When a narrative contains an allegory, it means the writer uses the story to convey a particular message. A character or object takes on a particular meaning to help relate that message and, though the story may not directly state the writer’s intent, the reader may recognize certain clues. Allegories may extend throughout an entire story or in a particular paragraph or section of the story. Understanding this literary device will help improve critical reading comprehension and writing skills.
An allegory has much in common with a metaphor. When a writer uses metaphor, she uses imagery to help paint a picture. For example, instead of saying, “He had many scars on his arm,” a writer may refer to “the raised worms that scarred his left bicep,” giving the reader a better picture of how the scars appeared. The writer describes a person or thing as something else to relate and strengthen the connection.
Allegories build a larger metaphor, often through an entire story or novel. In comparison, for example, an allegory may paint a picture of the theme, the central idea of the story, and a metaphor helps the reader visualize a detail.
Writers choose to write allegorical narratives to give the reader a message. She may intend to strengthen her points through allegory, but she may also use this device to create a distance from the subject. For example, if writing about religion, the writer may use allegory to avoid directly discussing the topic.
Readers may not immediately recognize an allegory. The writer may intend difficult identification and she may give only subtle clues. However, many writers want readers to know the allegory exists. A common identifier occurs in recognizing a connection between the overall theme of the novel and characters’ names or the names of locations in the story.
The 17th-century novel "Pilgrim’s Progress" by John Bunyan is a well-known allegorical novel. The writer uses character names and places to represent a journey of faith. The main character, Christian, a man struggling with faith, journeys through areas such as the Doubting Castle, a representation of skepticism.
A more modern allegory, "The Alchemist" by Paul Coelho, uses a character’s journey to convey the writer’s belief in the meaning of life and the importance of following one’s dreams. The allegory has roots in how the narrator refers to the characters, as well as the overall journey of the main character.