Writers use allegory to present abstract ideas or qualities through characters and events. The characters in allegories are often animals or objects that are given human feelings or thoughts, and they usually represent a generalization about life or an abstract idea such as hate, hope, pride, greed, malice, etc. The reader in this case is treated to a symbolic or underlying meaning in addition to the surface meaning of the narrative.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegorical novel, a novel with multiple meanings. In this novel, Orwell uses animals who take over a farm as an allegory that represents communism and its repressive control over the citizens of the former Soviet Union.
The short story “A White Heron” can be read as an allegory in which the characters and events represent the ideas and concepts that go beyond the literal meaning of the story. White, for example, is a symbol of purity or virginity. The white heron in the story symbolizes the pure, rural life. The hunter, meanwhile, represents the intrusion of civilization and technology.
What is the difference between a symbol and allegory?
- It represents a single object, concept or an idea that can mean different things throughout the entire work.
- A symbol uses something solid and concrete as a representation for a reality that is much deeper and profound.
- Symbols can have variety of meanings and therefore are sometimes ambiguous.
- It is a complete narrative that conveys ideas to help us see the point.
- Abstract thoughts and ideas such as love and hate and persons that have no materialized form such as spirits are turned into a concrete, solid story and personified characters.
- The point of reference is clear in an allegory.
When a thought is to be conveyed, it is more effective and adds on more meaning when it is symbolic, and allegory accomplishes this purpose.
Not only does allegory teach one or more lessons, it also dramatizes the state of mind.The mind turns into an arena where we sit to watch our different thoughts and emotions facing each other such as love confronting hate, passion against reason and so on.
Due to the fact that allegory can delve into our minds gives it an extraordinarily incomparable strength and worthiness as a form.
- Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
- The Divine Comedy by Dante
- The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
- Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- The many parables in the Bible, and so on..
Let us consider a few examples in detail.
The Bible is full of allegorical examples.
The parable of the ‘Prodigal son’ by Jesus is about the younger of two sons who becomes a rebel and wants his share of the property from the father.
He squanders his father’s property and reaches a point where he is reduced to a state where he is fed what is fed to the pigs. He realizes his folly and decides to return to his father to be at least a slave in his father’s home if not accepted back as a son.
But the father on catching sight of the son at a distance runs to him, falls upon and kisses him and then orders that a banquet be prepared for him.
The parable as an allegory thus drives home the point to show that just as the father in the story, our God is ever loving and merciful toward those who recognize their need of forgiveness and return to him.
Aesop’ Fables are a good example of allegory too.
The fable about the boy who cried wolf is well known.
He fools the villagers’ time again and again crying out that a wolf is attacking him and his flock of sheep, but when in reality he is attacked by a wolf, no one comes to his rescue as no one believes him and thinks he is only fooling them yet again.
Hence the allegory in this story suggests the folly and danger of lying.
Allegory is a device that presents its thoughts and ideas not just in poetry or novels but also in visual art form such as paintings where figures or actions are symbolic and mean something.
“The Allegory of Age Governed by Prudence” a painting by Titian, with three human heads symbolizes the three ages of man: youth, maturity, and old age. The left head resembles Titian himself in old age; the bearded central man has been thought to represent his son Orazio, while the youth may depict his cousin and heir, Marco Vecellio.
The three headed beast-wolf, lion, and dog-stands for prudence.
Allegory can be read either on a literal or metaphorical level and most or all the elements in it represent something.
When is an allegory used and by whom?
- Allegory is used by Religious writers to teach the principles of their faith.
- It is used by Ethical writers to inculcate morals in their readers’ hearts.
- It is used by Satirists to aid in getting across a point of view that is of a social or political nature.
Let us now look at certain characteristics of an allegory.
The characters and other elements in an allegory must stand for something else other than its literal meaning.
However, it’s not one symbol that makes it an allegory but the symbolism in the entire narrative, thus making it distinct from a mere symbol that represents only a single object.
In the book "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis, the character of the Lion named Aslan represents or is a symbol of Jesus.
However, one characteristic of an allegory is that it must have other connecting symbols.
We see that in the book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the lion is not the only symbol but there are other characters and places that represent people and events from the Bible.
Allegorically, the book thus, in part, retells the account of Jesus.
One of the characteristics of an allegory is that concepts that are not human such as faith, virtue, sin, hope, integrity are represented as a person in the narrative.
In “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne Goodman Brown’s wife is allegorically personified and called Faith. She represents only the notion of faith and nothing else.
The literal meaning of the story tells us that Goodman Brown loves his wife, Faith, and reconsiders attending the witches’ Sabbath.
Allegorically, we find that Goodman’s faith in God and his loyalty to the church doctrines makes him reconsider and question his choice of giving himself to the devil.
Most allegories have a moral or lesson to convey. One of the most popular allegories with morals are the Aesop’s fables wherein each fable has a lesson to convey.
Every fable has characters representing different personality traits and decisions they make.
The stories tell us the effects that such traits and decisions have on people’s lives, and at the conclusion of each story the moral is explicitly stated.
A MAN had two daughters, the one married to a gardener, and the other to a tile-maker. After a time he went to the daughter who had married the gardener, and inquired how she was and how all things went with her. She said, "All things are prospering with me, and I have only one wish, that there may be a heavy fall of rain, in order that the plants may be well watered." Not long after, he went to the daughter who had married the tile-maker, and likewise inquired of her how she fared; she replied, "I want for nothing, and have only one wish, that the dry weather may continue, and the sun shine hot and bright, so that the bricks might be dried." He said to her, "If your sister wishes for rain, and you for dry weather, with which of the two am I to join my wishes?'
Moral: It is impossible to please everybody.
When an allegory does not conclude with a moral it will most likely be a political or social satire where the characters symbolize movements, political parties or certain beliefs of the day.
‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell is a classic example of allegorical satire.
The animal characters represent ideologies and people who instigated the Russian revolution.
Characters represent an actual person such as the pig Napoleon stands for Joseph Stalin. The old pig Major who has a vision of communism stands for Karl Marx who is the revolutionary socialist, the father of communism.
Though such allegorical satires do not traditionally have a moral as “Honesty is the best policy”, the author still shares his opinions with a view to persuade his readers.
For example, in ‘Animal Farm’ Orwell helps us see that the revolution only caused more harm to the country than benefit.