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What Is an Allegory?
The word “allegory” comes from the Latin “allegoria,” meaning speaking to imply something else. An allegory is a simple story that represents a larger point about society or human nature, whose different characters may represent real-life figures. Sometimes, situations in the story may echo stories from history or modern-day life, without ever explicitly stating this connection.
Allegories are similar to metaphors in that both illustrate an idea by making a comparison to something else. However, allegories are complete stories with characters, while metaphors are brief figures of speech. (Learn more about metaphors in our complete guide here.)
What Is the Purpose of Allegory in Writing?
Allegory is used in writing to express large, sometimes abstract ideas, or to comment on society. In some cases, such as in the classic political allegory novel Animal Farm, by George Orwell, allegory gives the author cover to talk about controversial ideas that otherwise might be too dangerous to talk about explicitly.
What Are the Different Types of Allegory?
There are several different types of allegory, each serving a different purpose. They include:
- Biblical allegory. Biblical allegory invokes themes from the Bible, and often explores the struggle between good and evil. One example of Biblical allegory is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. The lion, Aslan, 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 interpretations, and were popular in the Middle Ages.
- Classical allegory. One of the best known allegories in classical literature is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this story, Plato imagines people living in a cave, only ever seeing objects as shadows reflected on the wall from the light of a 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.
- Modern allegory. Modern allegory includes many instances of a phenomenon called “allegoresis,” which refers to the interpretation of works as allegorial without them necessarily being intended that way. For example, there is an ongoing debate among readers about J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, and whether or not the books were written as an allegory for World War I.
What Are Some Examples of Allegory in Literature?
Allegory has been used in literature over hundreds of years. Here are some prominent allegory examples.
- George Orwell, Animal Farm. Animal Farm is a great example of allegory, and is often taught in high school English classes to introduce the concept. In this farm fable, animals run a society that divides into factions and mirrors the rise of Leon Trotsky and the Russian Revolution. The story can be read as a fable of farm animals running a society, or it can be interpreted as the author’s criticism of communism.
- Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene. The Faerie Queene is an English epic poem published originally in 1590. In this poem, Spenser established the Spenserian stanza. The poem 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 the commentary is positive or negative continues to be debated by academics and critics today.)
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. In Hawthorne’s novel, set in the 1600s but published in 1850, Hester Prynne is forced to undergo public humiliation, including wearing the scarlet letter “A” (standing for “adultress”) after she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. The scarlet letter is itself an allegorical representation of sin, and how society punishes it. The novel can be read as a criticism of the hypocrisy of a Puritanical society.
- Aesop’s Fables. These fables were originally part of an oral tradition in ancient Greece, and are credited to an ancient Greek slave named Aesop. They are a collection of fables, often aimed at children, that offer guidance on a wide variety of social, political, and religions topics. Aesop’s Fables are allegory in the form of instructive lessons—stories that teach children how to behave and what to value.
5 Tips for Using Allegory in Writing
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- Think of an important idea you want to share with your reader. It should be something large and complex, and something that relates to the society you live in on a large scale.
- Once you’ve decided on a topic, plan out your allegory. Think of how you will translate these real-world ideas into fictional scenes and characters. Carefully assign characters: animals are common, as in Aesop’s Fables and Animal Farm, but there is no rule about what sort of characters to use.
- Whatever you choose, remember that your audience will be trying to figure out who each character represents in real life, so try not to confuse them with unrelated characters whose purpose is not clear.
- Be sure to let your reader know how to read between the lines. You will need to leave clues without over-explaining your message. Don’t be so subtle that the readers will miss the point of the allegory.
- The surface story must stand on its own. While the underlying message can be a bit abstract, this isn’t an essay or a speech. The top layer must still make sense and be intriguing in its own right.