From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Allegory is a device in which characters or events in a literary, visual, or musical art form represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. Allegory has been used widely throughout the histories of all forms of art; a major reason for this is its immense power to illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are easily digestible and tangible to its viewers, readers, or listeners. An allegory conveys its hidden message through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, and/or events. Allegory is generally treated as a figure of rhetoric; a rhetorical allegory is a demonstrative form of representation conveying meaning other than the words that are spoken.
As a literary device, an allegory in its most general sense is an extended metaphor. One of the best known examples is Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." In this allegory, there are a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to the allegory, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
First attested in English 1382, the word allegory comes from Latin allegoria, the latinisation of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoria), "veiled language, figurative", from ἄλλος (allos), "another, different" + ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), "to harangue, to speak in the assembly" and that from ἀγορά (agora), "assembly".
Northrop Frye discussed what he termed a "continuum of allegory," ranging from what he termed the "naive allegory" of The Faerie Queene, to the more private allegories of modern paradox literature. In this perspective, the characters in a "naive" allegory are not fully three-dimensional, for each aspect of their individual personalities and the events that befall them embodies some moral quality or other abstraction; the allegory has been selected first, and the details merely flesh it out.
The classical era
In classical literature two of the best-known allegories are the cave in Plato's Republic (Book VII) and the story of the stomach and its members in the speech of Menenius Agrippa (Livy ii. 32). In Late Antiquity Martianus Capella organized all the information a fifth-century upper-class male needed to know into an allegory of the wedding of Mercury and Philologia, with the seven liberal arts as guests; Capella's allegory was widely read through the Middle Ages.
The medieval era
Medieval thinking accepted allegory as having a reality underlying any rhetorical or fictional uses. The allegory was as true as the facts of surface appearances. Thus, the bull Unam Sanctam (1302) presents themes of the unity of Christendom with the pope as its head in which the allegorical details of the metaphors are adduced as facts on which is based a demonstration with the vocabulary of logic: "Therefore of this one and only Church there is one body and one head—not two heads as if it were a monster... If, then, the Greeks or others say that they were not committed to the care of Peter and his successors, they necessarily confess that they are not of the sheep of Christ".
In the late 15th century, the enigmatic Hypnerotomachia, with its elaborate woodcut illustrations, shows the influence of themed pageants and masques on contemporary allegorical representation, as humanist dialectic conveyed them.
The denial of medieval allegory as found in the 11th-century works of Hugh of St Victor and Edward Topsell's Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (London, 1607, 1653) and its replacement in the study of nature with methods of categorization and mathematics by such figures as naturalist John Ray and the astronomer Galileo is thought to mark the beginnings of early modern science.
The modern era
Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues, allegories may be read into many stories, sometimes distorting their author's overt meaning. For instance, many people have suggested that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the World Wars, in spite of J. R. R. Tolkien's emphatic statement in the introduction to the second edition, "It is neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence." Where some requirements of "realism", in its flexible meanings, are set aside, allegory can come more strongly to the surface, as in the work of Bertold Brecht on one hand, or on the other in science fiction and fantasy, where an element of universal application and allegorical overtones are common, as with The Chronicles of Narnia.
Examples by genre
Not every resonant work of modern fiction is an allegory. Arthur Miller's The Crucible, for instance, is character-driven historical drama with contemporary relevance, but is not an allegory in spite of its parallels with McCarthyism, linking the hunt for communists in the 1940s and 1950s to the hunt for witches in the late 17th century. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is plot-driven fantasy narrative in an extended fable with talking animals and broadly-sketched characters. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is another example of a work sometimes seen as allegorical yet, as the author explained, is not - rather it is an example of what he referred to as applicability.
Some elaborate and successful specimens of allegory are to be found in the following works, arranged in approximate chronological order:
- Ambrogio Lorenzetti – "Good Government in the City" and "Bad Government in the City"
- Sandro Botticelli – La Primavera (Allegory of Spring)
- Albrecht Dürer – Melencolia I
- Bronzino – Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time
- Artemisia Gentileschi – Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting; Allegory of Inclination
- The English School's – "Allegory of Queen Elizabeth" painted circa 1610.
- Jan Vermeer – The Allegory of Painting
- Lady Justice. – Such visual representations have raised the question why so many allegories in the history of art, representing male gendered realities, are of female sex.
- Graydon Parrish – The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy
- Allegory of the senses, a popular genre of baroque art
- Allegories (Bellini)
- Classical literature
- Aesop – Fables
- Plato – The Republic ("Plato's allegory of the cave")
- Plato – Phaedrus (Chariot Allegory)
- Euripides – The Trojan Women
- Book of Revelation (for allegory in Christian theology, see typology (theology)
- Martianus Capella – De nuptiis philologiæ et Mercurii
- Various Authors (The Holy Bible)
- Mediaeval literature
- Prudentius – Psychomachia
- Christine de Pizan – The Book of the City of Ladies
- William Langland – Piers Plowman
- Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy
- Modern literature
- No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... [In The Old Man and the Sea], I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.|Ernest Hemingway in 1954
- Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene
- Edwin Abbott Abbott – Flatland
- Joseph Addison – Vision of Mirza
- Antoine De Saint-Exupery – The Little Prince
- Jorge Luis Borges – "The Library of Babel" and "The Babylon Lottery"
- Peter S. Beagle – The Last Unicorn
- John Bunyan – Pilgrim's Progress
- William M. Burwell – White Acre vs. Black Acre
- Albert Camus – The Plague, The Stranger, and Myth of Sisyphus
- Wu Cheng'en — The Journey to the West
- J. M. Coetzee – Waiting for the Barbarians
- Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol
- William Faulkner – A Rose for Emily (Emily symbolizes the decline of the Old South)
- William Golding – Lord of the Flies
- Daniel Handler – A Series of Unfortunate Events
- Roger Hargreaves - Mr.Happy
- Nathaniel Hawthorne – "The Great Carbuncle", "Young Goodman Brown"
- E. T. A. Hoffmann – Princess Brambilla
- John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany
- C. S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia (most notably in the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
- David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus
- Jack London- "A Piece of Steak", short story about youth vs. old age
- George MacDonald – Phantastes
- Naguib Mahfouz – Children of Gebelawi
- Bernard Malamud – The Natural
- Cormac McCarthy – The Road
- Herman Melville – The Confidence-Man
- Hualing Nieh – Mulberry and Peach
- George Orwell – Animal Farm
- Edgar Allan Poe – "The Masque of the Red Death" (though Poe did not believe in allegory, this story is generally assumed to be one)
- Theodore Francis Powys – Mr. Weston's Good Wine
- Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials
- Jose Saramago – Blindness
- Anna Sewell – Black Beauty
- John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men
- John Steinbeck – The Pearl
- Jonathan Swift – A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels (political allegory)
- Koushun Takami – Battle Royale
- Rex Warner – The Aerodrome
- Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist
- James Cameron's Avatar
- Fritz Lang's Metropolis
- Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal
- El Topo
- Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country
- The Matrix
- Dawn of the Dead
- The Virgin Suicides
- District 9, Apartheid
- Cannibal Holocaust
- Foodland (film)
- Ana's Playground
- Pink Floyd—The Wall
- Planet of the Apes (1968 film)
- Beneath the Planet of the Apes
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1
- The Descendants
- The Twilight Zone (varied themes)
- Star Trek all series, (varied themes, though frequently addressed the issues of prejudice and racism)
- Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5, Episode 2: "Darmok"
- The Prisoner
- True Blood series is allegedly an allegory on LGBT rights
- Battlestar Galactica (2004)
- Alan Moore and David Lloyd – V for Vendetta identity, anarchism vs. fascism
- Various X-Men comics (mutants as an allegory for various social and racial minorities)
- The manga Hanako and the Teller of Allegory calls a story given form from peoples' belief in it an allegory
- Allegory in the Middle Ages
- Allegory in Renaissance literature
- Allegorical sculpture
- Cultural depictions of Philip II of Spain
- Literary technique
- Mythological painting
- Plot device
- Roman à clef
- The symbolical language of ancient art and mythology; an inquiry
- Theagenes of Rhegium