An allegory is a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme. It allows the writer to deliver a specific, meaningful message.
This message usually seeks to remind the reader of a moral obligation or specific religious teaching. Sometimes with allegories, the message is obvious, but more often than not it is hidden and a reader has to dig deep into the poem to try to uncover it. The message might be contained within a double meaning in a character’s words or a narrator’s description. It might also be found in symbols or actions, even events occurring in the background can have powerful implications.
In an allegory, the characters, events, and even objects, can act as symbols. They have a deeper meaning that the reader should if they are paying close attention, know to decipher. More often than not, allegory is used to tell what the writer would consider a “truth”. This “truth” or lesson is most likely of a religious, spiritual or moral nature. Sometimes, the lesson is related to history, or contemporary/historical politics.
After delving into, deciphering and understanding an allegory, it is the writer’s intention that a reader to take something from the experience. Perhaps it provides them with an opportunity to reassess their own beliefs or understanding of a topic.
Sometimes allegories are related to extended metaphors. The latter is a drawn-out, usually complex, comparison or analogy between two things. An allegory, while related, uses a single metaphor throughout an entire work.
Allegories, like many of the literary devices on this list, appear in everyday life without drawing attention. In fact, the majority of the stories we tell one another, especially those geared towards children, have an allegorical basis. There is almost always a lesson of some sort to be gained.
Origins and Examples of Allegory
The origins of this literary device go all the way back to Homer. Today, some of the best known allegorical works are books. These include Animal Farm by George Orwell in which the pigs represent figures in the Russian Revolution and The Scarlet Letter, which has a very obvious and poignant symbology.
In regards to poetry, writers such as Edmund Spenser, best known for his work The Faerie Queene, are known for their utilization of the device. One can also find many instances of allegory within the multilayered works of William Shakespeare.
Example #1 – Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Take a look at these stanzas from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ This section comes right after the mariner kills the albatross.
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
These lines use allegory to speak on sin. Specifically, as defined through the lens of Christianity. Killing one of God’s creatures, putting another’s life behind one’s own, is something the speaker in ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were contending with. This double meaning is even more obvious in one of the last stanzas of the poem:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Here, the speaker bids the wedding guest, to whom he was telling his tale, farewell and summarizes what he has learned. Never, should one love “man” or “bird” or “beast” more than the other. God, he states, “made and loveth all” and so should “we”.
Example #1 The Tortoise and the Hare
‘The Tortoise and the Hare is one best-remembered tales from Aesops’s Fables. This is a collection of stories from Aesop, a Greek writer who lived 2,600 years ago. The story of the tortoise and the hare is deeply allegorical. It tells of a prideful, overconfident hare and a determined, wise tortoise and the race the two engaged in.
Known by children around the world, the story teaches perseverance, hard work, and the nurturing of one’s natural talents. It also speaks to what one should avoid in their life. It provides an example of the detrimental nature of price and cruelty towards others.
Example #2 The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
Allegory is one of the most important literary devices at work in Spenser masterpiece, ‘The Faerie Queene’. It is more complicated than most allegorical works, as it is in the end, an allegory about allegorical writing. It is about the power of representing the world in a particular way and how that representation impacts a reader. In the work, a reader will also come across characters that have very directly been named for the trait they embody.
Example #3 The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
In this story, a reader is forced to examine class divides (or lack thereof) and the inescapable nature of death. Poe writes of a plague, The Red Death, and the efforts of the rich to confine themselves. They lock themselves away from the rest of the world, gathered by Prince Prospero. They live in Prospero’s abbey where they resolve not to leave until they can be sure of their own safety.
Some time passes and the Prospero holds a ball, or masque, in seven of the abbey’s rooms. The colour, lighting, and placement of the rooms all have deeper allegorical significance. The last room is the darkest. In it, one could find black velvet and red windows. It represents the darkness and death that is still among them.
At midnight the Red Death appears. His “vesture was dabbled in blood” and his face was “besprinkled with scarlet horror”. This representation of death walks along with the people and eventually they tear off his robe. There is nothing beneath, symbolizing the intangibility and therefore unstoppable nature of the plague.
Take a look at this list of other poems that use allegory:
- The Haunted Palace’ by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Woman and the Angel’ by Robert Service
- ‘The Caged Skylark’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins
- ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti