Allegory has been a popular literary technique for almost as long as we’ve had writing. But what are allegories? And how do you write one? Let’s look at the basics, plus a couple of famous examples.
What Is Allegory?
As a literary technique, allegory has two key features:
- It uses a fictional story to symbolise a real situation, where characters and events from the narrative stand in for their real-life counterparts.
- It uses this symbolism to teach a lesson or deliver a message.
Typically, writers use allegory to make a complex subject, such as morality or politics, easier to understand and more approachable. Some writers also use allegories to write about controversial subjects indirectly, distancing themselves from their true subject matter with the surface story.
Beyond this, allegories vary a lot. They can be long or short. Subtle or blunt. Critical or supportive. It all depends on what you want to achieve!
Allegorical Examples: Plato’s Cave
In Plato’s Republic, the narrator – the philosopher Socrates – tells a story about a group of people who live their entire lives chained to a wall in a cave, watching shadows projected on a wall in front of them.
To the people in the cave, the shadows are not mere images, but reality itself. They have no way of knowing otherwise as shadows are all they know. One day, though, one cave dweller escapes. He is shocked by the bright sun and the true nature of the world outside, but he cannot deny it exists.
Eventually, he returns to the cave to tell those who remained there what he has seen. But they don’t believe him. They even threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free. All they know is shadows, so any claim that ‘reality’ is more than this is deemed outrageous and beyond belief.
Here, Plato is really talking about how we know things. He believed in a realm of ‘Forms’ beyond everyday reality, inaccessible except via philosophy. Thus, we can break down the allegory as follows:
- The cave is our everyday existence among physical things.
- The shadows are the things we think we know via our senses.
- The man who escapes is the philosopher, who comes to know true reality by moving beyond the confines of our sensory experience.
- The people who refuse to believe in existence beyond the cave are those who refuse Socrates’s teachings, preferring to trust their senses.
On a literal level, then, this story is about people trapped in a cave refusing to believe in anything beyond their experience. But Plato’s aim in having Socrates tell this story was to explain why our everyday impressions of the world can be misleading, and why people resist philosophical truths.
Allegorical Examples: Animal Farm
To briefly summarise, Animal Farm tells the story of a group of farm animals who overthrow their human master. However, while they set out to create a fairer society where all animals are equal, their leaders become corrupt. As a result, the animals end up living in a dictatorship instead.
On its surface, this may seem like a warning against complacency for farmers. Or possibly a critique of the ability of working animals to organise politically. But it is really about Stalinism, with many elements of the story symbolising real-life figures and events:
- The animals’ revolt on the farm is the Russian Revolution of 1917.
- The horses and other animals are the exploited working classes.
- The humans represent capitalism.
- The pigs represent Communist leaders, with Napoleon as Stalin.
- The dogs raised by Napoleon are the KGB, the Soviet secret police.
Likewise, the book hints at key events in the early years of Soviet Russia, such as Stalinist purges and show trials. This allowed Orwell to write a critique of Stalinism without discussing it directly. But by making this critique in story form, he also made his political ideas accessible to more people.
5 Tips for Using Allegory in Your Writing
Finally, we have five quick tips for using allegory in your own writing:
- Find a subject – All allegories address a real-life idea or situation, so the first step to writing one is working out what it will be about. Typically, this is a big or complex idea that you want to simplify or explain.
- Plan your characters – The main characters in your story should all stand for something in the allegory, like how the pigs represent Communist leaders in Animal Farm. Think about what role each character will play, and try not to confuse things by adding too many characters.
- Plot your story – The events in your story should serve the allegory by reflecting real-life events or by exploring key themes. As such, think about how the plot will help you make your overall point.
- Leave clues – If readers are going to connect your story to the real-life events they symbolise, you’ll need to leave clues in the text. These could be in the descriptions, the dialogue, or the relationships between characters. For instance, in the first chapter of Animal Farm, one of the pigs addresses the other animals as ‘comrades’, which instantly hints that the story is really about Communism.
- Don’t forget the surface story – We’ve focused here on what an allegory symbolises, but the surface story is equally important. After all, far fewer people would have read Animal Farm if the story about animals overthrowing their human masters wasn’t interesting in the first place!
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