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What is an Allegory?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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An allegory is a device used in literature, rhetoric and art to signify a meaning that is not literal. When a device, a character or a symbol is considered allegory, it may be symbolic of a concept, like reason or fortune, it might symbolize a type of person, like the “Everyman,” or a worldview.

In literature, allegory is rampant. Sometimes works were specifically allegorical, though some are read as both truth and symbol. For example, the apple that Adam receives from Eve is symbolic of the “knowledge of God and Evil." The serpent is often read as signifying the tempter, or true evil.

In the New Testament, Christ makes frequent use of the parable to make statements about “people” in general. For example, the Good Samaritan is an allegory representing the right thinking and compassionate person. This is a specific rhetorical use of the device.

In early rhetoric, several key examples stand out: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave , and Boetheus’ Consolation of Philosophy. Plato and Boetheus use the device in extended format. Plato’s Allegory describes the state of the unenlightened, who cannot even believe that enlightenment exists.

Boetheus, writing in the sixth century CE, uses allegory to explain the concept of fortune. The ensuing dialogue is one of an imprisoned Boetheus with Philosophy, Reason and Fortune. His thoughts form the basis for much of medieval thinking on the way in which the world operates. Specifically, the concept of fortune, or chance, is used repeatedly in medieval literature.

Boetheus’ Consolation becomes the inspiration for the allegory used by Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer, and as well inspires the Arthurian myths. Dante in particular uses extended allegory to symbolize the sins. Each description of a level of Hell or Purgatory is matched with a punishment that both represents and fits the crimes.

Drama in medieval times often consisted of “morality plays,” and the most famous of these is the play Everyman. The main character, Everyman, symbolizes the plight of all men in the face of temptation. Later, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress will use allegory in much the same fashion.

With the development of the novel, allegory becomes much harder to interpret and prove. Novels tended to rely on a reader investing in interpreting characters as “real” people, but also viewing the character as symbolic of something larger. For example, the Gothic novels and later the sensational novels, often used the concept of women imprisoned or captured by evil. Many feminists read these characters as allegorical representations of the lack of freedom accorded to women.

In fact, allegory comes down to interpretation in the developing novel and the modern novel. Literary critics often argue as to whether characters are meant to be allegorical, real or stereotypical. Often literary characters can be read in multiple ways.

A return to allegory less disputed is the many films featuring the superhero. Superman, Spiderman, and Batman, for example, are all allegorical representations of the everyman. The evils they fight are the temptations to greed, to violence and to behavior that will in other ways disrupt society. Superheroes stand as both the everyman and the guardian against evil.

One of the most interesting workings of allegory in modern television was the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each week Buffy would face a new demon or vampire that was also a symbol of whatever issues Buffy faced as a high school and later college student. Use of this device in each episode was so strong and cohesive that even scholars became deeply interested in the Buffyverse. Multiple serious conventions of literature and film majors were held to present scholarly interpretations of Buffy.

Allegory in present day adds layers of depth to artwork, since artistic figures or literary characters can be meant to be both real and symbolic. Looking for such symbolism can be a fun or challenging process depending upon the artwork. Typically, modern allegory often reveals the artist’s intent or worldview. It is part of the subtext that gives the reader, viewer or observer information regarding an artist’s vision of not only how the world exists, but also how it might exist.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon299399 — On Oct 24, 2012

In the Scarlet Letter what was Rodger Chillingworth an allegory for?

By anon248391 — On Feb 17, 2012

"If the Bible is allegory, why do so many Christians treat it like a literal history?"

Not all people consider the Bible to be an allegory. Some do, some don't. It's like believing in God, really. One will claim He is, another will claim He is not. Same thing.

By anon80691 — On Apr 28, 2010

If the Bible is allegory, why do so many Christians treat it like a literal history?

By MistyDawn — On Mar 05, 2010

WGwriter has a point: the author does have a say in the meaning but not everyone will go with it, believe it, or see it the same, so I agree it doesn't really matter.

I mean, hundreds of years from now, when the author is dead and gone and so are the people who first read that book, then we will have no control over what the people in the future think about it. We interpret things from hundreds of years before us however we feel makes sense. For all we know we're wrong about all that.

We'll never know. I think it's all in how we personally are affected by the work.

I am an artist and I personally like to hear how people interpret my paintings. A lot of times it's not what I originally intended, but it's good to get that other perspective sometimes. It gives you a chance to appreciate the work in a whole new light and see how it affects others.

By anon21646 — On Nov 19, 2008

It was Tolkien who refused any allegorical allegations to the world war as later had critics commented. it was even written in the beginning of the Lord of the Rings about how it is just a story portraying no other symbolism.

The Chronicles of Narnia is widely accepted as an allegory. However, even if Tolkien was allegorical in his tone it could have not been relating to the War as it was published much earlier.

By WGwriter — On Sep 17, 2008

I know that Tolkien argued against his books being considered allegorical for his experiences as a soldier. I think Lewis wouldn't have made this point because he was clearly trying to tell a specifically Christian story; it's absolutely baldfaced at times!

Of course there is a school of thought that says that what authors think about their work has no relevance. In some types of literary criticism, authorial intent is not even considered. So whatever Tolkien may have intended or Lewis, maybe in the end it really doesn't matter? Just a thought.

Thanks for your comments tugboats.

Tricia EC

By tugboats — On Sep 16, 2008

Then there are some stories, like The Chronicles of Narnia, that seem an awful lot like allegories, but that the author protested against. I think it was those that he said were not an allegory of the Christian life. Or maybe it was the Lord of the Rings. I forget but both of those authors were Christians and both books seemed much like allegories, but one of the authors said that they were in no way an allegory, but just a story.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
Learn more
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