The owner of Manor Farm, Mr. Jones, locks his henhouses for the evening—but he’s too drunk to remember to shut everything before he goes to bed. As soon as the lights are off in the farmhouse, the animals all stir and make their way to the big barn, where the old boar, Old Major, wants to address everyone. Old Major lies on a raised platform. The three dogs and all the pigs come in first and settle right in front of the platform. The hens and pigeons perch in windows and the rafters; the sheep and cows settle behind the pigs; and Boxer and Clover, the carthorses, lie down in the back. Clover settles a brood of orphaned ducklings in the crook of her leg as the cantankerous old donkey, Benjamin, and the goat Muriel join the horses.
To begin with, all the animals exist under Mr. Jones’s somewhat totalitarian regime, and therefore are on somewhat equal footing at this point. However, pay attention to the way in which the animals arrange themselves. That the pigs and the dogs go to the front naturally suggests that they already hold an important place on the farm, while the fact that a pig is giving this speech is another indication that these two species are somehow superior to the others. In this sense, this represents the beginnings of class distinctions on the farm.
The foolish mare Mollie shakes her braided and beribboned mane while she munches sugar, and the cat finds the warmest spot between Boxer and Clover. The cat doesn’t listen to Old Major at all. Seeing that everyone but old Moses, the tame raven, is present, Old Major begins. He addresses everyone as “comrades” and announces that he’s going to die soon but wants to share his wisdom and a dream he had with everyone before he does. He says that the nature of their lives is horrendous: they only get enough food to keep them going, and once they’re no longer useful, Mr. Jones kills them. Animals, he insists, are slaves, though they don’t have to be. Manor Farm would support many animals comfortably if only humans didn’t steal the products of their labor. If they remove man, they won’t be hungry or overworked.
Mollie and the cat are representative of the middle classes who, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, were already pretty comfortable with their lot in life, as represented by Mollie’s ability to obtain sugar and the cat’s beeline for the best, warmest spot and lack of interest in what happens. Everything that Old Major says paints a horrific picture of what life is like on the farm. His speech as a whole mirrors The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in that the problem is the ruling class and that the lower classes are allowing themselves to be subjugated.
Old Major insists that humans are the only creatures who consume without producing anything, like milk or eggs. He asks the animals to consider all they’ve given up, from gallons of milk to hundreds of eggs to Clover’s four foals, gone forever. Old Major points out that Mr. Jones butchers pigs, will someday sell Boxer to the glue factory when he can’t work, and drowns dogs when they get too old. Man, Old Major suggests, is the root of all evil. Getting rid of men through rebellion would free the animals, and Old Major insists that the rebellion will come in due course. He warns everyone that they can’t entertain the idea that humans and animals have common interests; they must believe that all men are enemies and all animals are comrades.
Again, the idea that humans are the only creatures who don’t produce anything is a direct parallel to The Communist Manifesto, as Marx proposes that the real evil is that people don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their own labor—rather, they make chairs or farm for others who then profit off of their labor. Notice that Old Major uses absolutes when he warns the animals that they cannot ever think that animals and humans might be able to work together. This means that if the animals take this seriously, there will be little room for nuance.
Suddenly, the dogs catch sight of four rats listening in and chases them back to their holes. Old Major calls for silence and insists that they must vote on whether wild animals are enemies or comrades. The assembly votes overwhelmingly in favor of wild animals being comrades. Only the cat and the dogs vote no, but some discover later that the cat voted on both sides. Solemnly, Old Major insists again that they can’t forget that man is their enemy, but they also can’t ever come to resemble man by drinking alcohol, sleeping in beds, or trading. He also says that animals cannot terrorize each other, as they’re all equal.
Despite the absolutist language Old Major uses, it’s important to keep in mind his warning that once the animals achieve a revolution, they cannot come to resemble those who once oppressed them. With this, he alludes to the idea that revolution and rebellion are, to a degree, cyclical and it’s normal for those who seize power to want to have all of it—while also warning everyone to be on the lookout for corruption.
Old Major explains that he’s going to teach everyone a song that his mother taught him part of long ago. It’s called “Beasts of England” and it speaks of a “golden future time” in which animals will be free from human tyranny. All the animals, both the highly intelligent and the less intelligent, learn it quickly and they sing it all together five times through. They only stop when Mr. Jones shoots his gun into the side of the barn, breaking up the meeting.
“Beasts of England” represents the unifying power of language: every animal, no matter how smart, can learn it, rally around it, and take heart in its revolutionary content. However, note that it idealizes the coming revolution, which leaves little room for the realities of human (or animal) nature to complicate things.