Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the definition of allegory?

The definition of allegory is a story that carries extended symbolic meanings.


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An allegory is a narrative that functions as an extended analogy or set of symbols in which characters, events, settings, objects, etc. have symbolic as well as literal meanings. Allegorical texts often illustrate moral or religious lessons, abstract concepts, and historical, social, or political situations. Fables and parables are both forms of allegories.

Literary theorist Northrop Frye conceptualizes allegories on a continuum. On one end are “naive” allegories like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, in which characters are overt symbols and not fully three-dimensional. On the other end are “indirect” allegories that use intentionally confusing symbolism, such as Dadaist works. In the center are allegories that are more subtle, like C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.

While allegories rely on symbolism to convey their messages, individual symbols are not allegories; a story is only an allegory if most or all of its characters or plot events serve as symbols for abstract concepts or events.

The word allegory derives from the Greek word allegoria, meaning “figurative language,” which is a compound of allos, meaning “other, different,” and agoreuein, meaning “to speak publicly.” Agoreuein derives from the Greek word agora, meaning “assembly.”

Allegories were first documented in ancient Greece and gained popularity in the sustained narratives of the Middle Ages. Most notably, Roman de la rose (Romance of the Rose), a poem by 13th-century French poet Guillaume de Lorris,t uses characters to represent courtly values through personification. Dante’s The Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century, is an allegory in which many of the characters are real people who are used to represent abstract concepts of virtue or sin. For example, the character of Dante represents humankind, and the character of Virgil represents reason and learning.

A 20th-century allegorical text is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which critiques the Russian Revolution through a story about farm animals revolting against their farmer and creating a totalitarian society.

see: symbols and symbolism, parable, fable, personification 

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