Writing

Allegory in Writing (Definition, Usage + Examples)

Posted: January 4, 2023
Word count: 1,391 (5 min)

Allegory is a literary device which expresses a bigger idea through a simple surface story. The meaning of an allegorical story is hidden under the symbols and tools used as mouthpieces.

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Tomas Laurinavicius

Co-founder & Chief Editor, Best Writing

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What is allegory literary definition?

According to Oxford Learner's Dictionary, allegory definition is - "a story, play, picture, etc. in which each character or event is a symbol representing an idea or a quality, such as truth, evil, death, etc.; the use of such symbols".

An allegory is a story that is a miniature version of a larger moral lesson or picture of society. The word allegory comes from allegoria, where allos means 'other' and -agoria means 'speaking'. That is, a different or indirect way of conveying something.

Allegory is a literary device which expresses a bigger idea through a simple surface story. The meaning of an allegorical story is hidden under the symbols and tools used as mouthpieces.

What are the types of allegories?

There are more than two types of allegory: biblical allegory, classical allegory, modern allegory, and so on.

  • Biblical Allegory: Biblical allegories draw stories from the Bible, as the name suggests. A popular example of biblical allegory would be The Chronicles of Narnia where animals represent biblical figures like Christ and Judas.
  • Classical Allegory: Classical allegories are founded in classical literature, like in the works of Aristotle, Bosch, Botticelli or Plato's allegory. It is quite similar to medieval allegory.
  • Historical Allegory: These allegories use historical figures underneath surface characters to weave a narrative. The novel Animal Farm is one such example of historical allegory. George Orwell uses farm animals to write a story about the Russian Revolution.
  • Modern Allegory: Modern allegories are those works which may not may not have been intended to be an allegory. It may be interpreted as one, but not necessarily. This feature is known as 'allegoresis'. One example of a modern allegory is Lord of the Rings which is considered to be an allegory for World War I.

Why do writers use allegory?

Writers, artists, use allegorical symbols for a number of reasons: the first is to discuss a sensitive issue with delicacy. Indirect discussion of a delicate matter prevents riotous feelings, therefore safeguarding both the writer and the reader.

Many a times matters can be dangerous to discuss openly- matters like criticizing the government, telling a hard truth, or any issue of resistance. In such cases allegorical stories performs of the job of getting to the matter but in an indirect and safer way.

Allegory creates a buffer between the truth and the reader. This distances the reader from the unrefined matter therefore affecting them less. Time and again this has worked as an advantage for the writer who is disguising anarchic affairs inside the book's pages. Allegory makes hard truths digestable.

Allegories are also required when it is a matter of abstract ideas. When an idea is too complex for the reader, symbolic representation makes it easier for the reader to associate and understand.

How is allegory different from symbols, parable and fable?

Allegories, symbols, parables and fables tend to have a similar nature, that is to use extended metaphors to express something. They have a literal meaning and then a deeper meaning. But they are different literary devices.

Symbols are specific and do not create a narrative. It stands alone and makes a narrative only when used by some other literary devices like allegory or fables.

Parable and fable are very close to allegory. In fact, these are part of an allegory. All fables and parables can be called an allegory but not vice versa. Allegory is a wider concept. Parable is a simple story with a moral lesson (with allegorical interpretations). Fables anthropomorphize objects and animals for the purpose of allegorical representation.

But how is allegory different from a metaphor?

Metaphor, like symbols, is a tool used in allegories and does not have a narrative of its own. Metaphors can be two dissimilar things in comparison, but this must in used in context to create a meaning out of it. Allegory gives the reader a narrative, a bigger picture.

Examples of Allegory in Literature

Many allegories have been used in literature and media throughout the ages. It is one of the most common ways to convey a moral meaning, to talk about human nature to children, or a revolutionary idea without explicitly stating things.

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell is a great example allegory. It is a farm fable and the complete story rests on non human characters - animals who are the allegorical representations of people from the revolution in Soviet Union. The animals in this farm have human characteristics and stand for important historical figures such as Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky.

Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

In this novel, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a big dung beetle. The story is an allegory about alienation in the modern human society. Samsa is not accepted in his new form and is locked away by his family where is suffers each day reminiscing days from his previous life.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Moby Dick (1851) is an allegorical story that has animals with symbolic meaning. For example, the big white whale becomes a symbol for a powerful and fearful force of nature that must be conquered.

The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress is a religious allegory by John Bunyan having a surface story and another narrative with hidden meanings. The first, portrays the enterprises of a fearless man, and his journey from city of destruction to celestial city, and the next shows the character's soul's journey from the earthly to the spiritual world.

The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser

This is an example of allegorical poetry and romance. The shows the physical and mental journey of a character tackling numerous sinful temptations to reach the ultimate truth. It is often read as an observation on Queen Elizabeth I.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis

It is a famous allegory where a little girl finds a magical land called Narnia. An evil witch tries to destroy the world, and the lion Aslan sacrifices himself like Christ to save the civilization.

Examples of Allegory Outside Literature

Ship of Fools, Hieronymous Bosch

The painting is a social observation, as Bosch saw it in his times. It is part of a triptych and was inspired from an allegory written by Sebastian Brant in 1494.

Leda and the Swan, Jean-Léon Gérôme

Another painting containing allegorical meaing where Gerome was inspired by Greek myths and theatrical narratives. He would often use animals and female nudes to encapture abstract concepts.

Inside Out, Pete Docter

Inside Out (2015) is an allegorical animation film that personifies different emotions of a 11-year old and her experiences as she navigates through life guided by her feelings.

Zootopia, Rich Moore

In the movie Zootopia (2016), cute animals with human characteristics tackle complex ideas of race, fearmongering, sexism in a cleverly made allegory.

How to use allegory in your own writing?

  • Get An Idea: To write an allegory, first one has to decide what themes or morals they want to convey through their writing. Once a clear message or agenda is ready then one can move on to disguise it under a veiled language.
  • Translate and Transfer: This stage requires one to translate the idea into symbolic representation. Animals, objects and other non human characters can be used as symbols for controversial topics.
  • Weave the Plot: It is important to carefully weave a plot so that readers can fully grasp the meaning. Any good literary work should aim to have a plot without holes.
  • Reveal the Message: Literal interpretations can be many and most allegories can hold different meanings for different section of readers.

Summary

Allegory definition as seen in Encyclopedia Britannica is "a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative". It is a type of an extended metaphor where there is a narrative, full of representation and symbolism. Allegory examples can be found abundantly in and out of literature. Writers use allegory is create a distance from a sensitive topic. It requires literary skill to make a good allegorical representation. Messages in allegory (allegories) can be drawn from religious stories, real life, and universal truths, or political and historical events.

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