The book was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels (1923 to 2005), was number 31 on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels and won a Retrospective Hugo in 1996.
The dogs are also important characters in this novel that enabled Orwell to discover and express more of what had happened in Russia. The other characters have their parallels in the real world, but care should be taken with these comparisons, as Orwell's intent was not always explicit and they often simply represent generalised concepts.
Old Major is presented positively. According to the interpretation that Old Major represents Marx and Lenin, the satire in Animal Farm is not of Marxism, or of Lenin's revolution, but of the corruption that occurred later. Hitchens, while disagreeing with the interpretation that Old Major represents Lenin, agrees that Orwell presents Marxism sympathetically, stating that in the book "the aims and principles of the Russian Revolution are given face-value credit throughout; this is a revolution betrayed, not a revolution that is monstrous from its inception." Old Major introduces the animals to the song Beasts of England.
Orwell made this allusion clear in his 17 March 1945 letter to his publisher:
Napoleon begins to gradually build up his power, using puppies he took from mother dogs Jessie and Bluebell, which he raises to be vicious dogs as his secret police. After driving Snowball off the farm, Napoleon usurps full power, using false propaganda from Squealer and threats and intimidation from the dogs to keep the other animals in line. Among other things, he gradually changes the Commandments to allow himself privileges such as eating at a table and to justify his dictatorial rule. By the end of the book, Napoleon and his fellow pigs have learned to walk upright and started to behave similarly to the humans against whom they originally revolted. (In the French version of Animal Farm, Napoleon is called César, the French spelling of Caesar.)
Snowball is Napoleon's rival. He is an allusion to Leon Trotsky. He wins over most animals, but is driven out of the farm in the end by Napoleon. Snowball genuinely works for the good of the farm and devises plans to help the animals achieve their vision of an egalitarian utopia, but Napoleon and his dogs chase him from the farm, and Napoleon spreads rumours to make him seem evil and corrupt and that he had secretly sabotaged the animals' efforts to improve the farm. In his biography of Orwell, Bernard Crick suggests that Snowball was as much inspired by POUM leader Andrés Nin as by Trotsky. Nin was a similarly adept orator and also fell victim to the Communist purges of the Left during the Spanish Civil War.
Squealer, a small fat porker, serves as Napoleon's right hand pig and minister of propaganda. Inspired by Vyacheslav Molotov and the Soviet paper Pravda, Squealer manipulates the language to excuse, justify, and extol all of Napoleon's actions. He represents all the propaganda Stalin used to justify his own heinous acts. In all of his work, George Orwell made it a point to show how politicians used language. Squealer limits debate by complicating it and he confuses and disorients, making claims that the pigs need the extra luxury they are taking in order to function properly, for example. However, when questions persist, he usually uses the threat of the return of Mr Jones, the former owner of the farm, to justify the pigs' privileges. Squealer uses statistics to convince the animals that life is getting better and better. Most of the animals have only dim memories of life before the revolution; therefore, they are convinced.
Minimus is a poetic pig who writes the second and third national anthems of Animal Farm after the singing of "Beasts of England" is banned. He represents admirers of Stalin both inside and outside the USSR such as Maxim Gorky. As Minimus composed the replacement of "Beasts of England", he may equate to the three main composers of the National Anthem of the Soviet Union which replaced The Internationale – Gabriel El-Registan, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, and Sergey Mikhalkov.
The Piglets are hinted to be the children of Napoleon (albeit not truly noted in the novel) and are the first generation of animals actually subjugated to his idea of animal inequality.
The Rebel Pigs are four pigs who complain about Napoleon's takeover of the farm but are quickly silenced and later executed. This is based on the Great Purge during Stalin's regime. The closest parallels to the Rebel Pigs may be Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev.
Mr Frederick is the tough owner of Pinchfield, a well-kept neighbouring farm. He represents Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in general. He tricks them into selling wood to him for forged money and later attacks them, destroying the windmill but being finally beaten in the resulting Battle of the Windmill (World War II). There are also stories of him mistreating his own animals.
Mr Pilkington is the easy-going but crafty owner of Foxwood, a neighbouring farm overgrown with weeds, as described in the book. He represents the western powers, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. The card game at the very end of the novel is a metaphor for the Tehran Conference, where the parties flatter each other, all the while cheating at the game. This last scene is ironic because all the Pigs are civil and kind to the humans, defying all for which they had fought. This happened at the Tehran Conference: the Soviet Union formed an alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom, capitalist countries that the Soviet Union had fought in the early years of the revolution. At the end of the novel, both Napoleon and Pilkington draw the Ace of Spades (which in most games, is the highest-ranking card) at the same time and begin fighting loudly, symbolising the beginning of tension between the U.S. and Soviet superpowers.
'Mr Whymper' is a man hired by Napoleon to represent Animal Farm in human society. He is loosely based on Western intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and, especially, Lincoln Steffens, who visited the U.S.S.R. in 1919.
Boxer is one of the main characters. He is the tragic avatar of the working class, or proletariat: loyal, kind, dedicated, and physically the strongest animal on the farm, but naïve and slow. His ignorance and blind trust towards his leaders leads to his death and their profit. In particular, his heroic physical work represents the Stakhanovite movement. His maxim of "I will work harder" is reminiscent of Jurgis Rudkus from the Upton Sinclair novel The Jungle. His second maxim, "Napoleon is always right" is an example of the propaganda used by Squealer to control the animals. It was not adopted until later in the book. Boxer's work ethic is often praised by the pigs, and he is set as a prime example to the other animals. When Boxer is injured, and can no longer work, Napoleon sends him off to the knacker's and deceives the other animals, saying that Boxer died peacefully in the hospital. When the animals cannot work, Napoleon tosses them aside, for they mean nothing to him.
Clover is Boxer's companion and a fellow draft horse. She helps and cares for Boxer when he splits his hoof. She blames herself for forgetting the original Seven Commandments when Squealer had actually revised them. Clover is compassionate, as is shown when she protects the baby ducklings during Major's speech; albeit made out to be somewhat vain in the opening of the novel by the narrator, who remarks that she never "recovered" her figure after giving birth to her fourth foal. She is also upset when animals are executed by the dogs, and is held in great respect by three younger horses who ultimately replace Boxer.
Mollie is a self-centred and vain white mare who likes wearing ribbons in her mane, eating sugar cubes (which represent luxury) and being pampered and groomed by humans. She represents upper-class people, the bourgeoisie and nobility who fled to the West after the Russian Revolution and effectively dominated the Russian diaspora. Accordingly, she quickly leaves for another farm and is only once mentioned again.
Muriel is a wise, old goat who is friends with all the animals on the farm. She, like Benjamin and Snowball, is one of the few animals on the farm who can read (with some difficulty, she has to spell the words out first) which helps Clover know that the Seven Commandments have been surreptitiously changed throughout the story. She possibly represents the same category as Benjamin. The only difference is that she dies at the end of the book due to age.
The Puppies, who were raised by Napoleon to be his security force may be a reference to the fact that a major factor in Stalin's rise to power was his appointment as General Secretary of the Communist Party by Lenin in 1922, in which role he used his powers of appointment, promotion and demotion to pack the party quietly with his own supporters. He did this so effectively that Lenin's Testament eventually called for Stalin's removal from this post. Lenin's request was ignored by the leading members of the Politburo - most notably Trotsky, represented in the novel by Snowball. The puppies represent Stalin's secret police.
Moses the raven is an old bird that occasionally visits the farm with tales of Sugarcandy Mountain, where he says animals go when they die, but only if they work hard. He represents religion, specifically the Russian Orthodox Church, which is banned when the pigs come to power. His religious persona is exacerbated by the fact that he is named after a biblical character. He leaves after the rebellion, for all animals are supposed to be equal, and religion is not part of equality, but returns later in the novel because he convinces the animals to work harder. Nobody does anything to harm Moses, due to the fact that all animals (and Moses being an animal) are equal. In the end, he is one of few animals to remember the rebellion, along with Clover, Benjamin, and the pigs.
The Sheep represented the masses, manipulated to support Stalin in spite of his treachery. They show limited intelligence and understanding of the situations but support Napoleon and regularly chant "Four legs good, Two legs bad" and distract people.
The Rats may have represented some of the nomadic people in the far north of the USSR.
The Cat represents laziness (for she, along with Mollie, did not do any work on the farm)
George Orwell wrote the book following his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, which are described in another of his books, Homage to Catalonia. He intended it to be a strong condemnation of what he saw as the Stalinist corruption of the original socialist ideals. For the preface of a Ukrainian edition he prepared in 1947, Orwell described what gave him the idea of setting the book on a farm:
This Ukrainian edition was an early propaganda use of the book. It was printed to be distributed among the Soviet citizens of Ukraine who were some of the many millions of displaced persons throughout Europe at the end of the Second World War. The American occupation forces considered the edition to be propaganda printed on illegal presses, and handed 1,500 confiscated copies of Animal Farm over to the Soviet authorities. The politics in the book also affected the UK, with Orwell reporting that Ernest Bevin was "terrified". that it may cause embarrassment if published before the 1945 general election.
In recent years, the book has been used to compare new movements that overthrow heads of a corrupt and undemocratic government or organisation, only eventually to become corrupt and oppressive themselves as they succumb to the trappings of power and begin using violent and dictatorial methods to keep it. Such analogies have been used for many former African colonies such as Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose succeeding African-born rulers were accused of being as corrupt as, or worse than, the European colonists they supplanted.
The book also clearly ponders whether a focus of power in one person is healthy for a society. The book leaves the ending slightly ambiguous in this regard.
Orwell originally wrote a preface which complains about British government suppression of his book, self-imposed British self-censorship and how the British people were suppressing criticism of the USSR, their World War II ally. "The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. ... [Things are] kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact." Somewhat ironically, the preface itself was censored and is not published with most editions of the book.
References to the novella are frequent in other works of popular culture, particularly in popular music and television series.