Guide to Literary Terms

Start Free Trial

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Allegory is usually defined as a story written to parallel a situation outside of the story. The term is understood to have several meanings with varying degree of strictness. 

As a literary device, an allegory in its most general sense is an extended metaphor.

More strictly speaking, in an allegory, characters and actions inside the story must match up with those of an "outside" situation. 

The book Animal Farm is a classic example of allegory. The characters in the book are intended to parallel real people from the Russian communist revolution and events of the book are meant to match up with actual events from the revolution. 

The idea of creating intentional correlations between the story and a situation outside of the story is critical to the definition of allegory. If elements of the story do not directly represent elements of an outside situation, the story is not an allegory.

Fables and parables are like allegory in certain ways and can be confused with them.

Allegories often are written with a specific comment or point in mind, like fables and parables. Yet in fables the characters do not need to match up with anything outside of the story. A fable or parable can be written to demonstrate a point of wisdom or morality, like "The Tortise and the Hare", but the characters do not represent or match up with any particular people outside of the story. They stand for ideas. This is symbolism, not allegory.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Simply put, an allegory is an extended metaphor. A metaphor is something that stands for something else. Therefore, an allegory is a work (book, short story, movie, poem) that stands for something else outside of the actual work.

Usually, work that is an allegory has many symbols throughout that represent something bigger than what they actually are. The work may have been written to have many layers of meaning. I like to tell my students that allegories are written about one thing to show readers something else.

There are quite a few examples that you may be familiar with, which will hopefully clear up any confusion. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible about the Salem Witch trials in the 1600's, but it was really about the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the 1960's. He wanted to use the events of the Salem Witch Trials to show audiences and readers that what McCarthy did to innocent people was no different than what the Salem government did to innnocent people. The accusers in The Crucible were symbols for the accusers in the real life "witch hunt" of the Red Scare.

Many popular folk and fairy tales are allegories. They are stories about specific characters, but really tell us something about ourselves and teach a lesson. "The Tortois and the Hare", for example, is an allegory for how we should go about things in life. The tortois represents someone who takes his time and does things right, and the hare represents someone who rushes things and ends up losing because of it.

The important thing to remember with regard to allegory is that there are many symbols entertwined to represent something much bigger than what the work is actually saying. It may seem simple at first, but if you look at what it is trying to say, you will see that is has a whole other layer of meaning.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is an allegory?  

An allegory is an elaborate metaphor in which a character, event, narrative, myth, etc. tells a story that represents something else. For example, Animal Farm is a story about an animal revolution and it is an allegory for the Russian Revolution. In terms of stories, an allegory tells one story but implies another, just as a metaphor describes one thing but implies another. 

Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" in The Republic describes a situation where people are chained together in a cave. They can only face one wall of the cave. Unable to see the people and fire behind them, they only see the shadows on the wall. This is an allegory for the human condition in that there are aspects of reality which we refuse and/or are conditioned not to see. 

Arthur Miller's The Crucible is a play about the Salem Witch Trials but it is also an allegory for McCarthyism. In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy wanted to rid the country of all communist influence and charged people associated with communism as being traitorous. Miller and other writers at that time were brought to these proceedings. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Using any suitable example as explanation, what is allegory?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Using any suitable example as explanation, what is allegory?

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. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on