What Does Allegory Mean?

George Orwell
George Orwell.

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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. Its adjective form is allegorical. Allegory is also known as inversio, permutatio, and false semblant. The word's etymology comes from the Greek word allegoria, which means, "description of one thing under the image of another."

One of the most famous allegories in English is John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" (1678), a tale of Christian salvation (the lead character is even named Christian, so there's no real mystery about what the story is about). Modern allegories include the films "The Wizard of Oz," "The Seventh Seal" (1957), and "Avatar" (2009) as well as the novels "Animal Farm" (1945) and "The Lord of the Flies" (1954). The use of the allegorical literary form extends back to ancient times and the oral tradition, even before stories started being written down.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

See how Plato describes the difference between enlightened people and those who don't see true reality in "The Republic." He portrays the unenlightened as those chained up in a cave watching shadows, unaware that what they see in front of them isn't how the world really is:

"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 [area]; 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'

George Orwell's famous allegorical novel (that has even been portrayed as a cartoon) "Animal Farm" is on the surface about a farm, with the animals as characters. On a deeper level, the plot and characters represent the rise of the Communist Party in Russia in the early 20th century.

The story's events correlate with historical events. It could also be seen as a commentary on how totalitarianism arises in a more general sense too.

"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?...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)

Fables and Parables

Literary forms that are related to allegory include fables and parables. Fables often use animals to tell a story that teaches a lesson or make a commentary on a larger concept (such as people's behavior). For example, take the Aesop fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper," where the grasshopper learns a lesson about thinking ahead and working hard, like the busy ants who've stored up food, while the grasshopper has none come fall because he just played music all summer.

Parables also are teaching tools, though the characters are people. The Christian Bible is full of them in the New Testament, where Jesus uses the form to teach people about abstract spiritual concepts. For example, the story of the prodigal son can be seen as an allegory for the message that God forgives people's sins when they turn to him. 

Examples From Movies

In "The Wizard of Oz," the lion is an allegory of cowardice and the scarecrow for acting without thinking, for example. About "Avatar," "Entertainment Weekly" writer Owen Gleiberman noted, "There are obvious layers of allegory. 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" (Dec.

30, 2009).

In "The Lord of the Flies," the two main characters represent the conflict between civilization, and the savagery and presents the concept as to whether people are innately good or evil—what is our default as human beings? 

Sources

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

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

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