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Allegory in Literature: History, Definition & Examples

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  • 0:05 What Is an Allegory?
  • 1:25 Fables and Parables
  • 3:16 Other Famous Examples
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Learn about allegories and how stories can be used to deliver messages, lessons or even commentaries on big concepts and institutions. Explore how allegories range from straightforward to heavily-veiled and subtle.

What Is an Allegory?

When is a story more than just a story? When it's an allegory. Sometimes authors deliberately tell their stories on two levels: a literal level and a figurative level. In an allegory, authors use their characters, setting and plot to entertain, while simultaneously delivering a moral, lesson, or even a commentary on big concepts, like religion, and institutions, like the government. For example, a story about aliens who find themselves isolated and alone in a strange new world can be an allegory for what immigrants experience in a new country.

One way to think about allegories is as extended metaphors, or comparisons, between two things, usually regarded as unalike. Since they are intended to make big concepts much more accessible, allegories are not always obvious. Once clued in to the author's larger purpose, though, the ordinary becomes symbolic; space aliens stand in for immigrants.

We get the word 'allegory' from the Latin word 'allegoria,' taken from the Greek word for 'veiled language.' Think of an allegory as an umbrella term for stories with deeper meaning - stories that are more than stories. Some allegories are very heavily veiled and might require an English professor to explain them to you. Other allegories are fairly straightforward.

Fables and Parables

A specific type of allegory, the fable, has been around for thousands of years as part of an oral storytelling tradition present in all cultures. Fables use animals and objects as characters to tell a story and deliver a lesson. By using animals to represent humans, storytellers are able to indirectly criticize human behavior. However, since fables tend to be short and have a quickly identifiable lesson, they are of the more straightforward variety of allegory.

For example, the story of The Grasshopper and the Ant compares the hardworking ant and the lazy grasshopper. The ant saves up food for the winter months, while the grasshopper plays. Instead of directly telling people bad things will happen to you if you don't work hard and plan for the future, the fable veils the message just enough to make the lesson more palatable. Really, when was the last time you were truly motivated by someone telling you to save more money? The Grasshopper and the Ant is one of several well-known fables attributed to a Greek slave named Aesop who lived around 600 BC.

Another type of allegory, the parable, is also part of a storytelling tradition and can be found just as far back in history as the fable. Like the fable, the parable is another type of allegorical story that delivers a clear message about human behavior in the hopes of getting people to act differently. It differs from the fable in that it uses people as characters rather than animals. This makes the parable much more direct than the fable, and the least veiled of all the allegories. Direct and with a clear, moral or spiritual message, it is no surprise that parables are found in Christian, Islamic and Jewish texts. The parables of Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible are short, instructive stories whose titles are often enough to convey their main ideas: The Good Samaritan, The Good Shepherd, and the parable of The Faithful Servant.

Other Famous Examples

Unlike fables and parables, most allegories are much more veiled. These stories are longer and more complicated than the simple tales of The Grasshopper and the Ant and the parable of The Good Samaritan. They often require some background knowledge and a willingness to see beyond the literal.

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