So much of what constitutes great writing is down to the non literal, whether that is metaphor, symbolism or an allegory which will be our focus today.
We will be taking a deep dive into exactly what an allegory is, the etymology of the word and finally some of the most notable examples to add some color to the above.
By the end, you should be equipped to recognise this literary device in all its forms and hopefully have a greater appreciation of why a writer would choose to deploy it, subsequently enhancing your overall appreciation of the work itself as well.
Lastly, any aspiring writers will be well placed to utilize allegories in their own works, adding depth and layers to their writing.
This guide to allegory examples covers:
What is an allegory?
An allegory is a literary or artistic device in which abstract ideas, moral principles, or complex concepts are conveyed through the use of symbolic characters, events, settings, or objects within a narrative. It involves a deeper layer of meaning beyond the literal interpretation of the story or artwork.
In an allegory, the characters and events often represent real-world situations, historical events, or philosophical concepts, allowing the audience to explore and understand these ideas in a more engaging and indirect manner.
Allegories are frequently used to communicate themes, moral lessons, or social commentary, and they require readers or viewers to decipher the symbolic connections to fully grasp the intended message.
Etymology of allegory
The word “allegory” has its roots in ancient Greek. It comes from the Greek word “allegoria,” which is a combination of “allos” meaning “other” or “different,” and “agoreuo” meaning “to speak in public” or “to address.”
The term “allegoria” was initially used to describe a form of speech or discourse in which one thing is said while another thing is meant—a kind of veiled or hidden communication.
Over time, this term evolved and was adopted into Latin as “allegoria.” In Latin, “allegoria” retained a similar meaning of hidden or symbolic communication, often used in the context of interpreting texts with deeper meanings beyond their literal content.
The concept of allegory has been present in various cultures and literary traditions throughout history, but the term itself has its origins in these ancient Greek and Latin roots.
Noteworthy allegory examples
The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
Written in the 14th century, the poem takes readers on a journey through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Each realm, with its distinct inhabitants and torments, serves as a powerful allegory for the stages of spiritual development and the soul’s quest for salvation.
Dante, the pilgrim, represents the human soul seeking God. The allegorical nature of the poem allows Dante to explore profound theological concepts, moral dilemmas, and human experiences through symbolic encounters.
The vivid imagery and allegorical layers invite readers to engage with the complexities of faith, sin, redemption, and divine justice.
Animal Farm – George Orwell
An infamous book that uses allegory to highlight the pitfalls of political revolution and totalitarianism. Set on a farm where animals overthrow their human oppressors, the story cleverly mirrors the events of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent rise of the Soviet Union.
Through the allegorical portrayal of various animal characters, Orwell exposes the corrupting nature of power and the erosion of ideals in the pursuit of authority. The transformation of the farm from a hopeful utopia to a tyrannical regime shows the dangers of unchecked authority and the manipulation of propaganda.
By substituting human rulers with animals, Orwell effectively dissects the inner workings of political manipulation and the foolish desire to attain absolute control. ‘Animal Farm’ remains an enduring allegory that speaks to the universal themes of societal oppression and the potential for oppressive regimes to emerge under seemingly innocuous circumstances.
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Employs allegory to create a spiritual journey that stands the test of time. Written in the 17th century, the narrative follows the protagonist Christian as he embarks on a pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.
The allegorical elements are littered throughout the story and included in the characters and challenges he encounters along the way, each representing moral virtues, temptations, or spiritual trials.
Through this journey, Bunyan inspects the human struggle with sin, doubt, and the pursuit of righteousness. The vivid symbolism transforms the story into a multi-layered reflection on the complexities of faith and the human condition.
The Lord of the Flies – William Golding
William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” employs allegory to depict the fragility of civilization and the darker aspects of human nature. Set on a deserted island where a group of boys find themselves stranded, the novel’s allegorical elements become apparent as the boys’ attempt to establish a society quickly descends into chaos.
The characters, representing different facets of society, grapple with their primal instincts and the loss of societal norms. The gradual shift from order to savagery serves as an exploration of the innate human capacity for cruelty and violence when removed from the constraints of civilization.
The island itself becomes a microcosm of the larger world, exposing the underlying tensions between power, fear, and the struggle for dominance.
Faust – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This classic literary work utilizes allegory to explore themes of human ambition, knowledge, and the search for meaning. The story follows the protagonist, Faust, who makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, in exchange for worldly pleasures and unlimited knowledge.
This narrative serves as an exploration of the human condition and the pursuit of desires that often lead to moral and spiritual dilemmas.
Faust’s journey can be interpreted allegorically as a representation of humanity’s ceaseless quest for knowledge, power, and fulfillment. Mephistopheles can be seen as an allegorical figure embodying temptation and the darker aspects of human nature.
The themes of Faust’s internal struggle, his pursuit of ultimate truths, and the consequences of his choices offer insights into the nuances of human desire and the ethical implications of seeking more than what is readily available.
Allegory examples – final thoughts
As we can see from the above, the broad spectrum with which allegory as a literary device can be used is seemingly endless. And the fact that it is a technique which has been used for centuries by some of the greatest writers to have ever lived demonstrates its immense power and potential.
By reading the above works, and indeed many others, through the prism of understanding the backstory behind an allegory, readers will have a much deeper appreciation of what they are reading and the intention behind it.
In fact, one may find that having furthered their knowledge on the topic, they are able to recognize allegory in works they have previously consumed, but not been able to identify.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that allegories are not just used for entertainment in literature, but have the power to hold those in positions of power accountable. By finding that balance between enjoyment and making a statement, writers can serve a deeper purpose and contribute to societal change.