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How Do I Interpret an Allegory?

By B. Turner
Updated May 23, 2024
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An allegory is a piece of literature that acts as an extended metaphor. Like a fable, it often incorporates a hidden moral message, though not all allegories are written to convey a moral. The allegory should be viewed as a story in its own right, but also as a representation of some other concept or idea. One famous example is Plato's "The Cave," in which prisoners trapped in a dark cave are representative of an unenlightened and uneducated population. While interpreting the hidden meanings within an allegory can be challenging, the process of dissecting these works is largely a matter of practice and experience.

Symbolism plays a major role in allegorical works. To spot symbolism, pay close attention to words or ideas that are frequently repeated or emphasized throughout the writing. In shorter works, readers may have to search for sections where the writer uses a large amount of detail to elaborate on a concept. Repetition and extended descriptions often point towards a term or object that is used symbolically.

Once you spot a symbol within an allegorical text, think beyond the words on the page to others ideas that this symbol could represent. This can be done by considering what you know about that object or phrase, then using this information to go beyond the literal meaning. For example, water can be used to represent concepts such as free flowing or calm, as well as more concrete ideas like nourishment and the environment.

Next, look at these symbols within the context of the work. This can help you determine how the author intended the words to be interpreted. For example, fire can be a good thing, as it represents passion and intensity, or a bad thing, as it represents danger or hell. Consider how each symbol fits into the story as a whole to understand how these terms fit into the story.

When you're first learning to interpret an allegory, one of the easiest tactics is to look for basic and commonly used themes or symbols. Biblical and astrological symbols are among the most widely used, as are concepts like good and bad, or dark and light. Consider what you know about the period in which the work was written or set, as well as history prior to that period.

Finally, use your own life experience to help you interpret an allegory. Put yourself in the shoes of the characters and imagine what you would have done in their place. What feelings or emotions would you have in those circumstances, and what decisions would you have made differently? What should they have learned, and what did you learn as the reader? Think about how the story would have changed if the characters had made different decisions.

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Discussion Comments

By literally45 — On Oct 09, 2014

I don't think that allegory interpretation needs to be taken so seriously. Each interpretation is just that, an interpretation. None of us can go into the writer's mind and confirm that that's what she or he was thinking. So we form our own opinions and interpret them based on our worldview and train of thought and that's absolutely fine.

By turquoise — On Oct 08, 2014

@SarahGen-- I definitely see your point. One issue that occurs when trying to analyze a piece of work that was written in another time frame and another culture is that we are just not familiar with it. There are certain symbols and trends in every decade and culture which also finds its way in literary works. Not knowing what does are makes it difficult to make an accurate interpretation.

For example, Hamlet is actually a religious allegory about the Protestant Reformation. But it's difficult to see this without knowing that the Reformation was the hot topic of debate at the time.

There are also symbolic words and phrases in Hamlet, or words with double meanings, that one cannot know without being familiar with how people spoke at the time.

By SarahGen — On Oct 08, 2014

Allegory is very difficult to distinguish and interpret. At least I'm not so good at it. I had to find allegory used by Shakespeare for an assignment and I had a very difficult time. I usually can't find allegory unless I'm given a hint of some kind.

What I don't understand is, why do writers make it so difficult to know when allegory has been used and what it really means? Doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose? Shouldn't a regular person understand it easily? Why are these allegories and symbols like a maze?

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