It’s become the cliche of every seventh-grade book report. Inevitably, a soon-to-be-teenager gets in front of the class, reads the CliffsNotes version of some classic novel, and concludes: “This novel is a symbol for human existence.” Cliche? Maybe. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Allegory is a key concept in developing your reading comprehension—it’s the exact kind of thing you should learn in seventh-grade English class.
Understanding allegory is the moment you begin to appreciate literature on a second level. No longer are you focused on the pure amusement or tension of the central story. When you begin to focus on allegory, you open the door to the world of author intent, and yes, the metaphors that comment on human existence.
Still confused? Here are the keys to unlocking the door that is literary allegory.
Allegory Definition: What Is an Allegory?
An allegory is a narrative serving as a metaphor for a deeper meaning, typically revealing truths about human existence.
An allegory might sound like a metaphor or an analogy, but here’s the difference: Metaphors and analogies serve as figures of speech. You can express a metaphor within a sentence such as “I am dead tired.”
An allegory goes deeper than a metaphor and embeds symbols into the overall story. A famous example of this narrative technique is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which he described a group of imprisoned individuals forced to live in a cave their entire lives.
All the prisoners could see were the shadows of objects moving near a fire, but they couldn’t see the objects casting these shadows. The prisoners, Plato seemed to argue, were us: human beings trapped by the limitations of their senses. It’s such an abstract concept, there was only one way to tell it—and that was through an allegory anyone could understand.
Examples of Allegories
In Animal Farm, George Orwell’s symbols come in the form of actual farmyard animals: pigs, horses, goats. Orwell has these animals do very human things like speak, learn music, and even overthrow their captor, the farmer, Mr. Jones.
It’s easy to see a new reader getting confused about the absurd and surreal plot. Animals talking? C’mon. But once you read “Animal Farm” as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and later administration of Joseph Stalin, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
According to Orwell, the story was an allegory representing “that kind of [violent] revolution can only lead to a change of masters.”
And this is exactly how the plot of the book plays out. Once in charge, the animals don’t make for a better farm. It may seem like a strange literary device, but there’s a reason we’re still reading Animal Farm to this day: Its deeper messages resonate throughout history—past and present.
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The Pilgrim’s Progress
This 1678 work by John Bunyan quickly became one of the most famous allegories in existence—at one point, outselling all other books except the Bible. The Pilgrim’s Progress is not always subtle in its symbolism—the main character is named Christian, for example, and one obstacle Christian encounters is the “Hill Difficulty.” Later he meets ladies named Discretion, Prudence, Piety, and Charity.
But The Pilgrim’s Progress is also highly influential, with some people considering it the first English novel. And that’s literal: It may be the first novel written in English, period.
One key innovation in the novel is that it uses allegory to function on two levels. Those looking for symbols could appreciate its deeper metaphors for Christian life, while those looking for entertainment could find it on a literal level. English writer Samuel Johnson later said:
“The great merit of [The Pilgrim’s Progress], [is] that the most cultivated man cannot find anything to praise more highly, and the child knows nothing more amusing.”
The Scarlet Letter
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel—written in the 19th century but taking place in the 17th—a young woman who has given birth to a child out of wedlock is forced to wear the letter “A,” for adultery.
The brilliance of Hawthorne’s novel is the sin in question never appears in the actual plot. What you read about is just how the story begins. Hawthorne used allegory to create a physical and symbolic manifestation of the stigma and social shaming in society. Those are the themes Hawthrone concerns himself with, and he seems to argue that these shaming tactics do more to alienate than they do to heal. A lesser author might have made the out-of-wedlock story the key focus, turning it more into pulp romance than societal commentary.
The Chronicles of Narnia
Readers are so wired to look for allegories that sometimes, we’re not sure whether the author intended them or not. Is The Lord of the Rings really an allegory for World War 2? Or, in one famous example of debated allegory, is The Chronicles of Narnia really an allegory for Christianity?
If you’ve already read Animal Farm, you’re familiar with the use of animals as symbols for real people. Many readers believe “The Chronicles of Narnia” is an allegory for the central story of Christianity. However, author C.S. Lewis was quick to point out that his story wasn’t a direct retelling of Christianity and that many events didn’t line up explicitly with events in the New Testament. The beauty of good literature is that it can be rich enough for multiple interpretations.
The Difference Between Allegory and Symbolism
Given these allegory examples, it’s easy to conclude that allegory is any old story in which there are prominent symbols designed to teach us something about human nature. So what makes an allegory different from a symbol?
For an allegory, the key distinction is building the metaphor directly into the narrative of the story. Animal Farm is a perfect example because it ties its themes into the plot of the book. The way events turn out is supposed to say something about the central theme.
Symbolism, however, can communicate smaller metaphors without directly influencing the structure of the story.
Consider the broken teddy bear eye from Breaking Bad. It’s a symbol Walter White notices and picks up out of his pool. The eye then turns up later in different parts of the story. The watcher has to wonder: What does that eyeball mean to Walter, and what should it mean to the audience?
Valid questions. But because the symbol isn’t central to the unfolding of events, its presence alone doesn’t render Breaking Bad an allegory. It’s up to the entire narrative to accomplish that.
Using Allegory to Liven Up Your Writing
Try to remember the first time you figured out that a story represented something deeper. It’s the type of “a-ha!” moment that gives you a new appreciation for allegories in literature. What you once thought was simply an entertaining story suddenly transforms into a social commentary—a commentary with meanings more complex than if the author had just come right out and said it.
Done right, allegory can improve the richness of your story. But you first have to start out with a certain perspective, a comment to make on the world. For Orwell, it was the problem of the Russian revolution of 1917. For Hawthorne, it was the destructive nature of social stigmas. Consider what you want to say about human nature, and your story becomes more than just a plot. It becomes a statement.
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