I. What is an Allegory?
An allegory (AL-eh-goh-ree) is a story within a story. It has a “surface story” and another story hidden underneath. For example, the surface story might be about two neighbors throwing rocks at each other’s homes, but the hidden story would be about war between countries. Some allegories are very subtle, while others (like the rock-throwing example) can be more obvious.
In most allegories, the hidden story has something to do with politics, religion, or morality — complex subjects that are difficult to understand directly. Many authors find it easier to think through these issues by translating them into allegories, which are easier to understand (and more fun to read) than dense philosophical arguments.
II.Examples of Allegory
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of literature’s most famous allegories. The surface story is about a group of farm animals who rise up, kick out the humans, and try to run the farm themselves. The hidden story, however, is about the Russian Revolution, and each of the characters represents some figure from that revolution. The pigs represent Communist leaders like Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky, the dogs represent the KGB, the humans represent capitalists, the horses represent the working class, etc.
Seuss wrote The Sneetches as an allegory for racism and other forms of prejudice. The story is all about creatures who are treated as inferior because they don’t have stars on their bellies. Like all Dr. Seuss stories, it’s written in a child-friendly, playful style, but it still contains an important political message.
III. The Importance of Allegory
Allegories deliver difficult messages in easy-to-read stories. That makes them extremely useful and expressive tools. So for centuries, human beings have used allegories to say things they couldn’t say any other way. Some scholars believe that myths and religious stories originated as allegories for the deep secrets of the universe and the human mind — secrets that humans cannot comprehend without the help of an allegorical story. On this interpretation, the allegory is the oldest form of story in the world.
People often use allegories in order to understand the world around them — whether it’s the world of politics, new technology, or the many ethical problems that challenge us today.
IV. Examples of Allegory in Literature
Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune is often interpreted as a loose allegory for the history of the Middle East. There are many obvious references to Islamic history throughout the book (for example, the prophesied savior is called Mahdi, the same term used for the messiah in Islam). In addition, there’s the valuable Spice, which may represent oil buried under the desert sands. There are also the Fremen, desert-dwelling warriors who may represent the Bedouin.
Ursula le Guin has a short story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” On the surface, it’s a description of a magical city that hides a terrifying secret. But its hidden story is a sharp critique of utilitarian philosophy, or the idea that what’s right is whatever makes people happy. Le Guin challenges this idea by describing a city in which nearly everyone is happy, but still things don’t seem to be morally right…
V. Examples of Allegory in Pop Culture
Since J.R.R. Tolkien fought in World War I, some people interpret Lord of the Rings as an allegory for the events of that war. The hobbits represent the English, while the orcs and their “eastern allies” represent the Germans and the Central Powers. The hobbits go off to fight a terrible battle, but must resist becoming their own worst enemy in the process. To see this, all you have to do is take a map of Middle Earth and lay it over a map of Europe in 1914. You’ll see where the “good guys” and “bad guys” come from. Tolkien himself says that his book was not intended to be an allegory. However, the parallels are still very clear, and some people argue that it’s a kind of “accidental allegory” for the war. On the other hand, it might just be a case of people reading too much into the story!
Neil Gaiman is a master of complex allegory, as shown by his Sandman comics. These books are designed to be an elaborate allegory for all human stories — “a story about stories,” as Gaiman puts it. At various points in the series, we see allegorical representations of various religions, historical figures, philosophical ideas, and even pop-culture icons. In the first book, a magician attempts to gain immortality by capturing Death in a magical cage – but he accidentally captures Death’s brother, Dream. Dream comes from a mystical realm in which legends and myths are real, and after his capture he struggles to get back to that realm before it falls into chaos. This is a complex allegory for the relationship between death, dreaming, and human mythology.
VI. Related Terms
Allegories are always rich in symbolism. That is, nearly everything in them stands for something else: each character can represent a historical figure, a philosophical idea, or an aspect of human psychology, etc. Most stories have this kind of symbolism here and there, but it is extremely used in allegories.
A parable is a story with a moral meaning, for example “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (about lying) or the story of the Good Samaritan (about generosity). Both allegories and parables contain messages, but allegories express them through symbolism, while parables illustrate the messages. In other words, the characters and situations in an allegory each symbolize some specific aspect of the moral story. In a parable, there isn’t so much symbolism; the story as a whole expresses an overall moral point. It’s a tricky distinction.