An allegory can be likened to the moral of a story. While an allegory is a story, poem, or picture, it’s revealing a hidden meaning or message. The purpose of an allegory is to teach an idea or principle, or to explain it.
The principle is conveyed through the characters or events. For example, the characters don’t come right out and say something like, “We should all be nicer to one another.” We come to that conclusion as the story unfolds. Let’s take a look at some allegory examples in books.
Books of Allegory
Allegorical literature has experienced popularity over many centuries. Some of the most prominent books of allegory include:
- Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Let’s explore each of these allegory examples a little further.
Pilgrim's Progress is likely the most famous piece of allegorical English literature. Written by a preacher intending to spread the word of Protestant doctrine, particularly the concept of what is necessary in order to achieve salvation, the book contains a myriad of representations. Exploring this work highlights and clarifies the elements of allegory.
- The characters are clearly representative of people and concepts that author John Bunyan is discussing without naming them more explicitly.
- In a lecture at Vancouver Island University, Ian Johnston stated that the characters in the work present clear doctrines. In fact, he goes on to assert that each character is the personification of explicit characteristics that are intended to illustrate a clear point.
Also in Pilgrim's Progress, the ferocity that Bunyan feels in relation to the strictness of the religion is made clear.
- Self-control and self-regulation were highly regarded in the radical sect of Protestantism to which Bunyan belonged.
- The first place in the novel in which Bunyan metaphorically reveals the importance of these concepts is through the fact that the main character's journey toward salvation requires him to turn his back on friends and family.
- While in other religious allegorical text, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, it’s clear that social interaction is highly regarded in relation to one's spiritual journey, Bunyan's treatment of individuals in the text reveals his highly opposite opinion.
In his lecture at Vancouver Island University, Johnston goes on to say that, in Pilgrim's Progress, an individual's spiritual journey is the only thing that matters. Something as basic as charity gets replaced by introspection and self-imposed spiritual flagellation.
Bunyan's treatment of the characters in the text is used metaphorically to convey his opinion regarding those who are "sinners" or "fools" and to impress the importance of that viewpoint on the reader.
Moby Dick uses allegory on many different levels.
- The Pequod's journey mirrors the one the U.S. took before the Civil War. The story is a reflection of Melville's feelings about America in the time leading up to the war.
- The conflict that occurs between Ahab and the whale is a metaphor for the relationship that man has with God.
- Ahab's struggles are a metaphor for the struggles all men go through when they are attempting to achieve major dreams or monumental life goals.
- Moby Dick may also be a metaphor for the idea that revenge can become a self-destructive obsession.
These are just some of the ways in which this work may be seen as an allegory. Different readers over time have read different meanings into the book, which shows the level of depth that Melville managed to include in his work.
Animal Farm is an allegory example that uses animals on a farm to represent the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, the actions of Stalin, and the revolution in Russia before World War II. The struggles of the animals on the farm may be seen as a metaphor for:
- How greed and indifference corrupt revolution
- The dangers that can occur without a smooth transition to a people's government
- The way in which those in power positions can manipulate the ideologies of society
Literary critics and historians have linked each of the characters to central players in the Russian revolution. In fact, Orwell was quite literal.
- Mr. Jones represents Nicholas II.
- Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin.
- Snowball is a manifestation of Leon Trotsky.
- Old Major plays the role of Vladimir Lenin.
- Mr. Frederick stands for Adolf Hitler.
In a more general sense, Boxer stands for the working class, while Squealer represents communist propaganda. The doctrine of "animalism" in the book represents real life communism, allowing Orwell to make clear his position on the political situation in Russia through the use of metaphor and allegory.
Life of Pi
In Life of Pi, the main character is a child who’s stuck on a boat with a tiger. At first, he doesn’t realize the tiger’s there because it’s under a tarp. As soon as he becomes aware of the tiger, he tries to get away from it. In the end, the two develop a tight bond.
The allegory is woven throughout the novel and it’s meant to mirror a relationship with God. The author, Yann Martel, would argue that we don’t always realize God is present. When we do, we often try to escape Him by living according to our own will. But, in the end, a life lived in union with God is a happier one.
Allegory in Literature
Allegory in literature abounds. Sometimes, allegory examples can be very obvious, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. Other times, it’s delicately mirrored, as in Life of Pi. Only after you understand Martel’s belief system can you piece the allegory together, but it remains a clever one.
You probably noticed allegories work hand in hand with rhetorical devices. Personification is a great instrument in the telling of a moral or theme. But, so are metaphors and similes. For more, enjoy these examples of rhetorical devices.