigs, and which are human beings.
Context: the allegory explained
Orwell's allegory is essentially a satirical attack on Stalinism. It looks at Stalin’s Communism, and all of the general principles and issues with communism are presented on the farm. The irony communism supposedly being classless, juxtaposed with the pigs as authority figures, shows a deep flaw within the system.
Animal Farm was published in 1945, and reflects on the events leading up to what was the Russian Revolution of 1917. He believed that the Soviet Union had become brutal and unequal.
Key communist issues are brought up in Animal Farm, such as: the indoctrination of the population (shown through Napoleon’s education of the puppies who become attack dogs); the changing of the commandments to suit the leaders; the terrorising brought through killing those who oppose their regime; and propaganda (through the character of Squealer).
A question to ask yourself after reading Animal Farm is: can true equality really exist? Is there a way for people to be in power without becoming obsessed with it, like Napoleon? Big questions, I know!
Key themes of Animal Farm
Themes of Animal Farm outside of the context of Communism include the struggle for power. A good way to analyse this in an exam answer may be to compare the scene of Old Major’s original speech to Manor Farm, with the ending where the other animals realise that the humans and pigs are indistinguishable. In revision, explore the different characters and who the power struggle involved.
Another key theme is class. Analyse the difference between the characters of the pigs and the other animals, and the lack of democracy. An interesting perspective might be to look at the relationship between the humans and animals throughout the novella, and how the expulsion of Mr Jones becomes a class divide in itself.
A further key theme is indoctrination – I think this is the most interesting. The portrayal of the working class, or the common animals, as naïve and ready to absorb information, demonstrates how susceptible societies can be to taking on extreme regimes. Good moments to look for here are the hardworking Boxer, who adapted maxim became “I will work harder” which eventually lead to his brutal death, and the education of the puppies.
Another important theme is language. Animal Farm looks at how language can be used as an instrument for control. Key things to look at here are the Seven Commandments, the use of the word “equal”, and the “Beasts of England” Song. Ask yourself: what about the language used allowed it to control the other animals?
If you liked reading Animal Farm, try reading George Orwell’s 1984 for a similar political and dystopian novel.
To learn more about the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union, check out these links:
And finally, to learn more about Orwell as a democratic socialist check out his biography here:
Blog Post Crafted by Genevieve
Genevieve is currently working towards her bachelors in English Literature at the University of Warwick.
Born in Coventry, she now tutors English SATs and GCSE in her free time, as well as working for the university as an outreach ambassador in local schools.
She also enjoys playing piano and flute, and often performs as a backing singer at local gigs.
Whenever she has a moment to spare, you might find her driving to the beach or catching up on her reading!