What is the definition of allegory?
An allegory is a subtle or hidden message embedded within a storyline. The message is rarely directly mentioned by the author. Rather, it is conveyed through literary devices such as metaphor, personification and synecdoche.
A story that contains allegory usually has a double meaning. Often, the literal meaning is designed to entertain the reader, whilst the underlying allegorical meaning has a profound message or social commentary that the author wants to portray.
Allegorical messages tend to pass on deep truths or important insights to readers. As a writer, you can use allegorical stories to teach lessons about life, morality, politics, or any other issue you feel needs to be explored.
Characteristics of allegory
Allegorical stories are figurative rather than literal. They therefore require interpretation from readers. Due to their figurative style, allegorical texts are good examples of texts that ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ authors’ perspectives.
Allegory is generally used in fiction rather than non-fiction texts. Popular text types which involve allegory include poems, novels, short stories, fables, parables and films. It is not common to find allegories in essays, biographies or historical texts because these texts are usually literal not figurative.
Types of allegory
There are two distinct types of allegory: allegorical interpretation and allegorical writing.
Allegorical interpretation is understood as the oldest from of allegory. Allegorical interpretation is a form of reading that aims to uncover deep truths in a text.
Allegorical interpretation has its origins in Greek philosophy. Philosophers such as Plato aimed to interpret allegorical meaning underpinning events and mythologies of ancient Greek literature.
Allegorical interpretation was also dominant amongst early Jewish, Islamic and Christian scholars who tried to uncover deep hidden meanings within spiritual texts.
Allegorical writing is the intentional act of creating texts with two meanings. During Roman times there was a shift from allegorical interpretation to allegorical writing. Ever since, allegory has been a well-known rhetorical device used by writers.
Why do authors use allegory?
Authors who use allegory want to share their own perspectives on moral, philosophical and political issues.
Allegory is often more effective than direct literal explanation. Allegorical stories can capture emotion, context and mood effectively. This makes many allegories appealing for putting forward opinions on complex moral issues.
Allegory also adds complexity to narratives. Authors who want to create complex worlds in their storylines may insert several allegorical elements into a story. Through allegory, layers of complexity can be added to characters’ personalities, events within the story and the symbolism behind settings discussed within the storyline.
What is the difference between allegory and symbolism?
Allegories are abstract big ideas while symbols are usually attached to an individual character, object or setting. Furthermore, allegories tend to act as motifs that span the full length of a text while symbols can be one-off representations in a single scene.
Symbols are used in the creation of allegorical texts. For example, the pigs in Animal Farm are symbols of oligarchs while the allegory is that communism leads to concentration of power and, eventually, corruption.
In this example, you can see that the allegory is the story’s one big idea while the symbol is a literary device used in the creation of the allegorical message.
Examples of allegory
In fable: 'The Tortoise and the Hare' by Aesop (620 BC)
In The Tortoise and the Hare, Aesop tells the story of a hare who taunts a tortoise for being slow. The tortoise responds by challenging the hare to a race. The hare gets a big head start in race before stopping for a sleep. The tortoise passes the sleeping hare and goes on to win the race despite being the slower of the two animals.
The story is an allegorical tale of the triumph of perseverance and hard work over natural talent. Arrogance and over-confidence are vices to be avoided if a person is to succeed in life.
In philosophy: 'Allegory of the Cave' by Plato (380 BC)
Plato’s cave is one of the earliest and most famous forms of allegory. In Book 7 of The Republic, Plato tells a story of men chained inside a cave facing a wall. These men only ever see shadows of people passing from outside.
As the men in the cave have never seen outside of the cave, they believe the shadows are all that there is in the world. The shadows are their reality.
When one man escapes his chains, he emerges into the outside world to see the real objects that had been casting their shadows. Amazed at his discovery, he re-enters the cave to inform the others that the shadows are not the only reality.
The men still chained within the cave refuse to believe the man who has become enlightened of the truth, believing him to have gone mad.
The allegorical message in Plato’s cave is that often we are too ignorant to believe the truth even when it is revealed to us. The men in the cave represent all humans who refuse to listen to wise philosophers and religious figures who try to lead us to the truth to no avail.
In poetry: The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (1590)
Spenser’s Faerie Queene follows the story of noble knights in an imaginary land called Faerie Land. In this land, the knights embark on quests that are allegorical messages about Christianity.
Book I of Faerie Queene follows the protagonist Redcrosse who falls for the trickery of a witch named Duessa. Only through embracing faith, hope and charity does Redcrosse escape Duessa’s saucer and defeat an evil dragon.
The allegory in the story is of the virtues of living a Christian life. While Christians may make their own mistakes that lead to personal suffering, they can return to God through embracing the virtues set out for them in scripture.
In religious literature: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
The Pilgrim’s Progress follows the journey of the character Christian from his hometown of the City of Destruction, representing the world, to the Celestial City, representing heaven. On his journey Christian is challenged by worldly distractions. However, he must maintain the focus of his quest to get to the Celestial City.
Challenges Christian faces include needing to leave his non-believing friends, being sucked into a mud swamp that represents his worldly sins, the gluttonous city of Vanity Fair and the false prophet named Mr. Worldly Wiseman.
While the story may be read as a literal journey across a land, the story is an allegory for the Christian path from this world to heaven by following the guidance of the Bible.
In political literature: Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
Animal Farm is an allegory for the events that took place following the Russian Revolution of 1917 that led to the establishment of the communist Soviet Union. The overarching allegorical moral of Animal Farm is that communism corrupts and is not morally superior to capitalism.
The literal story of Animal Farm is of farm animals overthrowing their farmer in order to control the farm themselves. The pigs on the farm organize a revolt to overcome the farmer and institute a new regime that runs the farm under the banner “All animals are equal”.
As time passes on the farm, the pigs become power hungry. They conduct corrupt deals with neighboring farmers and fight amongst themselves. The pigs begin to walk on two feet and act like humans. By the end of the book, the pigs live inside the farmer’s house and the rest of the animals cannot tell the difference between the pigs and the humans.
In film: The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King tells the story of Simba, a lion prince, who runs from his homeland after his father is murdered by his uncle. Simba is convinced that he killed his own father and flees for fear of his life.
The middle portion of the movie shows Simba roaming free with his existentialist friends Timon and Pumba who convince him not to look back at his past.
Simba is finally convinced to return to his home and fulfill his duty to his tribe when he runs into a childhood friend. He returns to the homeland to vanquish his evil uncle and restore the homeland to its former glory.
On an allegorical level, this may be seen as the story of the importance of duty to family and community. Tropes in the story such as the importance of taking one’s place in ‘the circle of life’ and Simba’s struggles with self-belief reveal the story’s deeper allegorical message.
Allegory is a great technique to use to pass on deep truths or important insights to readers. If you have a lesson you'd like to teach your readers, try doing it through allegory.