What is Allegory?

First things first! Before we get too deep in our course, let's understand exactly what allegory is. Read the information below to learn exactly what allegory is and what it is not. Then head to the Examples of Allegory page to learn about and read more examples of allegory.

Definitions

  • a story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. (Google)
  • a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation; a symbolic representation of something else (Merriam-Webster)
  • a literary device in which characters or events in a literary, visual, or musical art form represent or symbolize ideas and concepts (Wikipedia)

Explanation

So you've read the definitions, and you're still a little confused, right? Don't worry, let's take a closer a look and start simple.

Simply put, an allegory is a story. Got it? An allegory is a story, but not just any story. Allegories are stories that have characters, settings, and events that represent something completely different than what is in the story. 

Confused? Let's talk about two terms: literally and allegorically. When you read a story, you can read it many ways. You can read it literally. this means you don't look for any hidden meanings or symbols. That story about the crazy, power hungry pigs who take over a farm and oppress their fellow animals is just a story about a farm with some crazy, power hungry pigs who take over a farm and oppress their fellow animals. However, if you read something allegorically, you are looking for hidden meanings from the author. For example, maybe those crazy, power hungry pigs who take over a farm and oppress their fellow animals are meant to be crazy, power hungry communist leaders who oppress their fellow people. Yeah, and that farm isn't a farm, but a whole country. When you start reading a story that way, you've found an allegory!

Is it clear now? A book like Animal Farm is not intended to be read as a fairy tale about animals on a farm. George Orwell expects you to see the pigs as the communist leaders of Soviet Russia. The Animal Farm is meant to be the USSR. Other animals on the farm are not just random animals but representations of different people or groups of people from Soviet Russia. This is an allegory. An allegory can be as along as a book or a series of books, or it can be as short as a paragraph or two like Aesop's Fables. If the whole story, however, is meant to be read as a representation of some human idea, concept, or historical event, it is an allegory and should not be read literally.

What allegory isn't

While allegories use metaphor, symbolism, personification, and other literary devices to deliver their message, these devices are not by themselves an allegory. Take Maus for example. Maus is an example of an extended visual metaphor where the artist uses animal characters to communicate hidden meanings about different racial groups to tell a Holocaust survival story. It is a brilliant use of symbolism and metaphor over the course of an entire story, but it is not an allegory because it uses real events, real places, and real characters. Take away the art, the drawings of the animals, and the story is a biography of a Holocaust survivor and his son.

To review the other literary devices out there, read this and watch the video below. Hope you like hip hop. 


Module 1: Getting Started                Module 4: Understanding the allegory, Part 1