By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm is at once children’s fable and political allegory. This double-edged quality to Orwell’s short novel means that Animal Farm requires some words of analysis to be fully appreciated.
In this series of posts, I’ll be rereading the novella one chapter at a time, beginning – predictably enough – with chapter one. Before I offer some words of commentary on the opening chapter of this classic book, here’s a summary of what takes place in chapter one.
The book opens with the farmer, Mr Jones, going to bed drunk. As soon as he has gone to bed, the animals on Manor Farm begin to gather to hear Old Major, the boar, who is preparing to give a speech to all of the animals.
Major had a strange dream the previous night and wants to tell them about it, so they gather in the big barn to hear him address them. Old Major is a stout and rather wise-looking pig, who commands the respect of the animals on the farm.
Orwell then introduces us to the other animals as they begin to arrive. There are three dogs, Bluebell, Jessie, and Pincher, and numerous pigs, hens, pigeons, sheep, and cows. The two cart-horses, Boxer (male) and Clover (female), arrive together. Although Boxer is not known for being especially clever, he is a hard worker.
A goat named Muriel and a donkey named Benjamin are also introduced. Benjamin, who rarely speaks, is one of Boxer’s best friends. Mollie, a foolish mare, wanders in late. She is rather vain and silly and extremely fond of the red ribbons she wears in her mane. However, Mollie isn’t quite the last animal to arrive: the cat (unnamed) strolls in next, and proceeds to ignore the whole meeting. The only animal on the farm who isn’t present is Moses, a tame raven.
Old Major then tells the animals that he thinks he will die soon, and before he does so he wants to encourage the animals to reflect on their life on the farm. He points out that the ‘life of an animal is misery and slavery’. Even though the land is rich and fertile, the animals’ hard labour on the farm is stolen from them by their human overlords. ‘Man is the only real enemy we have’, he tells them, and if they removed man from their lives, all their misery would be over.
Although the animals produce the milk and eggs, it is the farmer who profits from them and consumes them – and that is when man isn’t slaughtering the animals for meat. Human beings keep the animals in a life of ‘tyranny’. If the animals would rebel against man, they could overthrow him and enjoy the fruits of their labour for themselves.
The animals then vote on whether wild creatures living on the farm – such as rats and rabbits – should be included among the other animals as their friends rather than enemies. The vast majority of the farm animals vote that the wild animals are their comrades. Major then tells the animals: ‘Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.’
He then cautions the animals to remember that in fighting against man, they must not come to resemble him through becoming tyrannical themselves or adopting human habits (such as wearing clothes or living in a house). He then tells them about the dream he had, in which he recollected his youth and an old song the animals used to sing. The song, which he sings for the assembled animals, is called ‘Beasts of England’, and the song foretells a time in the future when man will be overthrown by animals.
The animals all join in with singing the song, learning it by heart. However, the noise of their singing wakes up Mr Jones, who fires his gun into the barn, bringing the meeting to an end.
This opening chapter of Orwell’s novella establishes several key things leading up to the animals’ overthrow of Mr Jones on the farm. Chapter one opens with Orwell’s third-person narrator telling us that Mr Jones, who owns Manor Farm, is habitually drunk, and this means he is failing to look after the animals properly.
Because of Jones’s irresponsible mistreatment of the animals and generally poor management of the farm, Orwell immediately puts the reader on the side of the animals, who are clearly suffering under Jones’s ‘rule’.
Not only are they being exploited for their labour and their resources (those eggs and that milk), but they aren’t even being kept safe: Jones’s failure to secure the pop-holes in the hen-houses puts the hens at the risk of attack from any nearby foxes, and his first action when they wake him up with their singing is to reach for his gun and discharge several bullets into the darkness, seemingly without stopping to wonder whether he might harm his animals in the process.
Mr Jones represents the aristocracy in Russia prior to the Russian Revolution: lazy, careless, complacent, and disrespectful and disdainful towards those who are lower than them in the pecking order. Old Major, meanwhile, represents several different revolutionary thinkers: Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov dynasty, and Karl Marx (1818-83), the founder of Communism, whose ideas inspired the October Revolution in Russia in 1917.
Orwell also has Old Major cleverly prefigure the way the animals’ Rebellion will become corrupted through later actions, much as the Soviet revolutionary ideals were subsequently betrayed by Stalin and his party. Sure enough, by the end of the novella, the pigs have adopted all the habits of their human former overlords, dressing in clothes and living in the main house.