What is an Allegory? Types of Allegory in Writing
What is an Allegory?
Allegory is a literary form or device that uses extended metaphors to represent a real idea or situation through a parallel fictional situation. The elements of an allegory stand for elements of the real idea, and in some allegories the characters and places are even named for the things they represent.
- Religious writers use allegory to teach the precepts of their faith.
- Ethical writers use allegory to instill morals in their readers.
- Satirists use allegory to explain their political or social points of view.
Allegories add a depth of meaning and interpretation to a poem. While, on the surface, a poem might simply be about appreciating nature or celebrating a particular person or idea, reading a poem symbolically might reveal several layers of meaning beyond the obvious surface levels.
Characteristics of Allegories
One of the most common forms of allegory is allegorical personification, in which a nonhuman concept, such as virtue, faith or sin, is represented as a person in a story. These characters have no personality traits independent of the concept they represent.
For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," the title character's wife represents the concept of faith and has no personality beyond that. Hawthorne even names her Faith, a common technique in allegorical personification.
In a literal reading of the story, Faith is Goodman Brown's wife, and his love for her makes him rethink his plan to attend the witches' Sabbat; in an allegorical reading, his faith in God and adherence to church doctrine make him question his decision to give himself to the Devil.
Allegories typically include a moral, or a lesson for the reader. Most often, these morals are ethical or religious, as in "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
"Aesop's Fables" is another famous example of allegories with morals. Each fable features characters who represent decisions or personality traits, and the stories teach lessons about the effects of these decisions or traits on people's lives. They are unusual in that their morals are explicitly stated at the end of each fable.
Allegories that do not have morals are often political satires, in which characters and events represent political parties, movements or ideologies.
George Orwell's "Animal Farm" is an allegorical satire. The animals represent the players and ideologies that fueled the Russian Revolution. While allegorical satires do not have morals in the traditional sense, the writer does use the story to persuade his readers to share his opinions. For example, Orwell does not use "Animal Farm" to teach a simple moral like "slow and steady wins the race," but he does want his readers to understand why the Russian Revolution hurt Russia more than it helped the country.
Examples of Allegories
Writers have communicated important ideas through allegories for millennia.
Plato's famous allegory of the cave represents the common man's ignorance of transcendent forms by describing a cave where prisoners can only see shadows instead of the real objects casting those shadows.
Dante's "Divine Comedy" is an extended allegory in which the narrator travels through hell, purgatory and heaven, encountering characters and situations that represent theological and political realities with which Dante was concerned.
John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress"
One of the most famous allegorical poems in English is John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." This poem is the tale of "Christian," who represents any individual Christian person (specifically a Puritan individual, because this is the religious position that Bunyan is writing from) and his journey to the "Celestial City," which represents heaven.
The entirety of the poem is devoted to showing the various stumbling blocks and challenges that Christians has to overcome to make it to his destination. This poem is simultaneously about the actual story, of a man named Christian, but it also a wider allegory about the Christian path to salvation.
The stories in “Aesop’s Fables” are allegorical, as they are narratives with an underlying message.
The story of the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” for example, is about a boy who claims to see a wolf when he does not. When he actually sees a wolf, no one believes him. The underlying story is that it doesn’t take much for a liar to lose the trust of others, which can hurt him in a time of need.
Edmund Spencer's epic poem "The Faerie Queen" is an allegory. The poem's narrative is about knights in Faerieland and their virtues. In the "Letter to the Authors," Spencer states that he used allegory in the epic to teach readers to be act virtuously and practice "gentle discipline."
How to Interpret an Allegory
In general, an allegory will have a key concept that can be used to derive what the writer meant the allegorical elements to represent. The key may be revealed by the names of the characters and places, which may be named after things they represent, such as virtues or life events. The context in which the allegory appears may also help reveal its meaning. In some cases the allegory is a story told by a character who will then go on to interpret it.
Whenever you find a poem that repeatedly uses a particular object or description, try to shift to symbolic thinking to see whether this object or description is serving a double purpose. Often, poems that use symbols or metaphor will describe an object or other symbols using descriptors that can help the reader know how the object is working symbolically.
In the poem "The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop, word choice used to describe the fish provide the reader with clues about what the fish symbolizes to the narrator; for example, the fish is described as "wise," but also "dangerous." When analyzing for symbol or allegory, ask what the language used might tell us about the symbol and ask if the scenario described in the poem could work as a larger allegory.
How to Write an Allegory
Allegories, if done well, can help your writing communicate a complex emotional, experiential or spiritual idea by breaking it down into pieces and comparing it to more common experiences. Begin by clarifying what it is you want to communicate, such as the difficulties and joys of raising a child. Break your message down into elements, and find a corresponding concrete image that bears some similarities to each abstract element, such as a meteorite striking a calm field to represent the sudden disruption the birth of a baby brings.
Related Literary Devices
Allegory vs. Symbolism
Allegories and symbols are closely related, and people often confuse them. A symbol is a a single object, person or idea that represents something else. For example, in C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the character Aslan is a symbol representing Jesus. The defining characteristic of an allegory is that it is composed of a set of connected symbols.
In "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Aslan is not the only symbol -- many of the characters and places in the story symbolize people and events from the Bible. Therefore, in part, the book is an allegorical retelling of the story of Jesus.
Allegory vs. Metaphor vs. Parable
Allegories bear similarities to parables and, at a more fundamental level, to metaphors. The main distinction is usually the length of an allegory and the number of detailed correspondences between the allegory and its interpretation. A metaphor is a single image, and a parable is often a very short story intended to vividly communicate one point. An allegory, by contrast, may follow a character through a long series of encounters and experiences, each of which represents a different thing in real life.
The difference between an allegory and metaphor is that an allegory uses a narrative in its entirety to express an idea or teach a lesson, while a metaphor uses a word or phrase to represent an idea.
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