Allegory: Definition and Examples

Examples From Fables, Movies, and Books

Illustration of Plato's Myth of the Cave
Plato's Myth of the Cave shows people fearing shadow figures without knowing what they really are.

 

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Allegory definition and allegory vs. metaphor: An allegory is the rhetorical strategy of extending a metaphor through an entire narrative. Thus, it's a longer description, illustration, analogy, or comparison than a simile or a metaphor would be. In an allegory, any objects, persons, and actions in the text are a part of that large metaphor and equate to meanings that lie outside the text. Allegories contain a lot of symbolism. 

Key Takeaways: Allegory

  • Allegories are extended metaphors throughout a text, making every character, scene, and symbol part of a larger whole.
  • Allegories can be used to teach.
  • Symbolism is key in allegories; the stories are rich with symbols supporting the larger message.
  • For an author, using the literary device of an allegory can present his or her views on a big topic or theme in a less didactic way than just spelling them out.

The use of the allegorical literary form extends back to ancient times and the oral tradition, even before stories started being written down. 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 as to what the story is about). 

The technique 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." Its adjective form is allegorical

Allegory Examples

Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave'

In the "Allegory of the Cave," 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, "like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets," unaware that what they see in front of them isn't how the world really is. They know nothing of so many other aspects in the world, not even grass or sky.

George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'

George Orwell's famous allegorical novel "Animal Farm" (that has even been portrayed as a cartoon) 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.

"The Tortoise and the Hare" contains several lessons about life: Through persistence and determination, you can do things you didn't know you were capable of. You should never underestimate the underdogs or your opponent. Don't get overconfident in your skills or lazy—or take those skills for granted. 

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. 

Movies

In "The Wizard of Oz," the lion is an allegory of cowardice and the scarecrow for acting without thinking, for example. "The Seventh Seal" is an allegory about faith, doubt, and death.

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 savagery and asks the question through the work 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.