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What Is the Function of Allegory in Literature?

By Lee Johnson
Updated: May 23, 2024

The function of allegory in literature is to convey a complex idea through an in-depth metaphorical narrative. Famous allegories include Dante's Divine Comedy, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. All of these works use allegorical techniques to convey different messages to the ones literally written on the page. An allegory can be thought of as an extended metaphor.

Literary techniques are often used by fiction or poetry writers in order to convey an idea in a more enjoyable or easily comprehensible fashion. Simile, metaphor, and prophetic fallacy are three such methods. A simile uses the word "like" or "as" to relate the action or object being described to something more familiar. A metaphor is very similar, except that it doesn't use a signifying word such as "like;" it merely describes something as if it were something else. For example, an angry person could be described as having "boiling blood," but his or her blood isn't literally boiling.

An allegory in literature is essentially an extended metaphor. The main difference is that allegories usually take the form of entire plot lines, rather than just a description or a passage. In Animal Farm, Orwell describes a revolution amongst animals on a farm to actually make a point about capitalist democracy in England and the United States and the Communist regime in Russia. Orwell did this to put the political content of his book into a more easily-to-digest package, yet still make a political point.

Any story which is an allegory in literature can also be interpreted at face value. This means that Animal Farm could literally be interpreted as a story about animals. The main function of an allegory in literature is to mask an idea through a clever series of symbolic meanings, so that in context of the extended metaphor, the idea can be understood more deeply. Stories or poems which are allegorical can be thought to have two levels, one literal and one figurative.

A famous allegory in literature is Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Dante himself journeys through hell, purgatory, and heaven, guided through the first by another poet, Virgil. Throughout the stories, Dante is really tracing his religious life, taking himself from the "dark wood," which is generally thought to represent a place in which he has no religion, to paradise, which is spiritual enlightenment and ultimately, Christianity. Although this could have been described literally, in terms of an autobiography, Dante's version is more encapsulating because it employs mythical scenes and a larger-than-life story.

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Jul 25, 2012

@umbra21 - I think if you take that too far, you lose the definition of allegory. A lot of books, in fact perhaps the majority of books have themes and even moral messages, but I wouldn't call all of them allegories. In some cases they are just what they are, a tale about consequences of one kind or another.

Death and rebirth is a theme, not an allegory. But recalling the ideas of faith and the sacrifice of Christ is an allegory.

To me an allegory is written specifically to call to mind a particular idea. Like the Wizard of Oz was an allegory for the author to urge people to adopt the silver standard for money (it's easier to see it when you know that in the books Dorothy wore silver slippers). It's a big, extended metaphor for something else, whereas the theme of "looking for your heart's desire in your own backyard" is part of the allegory, like the death and rebirth theme in Narnia, but it isn't the actual allegory.

By umbra21 — On Jul 24, 2012

@browncoat - As long as it is made clear that there is a message, it's fine. I've heard more than one person say that they felt completely betrayed by the revelation that the Narnia books were intended to be an allegory for Christianity, which is fairly obvious once you look at them in that light.

I suspect these same kids would not feel so bad about it, if they had known up front about the "deception". I've never seen it like that myself, as I feel that you can take a book at face value whether there is an allegory or not. All the best books will have universal themes anyway. Someone who had never heard of Soviet Russia could still understand the theme of Animal Farm and someone who wasn't Christian could still understand the death and rebirth message of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

By browncoat — On Jul 23, 2012

I remember the first time I read Animal Farm it was for an English assignment in high school and it was introduced to us as a story that people once believed was for children. Our teacher said that it was only after it was published that the message in the book was discovered.

I later found out that that was not true. I mean, now the book is considered a great classic and the very definition of allegory in literature, but back when Orwell was looking for publishers it was only to obvious to everyone what the intention of the book was.

And he was trying to publish it during World War Two, when the Russians were considered allies, so English publishers didn't want to touch it. Even when it was published, they omitted a preface that discussed censorship in England.

So it was obviously an allegory from the very start and I seriously doubt it was ever considered to be a children's book, although I do think that kids could benefit from the message.

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