The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Allegory: The concrete presentation of an abstract idea, typically in a narrative — whether prose, verse, or drama — with at least two levels of meaning. The first level is the surface story line, which can be summed up by stating who did what to whom when. The second level is typically moral, political, philosophical, or religious. To facilitate recognition of this deeper level of meaning, allegories are often thinly veiled; personification is common, and sometimes characters bear the names of the qualities or ideas the author wants to represent. Allegories need not be entire narratives, however, and narratives may contain allegorical elements or figures. Many critics consider the allegory to be an extended metaphor and, conversely, consider metaphors — which involve saying one thing but meaning another — to be “verbal allegories.”

Allegories generally fall into two major categories: (1) the political and historical allegory; and (2) the allegory of abstract themes. In the first type, the figures, settings, or actions correspond directly and specifically to historical personages, places, and events (Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, for instance). In the second type, the characters stand for ideas or abstract qualities. (In an allegory warning against laziness, the main character might encounter figures such as Sloth and Perseverance.)

Allegory continues to be used as a narrative device today, although its popularity peaked in the Middle Ages, when the dream vision was a prevalent form. Types of allegory common in other historical periods include the fable, exemplum, and parable.

EXAMPLES: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), an allegory of abstract themes, is the most famous English allegory. On the surface, it tells the story of a man named Christian who journeys from one city to another, but on a deeper level, the problems he encounters represent obstacles that a good Christian must overcome to live a godly life. Christian encounters such blatantly allegorical figures and places as Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Vanity Fair, and the Slough of Despond.

In “Lend Me Your Light,” an autobiographical short story from Rohinton Mistry’s collection Swimming Lessons (1989), the protagonist, an Indian émigré who has returned to Bombay for a visit home, observes the activity at a train station, enacted “with all the subtlety of a sixteenth-century morality play”:

The drama began when the train, Reality, rolled into the station. It was overcrowded because everyone wanted to get on it: Virtue, Vice, Apathy, Corruption, all of them. Someone, probably Poverty, dropped his plastic lunch bag amidst the stampede, nudged on by Fate. Then Reality rolled out of the station with a gnashing and clanking of its metal, leaving in its wake the New Reality. And someone else, probably Hunger, matter-of-factly picked up Poverty’s mangled lunch, dusted off a chapati which had slipped out of the trampled bag, and went his way. In all of this, was there a lesson for me? To trim my expectations and reactions to things, trim them down to the proper proportions?

In the animated film Inside Out (2015), the emotions experienced by the protagonist Riley, a young girl uprooted by a family move, are represented by five color-coded figures: Anger (red), Sadness (blue), Disgust (green), Fear (purple), and Joy (yellow).