Curriculum Vital

    The Education Umbrella Guide to Animal Farm 
    Chapter one summary and analysis

    This chapter summary is part of the Education Umbrella Guide to Animal Farm, which features an introduction to Orwell's life and work, a chapter-by-chapter summary and analysis, character profiles and classroom activities.  


    The animals of Manor Farm live a hard life under the cruel and brutish farmer Mr Jones. One night, after Mr Jones has gone to bed, all the animals gather in the barn to listen to a special announcement from the wise old boar, Old Major, who has had a dream that he would like to share.

    Old Major begins by describing his hopes for the future. He explains to the animals that their miserable existence is caused by man. Humans, he says, exploit them and benefit enormously from their hard work, while doing little or nothing in return. He believes that the animals would be happier and wealthier if they rebelled against the humans.

    Old Major then describes his dream. In it he heard the words of a song from his childhood that he thought he'd forgotten. The song is called Beasts of England. He sings it to the animals and they sing it back, becoming more and more impassioned with every repetition. Eventually they sing so loudly that Mr Jones wakes up. He fires his gun at the barn and the animals go back to bed.


    The story of Animal Farm is a simplified retelling of the events leading up to the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the Revolution itself, and its aftermath. This was a 'Marxist' revolution that began with the publication of a work by two German economic philosophers in 1848.

    The Communist Manifesto — Old Major's speech

    The key part of chapter one is Old Major's speech. He begins by addressing the animals as 'Comrades'. This word can mean simply a colleague or a fellow member of an organisation, but it is also the term communists and socialists use to address each other. In the Soviet Union and the former communist states of eastern Europe people would address each other as 'Comrade' as we nowadays would address people as 'Sir' or 'Madame.' In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell, describing the scene in communist-held Barcelona in 1936, writes, 'Nobody said Señor or Don or even Usted; everyone called everyone else Comrade or Thou'.

    Old Major then goes on to say:

    Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it, our lives are miserable, laborious and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth.

    If you replace the word 'animal' with 'proletariat' this speech could have been written by Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky. In 1917 the proletariat, or working classes, of Russia and elsewhere indeed lived lives that were 'miserable, laborious and short.' Factory workers endured appalling and often dangerous conditions for hour after hour; they few rights or privileges; they were exploited by their bosses, against whom they had no power. In The Conditions of the Working Class of England in 1844 Frederich Engels, a lifelong friend and partner of Marx, wrote:

    The way in which the vast mass of the poor are treated by modern society is truly scandalous. They are herded into great cities where they breathe a fouler air than in the countryside which they have left... How is it possible that the poorer classes can remain healthy and have a reasonable expectation of life under such conditions? What can one expect but that they should suffer from continual outbreaks of epidemics and an excessively low expectation of life? The physical condition of the workers shows a progressive deterioration.

    After further describing the difficult lives of the animals, Old Major continues:

    Is it not crystal clear, then, comrades, that all the evils of this life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings? Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own. Almost overnight we could become rich and free. What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race! That is my message to you, comrades: Rebellion!

    Here, if you replace 'Man' with 'ruling classes' or 'the Bourgeoisie' this speech, too, is a mirror of a line from Marx and Engels' most famous work, The Communist Manifesto:

    The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.

    Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!

    Having established the need for rebellion, Old Major then explains the principles that the animals must follow:

    Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. And remember also that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices. No animal must ever live in a house, or sleep in a bed, or wear clothes, or drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco, or touch money, or engage in trade. All the habits of Man are evil. And above all, no animal must ever tyrannise over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal.

    For the 'vices' of Man — especially living 'in a house' — we can substitute one of the most important principles of communism: the abolition of private property. The Communist Manifesto again:

    You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

    'The Internationale' — 'Beasts of England'

    The meeting climaxes with the singing of 'Beasts of England'. This song is a take on the socialist hymn 'The Internationale,' which was written in 1871 in Paris by a Frenchman named Eugène Pottier. Here is the English translation of the first verse:

    Stand up, damned of the Earth
    Stand up, prisoners of starvation
    Reason thunders in its volcano
    This is the eruption of the end.
    Of the past let us make a clean slate
    Enslaved masses, stand up, stand up.
    The world is about to change its foundation
    We are nothing, let us be all.
    This is the final struggle
    Let us group together, and tomorrow
    The Internationale
    Will be the human race.

    Read the lyrics of 'Beasts of England' again. How do the two compare?

    Seeds of Revolution

    The events in chapter one mirror an important event that took place in Russia in 1905. At that time Russia was an empire and had been ruled for nearly 300 years by the Romanov dynasty, the head of which was known as the Tsar (also spelt Czar). Nicholas II became Tsar in 1894 following the unexpected death of his father, Alexander III.

    By 1905 many people in the Russian Empire were angry with Tsar Nicholas because of rising prices, political and economic stagnation and a disastrous war against Japan in 1904-05. On 22 January, 1905 150,000 demonstrators marched in St Petersburg demanding reform. The peaceful march was broken up when armed troops fired into the crowd, killing nearly 200 people. This event became known as Bloody Sunday. In Animal Farm, the animals' peaceful meeting is broken up when Mr Jones fires randomly in the direction of the barn. From that moment the animals, already set on rebellion, turn definitively against their master, in the same way the Russian people turned against the Tsar after Bloody Sunday.

    In October that same year a committee of striking workers in St Petersburg formed a council of workers, known in Russian as a 'Soviet'. The intention was to have one voice when negotiating with employers and directing strike action.

    Prior to this, in 1898, a group of socialists and revolutionaries formed the Russia Social Democratic Labour Party (RDSRP). Its goal was Marxist revolution. The party would eventually split into Bolsheviks (which translates as 'the majority faction') and Mensheviks (which translates as 'the minority faction'). The two groups had different ideas about what system of government to use: the Bolsheviks preferred a core of professional revolutionaries (in effect a dictatorship) and the immediate founding of a communist state; the Mensheviks' ultimate goal was also a communist state, but they favoured a more Marxist 'transition to socialism.