Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948
Animal Farm opens as Mr. Jones, the owner of Manor Farm, drunkenly locks the animals away and goes to bed. As soon as Mr. Jones leaves, all the animals hurry to the big barn. Word has spread that Old Major, a well-regarded prize white boar, has had a strange dream and wishes to communicate it to the rest of the farm animals.
Once all the animals have gathered in the barn, Old Major sits on a platform and begins to discuss the suffering that he and his fellow animals endure on the farm. He points out that the animals are forced to slave away all day long for only meager rations of food. The horses are deprived of their foals, the chickens are deprived of their eggs, and the cows are deprived of their milk. All the products of the animals’ labor are stolen, Old Major claims, by man. As if this is not bad enough, as soon as the animals outlive their usefulness, they will be brutally slaughtered. Declaring that “all animals are comrades” and “all men are enemies,” Old Major tells the animals that one day, there must be a rebellion against human cruelty. When the animals manage to finally overthrow man, they will find freedom and riches. Inspired, the animals take a vote and decide that all animals, even wild ones outside the farm, are comrades.
Old Major cautions the animals that even if they should successfully overthrow their human owners, they must take care to never become like humans themselves. Specifically, they must never live in a house, sleep in a bed, wear clothes, drink, smoke, touch money, or trade. Finally, Old Major reveals that his strange dream was of a future where man has disappeared, and he says this dream made him recall a song from his childhood titled “Beasts of England.” He teaches this song to the animals, and they all enthusiastically begin singing along. They only stop singing when Mr. Jones hears the commotion and fires a warning shot toward the barn.
On a superficial level, Animal Farm is a story about talking farm animals who dream of a better life. However, Animal Farm—which Orwell called “a fairy story”—has a secondary, more symbolic meaning. The story is both a political and a moral allegory that draws inspiration from real historical events, namely the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent era of Stalinism. The animals in the story are anthropomorphic, meaning that they exhibit human characteristics, such as the ability to talk and think like a person.
Several of the animals represent real historical figures associated with the Russian Revolution: The philosophical Old Major represents both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, two men who touted the theory of communism as the means by which the economically oppressed working classes would eventually rise up to create an egalitarian society. Most of the other animals on the farm are analogous to the poor, uneducated Russian peasant class, whose interests the leaders of the Russian Revolution claimed to represent.
By presenting his message indirectly through the medium of a fable, Orwell invites a broader and more universal application of his ideas. Though the story of the animals on Manor Farm parallels real events in twentieth-century Russia, Orwell’s political critique extends far beyond that particular country. Written near the end of World War II, Animal Farm is intended to be a critique of the totalitarian regimes that Orwell saw coming to power all over the world—in Germany, Italy, and Spain, as well as in Russia. By making the main characters of the story nonhuman, Orwell creates a necessary distance, allowing readers to clearly see the absurdity and hypocrisy of the real human behaviors exhibited by the animals.
In this initial chapter, the animals are given hope by the teachings of Old Major. He promises them not only liberation from their meaningless and difficult work but riches and prosperity as well. These promises, combined with the declaration that man is the enemy of all animals, foreshadow an inevitable physical confrontation between Mr. Jones and his disgruntled farm animals.
Though the animal-run world in Old Major’s dream sounds like paradise, several points in this chapter suggest that this perfect system may not be easy to achieve. Beyond the obvious power difference between Mr. Jones and the animals, there appear to be hierarchies among the animals on Manor Farm as well. Old Major, a boar, is one of the most respected animals on the farm, and it is worth noting that the pigs sit in the very front of the audience, while the sheep, cows, and horses sit behind them. The pigs also appear to be the most intelligent of the animals on the farm; they are able to learn the words to “Beasts of England” almost immediately. These small details might make a reader wonder whether the cleverest animals will ever truly consider the least intelligent animals their equals.
Old Major’s speech is interrupted when the dogs attack a few rats that come from outside to listen. This prompts a group decision in which the animals (with the exception of the dogs) vote that outside animals, such as rats and rabbits, should also be considered “comrades” and thus may not be killed. This scene serves as a reminder that in uniting against the humans, some of the animals are also rebelling against their own deeply ingrained natures—a fact that may prove problematic later on. As the chapter ends, we wonder whether the animals will band together and achieve their dream of freedom, or whether the animals’ dream is itself a “fairy story” that is too good to be true.
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