What is an Allegorical Figure?

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

An allegory is a fictional story that communicates messages through different layers of meaning. This lesson explores the role and purpose of allegorical figures in literature by examining well known allegories.

It's One Thing and It's Another

Have you ever read a story where different characters, objects, or events were more than what they seemed? Maybe one of the characters represented an idea, or an object represented a concept. Sound familiar? If so, then you've probably read an allegory. An allegory is a story with different layers of meaning. An allegory must meet two criteria:

  • it must be fictional
  • it must have a narrative (a full story with characters and a plot)

Two common types of allegory are fables and parables. Fables are short stories (usually with animal characters) that teach the reader or listener a moral or political lesson. An example is one of Aesop's most popular fables: ''The Tortoise and the Hare.'' The takeaway from the story is, 'slow and steady wins the race'. Parables are shorter and much simpler than fables, but they also teach important moral lessons.

Symbolic Allegory and Allegorical Figures

Symbolic allegory is a type of allegory in which main characters or objects in the story serve more than one purpose. First and foremost, they are a physical representation of themselves. For example, in ''The Tortoise and the Hare,'' the tortoise and the hare are both characters that interact with each other and contribute to the story. On another level, the characters represent abstract concepts or ideas. The tortoise represents patience and endurance. The hare represents impatience and immaturity.

Both the tortoise and the hare are allegorical figures: animals (or in other cases, people or objects) that function as both characters and symbols in a story. It's important to remember that allegorical figures can be taken at face value. They're still an important part of the story, whether or not they represent something more abstract, like an idea or concept!

Examples of Allegorical Figures

Allegorical figures are common in literature. Odds are, you've probably come across many allegorical figures and didn't even realize it!

''Yertle the Turtle''

Did you know that beneath his whimsical characters and catchy rhymes, Dr. Seuss was a master of allegory? As a kid, you probably read ''Yertle the Turtle,'' or at least you're familiar with the story. If not, here's a quick recap:

Yertle is a bossy turtle king who rules over a sweet little pond. He is the king of all he can see. One day, Yertle realizes that his domain is simply not big enough, and if he could see more, his kingdom would grow in size. To extend his power beyond the pond, he orders a bunch of turtles to stack on top of each other so he can sit on top of them, using them as a throne, while seeing farther out. Yertle is happy for a short time, but realizes that his kingdom is still not enough.

Afraid of the angry and crazy turtle king, Yertle's turtle subjects follow his orders. They stack on top of each other, one after the other, until Yertle can see for miles around. Unfortunately for Yertle, a turtle on the bottom of the pile burps, and Yertle's whole kingdom comes toppling down around him. Dr. Seuss leaves the reader with a final thought:

'And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he, / Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see. / And the turtles, of courseā€¦ all the turtles are free / As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.'

Who does Yertle represent in this allegorical tale? In Dr. Seuss's story, Yertle might represent a fascist leader, such as the German leader Adolf Hitler, and all of his little turtle minions might symbolize the Nazis. Yertle, like Hitler, craves more and more power, and more and more land. The turtles, afraid of Yertle and unsure of what else to do, follow his commands. Some of the turtles realize that what Yertle wants is bad for the greater good, much as some Germans who followed Hitler realized!

Animal Farm

George Orwell's Animal Farm is another example of a story that includes allegorical figures. In Animal Farm, a wise old boar named Old Major comes up with a great idea: overthrow the tyrannical rule of the farmer and start a new society, one led by the animals living and working on the farm. Sadly, Old Major dies right after sharing his brilliant plan with the other animals.

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