Human language is, of course, symbolic in nature. A word is a symbol. Nobody confuses a written or spoken word with the thing it is meant to represent. The multitude of languages in the world is concrete evidence that the word (symbol) is not bound to the thing. Those instruments at the end of your arms you call hands, if you’re an English speaker. That’s not what a person born and raised in Beijing or Finland or Somalia calls them. Different symbols representing the same things.
So at the most basic level of communication, symbolism or, to look at this more practically, metaphor, is all you’ve got. And it doesn’t stop there. Metaphor (building on the understanding of one thing to understand another) is so intrinsic to language and communication and the workings of the human mind that it’s a major area of study that spans disciplines from psychology and neuroscience to art history to linguistics and, (this was where we were headed the whole time) literature and storytelling of all kinds.
Once in a while an author will want to tell one story, but can’t for personal or political reasons. Or, they realize the story they want to tell just won’t capture the imagination of the audience. If you are interested in Stalinism and how it came to be, what it evolved into, its evils, you might go study history and Russian culture and politics and then take twenty years to write the definitive historical treatise on that very large subject. A well written history will not have much symbolism in it, although there may be an attempt to analyze metaphors that were relevant to Stalin and his time. So then, you can’t get away from it, even in a history.
So okay, we’re going to write a novel now. We want to tell the story of Stalinism, we want to draw people in and make them really understand totalitarianism, to feel it in the gut. How many hundreds and thousands of ways could this be approached? We sit down and discuss those possibilities at length and decide that nope, none of that will do. Not clear enough for our purposes. We need some construct that will bypass people’s preconceived notions and show them the truth before they realize what’s coming.
Hey. What if we forget about Soviet Russia completely and set the story…. in a farmyard?!?