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Writing Presumes an Audience

The reader as detective: Allegory in Literature

By Charlene Smith (c)


Every reader is a detective; he or she reads hoping to discover new information, fresh insights into life, in the best literature, learning is osmotic and not didactic. Allegory aids this subtle process. Great works of writing tend to be allegorical; they have hidden meanings that often hold a moral lesson.

The story of "The Tortoise and The Hare" is a well-known allegory with a moral that a slow and steady approach (symbolized by the Tortoise) is better than a hasty and overconfident approach (symbolized by the Hare).

Characters, events, locations, and objects in allegories usually symbolize:
·  Virtues, vices, or other abstract ideas. A crooked banker might symbolize greed, while the character of Mr. Legality in the allegory Pilgrim's Progress symbolizes a viewpoint that prioritizes the law over faith in Jesus Christ.
·   Real people and specific historical events. For example, one character might symbolize Russian communist leader, Joseph Stalin, as Napoleon does in Animal Farm. The baobabs in The Little Prince represent the Axis Powers during the Second World War (Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and nationalist Japan, or anything evil).
     Although the symbolism in some allegories can be subtle, the analogy is often apparent. For example, Mr. Legality, who symbolizes a mindset focused around the law, is named Mr. Legality! And in  Geoffrey Chaucer's House of Fame, Lady Fame is a character who determines the social reputations of others.


     Historical allegories

    Writers may use symbols to mask the real subject of their writing (for instance, to avoid censorship or punishment, as an example, British publishers initially did not want to publish Animal Farm because they said it was too evident that it criticized Joseph Stalin). Sometimes a historical allegory is used to distill a complicated history into a simple story that will interest readers on an emotional level, for example, Anna Sewell's book, Black Beauty is apparently about a horse, in fact, it tells the story of slavery and its evils.

Conceptual allegories (parables)

A conceptual allegory uses characters and events to symbolize abstract things rather than actual events or people. It's common for writers of conceptual parables to use characters that embody moral qualities, such as purity, bravery, integrity, or love. Most religious and social allegories fall under this category since they usually don't have to do with a specific person or historical event, but rather a virtue or vice. 

In E. B. White's, Charlotte's Web the protagonist is a pig, and his best friend is a spider, both are creatures frequently scorned, but this beautiful book gives a great story about love, courage, and the importance of never taking anyone at face value.
Although an allegory uses symbols, it is different from symbolism. An allegory is a complete narrative (or story) that involves characters and events that stand for an abstract idea or event.

A symbol, on the other hand, is an object with a particular meaning, for example, writing about acorns falling on a roof like machine-gun fire is symbolic, it tells you what the sound is like, it does not form the whole story.
Writers use allegory to add different layers of meanings to their works. Allegory makes their stories and characters multidimensional so that they create deeper meaning that thoughtful readers understand.

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