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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.