Definition of Allegory
An allegory is a work of art, such as a story or painting, in which the characters, images, and/or events act as symbols. The symbolism in an allegory can be interpreted to have a deeper meaning. An author may use allegory to illustrate a moral or spiritual truth, or political or historical situation.
Allegories can be understood to be a type of extended metaphor. An extended metaphor develops a certain analogy to a greater extent than a simple comparison. An allegory, meanwhile, uses a particular metaphor throughout an entire plot.
The word “allegory” comes from the ancient Greek for “to speak so as to imply something other.” The definition of allegory makes sense coming from this term, as an allegory always has some hidden meaning below the surface.
Common Examples of Allegory
There are many common stories that we tell which have allegorical meanings. These are especially popular in stories for children, as allegories often mean to teach some lesson or help the audience understand complex ideas and concepts. Stories such as Aesop’s Fables often have morals, and thus are examples of allegory. We also use real events that have happened to teach lessons. Here are some stories that have entered into public consciousness that are also allegories:
- The Tortoise and the Hare from Aesop’s Fables: From this story, we learn that the strong and steady win the race.
- The story of Icarus: Icarus fashions wings for himself out of wax, but when he flies too close to the sun his wings melt. This story is a message about the dangers of reaching beyond out powers.
- Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss: This story about a turtle who yearns for too much power is actually an allegory about Adolf Hitler and the evils of totalitarianism.
- The Hunger Games: This trilogy of Young Adult books (and now blockbuster movies) is an allegory for our obsession with reality television and how it numbs us to reality.
Significance of Allegory in Literature
Allegories have been used for centuries in many different cultures. They are used to teach lessons, explain moral concepts, and show the author’s views on a certain situation. An allegory is a very specific type of story, as it must stay true to the message for the entirety of the story. Allegories thus can be difficult to master, as they can be pedantic when done poorly. However, some works of literature that can be read allegorically gain much strength from their deeper meanings.
Examples of Allegory in Literature
It is the task of the enlightened not only to ascend to learning and to see the good but to be willing to descend again to those prisoners and to share their troubles and their honors, whether they are worth having or not. And this they must do, even with the prospect of death.
(Allegory of the Cave by Plato)
One of the most famous examples of allegory in history is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which a group of people is chained inside a cave and sees only shadows of the outside world projected on the wall of the cave. One person escapes the cave and is able to see reality for the first time. However, upon reentering the cave and trying to describe the outside world, the people still chained to the wall reject this other interpretation and vision. Plato’s allegory is meant to symbolize the difficulty of the philosopher’s task when trying to expand the worldview of the common man.
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 by George Orwell)
Perhaps the most famous recent allegory example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Orwell’s story of a farm in which the animals kick out the humans to become equal workers, and the rise of the pig Comrade Napoleon to quash any possibility of equality, mirrors the Russian Revolution of 1917 very closely. Comrade Napoleon is a symbol for Stalin, while other prominent pigs in the story represent Lenin and Trotsky. This work was Orwell’s first conscious attempt to “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow, and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.
(The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)
J.R.R. Tolkien insisted that he did not write his Lord of the Rings trilogy as an allegory of good and evil, yet it is very easy to read the series that way. There are clear symbols of good and evil, many of which seem to relate closely to the characters and scope of World War Two. Tolkien also shows how evil can corrupt good. The most obvious example of this is Frodo, who only intends to do good, and the One Ring, the all-compassing evil of which starts to change Frodo’s nature. Power leads to evil in Tolkien’s account, and in the above excerpt we see the wizard Saruman explaining his vision to Gandalf. Saruman has been corrupted by power, and wants Gandalf to join his side.
Every man suddenly became related to Kino’s pearl, and Kino’s pearl went into the dreams, the speculations, the schemes, the plans, the futures, the wishes, the needs, the lusts, the hungers, of everyone, and only one person stood in the way and that was Kino, so that he became curiously every man’s enemy. The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld. The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it.
(The Pearl by John Steinbeck)
In John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl, the main character Kino finds a gigantic pearl that he hopes to sell to pay for his child’s medical fees. Through the course of the story, Kino encounters greed in every direction, which forces him to flee the town with his wife and son. Trackers follow the family and tragically kill Kino’s son. Kino and his wife end up throwing the pearl back in the ocean as it has only brought them misery. This story is an example of allegory in that it shows the corrupting effect of money and power of greed.
Test Your Knowledge of Allegory
1. Choose the best allegory definition:
A. A work of art that has a hidden meaning that aims to teach a lesson, explain a difficult concept, or explore a historical or political situation.
B. A superficial story with no symbolism or alternative meanings.
C. A fable which is only meant for children.
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2. Why would an author want to use allegory as a literary device?
A. To illustrate a simple concept in more exciting ways.
B. To use symbols that otherwise have no meaning.
C. To show the true nature of something complex in a way that is comprehensible to the public.
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3. William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies is an allegory for the conflicting human desires for civilization and for power. Which of the following quotes from the book does not illustrate this allegorical concept?
His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of mans heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.
They walked along, two continents of experience and feeling unable to communicate.
What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?
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