Story Skeleton—Animal Farm
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.
The Structure of a Parable
By David Griffin Brown
Dictionary.com offers the following definition of parable: “A short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.”
While George Orwell’s Animal Farm, at 140 pages, is long enough to be considered a novel, it is relatively short. But regardless of the length, it approaches narrative in the manner of a parable. As per Wikipedia, it can also be considered a satirical allegorical novella. According to Orwell, the story is meant to represent the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Much has already been said about the allegory, but the narrative structure deserves a closer look. The surprising achievement of Animal Farm is its unusual skeleton. Orwell has skillfully subverted traditional narrative structure while still spinning an engaging tale.
For starters, there is no single protagonist. Instead, the story follows the successes and failures of the farm as a whole. And yet, aside from Napoleon the antagonist, very few of the farm animals (co-protagonists) can be described as active. They aren’t struggling and striving toward a goal. Instead, they are following orders, occasionally raising questions and concerns, but largely going along with the rule imposed on them by the pigs. Much of the tension, then, comes from dramatic irony—readers know what’s really going on. The unfortunate animals are, for the most part, too daft to recognize the wool that’s been pulled over their eyes.
If we try to frame the farm animals’ plight in a log line, it doesn’t quite work. Here’s an attempt using a pitch formula from our Book Broker interview with literary agent Hannah Sheppard: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe).
When Napoleon and the pigs take over their farm, the other animals must resist the new paradigm of oppression, otherwise they will be just as badly off as they were before the revolution.
The problem is—the animals have no recourse to resist. The pigs are smarter than they are; they can read and write, and more importantly they are capable of deception.
So does that mean Animal Farm doesn’t have a plot? Not at all. It’s a simple one, but it’s still there. The plot causality belongs almost entirely to the antagonist.
Napoleon drives the story from beginning to end. His goal is to wrest control of the farm from the humans and, ultimately, to become human himself. When we view Hannah Sheppard’s pitch test from the antagonist’s perspective, suddenly it works:
When the animals of Manor Farm stage a revolution and depose Mr. Jones, Napoleon maneuvers to secure himself as the supreme commander before his reign can be challenged, whether by the animals he governs or the other humans around Willingdon.
The animals, as governed by Mr Jones, live a difficult life in which they must labour endlessly, are kept hungry, and are often slaughtered and sold to other humans.
A venerable boar named Old Major (feasibly Marx or Lenin) decries the animals’ treatment under the human regime. He teaches the animals of Manor Farm a revolutionary song called Beasts of England, but then he dies before he can lead the revolution. Two younger pigs, Napolean and Snowball, assume control of the animals, stage a revolt, and thus Animal Farm begins its hopeful collectivism under a new name.
Point of no return
You could argue that the inciting incident and point of no return are one and the same. Once the animals overthrow Jones, Napoleon’s gambit to install himself as supreme commander is underway. However, symbolically, the point of no return could also be the animals’ adoption of the Seven Commandments of Animalism, which are painted on the barn.
One of the first causally crucial things Napoleon does is sequester a litter of puppies with the purpose of teaching them the principles of Animalism. In fact, he is planning ahead.
In the first major challenge to Napoleon’s plans, Mr Jones returns with other humans to take back his property. However, Napoleon and Snowball organize an effective defense, with Snowball in particular playing a heroic part and getting shot in the leg.
After the Battle of the Cowshed, Snowball proposes the animals build a windmill, which will eventually reduce their collective labour. Seeing the threat to his leadership, Napoleon declares Snowball an enemy of Animal Farm, then sends his puppies (now grown into vicious dogs) to chase Snowball away.
Following this, Napoleon convinces the animals that the windmill was his idea, and after a purge of other animals whom he claims are Snowball’s spies, few are left willing to question his authority.
The first windmill fails, but with time they rebuild. Animal Farm is poised to do well. But then comes the midpoint. Mr Frederick, the neighbouring farmer, leads a new attack and blows up the windmill. The animals manage to repel the humans, but many are wounded, including Boxer the draft horse.
All is lost—the dark moment
The attack by Mr Frederick leads to a new crisis for Napoleon in that Benjamin the donkey figures out that Boxer has been sold to the glue factory. Boxer is well respected, and for a moment it seems the animals will finally realize the truth about Napoleon’s scheme. However, the pigs spin more lies and convince the animals that Boxer has been sent to a veterinarian.
The erosion of the Seven Commandments of Animalism begins soon after Snowball is ejected, but there is still a bit more rising action for Napoleon as he makes further changes. “No animal shall kill another animal” becomes “No animal shall kill another animal… without cause.” Bit by bit, he paves the way for the pigs to act more and more like humans, for example by sleeping in beds (“No animal shall sleep in a bed” becomes “No animal shall sleep in a bed… with sheets”) and drinking whiskey (“No animal shall drink alcohol” becomes “No animal shall drink alcohol… to excess”).
When the pigs start wearing clothing and walking on two legs, the first commandment is changed from “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy” to “Two legs are better than four.”
The climax comes, not in the sense of a final high-stakes drama, but in Napoleon’s crowning achievement: he cements his ownership in the eyes of his human neighbours. In order to prevent humans from staging another attack, Napoleon decides to form an alliance, and so he hosts a dinner party. He also ditches the revolutionary traditions that led to the formation of Animal Farm and reverts to the name Manor Farm.
As the humans and pigs share food and whiskey and play cards together, some of the animals peer inside the farmhouse. They can no longer tell the difference between the humans and pigs.
Experiences transform us. Though there isn't a singular protagonist with a complex character arc, the farm and its inhabitants undergo substantial metamorphosis.
Initially driven by a common goal, the animals unite against human oppression. However, as the story unfolds, their unity fractures. The animals' faith in the commandments wavers, their memories of the rebellion blur, and their allegiance to the pigs becomes a matter of survival rather than choice. This transformation, from hopeful revolutionaries to oppressed subjects once more, serves as a powerful commentary on the cyclical nature of power and rebellion. And this is underscored by Napoleon’s transformation from a revolutionary leader into a corrupt tyrant.
Pigs and Sheep: Where Structure Meets Theme
In Animal Farm, structure and theme are intertwined. While the story's arc, events, and character dynamics form its structure, Orwell's choice of animals contributes much of the underlying meaning.
The pigs’ intelligence and cunning allow them to maneuver themselves into positions of power, reshaping the farm's hierarchy. They are an elite class leveraging its knowledge and resources to exploit and dominate others. Their transformation from comrades-in-arms to rulers mimics the way leadership can evolve in political scenarios, showing the shift from revolutionary ideals to oppressive rule.
The sheep, on the other hand, epitomize the blind followers of any regime. Their incessant bleating of simplistic slogans like "Four legs good, two legs bad," serves as a metaphor for propaganda and the dangers of unthinking loyalty.
Boxer, the horse, stands as a tragic figure of the working class. His unwavering dedication, evidenced by his mottos "I will work harder" and "Napoleon is always right," reflects the proletariat's exploitation. The eventual betrayal of Boxer is one of the story's most heart-wrenching moments and is emblematic of how totalitarian regimes often discard those who serve them once they're no longer useful.
The choice of animals thus isn't just a creative storytelling device. It's where Orwell invests the simplistic parable structure with thematic depth.
Animal Farm is a testament to the versatility and boundless possibilities of storytelling. “Narrative” almost universally involves a protagonist struggling and striving toward a goal, the failure of which comes with significant stakes. It is the stakes that make readers care—the closer a protagonist gets to failure, the more readers cheer them on; the more they want to know what happens next.
But through this parable-like tale of Soviet communism, Orwell demonstrates that dramatic irony can be another potent tool to engage and sustain a reader's emotional draw. While most stories weave their magic through the interplay of character desires, stakes, and conflicts, Orwell's masterpiece thrives on readers’ apprehension, their knowledge of the looming doom, and their expectation of the tragic, inevitable descent of the hopeful revolutionaries. Stakes are still there, even without a singular protagonist fighting for their heart’s desire. Thus, Animal Farm gives us commentary not only on history and political philosophy but also on the art of storytelling itself—demonstrating that narrative structure is a playground for innovation rather than a formula or paint-by-numbers approach to novel writing.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.