ALLEGORY: a symbolic representation of a concept

An allegory is a visualization of an idea.   Does that sound complicated?  It’s not.

Blind Justice, the statue shown in today’s illustration, is a perfect example of an allegorical symbol.  It is an artistic representation of a concept, that true justice is blind to such things as race, creed, place of origin, gender, economic status, orientation, etc, etc, etc.   When someone is brought before a court of justice they are to be judged on the basis of the facts of the case, and their personal qualities are meant to be irrelevant.  It is an ideal promoted by American justice systems, although they fall far short on occasion.  The symbolic statue is found at the U.S. Supreme Court building as a visual reminder that the justices are committed to the facts of the cases before them.

When immigrants enter the United States through the City of New York they see the Statue of Liberty, whose light of freedom is meant to be a reminder to those passing by that the United States is a welcoming nation in which freedom is a gift to all who enter.  That, too, is an ideal which is often at odds with reality.

But allegories are not restricted to statuary.  The anonymous morality play, Everyman, is a fifteenth century depiction of the encounter of humankind with a vindictive God who keeps a ledger used to judge a soul at the time of death.  The characters in the play are also allegorical and have such names as Knowledge, indicating that the character portrays the quality the name describes.

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan and Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard are Christian allegories about the travails of a believer who encounters the realities of the world and must make choices about directions on the road to salvation.  The traveler on these journeys is clearly meant to depict the ordinary person searching for God’s approval.   They are simplistic and moralistic pieces of literature which are both inspiring and nauseating at times.

Perhaps the most profound allegory in literature is Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.  It is a very powerful piece of drama in which two characters exhibit the meaning of “waiting.”  Godot is the one they are waiting for, but is never quite identified as “God.”   Godot never arrives.  Clearly the story can be characterized as sinners waiting for God and redemption.  Beckett, himself, might reject that idea, but it is a commonly-accepted allegorical understanding by many, if not most of those who have seen the production or read it.  That, of course, raises the question as to whether meaning for a piece of literature is determined by the author or the reader.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell, allows animals to play the roles of humans, creating a different form of allegory.  Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia also fall into the category of fantasy which has deeper meaning and is meant to define a purpose.

The use of allegory is a technique which invites the reader into the story and asks (him) to apply his own imagination and understanding to the script.  It avoids over-personalization, but is usually written in such a way that makes the allegorical connection without great difficulty.  In poetry, especially, the visualizations are rich and poignant.  A queen in her boat becomes a swan drifting on the Thames.  How rich and sweet the allegory becomes.

 

Photo Credit: Mateo Rodriguez

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Comments

  1. Rae Michael says:

    “They are simplistic and moralistic pieces of literature which are both inspiring and nauseating at times.” I was surprised to hear you describe Pilgrim’s Progress as nauseating. It is neither simplistic nor moralistic. It is not a story like that found in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. It’s about a new life. When Jesus Christ said he was the Way, the Truth and the Life, he did mean “Life”. John Bunyan was putting to words a journey which is inexplicable to our human nature. Pilgrim’s Progress describes someone who was given Life and who was in the Way….which leaves the other thing Christ said he was, the Truth. Check it out: Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 2 Corinthians 5:17

  2. Although Tolkien of course denied LOTR was allegory, saying in his introduction: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”. As you say, there are some works (Narnia) where the author decides the meaning and others (LOTR) where there is no obvious allegory, but the richness of the work allows the reader to discern a deeper meaning.

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