The characters in Animal Farm do three things:
- they represent different types of person
- they represent different characters in the historical Russian Revolution
- They engage our sympathy or dislike as the story unfolds
Different kinds of person
Orwell wrote the book to serve as a reflection on human nature and in doing so he makes use of the allegory at a simple and more complex level.
At the simplest level, the allegory works by making us think of stereotypical associations with certain animals. The pigs are greedy, selfish and intelligent.Certainly we think of pigs as greedy and they are known to be intelligent. Squealer turns to the sheep when he wants to get the crowd on his side. The sheep don’t think for themselves and are happy to do as they are told. They learn and chant what we would today perhaps call a ‘sound bite’, and by doing so change the outcome of a significant moment – for example, when their chanting drowns out any protest about the pigs walking on two legs.
Perhaps we think quite sentimentally of the cart horse, linking its great strength with qualities like loyalty and devotion to duty. The way that Boxer follows Napoleon so doggedly, to the point of his imminent death, only serves to strengthen our admiration for him, even if it’s tinged with despair at his gullibility and grief at the way he is treated. In a similar way, we share Clover’s horror at the collapse of the animals’ ideals.
One of the most interesting characters in Animal Farm is Benjamin, the donkey. Although Benjamin is clever enough to understand what the pigs were doing (and he can read), he does not choose to use his skills. Instead he watches the corruption of the pigs with a world-weary eye. Orwell does not seem unduly critical of him for this. There is recognition that life will always be cruel and unjust for many.
References to real people and events
Characters corresponding to real people in the Russian Revolution
- Old Major – Marx/Lenin
- Napoleon – Stalin
- Snowball – Trotsky (who was exiled and later assassinated)
- Mr Jones – Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia
- Mrs Jones – the Tsarina
- Frederick – the leaders of Germany but particularly Hitler
- Pilkington – the leaders of England
- The dogs – the Russian secret police (KGB)
- Moses – the Russian Orthodox Church
Recognisable events, ideas and places satirised in Animal Farm
- Hoof and Horn – the Hammer and Sickle on the Russian Communist flag.
- The Windmill – Stalin’s Five Year Plan, which took control of industry in Russia.
- Committees – the animal committees are an echo of how Communist Russia was organised.
- Battle of the Cowshed – this was the October Revolution in 1917, whereas the initial revolt refers to the February Revolution.
- Battle of the Windmill – the Battle of Stalingrad.
- Hens’ Revolt – the protest of Ukranian farmers against Stalin’s proposed collectivisation of the small (peasant) farms.
This close referencing of real events meant that Orwell’s criticism of Russia was hardly disguised and resulted in a struggle to get the book published. But Orwell’s satire also reached beyond specific events so that the book became a truly universal fable.
The book would not work so well if we were not horrified at the treatment of Boxer and of Snowball.
It is a short and starkly written tale but we are told enough to empathise with Boxer. His limitations are summed up by his struggle with the alphabet. His strength is shown in battle and in his work. His loyalty is unquestionable. It is hard to accept that Napoleon might order an attack of Boxer in Chapter seven, but the grim truth is that this attack foreshadows Napoleon’s betrayal of Boxer at the end of chapter nine.