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Allegory in Literature: Examples

Laura Stiffler, Maria Howard
  • Author
    Laura Stiffler

    Laura has taught college English for three years. She is currently at University of Rhode Island completing her Ph.D. in Literature with a specialty in U.S. American Late Modernism focused on the work of William Faulkner. Laura received her MA from University of Massachusetts Boston in 2020 and her BA from University of Delaware in 2011.

  • Instructor
    Maria Howard

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

What is allegory? Learn allegory examples in literature, what an allegorical story is, the types of allegory, its uses, and the difference between it and symbolism. Updated: 06/15/2021

Allegory Definition - What is Allegory in Literature?

In literature, an allegory is a form of narrative that uses plot, setting, or character to stand for a message that has a larger moral or lesson, or makes a farther reaching commentary on real-world issues. Allegories often employ metaphors. However when used in literature, allegories are more complex in terms of plot structure.

Allegories in literature convey a deeper and more broad lesson or moral

Image of a book, hill and tree representing allegory definition literature

Whatever is being used as an allegory in the narrative disguises the true moral of the story. Generally though, there are underlaying meanings to the allegory that can be plural and distinct from one another.

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.

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  • 1:25 Fables and Parables
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Allegory Examples in Literature

The list below includes information for those wondering exactly what is an example of an allegory. The following list includes three allegory examples seen in literature within the Western canon throughout history.

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: This 1945 novel examines a collection of farm animals with human characteristics that revolt against the owner of the farm in an attempt to create an equal and fair society. The narrative uses allegory by positioning each animal character as representative of a characteristic of dictatorship, corruption, or totalitarianism. The allegory illuminates the danger of revolution leading to authoritarianism or suffering.
  • The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan: This 1678 allegory is one of the most considerable Christian theological texts and tells the story of the main character's journey from one city to another. The allegory is used to communicate man's own journey from birth to death and the tumultuous relationship one has with God.
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: This 1952 novel tells the story of a fisherman who struggles against a marlin for two days before finally catching the fish; the marlin however, is too big for the fisherman's boat, so he is destroyed while the fisherman drags him back to shore. The allegory in Hemingway's novel is man's pursuit of his dreams, the struggles he experiences on the journey through life, and the ultimate defeat of death at the end of life.

Allegorical Story Types

There are two central story types of allegories in literature which are categorized as either historical or conceptual. The table below gives a definition of each type as well as providing an example of each allegorical story type.

Type Definition Example
Historical allegories Actual historical events are employed within the narrative to provide plot, setting, or character which acts as an allegory The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Conceptual allegories Things that are abstract, like intelligence or love, are examined and critiqued within the narrative using symbols like character or setting The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Fables and Parables

Within the allegory literary device, there are two distinct categories of classification. These two types of allegory are the fable and parable which are explained below followed by an example of each.

  • Fable: This narrative is designed to teach a moral lesson by using animals as characters which represent ethical ideas. An example of a fable in literature is The Little Red Hen by Mary Mapes Dodge which demonstrates the value of hard work and perseverance to children.
  • Parable: This narrative style is told to alter a reader's behavior and uses mundane, everyday plots with depictions of human characters. An example of a parable in literature is The Parable of the Prodigal Son from the Bible that seeks to teach the lesson that what is right is more important that how one feels.

Fables and parables are similar in that they both have roots in the tradition of oral storytelling, but they differ in the fact that parables are often told in a much more straightforward and direct style while the narratives of fables maintain a level of emotional distance and implied rhetoric from the implied lesson.

Allegory and Symbolism

As one can most likely infer, allegories are a type of symbolism. However, it is important to remember that the presence of symbolism within a narrative does not necessarily make it an allegory. In terms of an allegory definition, literature can be elusive, but the easiest way to recognize allegorical storytelling is that they can often be identified as an extended metaphor.

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.

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Video Transcript

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of an allegory?

One example of an allegory is the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell because it uses animals as main characters with human characteristics. The animals revolt against the human who owns the farm speaks of a lesson surround authoritarianism, oppression, and tyranny.

What are the two types of allegory?

The type types of allegories are fables and parables. Fables are the earliest narrative form and use animals as characters to deliver a moral lesson. Parables are more ambiguous and multivalent and use humans as characters in the delivery of a lesson.

What is a allegory in literature?

An allegory in literature uses character, plot, or setting in an underlaying way that delivers a greater moral or lesson. Allegories can be historical or conceptual, and also be employed as fables or parables.

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