An allegory (AL-lih-gore-ee) is a story that has a hidden moral or political message. The characters and plot often symbolize real-life people, events, and ideas, but the comparison isn’t explicitly stated. Allegory comes from the Latin allegoria, which means “speaking to infer something different.”
Types of Allegory
There are many varieties of allegory, but most fall under these two categories: historical and conceptual.
Allegories of this category use symbols to represent historical figures or events to obscure the subject of the written work or help explain and simplify an event so readers can better understand it. A great example is Animal Farm by George Orwell. This story uses farm animals to symbolize different figures from the Russian Revolution. This way, Orwell was able to give his opinions on the event without explicitly stating them and creating problems for himself in the real world.
These allegories include stories with a spiritual or moral meaning rather than an allusion to a real-life event. Examples include biblical parables, poems, and religious morals. C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe falls under this category, as it parallels Jesus dying on the cross with Aslan the lion dying by the White Witch’s hand. The story has many symbols, including Edmund as Judas and the White Witch as the devil, and overall, it teaches kindness, bravery, and the importance of fighting against evil.
Allegories can also be a single aspect of a story rather than its whole point. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione uses a book called The Tales of Beetle the Bard to determine what the three Deathly Hallows are. They’re revealed in one of the stories, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” in which a figure represents death, and three brothers each represent power, love, and humility.
Why Writers Use Allegory
Allegories are a useful device for two reasons: sensitivity and clarity. Writers use allegories to distance themselves from subject matter that may be touchy or dangerous to speak of frankly. Instead of approaching the topic directly, they allude to it through the guise of a storied metaphor, which makes it easier and safer to discuss.
Additionally, allegories can aid understanding if the concept being conveyed is too abstract. The symbolism used in the story can give readers a concrete character to latch onto that might represent a conceptual idea in an understandable way.
Allegory and Related Terms
Allegory Versus Symbolism
An allegory is a complete story, while symbolism is a singular object that can assist an allegory. For example, in Moby Dick, the whale is a symbol of meaning, and the captain chasing after him is a parallel to mankind seeking after the meaning of life or religious understanding.
Allegory Versus Fable and Parable
Fables and parables are both subcategories of allegory—every fable and parable is an allegory, but not every allegory is a fable or parable. The latter are generally short stories with hidden meanings. However, fables tend to anthropomorphize objects and animals, while parables are more realistic and describe everyday occurrences.
The popular fable The Tortoise and the Hare has human-like animals competing in a race. It’s easy to determine that the tortoise symbolizes a patient and consistent work ethic, while the hare symbolizes an impatient, inconsistent work ethic. The message, then, is that being methodical and dedicated to a task, rather than relying on bravado and no plan, is the winning strategy.
A parable is a story that can have several meanings, and it’s often difficult to decipher them without an explanation. The Parable of the Sower is a realistic story about a farmer planting seeds that might have several meanings—for example, it could be about the care with which someone does their job. Jesus explains, however, that the seeds represent the Gospel and the four soils in which the seeds do or don’t grow represent people’s different responses to the Gospel.
Allegory Versus Metaphor
Both terms reference an idea that’s not explicitly stated, but an allegory is a complete story, while a metaphor is a figure of speech. “His love was my anchor to this world” is a metaphor that describe someone’s love as crucial to this person’s existence. While metaphors aren’t a means for telling a story, they can appear or be alluded to several times in a written work to flesh out the idea being told; this is known as an extended metaphor or conceit.
Allegory Outside of Literature
Anything can be an allegory, including songs, movies, poems, television shows, and plays.
Zootopia is an allegorical movie that uses a society of animals to allude to racism. In the movie, predators and prey live in harmony, but there are still problems with stereotyping and profiling that exist under the surface. The primary conflict of the film comes when predators begin attacking prey unexpectedly. In the climax, it’s revealed that animals in power conspired to lower predators’ social status by spreading propaganda that predators are dangerous and savage by nature.
But even before the attacks and the conspiracy, there were prejudices that threatened the peace of Zootopia. For example, all animals are expected to follow certain career paths based on their perceived strengths and weaknesses. Judy Hops, a rabbit thought to be timid and fragile, wants to break those limitations and become a police officer. This is met with shock and derision. Another stereotype is that foxes shouldn’t be trusted due to their sly nature; secondary protagonist Nick Wilde, a fox, internalized this prejudice and resigned himself to being a con artist.
All aspects of this movie parallel racism and its detrimental effects in real life in a way that even children can understand.
In the song “Meadowlark” from the musical The Baker’s Wife, Geneviève, the titular wife, debates whether she should stay with her husband or run away with a younger man. The song tells the story of a blind meadowlark who is saved by a king who loves her. The meadowlark dies after refusing to leave the king for a god. The meadowlark symbolizes Geneviève and what she feels will happen if she stays with her husband.
Authors with Well-Known Allegorical Stories
Allegory spans many genres from philosophical, historical, religious, and political to children’s novels. Here are some popular examples.
- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
- Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
- S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
- George Orwell, Animal Farm
- Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen
Examples of Allegory in Literature
1. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 and is believed to be the first allegory ever written in English. A man named Christian lives in the City of Destruction, and a character named Evangelist tells him to go to the Celestial City. On his journey, Christian runs into a cast of character who either help or hinder him.
Each character’s name symbolizes their personality and what role they’ll play in Christian’s journey. Worldly Wiseman, for example, tries to get Christian to give up his religious life and submit to worldly pleasures. But characters aren’t the only allegorical symbols. When Christian is visited by a Shining One at Christ’s cross, he’s given a certificate that provides entrance to the Celestial City. This symbolizes Christ’s salvation and the ability to go to heaven if people accept Christ into their hearts. There’s also a place called the Delectable Mountains, and shepherds warn Christian against taking the shortcuts called Caution and Error.
All these places and characters come together to show that the path of Christianity isn’t an easy one. There will be many hardships and tests, but anyone who stays on the right path will reap the rewards.
2. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Another spiritual and conceptual allegory, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of a young girl named Lucy who stumbles upon a magical land called Narnia. There, the evil White Witch has made it eternally winter, and only Aslan the lion can save all the creatures from harm.
One of Lucy’s brothers, Edmund, makes a pact with the White Witch to hand over his siblings, who are loyal to Aslan; this represents Judas betraying Christ. When Edmund is to be punished for his actions, Aslan sacrifices himself, just as Christ sacrificed his life on the cross.
The entire story teaches the morals of good versus evil and how kindness, honesty, and humility are rewarded, while evil and greed is not. Using the characters of the children, the lion, and the witch captivates the attention of young audiences and helps them understand the complexities of good and evil.
3. George Orwell, Animal Farm
Animal Farm is a historical allegory that parallels the Communist Party ruling Russia and the Soviet Union. Each character symbolizes someone in real life: Napoleon symbolizes Joseph Stalin, and Snowball symbolizes Leon Trotsky.
In the story, the animals in Manor Farm decide they’d be better off without the humans running their lives. After chasing them out, two pigs take leadership: Snowball and Napoleon. Napoleon eventually gains power and loses sight of the original goals and sought-after freedoms the animals had rebelled for. He lets humans back onto the farm and then he and his followers start to act like humans. By the end of the novel, no one can tell the difference.
This story tells how power can corrupt, and because Orwell wrote it using animals rather than the actual historical figures, he could safely give his opinion without drawing negative backlash.
4. Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
This allegory is about a hard-working man named Gregor who turns into a grotesque bug. His family, disgusted by his appearance, isolates him to a bedroom and doesn’t bother to feed or pay attention to him. His sister, Grete, cares for him for a time but eventually ignores him like everyone else. He is physically abused and eventually dies of starvation.
Kafka uses the bug to symbolize loneliness and how it feels to be alienated by society. When Gregor turns into the bug, he is unable to provide for his family; they get jobs, making him irrelevant and unneeded because he’s no longer the source of financial security. This conceptualizes how a person of no perceived use is regarded by others, making readers consider how they would feel in a similar situation of inferiority.
Further Resources on Allegory
Slate argues that the term allegory is being misused in modern times and stretched beyond its intended meaning.
C.S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love explores allegorical poetry from the 11th century to the end of the 16th century.
If you want to write your own allegory, follow this guide by ProWritingAid.