Sometimes you run across a literary term that pops up everywhere. Terms like that are important to understand, so today we’re delving into the world of allegory.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

For many people, the first exposure to the word “allegory” is in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” If you take the story at (extremely abridged) face value, it’s about people chained in a cave who believe reality is the shadows projected onto the cave walls, and when one of them gets out and sees actual reality and attempts to explain it to the others, they kill him.

The deeper meaning is that the man who sees reality is representative of a philosopher, since he is able to truly perceive reality, rather than the shadows.

And so an allegory is a literary device in which characters and events represent abstractions. An allegory could represent political systems, religious concepts, or philosophical constructs, but it might represent that abstract idea with a farm full of pigs and horses.

Basically, an allegory is a really long metaphor. Other well-known allegories, in addition to Plato’s cave allegory, are C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Frances Hodgon Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. 

Allegory applies to film as well: James Cameron’s Avatar and The Matrix are two prime examples of allegory on the big screen.

Sometimes allegory is inserted by a reader into a work that is not intended to be allegorical. People have drawn parallels between J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series and religious or historical events, but the author himself said that he did not intend the series to be allegorical.

Reader interpretation is certainly a factor in deriving allegory from a work, but just because the reader sees it doesn’t mean it to be the author’s intention.

PRACTICE

Dig into the recesses of your mind where metaphors live, and spend fifteen minutes writing an allegory of your own. Post your practice in the comments and leave notes for your fellow writers.