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What Is Political Allegory?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A political allegory is a story or painting that, on the surface, tells one tale, but has a hidden political meaning underneath. It is an extended metaphor that often uses a simple substitution of one element or symbol for another. Political allegories can be extended to fiction, drama, paintings, music and films.

Allegory comes from the Latin and Greek word ‘allegoria,’ meaning ‘veiled language’ or ‘figurative.’ This means that the meaning is not literal, but is implied. Examples of allegory include Virgil’s “Eclogues” and Jan Vermeer’s “The Allegory of Painting.” Marcus Fabius Quintillian divided allegory into two broad types: the personal/historical and the wit/sarcastic. He also believed that if an allegory was too enigmatic, it was a blemish on art.

Political allegory can cover any time and space and does not have to be limited to the native politics and time of the creator. An allegory becomes political if it covers a political event or situation by producing a subtle commentary on it using other symbols. The term political allegory can also be applied to the use of fictional characters as direct substitutions for real politicians.

George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is a good example of a political allegory. Orwell had no compunction to deny that it was anything other than what it was; a political allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917. He even took to denouncing British self-censorship in his original preface to the book. The preface was scrapped for its original print run in 1945 and was only added in the 1970s.

“Animal Farm” directly replaces characters from the Russian Revolution, including the tzar and the peasants, with a farmer and his animals. The farmer is deposed and the animals, in theory, can enjoy a utopia of equality. The book then demonstrates the failings of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union by showing how utopia can be destroyed by myopia, greed, a lack of care and evil deeds.

Some works of political allegory are intended and some are not. Leonard Nimoy’s ideas about the story in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” are pure allegory. He wanted to have a story about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War told in space. In this allegory, instead of Soviets and the West, the film has Klingons and humans.

While the “Wizard of Oz,” by L. Frank Baum, was first written in 1900, it was not until 1964 that it was deemed a political allegory of the 1890s. Henry Littlefield believed that the yellow brick road was a direct substitution of the gold standard and that the cowardly lion was actually William Jennings Bryan. Similar false claims have linked “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien to the Second World War and the atomic bomb. This opens up the idea that political allegory can be found in many works that draw from or are similar to events around the time they were written.

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Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Jan 30, 2014

Beware of those that try to read political allegory into just about anything. They'll often miss the entire point of a story. The reference to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a good example of how some people are out to politicize just about anything.

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