By Mikhaila Bishop
Portland State University
An environmental ethics reading of Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell examines the dominating power dynamic between humans and animals, and poses the consideration of equality for all Earth-inhabiting lifeforms. This essay will position different literary understandings of the novel in ecocritical conversation to examine how readers and scholars digest representations of animal bodies. With this analysis of the novel’s content, I will examine what occurs when animal characters become more than representations of human suffering, and instead signify physical animal bodies. I form a case for the consideration of animal rights in the allegorical and historical contexts of human-constructed oppression.
“Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interests of no other creature except himself. And among us let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.”
–George Orwell, Animal Farm, p.10, 1945.
Across critical readings of George Orwell’s canonical work Animal Farm (1945), scholars have understood Orwell to have written the text as an allegory for the fate of communism in the USSR (Dwan 2012). He provides a rich, easily digestible commentary for those humans who do not immediately suffer from oppression under communism. Now an academically featured text, his intentional metaphor has become a staple of high school classroom discussions. However, the mapping of political purpose onto the text ignores a significant portion of the book’s meta-meanings. The author experiments with the installation of meta-meanings predicated on forms of human/animal entanglement. Critics overlook a powerful aspect of the text’s construction of nonhuman content: the animals, not the humans, suffer.
Animal Farm envisions an environment created for human consumption at the expense of animal labor. Thus far, our intellectual consideration of Animal Farm—in ignoring or placing under critical erasure the positions of nonhuman animals in the text—propagates this oppressive tradition. In our age of the human ego, the Anthropocene, we completely manipulate the natural world to serve our desires.[i] We exert this same level of domination exhibited in our intellectual understandings, including literary criticism. When canonical commentary resides within the limits of its considerations of human themes and morals, the positions of the Animals forgo exploration of their liberation to analysis of allegorical human warfare (Eisenman, 2013).[ii] An ecocritical reading of Animal Farm examines the power dynamic between humans and other animals, and poses the consideration of equality for all Earth-inhabiting lifeforms. Principally, Animal Farm engages with how we digest representations of animal bodies, and in doing so, demonstrates we can no longer ignore the interests of animals. The allegorical connection between human societal oppression and farming conditions in this literature spurs an eco-ethical argument for the application of animal rights in present-day society.
Mainstream readings of this text interpret it as a piece of writing that reflects wider reactions to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) with continued contemporary relevance.[iii] Orwell’s distrust of the Soviet Union was forged in the Spanish Civil War, where he witnessed the betrayal of the non-Stalinist Left by their pro-Russian comrades (Holmgren, 1972). He and his wife fought alongside Troskyists, many of whom were jailed in what Orwell witnessed as blind persecution for dissent (Orwell, 1947). His experience in Spain “informed his anti-Communism and his view of the Soviet Union as totalitarian” (Leab, 2007). As a British citizen, Orwell fixed his work with a political purpose: to cut through the lies of totalitarian propaganda that populated Western media. He stated his goal within his assessment of immediate political action in his 1947 preface to the Ukranian edition,
I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement… it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was (Orwell 1947, 2).
However, in Orwell’s preface, he included a second purpose of this text, a commonly discarded intention: to position nonhuman animals at the center of his argument. “I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view. To them it was dear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans” (Orwell 1947, 3). When reading this book through the lens of human politics, humans identify the protagonist, Snowball, or the antagonist, Napoleon, with their historical counterparts; but they disregard the fact that there are human characters who exist within the text in greater opposition to the animal characters. The animals’ point of view in Marx’s theory is best summarized by Old Major, the Lenin of the farm’s society:
The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth. But is this simply part of the order of nature?… No, comrades, a thousand times no!… Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings (Orwell 1945, 7).
Old Major positions the well-being of the Animals against the profit of humanity. The prize-winning pig recognizes the existing environment to be heavily imbalanced and encourages his fellow domesticated creatures to rebel against the “miserable condition” that is apart from “the order of nature” (Ibid.). However, by the end of the novel there occurs “a complete reversion to the same system of domination and repression that had existed before, only this time with the complicity of animals themselves…” (Eisenman 2013, 234).
By positioning a contemporary analysis of Animal Farm against environmental intention, we see how literary analysis echoes a process of disputing what beings are worthy of respect, based upon a set of pre-conceived attributes. In “Orwell’s Paradox: Equality in Animal Farm,” David Dwan (2012) analyzes equality as it relates to political concepts in Animal Farm.[iv] As Dwan discusses ambiguity in Orwell’s definition of equality, he draws the conclusion that a criticism of Animal Farm can be based solely in its critique of human morals (Dwan 2012). In his analysis, he declares:
The demand that animals should be treated equally seems to imply that they are not at present equal… Indeed, it is not immediately obvious what equality construed as a fact actually means, outside of the simple tautology that animals are animals (Dwan 2012, 665).
He goes on to compare the Animals to each other by emphasizing their physical differences. Dwan rests a large part of his determinate criteria of equality upon the characteristics of human equality dynamics. When it comes to an actual dissection of the book, he decides “The line drawn by the animals is wholly arbitrary and parodies the moral parochialism of human beings” (Dwan, 666).[v] In this conversation, debating the definition of “human” to delve further into the definition of “equality” presents animal images solely to serve human interests. By conflating humanity and equality in the novel based upon Orwell’s exterior work, Dwan overlooks the novel’s expression of the human/animal relationship dynamic. Furthermore, in claiming that Animal Farm grounds itself in the direct consideration of human interest, Dwan reaches the one-sided assertion, “The key tenet of Animalism—‘all animals are equal’—is really a coded form of humanism” (Dwan, 667).[vi] What he means is the species distinction can be dissipated by declaring the Animals to be as narrowminded as humans. By centralizing human content, humanist readings of Animal Farm ironically enact the same anthropocentric oppression the animals attempt to combat.
For example, in the case of a farm, all animals are domesticated, and there is no need to struggle for resources in an environment where they produce for themselves. However, they are unable to escape the power of the Anthropocene, so the Animals inherit the toxic human behaviors that initially inspired the Rebellion. In Old Major’s initial speech, he constructs societal rules against human vices, including, “No animal must ever live in a house, or sleep in a bed, or wear clothes, or drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco, or touch money, or engage in trade” (Orwell 1945, 11). If these Animals existed in a more “natural” environment, there would be no need to specifically forbid any human behaviors. It is only because the domesticated Animals were witness to indulgent behaviors that they choose which traits to maintain in their community.
As Manor Farm society constrains animals against human-like action, it is important to note that there are no rules against acting like any other animal in this multi-species community. These Animals are individuals, and are accorded to act as their own beings, as opposed to acting like humans. Stephen Eisenman, in his work The Cry Of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights, researches animal identity against artistic representations in multiple works. In analyzing Animal Farm, he details the significance of unity in this diverse society, as animal revolution disassembles human metaphor:
“Indeed, there are many elements in the book that buttress this non-metaphoric, Marxist reading, including the absence of any clearly drawn human figure who may be compared to the animals, and most of all, the individualism of each anima … it is difficult to see the animals in animal farm as mere metaphors of essential human ambition, avarice, anger and duplicity, or the typology of revolutions. Instead they are individuals united in protest and revolution” (Eisenman, 236).
By renouncing human activity and defining humanity as something to be rejected, the characters attempt to discard allegorical subjugation. Although the similarities between Animal Farm and the history of the USSR revolution are inescapable, avoiding such generalization reveals that each animal has agency to work together. Arguably, community in this natural habitat would have the capacity to function symbiotically. However, in the novel, the second generation of leaders do fall prey to Eisenman’s described traits. They recognize that in order to flourish and thrive in human society, the implications of running Manor Farm are that the society must acquire an input and output of goods. This prominent economic influence leads to inequality in food rationing, housing, and many other power imbalances between the pigs and the other farm members. Production is found on exception in the animal kingdom as a social necessity; animals do not naturally engage in any recognizable form of trade. By doing so, they minimize the consideration of their own interests and continue to prioritize human values.
The idea of human-animal interests as oppositional spawned an influential definition of equality when “All Animals Are Equal” became the first chapter title of Peter Singer’s ethics book, Animal Liberation (1990). As a utilitarian, Singer believes in creating the least suffering and the most pleasure for the most beings possible. His chapter argued that “the ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too” (Singer 1990, 1). By deriving his title from Animal Farm, he is positioning principles of equality against our societal norms. This position interprets “All animals are equal” on a literal level: “The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights” (Singer, 2). He recognizes equality to be more than human social construction, and bases it in moral philosophy of global action. In declaring that all animals are due equal consideration, Singer is arguing against, for example, the way Manor Farm operates at the expense of the animals who produce its worth.
With Singer’s work enabling an animal-centric interpretation, we can discern Orwell’s book identifies equality as a social idea defending animals against subjugation or manipulation for inconsiderate purposes. The idea appears in Animal Farm at the end of Old Major’s rallying monologue. “And, above all, no animal must ever tyrannise over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All Animals are equal” (Orwell 1945, 11). This quote places equality in opposition to violence. It is as simple as that: the consideration of the animals’ interests involves not murdering them, not abusing them for our purposes. Their capacity as animals does not preclude tyranny. The assertion within this quote is a moral idea that should work idyllically within this society of domesticated animals; there is no reason for any of these animals to take advantage of each other in their habitat. Especially in an environment with so many species of creatures, the principle of “brotherhood” dissipates any physical distinctions in favor of symbiotic community.
And yet, Manor Farm operates as a hierarchy that continually forgoes the interests of its civil creatures. One of the most potent examples of the disregard for animal equality occurs when Boxer is sent away from Manor Farm. Even though the pigs run the farm, the entire situation constructs itself around human desire. Boxer is the hardest laborer on Manor Farm and puts in many extra hours to build their windmill. One day, Boxer’s lungs give out, and Napoleon arranges to have him sent away from the farm to attend a hospital (Orwell 1945, 120). This is near Boxer’s retirement age, as the farm had set a limit of 12 years as social security. A “sly-looking man” steers a large closed van labeled, “Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon” (Orwell, 122). The farm Animals quickly realize what is truly happening, and appeal to the horses driving the van, “But the stupid brutes, too ignorant to realize what was happening, merely set back their ears and quickened their pace” (Orwell, 123). Napoleon, now the elected President of the farm, sold Boxer for human consumption. This is an explicit scene that asks the audience to consider how farms treat animals when they are no longer able to produce. After all the long years Boxer had served the farm, “he looked forward to the peaceful days that he would spend in the corner of the big pasture” (Orwell, 121). However, instead of being rewarded for his faithfulness, his body became a source of profit.
If we return to Dwan with this example in mind, we see that “all animals are equal” cannot possibly be an example of humanism, because this literature dictates situations that are removed from human society. The animal, in this case Boxer, has labored his whole life for the good of his community. The plot climaxes when the pigs become so warped by human interest that they choose to sacrifice one of their own “brothers” to the world outside their society. As animals instrumentalize other animals, the murder of a faithful animal for monetary gain is pointed to as explicitly immoral. A humanist reading would see this as a metaphor for injustice within humanity, or read Boxer as a symbol of the laboring class. We see the predicament of animal sacrifice so often that we can no longer recognize it as the important story. Our own farms are run with the least consideration of animal interests possible. Animals are beings who live and breathe and experience, but they are continually harmed by cost-effective strategies of operation in these controlled environments.
Additionally, Singer’s interpretation of this structured inequality identifies a new strain of thought prejudice, speciesism (1990). While humanism separates man from deity, “Speciesism is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species” (Singer 1990, 6). In other words, speciesism is the thought process that justifies the immoral treatment of non-human animals. Old Major defines the qualifier of this ideology, “Man serves the interests of no other creature except himself” (Orwell 1945, 10). When debating the extension of equality, Singer moves to expose the moral wrongdoing done to animals solely because they are non-human. To read the pigs in the novel as speciesist, not humanist, alters any comprehension of the Animals’ revolution against their conditions, because it places their environment in reality instead of metaphor.
We must consider Animal Farm’s statement “All Animals Are Equal” as reacting to the subjugation of real animals to human interest. Initially, this statement spurred the Animals to overthrow their human master and use their trained skills to produce for themselves. Eventually, the pigs differentiated themselves not as the superior species, but as the most human. At the end of the novel, Orwell erases the line between man and animal that had been so distinctly drawn: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which” (Orwell 1945, 141). But the Animals do not become their own enemy; instead, they morph into the true enemy, the species that was their initial oppressing force. As far as we know, humans are the only species that both value and disregard equality, and yet we cannot conjure a successful definition of it.
Based upon its merits, content, and cultural impact, I believe Animal Farm will remain a long-term member of the literary canon. However, analyzing Animal Farm in a way that negates the struggle of the characters continues the tradition of minimizing experiences and voices that are not our own (educated humans). This is a facet of our society to which we must attend. As the animals of the Manor Farm exhibit, they cannot simply escape the dominating landscape we have conjured for them. Our hazardous norm of slaughtering animals by the millions for food, abusing the natural cycles of life for production, and forcing our animals to labor until they collapse is unethical. Some reading this paper may say, “Well, I’m not a farmer!” But by benefitting from the stability of an economy predicated in large measure by corporatized animal agriculture profits, we continue the awful abuse of animals we have enslaved.
So, we are not farmers. We are not Mr. Jones, Mr. Pilkington, or Alfred Simmonds. Obviously, we position ourselves to be morally higher than these evil caricatures. But we, as humans, see animals as products to be consumed. Even readers of Animal Farm who subscribe to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle continue to digest literary animal bodies for social commentary. Ultimately, we are all readers. The fact remains that we can write and read texts about animals without once considering their position: and that is surely wrong. In the end, Animal Farm moves readers to be conscientious about thinking through human-animal relations on a larger scale. As humanity expands, and we have knowledge of the damage we inflict, why do we continually disregard the consideration of the earth’s interests? When defining the idea of equality, we extend it only to ourselves, and even then, it usually remains a thought or ideal. Animal Farm is positioned against the Everyman, the person who reads the social commentary and comes away with a critique of the Soviet Union without even considering the novel’s plot. The typical reading takes the position that if animals are not symbols for humans, they are nothing. But if the plot is taken as anything other than an analogy, then it reveals the lived condition of animals. The plot consists of animals rejecting their human master, creating a society that mimics human interest, and falling prey to the exact vices and delusions that harnessed them in the first place. With this analysis of the novel’s message, we can begin to re-examine how dependent we are upon animal suffering. By replacing animal literary bodies with physical images, we can begin to take small steps forward to create a safer Earth for all.
- The Anthropocene has been defined by the dictionary as “the epoch of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth, a formal chrono-stratigraphic unit with a base which has been tentatively defined as the mid-twentieth century. The Anthropocene is commonly taken to extend from the time of the Industrial Revolution to the present, but is sometimes considered to include much or all of the Holocene” (OED). The term spans across disciplines and resonates in many academic fields. For more information about the literary role of the Anthropocene, see the introduction of Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (Menely and Taylor, 2017).
- For the purposes of this paper, when referring to the characters of Animal Farm, the word “animals” will be capitalized.
- Indeed, if you look on any major scholarly website offering a synopsis or summary of the text, they will encourage the historical connection. One example, from Britannica: “…Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell’s allegorical tale about the early history of Soviet Russia. Most critics agree that Snowball represents Leon Trotsky” (Britannica). Additionally, from Cliffsnotes: “The main action of Animal Farm stands for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the early years of the Soviet Union. Animalism is really communism” (Moran).
- For the purposes of this paper, the farm will be referred to as Manor Farm, and the book shall hold the sole title of Animal Farm.
- Parochialism means a limited or narrowed outlook, “esp. confinement of one’s own interests to the local sphere” (OED).
- Humanism is “Any system of thought or ideology which places humans, or humanity as a whole, at its centre” (OED).
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