What Is Allegory? Definition, Examples from Literature, and How to Write Allegory
It’s no secret that as writers, we’re all about telling a good story. An engaging plot, powerful characters, compelling settings, and vivid imagery all play a part in making our stories real for the reader. But sometimes in literature you’ll find that the best stories have a second, deeper story floating underneath the first. These are called allegories.
Much like theme, allegory can add depth and complexity to your work, as well as help readers see the world in a new way. Let’s explore some types of allegories, examples of allegories, and how to use allegory to strengthen your own writing.
What is allegory in literature?
An allegory is a type of story built from an overarching extended metaphor—one in which the core story, characters, central conflicts, and even settings are used to represent something else. Allegories can be abstract ideas, sociological issues, mythological stories, political events, and more.
In an allegory, two stories are being told at the same time: the surface story that we see at face value, populated by characters from the author’s imagination in an entirely fictitious world; and a second, deeper understory that conveys the message the author is really trying to send.
Sometimes these understories will teach their readers something about history, morality, or the world they’re living in. This parallel of two dual stories progressing side by side is what makes allegorical stories so powerful. By using made-up characters, places, and problems as a vessel for a meaningful conversation about the world we live in, the author can craft a story with a very real truth behind it and affect a real change.
No matter what message the allegory is trying to send, it’s important that the “surface story” is strong enough to stand as an enjoyable work of literature on its own. This is the secret to major allegorical works that have survived through the years and been enjoyed by generations of readers.
Why do we use allegory in our writing?
Very often the author will use allegory as a literary device to convey an idea that might be too sensitive or too complex to discuss overtly. Creating an allegorical story makes difficult ideas more accessible and easy to understand for the average reader.
In fiction, allegory allows the writer to tell two different, related stories at once. Allegory allows us to teach our readers about important events and ideas in a way they might not have otherwise grasped. Writers use allegory along with their own experiences and understanding to change the world for the better. Allegory can help us understand the mistakes we have made in the past, the mistakes we’re still making in the future, and how we can look at them in a new light to do better in the future.
Allegory vs. symbolism
In an allegory, everything is symbolic. But how does that differ from symbolism as a literary device? Symbolism uses images, places, people, colours, or abstract ideas to represent something beyond the thing’s literal meaning; for example, a rose to represent love, or a jack o’lantern to represent halloween. Within the world of your story, symbolism can also be contextual images like a toy that represents a character’s childhood or a place that symbolizes the relationship between two people. When these symbols recur regularly throughout the work, they’re called motifs.
Allegory is related to symbolism, but it’s much broader. Allegory will usually be sustained throughout the whole story and use larger elements to convey an idea. For example, instead of using a character’s expensive broken shoes as a symbol for their gradual detachment from materialism, the entire character as a whole will be a larger symbol for something else, such as the values and relationships we might sacrifice in our pursuit of worldly success. Symbolic elements (such as shoes) might be used to emphasize the allegory even further, but they’ll all be part of a bigger, wider layer of storytelling that parallels the one we see.
Types of allegories
Although an allegorical story can function as a symbol for just about anything, allegories generally fall into two distinct types: historical and conceptual allegory.
This type of allegory uses a work of fiction to portray a real, historical event. This can help make a complicated time period easier to understand for the reader; it can also show the author’s beliefs and opinions about the period of history in a subtle, non-inflammatory way—something especially important if the effects of the event are still being felt in contemporary times. These allegorical stories might also work to shine light on aspects of history that had been forgotten or disregarded.
Conceptual allegory follows historical allegory in that it uses a work of fiction to simplify or soften a complex concept. The difference is that conceptual allegory uses its story to represent a more abstract idea, or an event that is culturally recognized but isn’t a part of history—for example, mythological cycles or biblical stories. Conceptual allegories might also represent things such as sins, virtues, political movements, social discrepancies, or dangerous choices that society is collectively making. These allegorical stories always have strong thematic elements and powerful messages.
What’s the difference between allegory, fable, and parable?
Allegories, fables, and parables are all stories that use two parallel stories to convey a deep, innate truth. Allegories can be simple, or they can be complex. Fables and parables are actually two kinds of simple conceptual allegories, both designed to be teaching tools of storytelling.
A fable is a short story designed to convey a moral or ethical idea, often to children. Fables use anthropomorphism, a literary device that gives human traits to nonhuman things such as objects or animals. This makes the ideas portrayed by the story easier to understand. A famous fable is Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” which treats its two animal characters as people and uses their story as a way to convey a moral theme to its readers: keep at your path slowly and steadily, and you’ll reach your destination.
Parables are similar to fables, but they use human characters to convey their ideas. These stories are often associated with religious lessons, such as the parables of the bible. But, like fables, they can have more secular meanings, too. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a famous parable about the dangers of dishonesty.
While fables and parables are considered types of allegory, in general allegorical stories—certainly allegorical novels—tell a broader story with more complexity and room to unravel its lessons. They use more characters, multilayered plots, imagery and motifs, and settings that play a more important role than they do in fables and parables.
5 allegory examples in literature
Some of our most famous works of literature are allegories, written to teach us something about the world we live in. Let’s look at some classic allegorical stories.
Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene is an early predecessor of many modern fantasy works. This is a multilayered story with both historical and conceptual allegory—the title character, the Faerie Queene, was written to represent Queen Elizabeth I and the story surrounding her is an allegory of the political tension of Spenser’s time.
In addition, the work is also a moral, spiritual, and religious allegory; several of the central characters stand in place for morals such as holiness, chastity, and truth. Using these allegorical characters, The Faerie Queene shows us the ideal path a virtuous man or woman should follow.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the most famous allegorical novels of all time—a satirical, dystopian political and historical allegory for the Russian revolution that began in 1917. Each of the central characters is carefully constructed to symbolize historical figures from this time period: Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, and Czar Nicholas II, among others. Orwell uses this story to convey a message about communism, capitalism, totalitarianism, and the human nature of solidarity and leadership.
We also see anthropomorphised characters standing in place for groups of people, such as the mass working class, the elite upper-middle class, and the church. Through these allegorical characters the reader gets a clear message of the political complexities of the time delivered in a simple, accessible way. The author also shares his views of the struggles through a fictional lens and helps us learn something about the way people behave.
Dr. Seuss is famous for his enduring, primary-coloured children’s books, but he often had a lot more going on under the surface. His 1971 book The Lorax was lauded as a poignant message on environmentalism, and The Sneetches, published ten years earlier, is a powerful study of discrimination between people. The story follows a group of yellow, feathery creatures who all live in a society together, differentiated only by the stars which adorn some (though not all) of their bellies. As people have historically had an unfortunate tendency to do, the Sneetches put too much emphasis on their appearance and the starred and starless begin to segregate.
This story is believed to be an allegory for the racial struggles that were particularly prevalent during this time period, though arguments have also been made that it’s an allegory for other struggles like gay rights and religious discrimination. We see the central characters struggle with their identity, become pressured by someone making a profit off their prejudices (an allegory for capitalism and media), and eventually come to the conclusion that they’re not all that different after all.
The Chronicles of Narnia
C. S. Lewis’ timeless children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, and in particular his most famous work, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, is widely considered to be a religious allegory. Each character is symbolic of a biblical character or a Christian ideal. Most notably, the Lion present in the title is thought to be an allegory for Jesus and the mystical power that he held. The “witch,” by contrast, is thought to symbolize the devil.
There’s been some debate on whether Lewis originally intended his fiction work to be a biblical study. He’s on record as saying that, though his work was full of symbolism, it wasn’t a true allegory; however, he’s had other correspondence in which he acknowledged his lion Aslan and Jesus to be one and the same. Most likely, Lewis’ strong Christian beliefs pervaded his writing to such an extent that these allegorical devices came through subconsciously. Many readers have identified with the allegorical aspect of the story, as well as its strong themes of virtue and faith.
Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, is a story with political, biblical, and social allegorical aspects. Rich in symbolism and subtext, this novel shares similarities with the deterioration of the Garden of Eden due to the nature of human weaknesses. Several characters are thought to be symbolic of biblical figures, contributing to the broader symbolism of the story as a whole. There are also threads of historical and political allegory in the novel, suggesting comparisons to the war between capitalism and communism, totalitarianism and democracy.
The novel largely stands as an allegory for human nature and the failings of the human race. The island where the story takes place is thought to represent the larger world as a whole, and the central characters are symbolic of the microcosmic and macrocosmic struggles we all face in our society: freedom vs. constraint, civilization vs. barbarianism, and pleasure vs. morality.
How to use allegory in your own story
Unlike theme, which often evolves organically, allegory is an intentional step-by-step work of craftsmanship. Not only are you taking all your usual steps to developing a great story—dynamic characters, vivid settings, and well-defined plot arcs—but you’re also taking those building blocks and directly correlating them to a second, deeper story underneath.
Begin with character
As you’ll know if you’ve been following our articles on the craft of creative writing here on Scribophile, we’re big fans of building stories out of character. When writing an allegory this is even more essential. In an allegory, each character is representative of something else—whether that’s a historical figure, a group of people, or even a general way of thinking. Each character is an integral piece of both your surface story and your understory. If you’re writing an allegory for World War II, for example, a character might represent a notable person that you want to explore, they might represent the legion of wives and children left behind in the aftermath, or they might represent the toxic patriotist propaganda that led countless men to their deaths.
Whether your characters are large or small, representing individual people or big ideas, every one of them should contribute to the parallels between both stories.
Develop your plot
Like character, the action your story takes should be a direct reflection of the story you’re telling underneath.
If you’re writing an allegory for a historical event, you’re in luck—the overall story arc is already laid out for you with its beginning, middle, and end. All you need to do is follow the existing thread, populating it with your own characters, morals, and themes.
If your allegory is a more general commentary, such as the senseless futility of war rather than the events of one specific war in particular, you can be a bit more creative with your plot. Think about the overall story arc you want to project—for instance, the initial excitement of war and the social marketing surrounding it, followed by the contrast of the harsh realities within the experience itself, followed by the barren decimation of the aftermath and the seeds of hope for a better future.
You can take these broad ideas and apply them to just about anything: a school field trip, a new relationship, a social media star’s rise to fame. Map out the major plot points for both the primary story and the story under the surface, and then look for ways you can draw parallels between them so that they progress towards their climax side by side.
Project the theme
Once you have a clear idea of what your allegorical story is going to be, you can begin using literary devices such as imagery, metaphors, and symbols to enhance the theme. Allegories are built out of inherent, contextual symbolism, and you make this even more powerful by incorporating relevant colours, objects, and icons that support the message you’re trying to send. For example, a flag torn by a storm can symbolize the deterioration of a once-proud ideal, or a statue of a war hero can stand in place for a struggle being faced today.
In allegory, the story is always told with a lesson or message in mind. The writer’s goal is to have the reader come away with a new understanding of an event, a movement, or a social dialogue and then attempt to become better because of it. The world is rarely black and white, but in your allegorical story it’s important to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to say (for example, “War is bad. Let’s not.”). If you’ve done your work well and crafted a powerful allegorical story, your reader will find themselves not only nodding along in agreement, but subconsciously looking for ways to share your message with others in their own small way.
Allegory opens up the world for the reader
Allegories are among the most potent literary devices available to the writer for creating real change within the world. We use allegory to communicate sensitive topics or open conversations about issues that we’re passionate about to help our readers see those issues in a brand new way. By using allegory in your own writing, you can show your reader a new way of thinking and bring a little more understanding into the world.