Using any suitable example as explanation, what is allegory?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With two or more levels of meaning, allegory can be read on a literal level and one or more symbolic levels. On the symbolic levels, therefore, the events, objects, characters, or settings stand for ideas or qualities beyond themselves. In reading a work allegorically, the reader tries to match important elements at the literal level with a corresponding element at the symbolic level.

Another work that is certainly interpreted as allegory is that of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. On the literal level, it is a narrative about school boys stranded on an island, their interactions, and the results of being separated from civilization and having to struggle to survive. It is also a response to Ballatyne's Victorian novel, The Coral Island as Golding uses the same names of the boys in this work. On symbolic levels, Lord of the Flies can be read as a political, religious, and psychological study of man.

  • Political Allegory

Having been written in the wake of World War II, Lord of the Flies, the characters of Ralph and Jack are perceived as the democratic ruler in contrast to the dictatorial ruler. Ralph rules by the vote of the people and has the good of all in mind. As adviser he has Piggy, who is very sensible, but lacks the charisma of Ralph to be a ruler on his own. On the other hand, Jack is despotic: "Bullocks to the rules!" he shouts at Ralph as he asserts himself as a hunter. To enforce his dictatorial rule, he employs the sadistic Roger.

  • Religious Allegory

With Simon as a Christ-like figure of love and charity, who is willing to confront the evil in order to explain it to the others and, thus, save them, Golding's novel can be read as a religious allegory about the fall of mankind. Certainly, the island resembles an Eden, and Ralph and Jack can be interpreted as Cain and Abel. When Simon climbs the mountain and encounters the lord of the flies, the scene is, indeed, biblical as Golding writes in deeply poetic prose:

"You knew, didn't you. I'm part of you?  Close, close, close! I'm the reason why it's no go? Why things are what they are?"

The laughter shivered again.

"Come now," said the Lord of the Flies. "Get back to the others and we'll forget the whole thing."

  • Psychological Allegory

In Freudian terms, each of the characters represents a different part of the human psyche: the id, the super ego, and the ego. Jack represents the id, the part of the mind that always wants to satisfy its desires; always considering his own pleasure Jack's killing of the sow even has sexual connotations. The super ego is represented by Piggy, who symbolizes the part of the mind that makes efforts to control visceral urges. Frequently, he reminds Ralph of the importance of maintaining the rescue fire and caring for the littl'uns. He is the voice of reason; when the boys fear the "beast," he tells them,

"We know what goes on and if there's something wrong, there's someone to put it right."

The ego is represented by Ralph. As the conscious mind that mediates between the id's demand for pleasure and the social pressures brought to bear by the superego, Ralph tries to control Jack's urge for the immediate pleasure of hunting by getting him to focus on maintaining the fire. He also tries to mitigate the social pressures of the superego, Piggy, who often lectures too much and alienates the boys from himself and Ralph.




handbooktoliterature eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An allegory can work in many forms and genres of literature, as long as it follows a narrative structure (tells a story). Overall, the story will have a literal and figurative meaning, and it will help convey an abstract idea through the story. A symbol is similar in this way, but a symbol's meaning may be more specific and what it represents may change, where an allegory is a complete narrative that helps get a main point across. 

Some well known allegories are Dante' sInferno, George Orwell's The Animal Farm, and more recently Yann Martel's Life of Pi. 

Dante's Inferno is often read as an allegory about the plight of mankind's soul as a battle between the seductive evils of the devil and the righteous path to heaven. Orwell's Animal Farmuses a small farm and its animals to show how Communism shatters in practice under the influence of human nature. And finally, Martel's Life of Pi can be read as a reflection of the turmoil and loss one goes through when emigrating to another country, culture, and life.