What Does Allegory Mean?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

allegory - Animal Farm
"George Orwell's book Animal Farm is an allegory about how the oppressed, after winning a violent revolution, often become as tyrannical as their oppressor" (Paul K. Chappell, The Art of Waging Peace, 2013). (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Allegory is the rhetorical strategy of extending a metaphor through an entire narrative so that objects, persons, and actions in the text are equated with meanings that lie outside the text. Adjective: allegorical. Also known as inversio, permutatio, and false semblant.

One of the most famous allegories in English is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), a tale of Christian salvation. Modern allegories include the films The Seventh Seal (1957) and Avatar (2009) as well as the novels Animal Farm (1945) and The Lord of the Flies (1954).

Literary forms that are related to allegories include fables and parables.

See Examples and Observations below.

From the Greek, "to speak so as to imply something other"

Examples and Observations

  • "There are obvious layers of allegory [in the movie Avatar]. The Pandora woods is a lot like the Amazon rainforest (the movie stops in its tracks for a heavy ecological speech or two), and the attempt to get the Na'vi to 'cooperate' carries overtones of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan."
  • "Probably the most famous example of allegory is the movie The Wizard of Oz, in which cowardice is embodied in the lion, thoughtless panic in the scarecrow, and so on. (Some have claimed that L. Frank Baum's Oz books are also political allegories: that the scarecrow represents an agricultural past, for example, and the tin woodsman the industrial future.)"
  • Plato's Allegory of the Cave
    "And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets..."
  • Allegory in George Orwell's Animal Farm
    "One problem with allegories is in fact the difficulty of determining what counts as source and what as target. For instance, Animal Farm is a text about a farm, which may be taken as an explicit model for thinking about a more abstract, implicit target that has to do with totalitarian politics. Or is Animal Farm a text about a farm which, as an explicit target, is structured by our knowledge of a prior cultural text about totalitarian politics which acts as an implicit source? The fact that totalitarian politics is abstract and the farm is concrete favors the first analysis, but the fact that the global topic of the story of the text is the life at this farm favors the latter. It is precisely one of the distinguishing characteristics of allegory that the direction of the relation between the domains may be read in two ways."
    (Gerard Steen, Finding Metaphor in Grammar and Usage: A Methodological Analysis of Theory and Research. John Benjamins, 2007)
  • The Allegory of Pilgrim's Progress
    "The Celestial City, he said, he should die if he came not to it; and yet was dejected at every difficulty, and stumbled at every straw that anybody cast in his way. Well, after he had lain at the Slough of Despond a great while, as I have told you, one sunshine morning, I do not know how he ventured, and so got over; but when he was over, he would scarce believe it. He had, I think, a Slough of Despond in his mind; a slough that he carried everywhere with him, or else he could never have been as he was."
  • "Allegory is perhaps as old as language itself and certainly as variable as the languages and styles in which it has been written. . . . Between occasional pinnacles, allegory has maintained a constant presence in artistic forms and humanistic study. All on its own, allegory inspires great works of literature and insightful commentary."




Owen Gleiberman, review of AvatarEntertainment Weekly, Dec. 30, 2009

David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms. Yale University Press, 2007

Plato, "Allegory of the Cave" from Book Seven of The Republic

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress From This World to That Which Is to Come, 1678)

Brenda Machosky, Thinking Allegory Otherwise. Stanford University Press, 2010