Summary and Analysis
Major's speech seems to initially echo the thoughts of Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English philosopher who wrote (in his work Leviathan) that men in an unchecked state of nature will live lives that are "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Unlike Hobbes, however, who felt that a strong, authoritative government was required to keep everyone's innate self-interest from destroying society, Major argues that the earth could be a paradise if the tyranny of Man was overthrown; he presents his fellow animals as victims of oppression and incapable of any wrongdoing. The flaw in Major's thinking, therefore, is the assumption that only humans are capable of evil — an assumption that will be overturned as the novel progresses. Although he tells his listeners, "Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever," this will not prove to be the case.
As previously mentioned, Major possesses great rhetorical skill. His barrage of rhetorical questions makes his argument more forceful, as does his imagery of the "cruel knife" and the animals screaming their "lives out at the block within a year." Major also specifically addresses Man's tyranny in terms of how he destroys families, consumes without producing, withholds food, kills the weak, and prevents them from owning even their own bodies. Major uses slogans as well ("All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.") because he knows that they are easily grasped by listeners as simpleminded as Boxer. The speech is a masterful example of persuasion, and his argument that a rebellion must take place is reminiscent of the one made by Patrick Henry to the House of Burgesses in Virginia, where he argued that a potential war with England was both inevitable and desirable.
Of course, the irony of the entire episode in the barn is that the animals will eventually betray the ideals set forth by Major. He warns, for example, that the animals must never come to resemble their human oppressors — but by the end of the novel, the tyrannical pigs are indistinguishable from their human companions. old Major's dream of an animal utopia will quickly become a totalitarian nightmare.
The song "Beasts of England" is another way in which Major rouses his audience. Although the narrator jokes that the tune is "something between Clementine and La Cucaracha," the animals find it rousing and moving. The use of a song to stir the citizenry is an old political maneuver, and the lyrics of "Beasts of England" summarize Major's feelings about Man: The song describes a day when all animals (even Irish ones — a detail Orwell knew would resonate with a British readership) will overcome their tormentors. Symbols such as rings in their noses, harnesses, bits, spurs, and whips are used to convey the liberty that Major hopes will one day be won. Images of food and plenty also contribute to the song's appeal. The singing of this powerful piece of propaganda reflects one of the novel's chief themes: Language can be used as a weapon and means of manipulation. As the animals will later learn, characters like Napoleon and Squealer will prove even more skilled at using words to get others to do their bidding.
eighteen hands high a "hand" is a four-inch unit of measurement used to describe the height of horses; eighteen hands therefore equals 72 inches.
paddock a small field or enclosure near a stable, in which horses are exercised.
knacker a person who buys and slaughters worn-out horses and sells their flesh as dog's meat.
Clementine and La Cucaracha two popular folk songs.
mangel-wurzels a variety of large beet, used as food for cattle.