Definition of Allegory

Allegory is a narration or description in which events, actions, characters, settings or objects represent specific abstractions or ideas. Allegory generally operates on two levels as a literary device. The overt or surface narrative/description is meant to have enough literary elements to be a standalone work that is interesting and/or entertaining by itself. However, the emphasis of allegory is typically placed on the abstract ideals represented or symbolized by the work’s literary elements. In other words, the meaning behind the surface narrative has even greater value as a literary work. Though many allegories are intended to be didactic in providing a moral, ethical, or religious lesson, not all allegories set out to achieve this goal.

For example, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is considered a classic allegory and a fundamental text in classical literature. In the story, Plato sets forth a narrative of people living in a cave who are only able to see objects as shadows. These shadows are reflected on the wall of the cave from firelight, and therefore the inhabitants of the cave cannot see the objects directly. However, the shadows are their reality. This allegory is a philosophical representation that symbolizes how humans understand their surroundings and the world at large. The surface narrative consists of events and people in the cave. The allegorical narrative, on a symbolic level, is meant to indicate a contrast between human perception and reason, or belief and knowledge.

Common Examples of Allegory in Fable Form

Perhaps the most common or familiar examples of allegory are fables. A fable is considered a short allegory featuring anthropomorphic characters such as animals or other non-human characters that behave like humans and have human characteristics.

Fables, in general, feature an overt moral lesson or rule of behavior as part of the story, and fable characters often stand for abstract ideals. Like all allegory, fables work as a standalone (or surface) narratives while also providing an instructive narrative lesson about behavior and/or values. Here are some common examples of allegory in the form of fables:

  • The lion and the mouse
  • The tortoise and the hare
  • The city mouse and the country mouse
  • The fox and the grapes
  • The grasshopper and the ants
  • The wolf in sheep’s clothing
  • The fox and the crow
  • The little red hen
  • The hare and his ears
  • The shepherd and the wolf

Examples of Biblical Allegory

There are two forms of Biblical allegory: a) one that refers to allegorical interpretations of the Bible, rather than literal interpretations, including parables; b) a literary work that invokes Biblical themes such as the struggle between good and evil. Here are some well-known examples of Biblical allegory:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)
  • The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
  • The Prodigal Son (parable from the Bible)
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan)
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi)
  • The Good Samaritan (parable from the Bible)
  • The Baggage Handler (David Rawlings)
  • Hinds’ Feet on High Places (Hannah Hunnard)
  • The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)
  • Goblin Market (Christina Rossetti)

Famous Examples of Allegory

Allegory is also found in many other famous and modern examples of poetry, prose, and drama. Here are some famous examples of allegory:

Difference Between Allegory and Symbolism

It can be difficult to tell the difference between allegory and symbolism as literary devices. Essentially, symbolism is the use of words, characters, locations, or abstract ideas as symbols to represent something beyond their literal meaning. An allegory is a narrative work that utilizes symbolism to offer a broader moral or deeper meaning for the reader. In allegory, nearly all elements of the narrative typically can be interpreted as having a symbolic meaning that enhances the broader meaning of the story. Therefore, symbolism is a device featured in allegory in order to represent and communicate deeper meaning.

It’s important to remember that while allegory is dependent upon symbolism, the presence of symbols in a literary work does not make it an allegory. An allegory is a narrative in which nearly every element, including characters and even plot, represent symbols for something else, or a narrative in which the story itself is symbolic of a broader concept or historical event. Symbolism is essential to allegory, but it can also be found in any literary work that is not considered an allegory.

Writing Allegory

As a literary device, allegory functions as a means of expressing abstract and complex ideas in a way that is understandable and approachable for the reader. This is effective for readers in that allegory is often a simple narrative that represents a much larger moral or meaning about society, human nature, and even religion. Allegorical characters may represent historical or well-known persons and plot situations may represent actual events. However, allegory just alludes to these interpretations; the connections are not stated explicitly.

It’s important for writers to remember that allegory must work as a narrative on two different levels in order to be successful. First, the narrative itself must feature enough material and literary elements to stand alone as a story. Second, the allegorical symbols must be somewhat accessible to the reader for interpretation. If the allegory features symbols that are extremely obscure or if the surface narrative is inadequate, then the allegory is ineffective.

Here are some advantages of allegory for writers:

Allows Controversial Topics to be Addressed

The distance created by allegory between the writer and the subject allows controversial topics to be addressed. This is effective for readers as well in that the subject matter of an allegory is symbolic, not literally referenced. Through symbolism, allegory can more comfortably address topics such as war, religion, human nature, etc, for both the writer and reader.

Artistic Use of Literary Skill

It takes great literary skill to write effective allegory. This is due to the necessity of the surface story being able to stand by itself while the symbolic narrative must be accessible and understandable for the reader at the same time. Allegory is therefore a very artistic use of literary skill.

Enhance Understanding for Reader

Certain abstract concepts can be difficult for readers to fully grasp. Using allegory as a means of explaining and/or demonstrating such concepts can enhance the overall understanding and meaning for the reader. This is particularly true when it comes to philosophical theories and higher-level reasoning.

Examples of Allegory in Literature

Allegory is a very effective literary device. Here are some examples of allegory and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:

Example 1: Animal Farm (George Orwell)

No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

Animal Farm is one of the most well-known and appreciated allegorical novels in literature. This passage represents the multi-layered narrative of Orwell’s work. The surface narrative is that of a farm fable in which the animals “overthrow” the farmer as a means of escaping oppression. Unfortunately, the cycle of oppression is taken up by the small group of animals that subsequently put themselves in charge of the farm. This passage reflects the message of the surface story that certain animals should make important decisions even under the guise of equality.

On a symbolic level, Orwell’s allegory reflects the events of the Russian Revolution in which Bolshevik and liberal revolutionaries overthrew the Russian Czar. Two of the pigs in the novel symbolize the historical figures Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, and nearly every literary element in story symbolizes the rise of communism and its consequences in Russia and the Soviet Union.

Example 2: Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)

Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed. Play the game, but don’t believe in it–that much you owe yourself. Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game, but play it your own way–part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate–I wish I had time to tell you only a fragment.

In Ellison’s allegorical novel, the reader follows the narrator’s story as he finishes his formal education in the South and joins a Brotherhood organization in the North that supposedly is designed to fight injustice and inequality. However, the narrator realizes that this organization, like nearly all American institutions, is exploitative of black people and more concerned with a political agenda than equality. The above passage reflects this sentiment.

The narrator’s journey from the South to the North is an allegory of American slavery, including representations of slave narratives, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. In addition, the narrator’s surface story is symbolic and allegorical of a true education of what it means to be black in America. The narrator begins with a level of innocence that he loses through the experiences of his journey until his perception of his identity leads him to a different sense of reality.

Example 3: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

And some in dreams assurèd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
 In Coleridge’s poem, an “ancient” mariner appears and stops a wedding guest from attending a matrimonial celebration. The old man begins a story of a ship and its crew. During the story, as the three stanzas indicate, the mariner describes how the Albatross he has killed has brought misfortune upon himself and everyone aboard the ship. This poem is an allegory on many levels, but particularly reflects the fall of man and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas as symbolized by the death of the Albatross. Coleridge sets forth in his poem not just the mariner’s surface story, but underlying narratives of sin and redemption.