One night when Farmer Jones has gone to bed drunk, all the animals of Manor Farm assemble in the barn for a meeting. Old Major, the prize pig, wants to tell them about a strange dream he had. First, he tells them in clear, powerful language "the nature of life" as he has come to understand it. Animals toil, suffer, get barely enough to eat; as soon as they are no longer useful, they are slaughtered. And why? Because animals are enslaved by Man, "the only creature that consumes without producing." There is only one solution: Man must be removed. And animals must be perfectly united for their common goal: Rebellion.
After a brief interruption caused by the dogs chasing after some rats and a vote proposed by Major to decide if rats are comrades (they are), Major sums up: All animals are friends, Man is the enemy. Animals must avoid Man's habits: no houses, beds, clothes, alcohol, money, trade. Above all, "we are brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal."
He cannot describe his dream to them, "a dream of the earth as it will be when Man has vanished." But he does teach them an old animal song, "Beasts of England," which came back to him in his dream. The repeated singing of this revolutionary song throws the animals into a frenzy.
Major dies soon after, but the animals feel they should prepare for the Rebellion he preached. The work of teaching and organizing the others falls on the pigs, thought to be the cleverest animals. Snowball and Napoleon are "pre-eminent among the pigs"; and then there is Squealer, "a brilliant talker."
Mr. Jones drinks and neglects his farm more and more. One evening, when he has forgotten to feed them for over a day, the animals break into the store-shed and begin helping themselves. Jones and his men charge in, lashing with their whips. This is more than the hungry animals can bear. They all fling themselves on their tormentors. The surprised and frightened men are driven from the farm. Unexpectedly, the Rebellion has been accomplished. Jones is expelled; Manor Farm belongs to the animals.
The joy of the animals knows no bounds when they realize that they're now the owners of the farm they've worked on all their lives. They're enthusiastic when the pigs, who have taught themselves to read and write, change the sign MANOR FARM to ANIMAL FARM, and paint the Seven Commandments of Animalism on the barn wall:
1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes.
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7. All animals are equal.
Now the cows must be milked. The pigs manage to do this. "What is going to happen to all that milk?" says someone. "Never mind the milk, comrade," cries Napoleon. "The main thing is to get the harvest in." When they come back from the fields, the milk has disappeared.
Despite the newness of running the farm by themselves, the animals succeed in doing all tasks in record time. The pigs' cleverness, everyone's enthusiasm, and hard work--especially the work of Boxer, the huge cart-horse--pull them through.
On Sundays there are ceremonies to celebrate the Rebellion, and meetings to plan work. (Here, Snowball and Napoleon never seem to agree.) The animals are taught to read, but the dumber ones can't even learn the Seven Commandments, so Snowball reduces them all to one maxim: FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD. The sheep like to bleat it for hours on end. Snowball also organizes Committees, but Napoleon is not interested; he's concerned with the education of the young, and takes two litters of puppies away as soon as they're weaned, saying he'll educate them. As for the missing milk, it goes to the pigs, as do the new apples. Squealer explains that this is absolutely necessary for all the brainwork the pigs do; otherwise Jones might come back, and nobody wants that to happen.
Jones and his men do try to retake the farm. But Snowball has prepared the animals, and thanks to his cleverness and courage--and Boxer's great strength--they fight off the invaders.
There is growing conflict between Snowball and Napoleon. Snowball comes up with the idea of a grand project: building a windmill; Napoleon says it will come to nothing. Snowball says they should stir animals to rebel on other farms; Napoleon says they should get guns for their own. Finally, when Snowball concludes an eloquent speech about labor-saving electricity to be produced by the windmill, Napoleon gives a signal. Then nine huge dogs--the pups he had raised--bound in and charge at Snowball, who barely escapes from the farm with his life.
Napoleon, surrounded by his fierce dogs, announces that there will be no more time-wasting debates: a special Committee of pigs, chaired by himself, will simply give the animals their work orders each week. Four young pigs begin to protest, but growls from the dogs silence them, and the sheep bleat FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD over and over, preventing discussion.
Surprisingly, a few days later Napoleon announces that the windmill will be built after all. The animals slave and sacrifice for the project. Some of their food has to be sold to buy building materials. The pigs, however, have moved into the farmhouse, where they sleep in beds. This is absolutely necessary, says Squealer. But isn't it contrary to the Fourth Commandment? The animals check: "No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets," it says. Meanwhile a storm topples the half-built windmill. Napoleon blames the destruction on Snowball.
In fact, although Boxer refuses to believe Snowball was a traitor from the start, there seem to be signs of Snowball's sabotage all over when things go wrong. One day, Napoleon orders all animals to assemble in the yard. The dogs rush forward and grab four young pigs by the ear and drag them before Napoleon. (They also rush at Boxer, but he simply pins one to the ground and lets him go.) The terrified pigs confess they were in league with Snowball to destroy the windmill and hand the Farm over to Man. After they confess, the dogs tear their throats out. The same thing happens to three hens, a goose, etc. The confessions pile up and so do the corpses. The depressed, frightened animals creep away when the executions are over.
Some of the animals think they remember that these killings violate the Sixth Commandment. But on the barn wall they read: "No animal shall kill any other animal without cause." Later, still more animals are executed for conspiring to kill Napoleon. He is now constantly surrounded by dogs, and showered with honors: for example, a poem to his glory is inscribed on the barn wall.
Animal Farm is attacked by its neighbor, Mr. Frederick, and his armed men; the men take possession of the whole pasture, and blow up the windmill. But after a bitter fight, the animals repel the invaders, though some animals are killed and almost all are wounded. The pigs celebrate with a drinking party.
Soon after, there's a mysterious crash one night. Squealer is found on the ground next to a ladder at the barn wall, with a pot of paint near him. A few days later, the animals notice there's another commandment they had remembered wrong: it reads "No animal shall drink alcohol to excess."
Times are hard, rations short for everyone (except for the pigs, who need their food), the windmill must be rebuilt, and a schoolhouse built for the young pigs. Boxer works tirelessly, although he is getting old. He wants to lay up a good store of building stone before he retires. One day as he's pulling a cartload, he collapses. Squealer announces that Comrade Napoleon is making special arrangements to have Boxer treated at a nearby hospital. When the van comes to take him away, however, his friend Benjamin the donkey reads the sign on its side: in fact, he discovers, they're taking Boxer to the horse slaughterer. But it's too late; the van drives away. Three days later, Squealer paints a moving picture of Boxer's death in the hospital. The pigs will hold a banquet in his honor, he says. There is raucous singing in the farmhouse that night; somewhere the pigs have acquired the money to buy another case of whiskey.
Years pass. The animals work hard and often go hungry. There are many new buildings and machines on the farm, and also many new dogs and pigs. Maybe this is why the animals have no more to eat than before. But at least it's their farm.
One day Squealer takes the sheep to a secluded spot for a whole week. When they return, the animals see something strange and frightening: a pig walking on its hind legs. Yes, first Squealer, then the other pigs, walk upright out of the farmhouse. Finally Napoleon himself appears. He is carrying a whip in his trotter (foot). The animals are perhaps about to protest--when all the sheep burst out into a bleating of FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BETTER!--and the pigs file back into the house. Clover the mare asks Benjamin to read the Commandments to her, and he does. All that's left on the wall is one slogan:
The final commandment:
But some animals are more equal than others
From then on, the pigs all carry whips; they buy a radio, dress in Jones' clothes. Soon they receive a visit from neighboring farmers. Loud voices and song are heard coming from the farmhouse that night. Despite their fear, the animals are curious; they creep up to the windows to watch. Men and pigs are sitting around the table, drinking and speech-making. When a farmer toasts the success of Animal Farm--its discipline and enforced work leave nothing to be desired by any standard--Napoleon replies that he will take some more measures to cement normal business relations with their neighbors: the custom of animals addressing one another as "comrade" will be abolished, for example (singing "Beasts of England" had been forbidden long ago) and the farm will go back to its original name: Manor Farm. But the party soon degenerates into a quarrel. When the animals peek in again, they find that as they look from pig to man, from man to pig, it is impossible to say which is which.
In Animal Farm Orwell is more concerned with political psychology than with individual characters. Remember, this is a fable, not a novel. The animals are meant to represent certain types of human beings, not complex individuals. Some of them are even group characters, without any individual name: "the sheep," "the hens." The "main character" of Animal Farm is actually all of the animals taken together as a group. It's what happens to the group as a whole--whether their Rebellion succeeds or fails, and why--that really matters. Still, it is important to notice the distinctions between certain types and individuals.