What’s An Allegory (Allegory Pt 2)

Click here for Part 1

Like symbols, allegories are details that point to something else in a story. However, there are a couple of key differences.

First, allegories are more deliberate than symbols. You can enjoy or make sense of a story without picking up on all the symbols.

I mentioned The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux in Part 1, and pointed out how that book symbolically compares the Phantom to Hades, which means the woman he pursues is symbolically Persephone. Understanding this symbolism enriches the book, adds a mythic significance to the tragic story. However, you don’t have to get all the references to Hades and the underworld to enjoy The Phantom of the Opera.

In contrast, allegories are designed so the story doesn’t make much sense or come across as entertaining unless you “crack the code.”

As Devin Brown puts it in The Christian World of the Hobbit, “While all the time there is a literal or surface meaning within the story, the author of an allegory is using those surface elements only to point to the “real” meaning outside the story.” (29)

Allegories are designed in such a way that you can’t miss them. The author shapes the story’s tone, descriptions, and other details so you quickly learn what each allegorical element refers to.

For example, you can’t miss what John Bunyan’s saying in The Pilgrim’s Progress. All the characters have names that indicating their role in the story, not proper names like “Jim” or “Jane.” Not only that, but the dialogue is full of direct, didactic quotes like this:

“There are such things to be had which I spoke of, and many more glories besides. If you believe not me, read here in this book, and for the truth of what is expressed therein, behold all is confirmed by the blood of Him that made it.” (5)

This isn’t dialogue meant purely for entertainment. This is dialogue designed to make a point. As Leland Ryken said in Jesus The Hero, an allegory’s goal is to tell a story that is “heavily didactic (having the intention to teach).” (104)

Second, allegories tend to have a smaller focus than symbols. Symbols in a story don’t necessarily need to have moral truths behind them. The fact that in The Phantom of the Opera the Phantom is symbolically Hades doesn’t give any kind of moral lesson. It just enhances the story.

In contrast, allegories always have lessons that the author believes are important.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress focuses on how to become spiritually mature.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm focuses on why Soviet communism is bad.

Edmund Spencer Faerie Queen focuses on how to acquire moral virtues.

The struggle with allegory is that since the audience needs to know the point being made, this creates certain limits. There’s not much room for including details just to make a scene happier or interesting. After all, the audience may think those details have hidden meanings you never intended.

This is why Devin Brown wrote, “In allegories, the surface or literal story is not particularly compelling, nor does it need to be since it is not the author’s focus. The story in an allegory is simply a means of illustrating something else.” (31)

These limits explain why everyone seems to use the same two examples when talking about allegories: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen.

People can still write allegories (modern examples include George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Hannah Hurnard’s Mountains of Spices).

But writing a good allegories takes some unusual skills. Thus, the genre tends to be rather small.

At least, that’s true for full-fledged allegories, stories where the entire story is built around making a point.

There is another option.

Click here for Part 3.

6 thoughts on “What’s An Allegory (Allegory Pt 2)

  1. Pingback: What’s a Symbol? (Allegory Pt 1) – G. Connor Salter

  2. Pingback: Writing Quasi-Allegories (Allegory Pt 3) – G. Connor Salter

  3. Vern

    I need to check out Fairie Queen. Never read it.
    One thing about a well written allegory, it can work it’s way into your internal philosophy of life. I find my mind drifts from a philosophical conundrum, to a part of Pilgrim’s Progress, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Which I think is allegorical, in the sense that the narrator is alwasy explainin the meaning of things in the greek cultural universe…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My Big Fat Greek Wedding definitely uses a technique that could be allegorical, a narrator who talks directly to the audience. On the other hand, the narrator isn’t trying to give any moral lessons, she just helps convey the story, so it doesn’t really have the didactic feeling allegories are supposed to hace.


  4. Pingback: What Makes a Story? (Building a Better Christian Novel) – G. Connor Salter

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