The Use of Animal Symbolism in Literature to Convey Sensitive Themes

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 3864 |

Pages: 6|

20 min read

Published: Sep 20, 2018

Words: 3864|Pages: 6|20 min read

Published: Sep 20, 2018

Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Animal symbolism in literature
  4. Animal Farm
    Little Red Riding Hood
    Black Beauty
  5. Conclusion


Analyzing and evaluating literature that utilizes animals within its text allows the reader to have a better understanding of a writings meaning and the author's intentions. The significance of animals in literature allows the writer to reinforce common themes that are fundamental to written works. Certain animals are routinely used to express various themes and specific symbols. These themes will be evaluated and explained by studying animal behavior and why certain animals are chosen by authors to represent a character or symbol. Various texts incorporate animals to stand for distinct icons. In order to understand why these animals are chosen, one must research deeper into the book's content as well as the animals’ biological behavior.

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Animals play a crucial role in writing and reveal hidden messages to readers found within the writing. It is these messages that will be exposed and broken down, to not only show how they affect writings but how animals themselves bring meanings to books that human characters alone can not do. Each author has their own purpose for incorporating animals, yet they are all used to express the purpose of the novel as well as give an opportunity for the readers to connect with the book from a different viewpoint. The stories that will be investigated are Animal Farm, Little Red Riding Hood and Black Beauty. In order to fully comprehend animals’ importance to novels, one must first dissect these classic readings to have a better understanding of the authors and their thoughts. It is these characters that allow us to comprehend authors, their intentions, and understand themselves and who they are as individuals. Animals cannot communicate like humans. Yet animals are frequently used by authors to tell a story that humans cannot. These stories can reveal a powerful, unique message and even lessons. Throughout centuries animals have had an important effect on humans. They are one of the reasons humankind has evolved over time with much success. Animals have supplied humans with food, clothing, shelter, and basic necessities. Animals are fundamental to our world and have been valued for their companionship. Today with modern medicine, pig's organs can be used as transplants in critically ill patients, saving their lives, while others are bred as pets for fellowship. It is clear that animals are vital for human life, and play a critical role in not only the food chain but in environmental balance within ecosystems.

Animal symbolism in literature

Extending beyond biological influences, animals are generally beloved and familiar to readers, readily relatable in literature, facilitating the teaching of life lessons. Since animals have such a valued role in fulfilling human needs, authors have translated this role over to literature and thus made a distinct impact on literature today. From cave walls depicting animals to classical books and tales that will be discussed, it is evident that the use of animals in our world from thousands of years ago, to today, has created deep meaning in our lives. The meanings of animals in literary works can be perceived and interpreted in many ways. The authors use the animals in various forms, projecting their intended message to readers. The connotation the authors applies towards animals is extremely powerful since it controls the way the readers see and interpret these characters. This is well exemplified in Animal Farm, Little Red Riding Hood and Black Beauty, where each author uses the roles of animals to express certain themes and meanings to their writings.

Animal Farm

Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, was published in 1945 and is an allegorical novel that describes the affairs preceding up to the Russian Revolution (Orwell ix). Orwell explains these events by using animals as symbols.

The author tells the story of animals on a farm who rebel against their owner due to Old Major's advice and plan to live out their own life together. The animals write their own rules, plan their own life and how the farm will run. However, shortly in the novel two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball start to manipulate and control the other animals. Animals begin to starve and die while the pigs live a rich, luxurious lifestyle. The pigs take over the culture of humans and began to resemble people. Animal Farm uses animals as symbols to represent rulers and people to express the hardships millions had endured within a dictatorship. Each animal has a specific role and stands for a distant characteristic.

Animal Farm uses animals to tell a story of the past, to allude to a situation and describe those who participated and endured this hardship. In order to understand how animals find a valuable place in literature, one must first know how authors design animals to stand out and allow readers to connect with them. Animal Farm uses anthropomorphism to make the animals portray human actions as well as contain human characteristics. This is seen throughout Animal Farm when each animal within the farm is described as if they were human. For example, “Snowball was a more vivacious pig than Napoleon, quicker in speech and more inventive, but was not considered to have the same depth of character”(Orwell 16). It is clear that pigs cannot talk, at least in the human language, however it describes these pigs as if they can participate in human activities. It builds the characters personalities and allows the readers to have a better understanding of who they are, in just one sentence. Authors use this tool as a power source to bring up crucial characteristics that will be fundamental to the book's story. The animals in the tale throw a revolution, engage in strategic plans and communicate in depth which allows the author to describe a historical event indirectly. Anthropomorphism is famous throughout the work of Animal Farm. The famous last lines of animal farm tie in the entire novel and reveal the horrors that have taken place. “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 141), is comparing both of these characters together. This is only significant if the reader understands the characteristics of pigs. Orwell uses various incidents throughout the book to show how a pig behaves and treats others. Humans within the book are seen as selfish, uncaring beings that use animals for the benefit of themselves. However, the author at the end of the novel shows how these two are similar. He shows pigs are capable of these self-absorbed actions or personalities, meaning that the pigs themselves are seen as only caring for themselves.

However, why choose a pig over a dog, cat or fish? This can be explained by understanding pigs. Pigs can weigh up to about a thousand pounds. This is excessive especially when pigs are not very tall or wide. Pigs are omnivores meaning they eat both plants and animals, consuming large volumes. The reason why pigs eat a lot of food is that regular meals cannot be assured in the wild. People connect these voracious eaters with the characteristics of being greedy and selfish. For example, on the Buddhist Wheel of Existence, a black pig represents negative traits such as self-indulgence. Also, religions such as Judaism, and Islam believe pigs are dirty, therefore are forbidden to consume. However, pigs are misrepresented. The Porcine species lacks sweat glands, which inhibits the ability to cool their body, and with sparse hair, sunburn easily. It is for these specific issues pigs seek cool muddy ground and cover their backs for protection. Scientists have listed pigs in the top five as the most intelligent animals (National Geographic Society). Yet, because of their stereotypes and well-known representation, Orwell decides to use this to his advantage. “The pigs did not actually work but directed and supervised the others. “With their superior knowledge, it was only natural that they should assume the leadership”(Orwell 27-28), is cleverly used to show how the pigs outsmarted and manipulated others. Here it is evident that the author chose the pig based on its characteristics. This is fundamental since the theme of deception and betrayal is constantly seen throughout the book.

Another example where the pigs reinforce the theme of deception can be seen through, “Squealer, temporarily stunned, was sprawling beside it, and near at hand there lay a lantern, a paintbrush, and an overturned pot of white paint (Orwell 108).” Here the Squealer, one of the farm Pigs, is altering the farm rules in the pigs’ favor. The pigs use their insight and knowledge to trick the other farm animals with hidden intentions to use them, much like the humans were described early in the novel. Orwell revels these themes throughout the novel by using various animals to demonstrate deception. Sheep, horses and other animals are chosen to be placed in Animal Farm to deliver the intended message by Orwell. The role of each of these animals within the book itself ties together a story that the author strives to deliver.

Sheep, representing the people who are blinded by Stalin's propaganda is seen as unintelligent animals who cannot think for themselves. These people are not really blind, yet have fallen into the trap of being manipulated by slogans. Orwell is criticizing those who were fooled. The author displays the sheep's intelligence by saying “It ended by their remaining there for a whole week, during which time the other animals saw nothing of them”, to show how the sheep are easily persuaded. The sheep within the novel are used by Napoleon to repeat various sayings, such as “Four legs good, two legs bad”, to eventually “Four legs good, two legs better”. The sheep are just simple tools to the pigs as a way to maintain control over the other farm animals and to try to show that they have followers. The author is demonstrating how the sheep are oblivious. Sheep are herd animals that stay in a pack and follow each other. Since sheep are vulnerable prey to predators such as wolves, they stay together to protect one another and appear a bigger threat to approaching animals. The saying that represented sheep is "Get one to go and they will all go"(Cobb). Sheep are the perfect animal to represent people who will follow the majority and can be lead easily into traps.

Even terms from the bible such as “Lambs to Slaughter” in Isaiah, is a frequently utilized phrase to depict how vulnerable some people can be and how this leads to their own downfall (Harold). Orwell uses sheep as subjects manipulated by the pigs based on these slogans. This emphasizes how the pigs controlled and targeted the weak. HorsesHorses in Animal Farm are symbols for strength and loyalty. These animals can carry up to three times their own weight. Boxer, a horse on the farm, is one of the hardest working farm animals. He repeats the lines throughout the novel “I will work harder” and “ Napoleon is always right”. Not only is Boxer one of the main factors why work is completed on the farm but he is also extremely loyal and faithful to the farm and especially the pigs. However, when becoming hurt from strenuous work, the pigs sold boxer to a glue factory in exchange for money to buy whiskey for themselves. Not only was a devoted character betrayed but it is revealed just how cruel the pigs are. The animals on the farm made commandments stating the farm rules. The pigs sent their hardest working character to slaughter in exchange for objects that were forbidden (Orwell). The theme that horses reinforce in this story is that even the loyal will be betrayed. George Orwell's purpose in using anthropomorphism in Animal Farm to explain the events before the Russian revolution is used for various reasons. In Animals as people in Children’s Literature, the use of anthropomorphism is said to be away the author can address as well as handle deep, serious and even frightening subjects. The use of anthropomorphism makes it easier and more comfortable for authors to write on a sensitive theme, concern or matter. Composing a novel or story on a topic directly is sometimes extremely difficult for authors to door for readers to appreciate.

Hence, many authors use literary tools incorporating animals to represent and symbolize greater matters. In the Introduction of Animal Farm Orwell says “... it was the utmost importance to me that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was”. During the mid-1900’s talking about the unjust rulers and the government, the system was a frightening subject. Animals were a way Orwell could express his concerns indirectly, making it easier for the audience to understand and therefore learn the lessons about the Russian revolution and communism.

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood is a European fairy tale originally written by Charles Perrault. A young girl sets off to visit her grandma but gets distracted on the way there. She encounters a wolf and engages in a conversation regarding her plans. The wolf then goes to the grandma’s house, devours her and pretends to be the grandmother to consume the little girl as well. The wolf is able to communicate with humans in order for the story to become completely alive and symbolize those in the world with deceiving intentions. The fable uses animals to uncover the truth of reality and the danger within society. A way to teach a valuable life lesson without fully revealing the whole truths to the world and some of the horrific events that take place within. The purpose of using animals in this fable is to teach a lesson to a younger age level that not everyone can be trusted. It is easier to digest why a wolf can be so horrific and deceiving rather than a person.

However, the idea that wolves, like the one in Little Red Riding Hood, is seen throughout our own society can be extremely scary. It is much easier to use animals to represent the bad than actually explain how some humans are dangerous to others. For example, the wolf says to himself, “What a tender young creature! what a nice plump mouthful she will be better to eat than the old woman. I must act craftily, so as to catch both.'”, this reveals his true intentions delivered in a soliloquy. He deceives the girl, distracts and plots to engulf them both. Not only are animals used to help the authors but also the readers. Would you as a parent read your toddler a story where a man sabotages a child, murders her grandmother and eats the body? A story about Jeffrey Dahmer? Probably not. This is why animals are extremely significant and allow the authors work to be sold to a society with deeply ingrained social norms. Substitution of people instead of animals in these childhood classics would have been a literary disaster. Reality can be frightening, and full awareness too soon can be detrimental. The fact is, some people will lie, steal and kill. This idea, without traumatizing, is exceedingly hard to relay to children, even many adults for that matter. This is where Perrault conceived the brilliant substitution of a wolf. Wolves characteristics have been used to symbolize mysticism, danger and even witchcraft.

Despite the fact that wolves possess little or no harm to humans, authors still use this symbolism for various literary messages. Biologically a wolf's howl is used for territorial reasons to warn potential intruders and for communication within their pack. Their howl can travel a mile or even longer depend on extraneous noise and weather conditions. Wolves powerful howls deceptively provide the illusion of close proximity which conveniently helps authors add tension, fear and even terror to their stories. While wolves have struggled against near extinction in some locations, their presence in stories nearly always instills fear. With forty- two teeth used for ripping flesh, and jaws capable of over a thousand pounds of pressure, these muscular and powerful animals have grown the representation of an animal that should be feared (Animal Corner). Thus the wolf is an important animal in Little Red Riding Hood.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty, is a beloved children's literature novel is written by Anna Sewell. The author uses a first “person” point of view from a horse to reveal the secrets that they contain, to educate the readers about equine needs and to highlight the powerful companionship that a horse can bring. Black Beauty is a story of a loyal, well-behaved horse that is passed from owner to owner. The novel shows the various treatments that the horses receive and the reasons behind their apparent behavior. Anna Sewell uses both personification and anthropomorphism to make the horses appear as if they are human. Sewell does this by having one of the horses, Black beauty, narrate the story. This forms a connection from the readers to the horse and creates a strong relationship between them. With the horses being able to communicate how they are treated and feel, it creates greater sympathetic feelings within the readers. The animals appear as if they can think and therefore feel the same as humans. When reading the novel there is such a strong allusion that one almost believes Black Beauty is human. The novel convinces readers to forget differences between themselves and the horses. The lines are blurred between reality and fantasy. Within these relationships, the author uses tools to help create feelings within the readers and to help build and endear their story. Horses within the story represent strength, resilience, and purity.

The role of horses transitions throughout the story. Born into a sweet compassionate family, Black Beauty is sold to various owners throughout the novel, some who adore him and others who wear Black Beauty out from fatigue. The first line starting the novel has Black Beauty open up with “The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it (Sewell 3).” Sewell does this to reveal to the audience that the horse was first raised in the hands of a good owner. Sewell uses imagery within the first chapter to describe the environment in which the horse is exposed. This can later be compared to the reasons why Black Beauty stays docile and well behaved, even when abused and exploited for her work. This is extremely powerful and even heroic. The author is conveying that even through tortuous events never once did Black Beauty hurt or rebel his possessors. This can be noted when Dutchess, Black Beauty's mother gives advice saying “I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will, lift your feet up well when you trot, and never bite or kick even in play(Sewell 4).” The advice stays with Black Beauty her whole life and is the basis for her kind demeanor and good behavior. The events Black Beauty endures throughout allows Anna Sewell to reinforce the common themes; ownership versus companionship, poverty versus wealth, and the ideas of understanding and compassion. Black Beauty’s ownership changes dramatically as well as that of other horses within the novel.

Together, the horses point out some of the many flaws in the relationship between man and horse. Sir Oliver — an aged horse on Birtwick whose tail his masters cut off — argues that man mutilates the animals within their care in the name of fashion or looking sharp. So they cut tails off or they slice ears for aesthetic purposes. Doing this, he says, they cause a lot of pain and they also interfere with God’s creation, for the body parts that they cut off tend to have some function which they overlooked (like the horse’s tail functioning as a fly-swatter). The blinkers which drivers force horses to wear are similarly misguided: they prevent the horse from seeing and thus interfere with the way God created horses, as the horses point out. Humans should just leave their animals as they were meant to be and not attempt to change that.

The horses within the book explain their story to justify their actions by their previous owners. Different horses explain about their treatment and how their owners acted towards them. Ginder explains "… never had anyone, horse or man, that was kind to me, or that I cared to please". Grinders owner abused her and treated her as a property rather than an animal.

However, Ginger eventually ends up at Birtwick. Here she is treated with compassion and the new owner is understanding of her behavior due to her past situations. The owner uses extreme patience, for example by slowly brushing her to gain Grinder's trust. This shows a dramatic change of lifestyle. This allows the author to express the idea of how some people treat animals fairly and connects them as a companion. While other human characters misuse and exploit the horses. This brings up the theme of poverty. “…I say 'is a mockery to tell a man that he must not overwork his horse, for when a beast is downright tired there's nothing but the whip that will keep his legs going... you must put your wife and children before the horse...". Seedy Sam, a London cab driver expresses the hardships he must put others through in order to simply survive. He then explains that he rather exploit an animal than have his family starve. Throughout the novel’s animals are exploited in order to show how far humans are willing to go for their own needs. That animals are no more than property that people own the right to use, even if that means wearing them out to their death. This theme is expressed throughout the story with the constant use of suffering.

The horses within the story that are neglected and misused allow the author to reinforce the theme of poverty. This is because rather than seen as a creature or living being, the horses are perceived as objects. It demonstrates how far people are willing to go to purely make money. The constant use of abuse on animals in the novel allows Anna Sewell to display the harsh reality of society and one's own morals. Each text possesses animals within its writing as characters in order to give the writing meaning and help the author express their message to the audience. Without animals, some authors would not be able to convey their story and express their intended message.

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Animals give courage to writers, allowing them to indirectly write about subjects that are controversial and sensitive; even terrifying and counter to social norms. Through the use of personification and anthropomorphism, these animals are able to portray humans and give authors the chance to reinforce a common theme throughout their work. It is clearly demonstrated that all three works examined, Animal Farm, Black Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood use animals to construct the meaning of their work and deliver a message to the audience. Through these characters, the author is able to strengthen and emphasize their themes, as well as show the readers the purpose and meaning of their work.

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Animal Symbolism in Literature: Possibility Write About Sensitive Themes. (2021, December 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
“Animal Symbolism in Literature: Possibility Write About Sensitive Themes.” GradesFixer, 28 Dec. 2021,
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