On allegory and favorite allegorical works

2020-12-24 @Literature

Until recently I’d become a bit disoriented over the precise meaning of Allegory. I felt it was a kind of a metaphor personified by characters within a story, human or otherwise. At times the conception blurred entirely with personification.

But I neglected the key, so let’s address the source of confusion. In my own words, an allegory is a kind of a metaphor (or symbolic device) that represents an abstract idea by way of personification. An abstract idea is key to the definition.

To use a metaphor for something more concrete such as a character’s unparalleled speed or power, a weapon, or, I don’t know, raindrops (referred to as fluttering doves or something of the sort) only passes for a general metaphor or simile (depending on usage).

Likewise, a non-human entity that merely personifies someone human falls short of the definition.

However, to symbolize something abstract like Time, Death, Anger, Wisdom, Rumour, etc, be it within a human, animal, a plant personification (or even an alien energy form): now that becomes allegorical.

Thus an allegory employs a particular mixture of a metaphor and personification. It is a kind of a personified abstraction.

That covers the Allegory 101 lesson. :) And apparently I’ve read tons of allegorical material without even realizing it.

Here I survey some notable favourites:

  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

    Allegorically abundant, especially the second half written in the latter part of Goethe’s life. There is too much for me to recall, although the masquerade immediately comes to mind.

    In fact, this segment alone makes the epic worth the effort, as entities of all degree of realism patronize abstractions among nature, austerity, minimalism, greed, nihilism, etc.

  2. Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

    A sixteenth century play relating the same Faust/Faustus story, albeit far narrower in scope compared to Goethe’s epic. Yet Marlowe wonderfully and hilariously personifies the Seven Deadly Sins in Act 2 (Scene 2). Perfect for the stage.

  3. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

    I’d only read Book One, but the whole six-book epic comprises a multi-layered allegorical product. Consider it the quintessential allegorical work of British literature, if you will.

    The Seven Deadly Sins also receive a treatment. But otherwise, virtually all characters symbolize some virtue or vice (and everything in-between). Book One emphasizes Holiness, though it further explores Truth, Doubt, Fear, Faith, Lawlessness, Despair, etc …

    It’s a masterpiece like no other I’ve read, and you need not engage in the perplexing exercise of allegory decomposition (such as literature courses inevitably tend to) in order to enjoy the poetry at face value.

    [There’s no shortage of allegorical homages to the Seven Deadly Sins. William Langland’s Piers Plowman also tackles it. Or the short, but memorable scene in Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis.]

  4. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems.

    There’s an abundance of cases and each one better than the next. It’s tough to pick favourites.

    In King Pest, a Monarchical sextet of Pestilence’s court brilliantly (and comically) personifies the 14th century plague (the Black Death).

    The prosaically poetic Shadow - A Parable is another dreary homage to the pestilence.

    The even more poetically mystifying Silence - a fable aspires to something similar.

    The acclaimed Mask of the Red Death is Poe’s quintessential allegorical tale concerning, again, the pestilence.

    Some of my favourite poems Ulalume and The Coliseum likewise showcase allegory.

  5. Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale

    Death, the pestilence, the deadly sins again receive a personified treatment in this short but powerful tale of three menacing ruffians.

  6. Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale

    Time fulfills a role of a choral interlude as the means to mend the wide temporal gaps between acts.

  7. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

    Depending on your interpretation and the depth to which you choose to submerge into this surreal adventure, you could consider it an entirely allegorical work.

  8. George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

    Not one of my favorite novellas, but one of my favorite showcases of allegory.

  9. Paulo Cuelho, The Alchemist.

    A beautifully written short novel comprising many an allegorical, mystical and moral framework.

  10. Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita.

    This one of my favourite magic-realism novels, like Alice, you can interpret at varying levels, including allegorical.

    [It is said for the Faustus legend to have strongly influenced the author in penning this novel, although I’ve never felt but a loose correlation.]

There you have it. What can I say? I share a fondness for allegory.

You’ll also find endless allegorical device in fine art and even music. But I lack the remotest prowess to methodically articulate such cases.


Questions, comments? Connect.