In Animal Farm George Orwell gave us a chilling critique of totalitarian regimes. What happens on the farm is all the more chilling for having started out as an idealistic response to events (much like many such regimes in history). However, he gives us this critique in the form of an animal fable. That means that when the revolutionaries are plotting, in our mind's eye we see pigs, dogs, horses, etc. One question might be, why? Why use animals? What is the effect on the reader of doing so?
A benefit not pointed out thus far is the advantage of the obvious differences between types of animals. These differences are critical, ultimately, in the determination of the functioning nature of the Animal Farm. Were Orwell to have used humans or even just one kind of animal then the complexity of the situation he was translating into the story of Animal Farm would have been diminished.
When we consider the idea that some of the animals were more equipped than others to lead and to plan and also to manipulate and control we begin to see some of the political problems of equality as they must exist on the Animal Farm, in a society of starkly different individual capabilities.
Other editors seem to make very good points in this discussion, but what, I am wondering, makes a fable more enduring than if Orwell had chosen to use real people? Is it possibly that writing an allegorical fable and following a well-defined literary genre actually makes his message or theme more accessible to everyone, whereas a historical novel might be somewhat more recondite? Or, just an idea, does using the allegorical fable actually make it more powerful because it separates it from the specific period of history and thus makes it possible for us to view other periods of history through the "lenses" of the novel? I guess this would help readers to see that this novel represents dangers not just to one period in history, but to all of us in the future.
I think that Orwell used animals because he wanted badly to get his message out about he felt about Stalin and Trotsky and an animal satire on human folly was just the way to do it. It is obvious who the players are in the novel are satirizing in real life. Orwell attempted to write several essays on the subject of totalitarianism and failed at having them widely published and accepted because the world at the time was not apt to speak out against these powers. Not to mention that Orwell did not have a talent for writing non-fiction int he form of essays like he did for writing novels. In fact, Animal Farm only became widely successful in the year after WWII ended, even though Orwell had finished it a couple years before and had had his publishing requests denied. This book was the perfect way to blow wide open the face dictatorships in their worst form. Without pointing right in Stalin and Trotsky's faces, he ridiculed them and what they tried to do and is there a worse insult than being satirized as a pig?
Blazedale's point is a good one. I just did some quick research on a q & a pertaining to The Ugly American, and eNotes says this about its history: "The Ugly Americanis an example of a novel that met with only modest commercial success until an effort was made to ban it. The United States Information Service tried to ban the book’s sale overseas—especially in Asia—until adverse publicity forced it to rescind its ban. The book then gained further notoriety when the U.S. Department of State and Senator J. William Fulbright attacked the truthfulness of the authors, hinting they were traitors. Thanks to the ensuing publicity, the book jumped onto the bestseller lists for seventy-eight weeks and sold more than four million copies." My point is that it eventually was read and became popular, but it certainly has not endured has a good work of literature, and furthermore, because it was written in a straightforward way, the government had the opportunity to disclaim it. Had the plot, with Orwell's skill, been woven into an indirect examination of the topic, perhaps through a fable, it might have been received differently and had a stronger, earlier impact.
I think you could today write the story, with its clear parallels in history, with people. At the time, however, Stalin was still relatively fresh, Leninism was still the underpinning of the world's super-power, and the Cold War was in full effect.
Doing it with animals both raised the story to the level of fable (I say raised because it becomes of less of a turgid political tract and more timeless) and made it more immune from direct political dissection from both the right and the left.
Had the story been written with people, say in a University, on an island, or on a farm, instead of animals, I wonder if it would even be read today.
Well, I have a few thoughts on the topic. First, the beast fable is an ancient and apparently culturally universal satiric technique, as illustrated by such examples as Aristophanes's plays The Birds and The Wasps. Some critics think Kipling's stories might have had influence on Orwell, too, as he searched for a form for a political novel. Animals seem vulnerable and likable. He said in his notes he wanted to create a piece of fiction that was pleasant to read as well as politically astute. In addition, Orwell spent quite a bit of time living on a farm outside of London. He says in one of his essays that "Most of the good things in my childhood ... are in someway connected to animals. Biographers note,too, he hated pigs because they are naturally greedy and aggressive.