What Is Allegory?

Most of us are familiar with allegory through high school English classes. But if you’re like me, that may have been the last time you even thought about allegory as a storytelling device.

Throughout history, allegory has been used in all forms of art. So what is an allegory? It is a story or tale with two or more levels of meaning: a literal level and one or more symbolic levels. As an extended metaphor, allegory uses symbols to represent characters, places, or events. While allegory uses symbols, it is different from symbolism in that allegory tells a complete story. Allegories are used to share a moral, teach a lesson, or impart a principal.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which is part of his larger work, The Republic, is one of the most famous allegories. In this work, a group of people have been chained up inside a cave for their entire lives. They stare at a blank wall with shadows of the outside world dancing across it. One person escapes the cave and sees the items producing the shadows for the first time. When he goes back into the cave and tries to describe the outside world, the people inside do not believe him. This allegory symbolizes the difficulty a philosopher has expanding the worldview of common man.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is one of the most important Christian allegories in literature. The names of the characters and places in this work represent character traits of each one. For example, the protagonist, Christian, meets Evangelist, Obstinate, and Pliable on his journey. Christian is from the City of Destruction (the world) and is seeking the Celestial City (heaven).

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the most famous recent examples of allegory. In this work, the farm represents Russia, the practice of Animalism represents Communism, and the animals represent various sectors of Russian society. An example of Communism is found in the following line: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

What are your favorite stories that are allegories? What do these represent? Do you use allegory in your own work? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!