allegory

noun
al·​le·​go·​ry | \ˈa-lə-ˌgȯr-ē \
plural allegories

Definition of allegory 

1 : the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence a writer known for his use of allegory also : an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression The poem is an allegory of love and jealousy.

2 : a symbolic representation : emblem sense 2

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Synonyms for allegory

Synonyms

apologue, fable, parable

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What is allegory?

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.

Examples of allegory in a Sentence

Luther dismissed this mystical reading of the creative act as mere "allegory." But for Augustine the six days are not just a rhetorical trope. They are unlike the figurative language of the curse on the snake. To say that Christ is a shepherd is a metaphor; but to say that he is light is literal, since physical light is a "shadow" of the real light spoken of in Genesis. — Garry Wills, Under God, 1990 The Scarlet Letter is his masterpiece, because of the simplicity of its allegory and the grandeur of its colonial, Jacobean setting—and because of its shocking subject so nervously handled. Hester and Dimmesdale are sacred and profane love, subjects for Titian, yet conventionally clothed. — Robert Lowell, Collected Prose, 1987 He saw thousands of Buddhas lined up in trays in the tourist shops … some in lead, some in wood, some carved in stone and dressed in a little knitted caps and capes. He came to see in this ubiquitous phenomenon the Buddha's godlike propensity for self-division, the endless fractioning of himself into every perceivable aspect, an allegory made by the people of Japan from the cellular process of life. — E. L. Doctorow, Loon Lake, 1979
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Recent Examples on the Web

The program’s first week of episodes alluded to the Vietnam War, playing the conflict out through an allegory involving the show’s puppet characters (including the bossy King Friday, who builds a barbed-wire barrier around his castle). David Sims, The Atlantic, "The Quietly Radical Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," 4 June 2018 The move comes as peanut allegories have emerged as a concern for passengers with severe nut allergies. Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY, "Southwest Airlines will stop serving peanuts; allergy concerns," 10 July 2018 There’s the climate change-cum-hubris allegory going on, while the Maisie scenes draw upon an older audience’s memory of watching Jurassic Park themselves, as kids. Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic, "We’re Going to Need a Bigger Island," 22 June 2018 In 2017, the helmer released the divisive environmental allegory mother! and enlisted Patti Smith and Jessica Chastain to narrate a VR experience about the cosmos, Spheres. Katie Kilkenny, The Hollywood Reporter, "How Darren Aronofsky Recruited Astronauts for Environmental Doc Series 'One Strange Rock'," 31 May 2018 Referencing Classical allegory, the sculpture depicts virtuous good government in the form of a muscular 11-foot-tall man crushing writhing, feminized aquatic creatures meant to represent all that is inimical to it. Ginia Bellafante, New York Times, "Statue of Doctor Who Did Slave Experiments Is Exiled. Its Ideas Are Not.," 18 Apr. 2018 Word for Word, which adapts fiction to the stage without changing a word of the prose, stages a reading of the Scottish writer’s 1974 allegory of Watergate. 7 p.m. Monday, June 25. SFChronicle.com, "Bay Area arts and entertainment picks, June 25," 22 June 2018 The film, a science fiction allegory (though the sci-fi angle arrives late in the game), comes from rapper and musician Boots Riley of Oakland, California, hip-hop band the Coup, who makes his feature debut here as screenwriter and director. Michael Phillips, Detroit Free Press, "Review: Sci-fi and satire meet in ‘Sorry to Bother You’," 12 July 2018 Butler insisted the story was not an allegory for slavery while critics applauded it for reversing gender roles and examining the complex structures of oppression. Billy Perrigo, Time, "Octavia E. Butler, Who Brought Diversity to the World of Science Fiction, Honored With Google Doodle," 22 June 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'allegory.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of allegory

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for allegory

Middle English allegorie, from Latin allegoria, from Greek allēgoria, from allēgorein to speak figuratively, from allos other + -ēgorein to speak publicly, from agora assembly — more at else, agora

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Learn More about allegory

Statistics for allegory

Last Updated

15 Oct 2018

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Time Traveler for allegory

The first known use of allegory was in the 14th century

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More Definitions for allegory

allegory

noun

English Language Learners Definition of allegory

: 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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