A Basic Guide to Allegory
When I first read the “Allegory of the Cave” as a senior in high school, it changed my life, cementing Plato as my favorite ancient philosopher and confirming my choice to major in English in college. I wanted to be one of the people who experience reality as it is, not one who just looks at shadows on the wall and doesn’t realize that there’s more to life than that. I wanted to be someone who tries to lead others out of the darkness. An allegory is a literary device that helps do just that.
Briefly put, an allegory is a story that attempts to present profound, universal truths about human existence through the use of symbols.
What Is an Allegory?
An allegorical story is one that is layered with multiple meanings. There is the surface meaning, which is what the story is about at face value. Then there is a deeper meaning that is meant to make a comment about a complex concept, usually something of a political, religious, or moral nature that may be difficult to explain or so controversial that you might get into trouble if you were to try to address it openly.
Allegorical stories may be the oldest form there is. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” as told in “The Republic,” is one of the most famous examples and was written in the third century B.C. Some scholars believe that religious stories and myths in many ancient traditions may have been intended to be allegories, in which case they would predate “The Republic.”
There are essentially two different ways to tell an allegorical story. One is by using symbolic allegory, in which an object or a character has a recognizable identity or mundane utility within the story but also represents a larger concept. Dante uses this type in “The Divine Comedy.” The characters of Beatrice and Virgil represent the concepts of divine revelation and human reason, respectively, but they also represent real people who actually lived. The other type is personification allegory in which the characters have no identity apart from the concept they are supposed to represent. “Everyman,” which is a morality play from the 15th century, is an example of this type in which the characters are given names such as Beauty, Death, Knowledge, and Strength.
Allegory of the Cave Summary
The “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s “Republic” is one of the earliest and most famous allegories. It describes three prisoners who have existed all their lives chained to a wall in a cave facing the rear. They are bound in such a way that they cannot move their head and have no choice but to look at the back of the cave. Behind the wall is a fire that is always kept burning. Their minders pass between the fire and the wall carrying objects. The prisoners see the shadows cast by the objects, and since that is all they know of reality, they view the shadows as truth.
One day, one of the prisoners escapes and leaves the cave. At first, the light of the sun dazzles his eyes, but eventually, they adjust and he is able to see the world for what it really is, and that it is so much more than mere shadows. He is eager to go back to the cave and tell his fellow prisoners what he has learned and lead them outside. But when he does go back, what he says sounds so strange to the others, so different from the only reality they have ever known, that they refuse to believe him or to go with him out of the cave. They threaten to kill him if he keeps repeating these ridiculous stories.
The “Allegory of the Cave” offers both a message and a warning. It tells us that there is often much more to reality and objective truth than what we perceive. It also warns us that people may be more comfortable with what they are familiar with and would prefer to maintain their own perception of the world, even if it is limited, than know the whole truth. Those who try to convince them to go beyond their limitations can be met with fear, hostility, and sometimes threats of violence.
There are many more examples of allegorical works in literature. They are often organized according to the time period in which they were created. For example, Plato’s cave story is an ancient example, while “Everyman” and “The Divine Comedy” are from the Middle Ages.
Chances are good you heard allegories during your childhood without realizing that’s what they were. Fables, such as those attributed to Aesop, and parables from the New Testament of the Bible are examples of allegorical stories. More modern children’s books use them as well. “The Sneetches” by Dr. Suess is a good example of telling an allegorical story in his characteristic humorous style while making a sophisticated comment about the serious topic of racism.
Allegories aren’t just for kids, however. Another more modern example of allegorical writing is “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. This is a novel about the political machinations among barnyard animals that represents the Russian revolution. Though the farm motif is popular in children’s stories, it is unambiguously a story for adults.
Allegory Versus Applicability
Be very careful when you hear critics or commentators refer to a work being “interpreted” as having an allegorical meaning or talking about “accidental allegories.” Allegories do not happen by accident. By definition, an author intends a work to have an allegorical meaning. If this wasn’t the author’s intent, it’s not an allegory.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t get meaning out of a story that the author didn’t intend. That’s a completely different concept called applicability. For example, many people mistakenly believe that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the novel by L. Frank Baum, is an allegory on the Populist movement in the United States. It was not intended as such. A teacher in 1963 applied the text to explain the presidential election of 1896 and engage his students with a topic that was otherwise uninteresting to them. It was so successful that decades later, people are still talking about it, mistakenly ascribing allegorical intent to its author.
It is very difficult to remember the difference between allegory and applicability. I always have to stop myself from referring to Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” as allegorical. I know what it means to me, but I’m not sure if he intended it to convey a specific deeper message.
Do you have a favorite allegorical story? When did you first read or hear it? Have you ever confused allegory with applicability? Tell us more about it in the comments.