Definition of allegory
- a writer known for his use of allegory
- The poem is an allegory of love and jealousy.
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Our world abounds with allegory. We encounter it in stories, movies, songs, paintings—anywhere that symbolism is used. An allegory is a work of written, oral, or visual expression that uses symbolic figures, objects, and actions to convey truths or generalizations about human conduct or experience. The word traces back to the Greek word allēgorein meaning "to speak figuratively."
The fables and parables that many of us encounter in childhood and beyond are both kinds of allegories. In these, as in other allegories, characters often personify abstract concepts or types, and the action of the narrative usually stands for something not explicitly stated.
Though allegory predates the Middle Ages (Plato's Allegory of the Cave is an early example of the form, and Cicero and Augustine made use of allegory as well), allegory became especially popular in sustained narratives of the Middle Ages, such as the poem Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose). This dream vision is an example of personification allegory, in which a fictional character—in this case, for example, The Lover—transparently represents a concept or a type. As in most allegories, the action of the narrative stands for something not explicitly stated: for instance, the Lover's eventual plucking of the crimson rose represents his conquest of his lady. John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and the medieval morality play Everyman are personification allegories as well, with the characters of Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, and Death in Everyman and such places as Vanity Fair and the Slough of Despond in The Pilgrim's Progress representing exactly what their names suggest.
In symbolic allegory, a character or material thing is not merely a transparent vehicle for an idea, but also has a recognizable identity or a narrative autonomy apart from the message it conveys. In Dante's 14th century The Divine Comedy, for example, the character Virgil represents both the historical author of The Aeneid and the human faculty of reason, and the character Beatrice represents both the historical woman of Dante's acquaintance and the concept of divine revelation. Ranging from the simple fable to the complex, multi-layered narrative, the symbolic allegory has frequently been used to represent political and historical situations and has long been popular as a vehicle for satire. George Orwell's 1945 political allegory Animal Farm is on its surface a fable about domestic animals who take over a farm from their human oppressor, but it expresses the author's disillusionment with the outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution and shows how one tyrannical system of government in Russia was merely replaced by another.
Allegory may involve an interpretive process that is separate from the creative process; that is, the term allegory can refer to a specific method of reading a text, in which characters and narrative or descriptive details are taken by the reader as an elaborate metaphor for something outside the literal story. One variety of such allegorical interpretation is the typological reading of the Old Testament, in which characters and events are seen as foreshadowing specific characters and events in the New Testament.
: a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation
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