Allegory: meaning, types, and examples

Categories : Uncategorized , Literary Forms
allegory of the cave
Allegory: meaning, types, and examples 3

An allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which the characters, actions, and sometimes the setting are created by the author to make coherent sense on a literal level of meaning while simultaneously communicating a second, correlated level of meaning. There are two main types of allegory: historical and political allegory, and allegory of ideas.

Historical and political allegory

Historical and political allegory involves characters and actions that are literally signified but represent historical figures and events. For example, in John Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel,” King David represents Charles II of England, Absalom represents Charles’ natural son, the Duke of Monmouth, and the biblical story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father allegorizes Monmouth’s rebellion against Charles.

allegory of ideas

On the other hand, allegory of ideas uses literal characters to represent concepts, while the plot allegorizes an abstract doctrine or thesis. This type of allegory often personifies abstract entities such as virtues, vices, states of mind, or types of character. Names given to characters and places explicitly indicate their symbolic references. For instance, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” allegorizes the Christian doctrine of salvation, with the character named Christian journeying from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, encountering characters like Faithful, Hopeful, and the Giant Despair, and passing through places like the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.

Allegory can be employed in various literary forms or genres. It can be found in morality plays, prose narratives like “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” verse romances like Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” and satires like the third book of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Allegory can also appear as brief allegorical actions within non-allegorical works. Sustained allegory, popular in the Middle Ages, is present in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Chaucer’s “House of Fame,” and William Langland’s “Piers Plowman.” It continued to be used in later works like Goethe’s “Faust,” Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” and Thomas Hardy’s “The Dynasts.” In the 20th century, the stories of Franz Kafka can be seen as instances of implicit allegory.

Allegory, while devalued in the 20th century, has gained positive recognition from certain theorists. Fredric Jameson uses the term to signify the relationship between a literary text and its historical subtext or “political unconscious.” Paul de Man elevates allegory over the concept of the symbol, arguing that allegory’s artifice is more transparent than the mystified unity promised by symbols.

There are various literary genres that can be classified as species of allegory, as they narrate a coherent set of circumstances intended to signify a second level of meaning. A fable, such as Aesop’s fables, exemplifies an abstract moral thesis or principle of human behavior using animal characters that talk and act like humans. Beast fables, like those of Jean de La Fontaine, Joel Chandler Harris, or George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” are examples of this form.


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