In fact, there are a lot of talking pigs. And talking horses and birds and cows, for that matter. But George Orwell's Animal Farm is no Jim Henson-inspired comedy about a pig who just wants to be a sheepdog, or bittersweet tale about interspecies love—it's a biting satire about tyrannical governments and a dark warning about the perils of Russian communism.
Today, Animal Farm is a classic. (In fact, we have a sneaking suspicion that you're here because you're being required to read it.) But when Orwell wrote the book in 1943-44, he could hardly find a publisher. In fact, no one took him up on it until 1945, and even then readers weren't too keen on it.
You see, Animal Farm takes a blow at the Soviet Union, especially its leader Josef Stalin—but the Soviet Union was an ally in the U.S.'s fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. Criticism of Stalin wasn't banned in wartime British press, but it wasn't exactly encouraged, either. Stalin may have been bad, but Hitler was worse. When publishing house Faber & Faber rejected Orwell, an editor pointed out that it was simply distasteful to depict Stalin as "a pig."
But Orwell was no knee-jerk anticommunist. In fact, he was a socialist, a simple word for a complex and varied set of beliefs. Let's just say that socialists believe that the means of production (like factories or businesses) should be controlled by the workers for the good of everyone, rather than controlled by a tiny subset of owners for their own profit. In other words, Wal-Mart should be owned by Wal-Mart employees, rather than by the Walton family. (Does that sound crazy? There are co-ops and employee-owned business today that operate in just that way.)
Since communism is an extreme form of socialism, Orwell actually fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. Their enemy was Spanish leader Francisco Franco and his fascist followers, who believed in strong, militaristic national identity united under an authoritarian leader—think the Wizard World under Voldemort, or Mordor under Sauron. But Orwell quickly realized that the communists he was fighting for could be just as totalitarian and oppressive as the fascists.
In fact, his time in Spain made him realize "how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries" (source). And that's where Animal Farm comes in: it shows Stalin's version of communism as the exact opposite of socialist values—as a brutal, oppressive, and unequal regime. Not that he saw Western leaders as much better. Brutal, drunken humans represent western leaders in Animal Farm—and the animals are more afraid of the humans regaining control than they are of the Stalinist pigs.
Orwell satirizes all political tyranny. He's just generous like that.
Okay. But why animals? Why not just write an essay? (Orwell was pretty good at the ol' essay-writing gig, after all.) Or why not write a novel with actual people, like his 1949 political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four?
Well, come on. If you're going to get a lecture about the evils of political tyranny, wouldn't you rather hear it from a talking horse?
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and said, "I'm going to be the President of the United States one day"? Or—let's take it down a notch—have you ever run for class president on a platform of better cafeteria food and free sodas for all?
As your election gift, we'll wrap up for you our very own dog-eared copy of Animal Farm. Using barnyard animals, it provides (practically in bullet point form, and in less than 200 pages) over 200 years of knowledge about leadership and power, distilling all of the mistakes great (and not-so-great) leaders have made over time. Chief among them? Letting the power go to your head and keeping all the free soda for yourself.
Seriously, Mr. or Ms. Future President. Go read this book right now.