• File photo, "Allegory of the Cave." PlatoOpens in new window, in one of his profound Dialogues (file photo), describes an under-ground cave, having an opening toward the light of a great fire, peopled by persons who have worn chains on their legs and necks all their lives. Between the fire and the miserable creatures is a road, and they are amusing themselves with looking at their own shadows on the opposite wall and listening to words that seem to come from the images, but are only echoes of their own voices. The description is carried out into several pages, and is an allegory describing the miserable condition of men in this world, as it seemed to Plato.
Happy is the author who can judiciously illustrate and ornament his productions with the occasional use of allegory. — Quintilian

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,

  1. 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:

  1. The narrative must be well constructed as to please and interest, even if the real lesson designed to be conveyed is overlooked.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. “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.)

  2. “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.

Other Examples of Allegory

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.

  1. “The final and permanent fruits of liberty are wisdom, moderation, and mercy. Its immediate effects are often atrocious crimes, conflicting errors, skepticism on points the most clear, dogmatism on points the most mysterious. It is just at this crisis that its enemies love to exhibit it. They pull down the scaffolding from the half-finished edifice; they point to the flying dust, the falling bricks, the comfortless rooms, the frightful irregularity of the whole appearance, and then ask in scorn where the promised splendor and comfort are to be found.”

    — (Macaulay)

  1. “A pedestrian may show as much muscular vigor on a treadmill as on the highway road. But on the road his vigor will assuredly carry him forward; on the tread-mill, not a path.”

    — (Macaulay)

  2. “There stands an ancient architectural pile, with tokens of its venerable age covering it from its corner-stone to its topmost turret; and some imagine these to be tokens of decay, while to others they indicate, by the years they chronicle, a massiveness that can yet defy more centuries than it has weathered years. Its foundation is buried in the accumulated mould and clustered masses of many generations. Its walls are mantled and hidden by parasitic vines. Its apartments are some of them dark and cold, as if their very cement were dissolving in chilly vapors. Others, built against the walls, were never framed into them; and now their ceilings are broken, their floors are uneven as the surface of a billow, their timbers seem less to sustain one another than to break one another’s fall. You dig away the mould, and lo! the foundation was laid by no mortal hand; it is primitive rock that strikes its roots down an unfathomable depth into the solid earth, so that no frosts can heave it, no convulsions shake it. Such an edifice is Christianity”

    — (Dr. A. P. Peabody’s Christianity the Religion of Nature)

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.

Short Allegories

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.

  1. “I should prefer a block of Parian marble to a statue, cut even by the hand of a Praxiteles out of a millstone; but were the same master to polish that block, it would become more precious, through his art, than its own value.”

Quintillian here did not intend primarily to express any opinion about the comparative value of marble and coarse stones; but while he used those words he intended that his readers should understand that a good thought poorly expressed (a block of marble roughly hewed) is better than a poor thought rhetorically expressed (a stature made of a millstone by Praxiteles); but that he would prefer the good thought beautifully expressed (the marble block wrought up and polished).

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.

Important Hint! 

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.

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  • References
    • Adapted from Erastus Otis Haven's, Rhetoric: A Text-book, Designed for Use in Schools and Colleges, and for Private Study. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square, (1871). Allegory & Fable Opens in new window

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