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November 18, 2009

Allegory


Allegory has been derived from the Greek term ‘allos’ meaning ‘disguise’. So allegory suggests describing on thing under the disguise of another thing. It is an extended narrative poem or prose work in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities (represent or stand for something else) and carries a secondary (underlying/inner/symbolic) meaning  along with its surface (primary/literal) story. Some of its related genres include the fable and the parable, which are didactic, relatively short and simple allegories. In English literature all morality plays and beast epics are allegorical.  The salient features of an allegory are as follows:
  • An allegory consists of two levels of meaning: a surface meaning and a secondary meaning.
  • The literal or surface level tells a simple story.
  • The secondary level is the symbolic manifestation of the story.
  • The secondary meaning may be moral, religious, political, social or satiric.
  • Generally, the characters in an allegory do not have individual traits but they are often personifications/embodiments of greed, envy, pride, hope, charity, fortitude, chastity etc.
  • Allegories may be sustained or short; they may be independent wholes or may be embedded in non-allegorical elements.
  • Allegories may appear in the form of prose, poetry, or drama.
Allegory is a powerful figure of speech. Allegories had their heyday during medieval and Renaissance times in Europe. The use of allegory is very popular and effective in modern literature.  It is more or less, knowingly or unknowingly employed by all the great writers of all ages.  The Divine Comedy, written by the Italian author Dante Alighieri in the early 1300s, literally tells of a man's journey to heaven through hell and purgatory (supposed place or state of expiation of petty sins after death and before entering heaven).  Allegorically, the poem describes a Christian soul rising from a state of sin to a state of blessedness.  Other allegories include Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (Books I-III, 1590; Books IV-VI, 1596), a multiple moral-religious-political allegory expressed through tales of knightly deeds; Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a political allegory; and Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1846), an allegory of ideas.

Allegories lost popularity in Europe after about 1600.  However, many later writers used them to explore the meaning of human existence.  Such allegories include Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville and Finnegans Wake (1939)by James Joyce.

References

Griffith, Benjamin W. A Pocket Guide to Literature and Language Terms. Newyork: Barron's,
1976

Watt, Homer A. and William W. Watt. A Handbook of English Literature. New York: Barnes &
Noble, 1946
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