ISRA 2020
ISRA 2020

The hidden depths of ALLEGORY

An allegory is a type of literary work in which the characters and events represent qualities or ideas that relate to morals, religion, and/or politics – Roopa Banerjee

Most of us have heard Aesop’s fable of The Tortoise and the Hare during childhood. The objective of parents/teachers/caregivers recounting this fable to children is to drive home the fact that steady progress towards achieving an objective pays off. The tortoise and hare were deliberately selected by the author, to symbolise the qualities of slow and steady progress over hastiness. This type of literary work in which the characters and events represent virtues and positive qualities propagated by morality, religion, and/or politics is known as an allegory.
The word allegory is derived from the Latin allegoria which means figurative or veiled language, which in turn comes from the Greek word allos i.e, different.

An allegory can be an entire book or even a series of books, or it can be part of a longer work such as the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic (circa 380 BC). In Book 7 the renowned Greek philosopher Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. These people watched shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows were the prisoners’ only reality. Plato allegorises that if we remain shackled to limited ideas of reality, our life will also be limited.

Almost all features of an allegory (characters, objects, dialogue, and setting) can be construed as having a secondary, symbolic meaning that fits into the allegory’s broader meaning. For instance, in the 17th-century allegory tale Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), the protagonist Christian encounters characters such as Obstinate, Pliable, Mr Legality and his son Civility who lives in the village Morality on his journey through life. They symbolically fit into author John Bunyan’s prescription of how to take the right path to reach heaven and attain salvation.

There are two types of allegory — historical and conceptual.

Historical allegories effectively condense and simplify complex history to engage readers with an emotional intensity.

A perfect example of a historical allegory is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegory of the Soviet Union under Communist Party rule, where the farmer Mr. Jones is the Russian Czar. Old Major represents either Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin, and the pig named Snowball represents the intellectual revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Napoleon is Stalin, while the dogs are his secret police. On one level, the book is about animals living on a farm but, at a deeper level, it is a history of Soviet communism.

Conceptual allegories use characters and events to symbolise abstract rather than actual people. An example is the animation Pixar film Inside Out. The film is set in the mind of a young girl named Riley whose five personified emotions — joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust — lead her through life as she and her parents adjust to their new surroundings after translocating from Minnesota to San Francisco. The film symbolises how human emotions affect interpersonal relationships. Some psychologists use the film to help children understand their emotions.

An earlier example of Conceptual Allegory is the 5th century school text The Marriage of Philology and Mercurius.

Here, the seven liberal arts are presented as women, all with specific characteristics and their own field of expertise such as Grammar, who is ‘an old woman but of great charm,’ while Rhetoric is described as ‘a woman of the tallest stature and abounding self-confidence’.

In conclusion, an allegory is a story within a story. Some will just read the surface story while the more discerning will delve within to understand the hidden story. Allegories deliver difficult moral, political and religious messages by way of easy-to-read narratives.


Match the following literary works with their right allegory description:

1. Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene
2. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
3. Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound
4. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

A. A complex allegory about the French Revolution, and the Romantic ideal of creativity.
B. A moral allegory about Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, and knightly virtues such as temperance.
C. A social allegory about the alienation of the modern individual in society.
D. A religious allegory about a Christian’s spiritual journey toward finding salvation.

Answers: 1-B, 2-D, 3-A, 4-C

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