Happy is the author who can judiciously illustrate and ornament his productions with the occasional use of allegory. — Quintilian
What Is Allegory?
The term Allegory is from the Greek “allegoria,” etymologically derived from the Greek words, αλλος, “another,” and αγορευω “to speak”, and literally means “another thing;” that is, it speaks one thing, and means another. In otherwords, a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. For example, George Orwell’sOpens in new window Animal FarmOpens in new window is an allegory describing the aftermath of the Russian RevolutionOpens in new window.
What then is Allegory?
Allegory is a fictitious narrative constructed in a figurative mode of representation, suggesting thoughts and facts completely different from those which it appears to convey.
Allegory can be in form of a story, poem, or fictional images based upon a certain point that the author intends to convey which may be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral, spiritual or any abstract meaning. Thus, allegory can be a story that acts as an extended metaphor in which persons, abstract ideas, or events represent not only themselves literally, but likewise representing something else symbolically.
An allegory's figurative or symbolic meanings are usually expressed [by] using symbolic devices — like metaphorOpens in new window, personificationOpens in new window, imageryOpens in new window — and the likes. Allegory also takes place in a situation when allusionOpens in new window is made without proper introduction or explanation and the speaker instinctively relies on the audience to make the connection, as in the example outlined below,
- The ship of state has sailed through rougher storms than the tempest of these lobbyists.
Well, the Eagle has landed, I thought you’d never make partner in the firm.
QuintillianOpens in new window in his ‘Institutio OratoriaOpens in new window’, praises the use of allegory for its surprise: ‘It is novelty and change that we enjoy in language, and what is unexpected gives the greater pleasure.’ But one should not exaggerate the effect. Infact, when an allegory is too obscure, it becomes an enigmaOpens in new window.
Elements of a Good Allegory
Three qualities are demanded in every written allegory:
- The narrative must be well constructed as to please and interest, even if the real lesson designed to be conveyed is overlooked.
- The real lesson or object of the Allegory should be easily seen; and if there would be any doubt about its being understood, let a few words of explanation be prefaced.
- Both meanings of the Allegory should, if possible, be valuable.
Observations and Examples
The nature of Allegory will be best appreciated by studying some typical examples, as follows:
In the prophesy of Hosea, chap. x:1, we read
- “Israel is an empty vine.”
This is called either a metaphorOpens in new window or a trope, because “vine” is used in a figurative sense for a “nation” preserved by Jehovah as a grape-vine is cared for by a gardener. It will be observed that “Israel” is mentioned, so that no ingenuity is required on the part of the reader to determine what the writer means.
Now let us suppose that the word “Israel” was not mentioned, but that the writer should describe a “vine,” but yet so describe it that the reader should soon perceive that the writer meant to have him think about a nation, which he was describing under the figure of a vine. This would be an Allegory.
Fortunately, we have just another instance of such in the eightieth Psalm:
- “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt.”
Observe, the writer does not inform us that vine represents the nation of Israel. If he did so, he would begin with a comparison, or he might use a metaphor, but he leaves it to our discrimination to perceive that though he says “vine,” he means Israel.
- “Thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.”(It would have been more allegorical to say, Thou hast rooted up the wild vines, and planted it.)
- “Thou preparedst room for it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars; she sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river. Why hast thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by do pluck her? The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it. Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts, look down from heaven, and behold and visit this vine.”
Particularly, another beautiful example of allegory is the parable of the Prodigal SonOpens in new window. Although, no key to its real meaning is given, but every erudite reader knows that it is designed to convey a meaning entirely different from the literal signification of the words. It is so with all the parables of the Saviour, all being allegorical. In the Book of Proverbs, chap. ix., and the first six verses, a short Allegory will be found.
Inasmuch as this figure is much more frequently employed by some good writers than has been usually supposed, we give a few more specimens. The first two are from MacaulayOpens in new window.
Typically, what may properly be considered an allegory is introduced by a few words of explanation that put the reader upon the right track, and make it easy for him to understand the author’s real meaning.
It must not be supposed that allegories are necessarily long. They are often brief. Thus when QuintilianOpens in new window, pleading for a polished style of writing, makes use of the following expressions, he really employs an allegory, and such allegories are common.
Relationship of Allegory to Art
The principle of the Allegory is the foundation of a large department of the works of art; “Temperance” is represented as a woman with a bridle; “Firmness” as a woman leaning against a pillar. “Hope, Courage, War, Peace, Commerce, Life, Death,” all have their appropriate emblems. An emblematic painting may be intrinsically beautiful, and also strikingly illustrate some passion or the result of some custom, or some law of mind.
The “Voyage of LifeOpens in new window” has been allegorically presented in a series of pictures. The career of a gambler, a drunkard and an ambitious man, a Christian, might be represented in a series of paintings or statues. Even architecture derives an interest from the principle of the Allegory.
The heavy Gothic styleOpens in new window is felt to symbolize mystery, profundity, and to awaken reverence, and is therefore suited to a house of worship, while the lighter Grecian styles betoken rather cheerfulness and social pleasure. Many of these suggestions may be deemed fanciful, but it will be found that allegory is very prevalent in literature and art, and that its principles will richly deserve careful attention.
As a literary device, an allegory is a continued narration whose vehicle may be a fictitious character, place or event designed to represent and illustrate real-world realities.
Rhetors and authors typically use allegory to convey hidden meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, or events, which together create the intended moral, spiritual, or political meaning the rhetor or author desires to convey.