Allegory

You might have read stories that appear to be simple but embodies a more profound and broader meaning – something with a hidden message. This writing style is a literary device used by authors to enhance and add color to their literary pieces.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at one of the most common literary devices seen on different narratives – the Allegory.

What is an allegory? (easy definition) 

An allegory refers to a story or picture with a hidden meaning. It often has a figurative sense and not just a literal one.

An allegory uses characters, figures, or events to symbolize concepts or ideas that are more complex in ways that the audience/reader would understand. Allegories mostly feature hidden stories that have something to do with religion, politics, or morality — complex subjects that are hard to explain and understand directly.

Allegory vs. Symbolism

Although authors use allegory to symbolize concepts, it’s not the same as symbolism.

Symbolism is a concept of using an object to stand for another object, giving it a specific meaning. For example, a heart symbolizes love; a dove symbolizes peace; a serpent symbolizes corruption, evil, or darkness; and more. 

Allegory, on the other hand, is a complete narrative that involves characters and events that stand for an abstract idea or event. Unlike symbolism that uses literal objects to represent something, an allegory is an entire narrative that has a hidden meaning.

What is a literary allegory?

In literary terms, allegory is a literary device that uses abstract ideas to impart a lesson. It can be employed in prose and poetry to tell a story to teach or explain an idea or a principle. It’s like a story inside another story.

Many authors find it easier to explain different issues by translating them into allegories. In their view, allegories are much easier to understand (and more fun to read) than dense philosophical arguments.

What is an example of an allegory?

A good example of allegory can be seen in Aesop’s fables. Aesop is a Greek writer who is known for his memorable stories often said to children. Here is an example:

The Tortoise and the Hare

You might have heard this story as a kid. It is about a tortoise and a hare who got into a race. We know that tortoises are slower in nature compared to a hare. Being too overconfident and lazy; once he was near the finish line, the hare slept. The tortoise continued walking, and soon enough, he got past the sleeping hare and reached the finish line first.

It’s a simple story from the surface, but like most of Aesop’s fables, a critical lesson lies beneath. The moral of the story says that some people are born with natural talents but waste them on idleness or laziness, just like the hare. The tortoise’s character was meant to show how, despite the lack of natural talents, perseverance, hard work, and focus can win the day.

Types of Allegory

  • Classical allegory

Classical allegory is the type featured in classical literature. One of the most well-known examples is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this story, Plato imagines people living in a cave, only seeing objects as shadows cast on the wall from the light of the fire—rather than seeing the objects directly.

Plato used the cave as a symbolic representation of how humans live in the world, contrasting reality versus our interpretation of it.

  • Biblical allegory

From the name itself, Biblical allegory is derived from the Bible and often depicts the struggle between good and evil. One example of Biblical allegory is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan, a lion, represents a Christ character, who is the rightful ruler of the kingdom of Narnia. Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund, the Judas figure, and is resurrected to rule over Narnia once again.

Biblical allegory can also refer to allegorical interpretations of the Bible, which differ from literal translations. This type was popular in the Middle Ages.

  • Medieval allegory

The medieval allegories were thought of as having a reality underlying any rhetorical or fictional uses, meaning, it was as valid as the facts of outer appearances. An example is the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam, which presents the unity of Christendom with the pope as the head. Together with symbolic details of metaphors added as facts on which is a demonstration with some vocabulary of logic saying:

 “Therefore, of this only Church, there is only one body and one head—not two as if it were a monster. If then, the Greeks or the others say that they weren’t committed to Peter and his descendants, they necessarily admit that they are not one of the sheep of Christ.”

It also demonstrates the frequent use of allegory in religious texts during the Mediaeval Period, following the tradition and example of the Bible.

  • Modern allegory

Modern allegory applies to many instances of a phenomenon called “allegoresis,” which refers to the interpretation of works as allegorical without them necessarily being intended that way.

Examples of allegory in pop culture that may or may not have been intended to be as one include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series and even the story of an apple falling onto the head of Isaac Newton.

What are some famous allegories?

Allegory in literature is known over hundreds of years and continues to do so. Here are some of the famous allegories in history.

1. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is a famous allegory and is often taught in high school English classes to introduce the concept. It’s a story about a fable where farm animals run the society that divides into factions. The factions presented mirrors the rise of Leon Trotsky and the Russian Revolution and interpreted the author’s criticism of communism.

2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

A novel set in the 1600s, The Scarlet Letter, is about Hester Prynne – a woman forced to undergo public humiliation when she got pregnant before getting married. Part of her punishment was to wear a scarlet letter “A” (standing for “adulteress”). This story is an allegorical representation of sin and how one gets punished for it. It’s also a criticism of the hypocrisy of Puritanical society.

3. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene is an English poem that established the Spenserian stanza. It follows several Arthurian knights and explores twelve virtues. However, the poem was widely read as a commentary on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Whether this poem is a positive or negative commentary continues to be debated by academics and critics today.

Special mentions:

  • “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot’s – an allegorical poem relating to war
  • Paradise Lost by Milton is an allegorical text pertaining to Christianity, good versus evil, and God versus Satan.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – is a political allegory that makes a statement about our modern society.
  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding – is another allegorical text symbolizing the effects of war on society.

What is the most famous allegory?

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is probably the most famous piece of allegorical English literature. It’s a spiritual allegory about Christian, an ordinary sinner, who leaves the City of Destruction and goes out of his way towards Celestial City to get salvation from God.

He finds Faithful – a companion who helps him along his way to the City. In many instances, characters like Hypocrisy, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Apollyon, Pliable, and Obstinate, try to stop or discourage him from achieving his goal. He then reaches Celestial City, with the help of Hopeful’s faith.

The moral lesson in this allegory is that the road to Heaven is not easy and full of obstacles. A Christian must pay any price to achieve salvation. A man may be full of sins, but it shouldn’t stop him from achieving glory.

What movies are allegories?

Most movies are multi-layered and often utilized as a window into society, culture, theology, and philosophy. When a film becomes an allegory, its deeper meaning becomes an integral part of the film. Sometimes it is left as a subtle message. However, some of these thoughts become the focal point of the film.

Here are three examples of movies that became strong allegories:

1. Fight Club, 1999

Fight Club is a satirical drama based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel by the same name. The movie follows the story of a materialistic depressed insomniac known as the Narrator. The Narrator lives a product-filled, content life, and spends his down-time ordering expensive furniture from catalogs to complete his life further.

“The Things You Own End Up Owning You.” – Tyler Durden

The film shows viewers just how “stupid and pointless” their existence is as they purchase products based on brands and live solely to consume. Its message is to stop giving into materialism while also mockingly revealing the zombification of the white-collar worker. It is quirky but unfortunately can be a too engrossing film for many to understand its statement against society.

2. Spirited Away, 2001

Spirited away is probably one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most famous movies from Studio Ghibli. It’s a beautifully animated film about a girl named Chihiro whose parents transformed into swine after overeating on the food of spirits. Trapped in the world of spirits, Chihiro was taken to work in a bathhouse and work for the corrupt mistress Yubaba, changing her name and proceeding to bathe the rich and wealthy patrons.

Despite the beautiful and colorful animation, Spirited Away symbolizes a far darker meaning behind its entirety – the world of child prostitution. The bathhouse represents brothels, Yubaba – whose name directly translated to the name given to those operating brothels in the Edo period, and the obscenely wealthy “No-face” who desires to “own” Chihiro.

“If You Completely Forget [Your Name] You’ll Never Find Your Way Home.” – Haku

Although, in the end, Chihiro undergoes a quest to rescue her parents along with her escort No-face, and the story becomes significantly more pleasant. The film suggested on a high note that by rediscovering her parents, Chihiro’s innocence is restored. Still, the greater meaning behind the film lingers.

3. Aliens, 1986

On the surface, Aliens might look like an action-packed shoot ’em up about Marines fighting off hordes of xenomorphs. Although it’s undoubtedly entertaining with its multi-faceted lore and a terrifying antagonist with Aliens increasing the stakes, the movie conveys a far deeper meaning relating to the 1955 Vietnam War.

“You Know, Burke, I Don’t Know Which Species Is Worse.” – Ripley

Just as the Vietnam War was fought for questionable aims, so too in Aliens. The marines’ cause is ostensibly to further the objectives of an amoral corporation. It also portrayed the meaning of imperialism with the self-righteous attitude of marines. However, this attitude dissolves as the marines cannot compete with the Xenomorphs.

Is Harry Potter an allegory?

Harry Potter has several allegories present throughout its entire series, aside from casting spells and powerful magic fighting scenes. The book’s author, J.K. Rowling even confirmed that some scenes are allegories of different issues and events throughout history.

Some of them include:

  • The Ministry of Magic as a symbol of government. The bureaucratization of the Ministry of Magic and the excessive, oppressive measures taken is an allegory criticizing the state. The steps include: making attending Horwartd mandatory and forcing all Muggle-borns to register with the Ministry of Magic.
  • The Sword of Gryffindor represents real courage and bravery, the traits of the house. It is also an allegory that appears when a true Gryffindor is in need.
  • The race conflict between the pure-blood witches and wizards and the muggle-born witches and wizards is also an allegory of the issues the Nazis had with Jewish people.
  • Lupin’s lycanthropy was an allegory for people inflicted with a disease, specifically AIDS.
  • The resurrection of Harry in the Deathly Hallows is said to be an allegory of Christ’s story.

Is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ an allegory?

The entire book of Romeo and Juliet is written in an allegorical style. This story is popularly known as a tragedy. Although this famous work by William Shakespeare may not be the best-known example of allegory, there are many allegorical examples in Romeo and Juliet.

One prominent example is the constant comparison of Romeo’s love for Juliet to a religious and spiritual experience.

The Christian imagery throughout the story suggests that Romeo and Juliet’s love is an allegory to the relationship of people with God or Christ. The allegory is also naturally applied to the connections within the families themselves, as shown by an initial picture of Capulet and Montague buildings divided by one street.

What does the rose symbolize in Romeo and Juliet?

The rose symbolizes love and passion that was shared by Romeo and Juliet. But the rose’s thorns are a reminder that love can also be painful.

The rose is seen throughout the story because Romeo and Juliet’s love goes from beautiful to tragic. Their love, symbolized by the rose, ended up killing them both.

When to Use Allegory

An allegory is excellent for creative writing — it can provide tons of inspiration for a novel, short story, or an epic poem. Allegories are more comfortable to write in many ways, than non-allegorical stories. It’s because you already have a “hidden story” to build off and expand the surface story giving it more flavor.

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Product designer, writer, UX guy, and founder of Nicely Said. Past experience includes Disney, Inside Out Leadership, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Two Hat. With a Master's Degree from the School of Hard Knocks, Chris has been publishing content on the web since the pre-blog days of Diaryland and LiveJournal. He's been playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms II on Super Nintendo since 1992.

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