How does Orwell make readers understand events on Animal Farm before the characters do?

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I would think that the first chapter is highly revealing in this element.  Orwell uses the first chapter to bring out the subtle details in the animals that will play a large role in the development of the plot and the characterizations of the animals.  This is done through small and intricate details.  One such detail is that the pigs sit in the front of the room, listening and hanging on every word that Old Major says.  As Clover and Boxer enter the room, they walk gingerly in order to not trample the other animals that are smaller than them.  They also pay attention the the smaller animals, like the ducklings, who lack any other guidance. The debate about whether to include or exclude the wild animals also helps to reveal how specific details are brought out in this one chapter that will play a larger role as the novel develops.  I think that Orwell uses this critical opening chapter as a way to bring forth details and characterizations that help to detail much of the animals and reflect more of them that is yet to be seen by both the readers and the characters in the novel.

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What is Orwell suggesting about the animals by positioning the reader to understand what is happening on Animal Farm before the animals realize it themselves?

Orwell is suggesting that the animals on the farm are behaving like the masses of people have usually behaved during great revolutions, such as the French Revolution and especially the Russian Revolution. The animals are ignorant and gullible, easily led with slogans, music, and propaganda. The reader understands what is happening before the animal characters do because the modern reader knows the history of the Russian Revolution. Like the animals, the people of the Soviet Union believed that all animals were going to be free, equal, and prosperous. They worked hard and accepted collectivization. They didn't realize that some animals who were more greedy and more cunning than the others would take over power and create conditions that were just about as bad as they had been under Mr. Jones, the representative of feudalism and capitalism. The most telling detail occurs in Chapter VII, when Napoleon's vicious dogs (i.e. Russian soldiers and secret police) attack the animals and Napoleon forces a number of them to confess to various crimes against the collective (an event corresponding to the so-called "Show trials" in which many people confessed to crimes they hadn't committed to escape further torture.

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