Literary Techniques: Allegory
Posted on January 15, 2018 by Patrick Condliffe
Welcome to our glossary of Literary Techniques ALLEGORY post. In this post, we provide a comprehensive explanation of what allegory is and how you can analyse it insightfully in your essays. This post expands on one of the many literary techniques that you can find in our Glossary of Literary Techniques for Analysing Written Texts. If you would like to develop your English skills for Years 11 and 12, you should read our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English!
Students commonly ask the following questions about allegory:
- What is an allegory?
- How does allegory work?
- How do I figure out what an allegory is saying?
- How do I analyse an allegory?
- How can I discuss allegory in my essay?
In this post, we will give you a detailed explanation of what allegory is.
Allegory is a widely used way of conveying information to audiences. Often composers embed a crucial message inside a narrative. This is used by composers in narratives but also by all of us in day-to-day parlance. Before we look at how to discuss allegory in your Band 6 essays, we need to know how to spot and understand them. So let’s show you how to figure out if something is an allegory and how to unpack what the allegory is trying to convey to you.
An allegory is an extended metaphor where objects, persons, and actions in a narrative are equated with meanings outside of the narrative. The meaning of an allegory can have moral, social, religious, or political significance, often relatable to the context of the author.
Allegories are more than just techniques, they are a text type, too. Some texts include allegories, while other texts are allegories. This post will show you how to make this distinction.
Allegories are a common type of text. Many classical myths and religious stories are allegories.
A popular classical allegory, for example, is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
In this allegory, Plato describes an individual chained up in a cave. Behind them is a wall and a fire, above them, is a raised walkway. All they can see is the wall in front of them where a procession of people and objects are cast in shadow as they walk over the walkway. One day, this prisoner escapes and she gets to see the outside world and see how different the outside world is from the shadows she’d seen all her life. She returns to the cave to tell her cellmates about this, but they can’t see her, only her distorted shadow and the words seem like strange noises.
You can watch a good animation of this here.
This allegory stands as its own dark tale of isolation an reluctance in the face exposure to new ideas, but it also relates to the outside world. The prisoner in the cave who escapes is often read as the philosopher who has insights in to the world and existence, but who cannot convince those around him.
This is allegorical of how we all like to have a fixed worldview, but are often unwilling to change it when we are confronted by the differing viewpoints of others. This is a problem that takes renewed urgency in the era of social media and “fake-news”.
Image: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam after Cornelis van Haarlem (1604)
A well-known contemporary example of an allegorical text is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In this text, a collection of animals, lead by the pigs Old Major, Snowball, and Napoleon take over a farm. As they take control of the property, one of the pigs, Napoleon, becomes more and more authoritarian. Soon his dictatorial rule is no different from the humans who ran the farm before.
This text is an allegory of the Soviet revolution of 1918. As the revolution settled in and the USSR developed it became a totalitarian state under the rule of Josef Stalin. In Animal Farm, Napoleon is an allegorical counterpart of Stalin.
Allegory works in much the same manner as a metaphor, only it is an extended metaphor. If you are unsure of what a metaphor is; how metaphor works; or how to analyse metaphors; you should read this post on how to analyse metaphors, first.
If we go back to our understanding of metaphor, a metaphor works by comparing two objects. One is the vehicle, the object carrying the meaning, and the other is the tenor, the object that is described. Consider this flowchart as a visualisation of the metaphor process:
An allegory uses the narrative as the vehicle that carries the message, or idea, about the real world (tenor).
To return to our discussion of Orwell’s Animal Farm, the story of the animal’s rebellion and Napoleon’s rise to power (the vehicle) carries the message about the real world example of Stalin’s rise to power and his usurpation of the Russian Revolution (the tenor). Orwell’s allegory has several incidents occur in the plot that mirror real-world events: for example, the building of the windmill and its subsequent collapse represents one of Stalin’s disastrous five-year plans to rapidly industrialise Russia.
Remember, while an allegory may bear some similarities to a metaphor, it is not a metaphor.
Analysing an allegory is a similar process to analysing a metaphor, only the scale is larger – allegories can run for a few sentences through to the length of the text you’re reading or viewing.
The size of the allegory doesn’t change the process of identifying it, but it does mean you may need to be more patient and will definitely need to be more attentive when you’re reading your text to spot it and understand it.
Let’s look at an overview for analysing an allegory. If you feel that your narrative includes, or is, an allegory, you must:
- Ask yourself, “what is this narrative trying to compare?”
- See if the text you are reading makes consistent reference to a historical period or perhaps resembles historical events, or consider if it is referencing an idea or ideology. (This may require some contextual research before analysing the text)
- See what the allegory is attempting to say.
- Ask yourself, “how is this commenting on a period, idea, or person?”
- Ask yourself, “How does this develop meaning in the text?”
- Consider what the qualities of the narrative – the vehicle – are.
- Ask yourself, how do these change your perspective on the ideas being represented?
- Decide which theme, or themes, this allegory best depicts.
- Discuss your insights into the text using a T.E.E.L format.
Now we understand the overview of the process, let’s look at this as a step-by-step process. So we can be practical, we’ll consider Authur Miller’s play The Crucible as an example:
Step 1: Read the text to see what it is trying to comment on by comparing the imagined with the real
Arthur Miller’s play recounts the events of the Salem Witch Trials that occurred between 1692 and 1693. During the trials, the members of the town turned on another and denounced each other for witchcraft. By the end of the trails, 20 people had been hung.
Arthur Miller wrote this play during the 1950s, it was first staged on January 22nd, 1953 in New York. During this period, there was a heightened sense of tension between “Western Capitalists” and “Eastern Communists” as a consequence of the Cold War which had emerged out of the conclusion of World War 2.
In Act One, Miller starts making reference to the paranoia and animosity present in Salem and connecting it to events in his own context.
Miller frames the “witch hunt” occurring in his text as being a “perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.” Clearly, he is suggesting there is a parallel between the two texts, but we need to be more specific about what that connection is and how it is being depicted, allegorically, in his text.
Step 2: See if the text you are studying makes consistent reference to a period, ideology, or person
Miller’s play is unusual in that it intersperses dramatic action with extensive essays and sections of prose describing the historical context and the atmosphere of the 1950s. One such passage occurs on pages 35-36, Miller writes:
|At this writing, only England has held back before the temptations of contemporary diabolism. In the countries of the Communist ideology, all resistance of any import is linked to the totally malign capitalist succubi, and in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell. Political opposition, thereby, is given an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized intercourse. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a coterie of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.
The results of this process are no different now from what they ever were, except sometimes in the degree of cruelty inflicted, and not always even in that department. Normally the actions and deeds of a man were all that society felt comfortable in judging, The secret intent of an action was left to the ministers, priests, and rabbis to deal with. When diabolism rises, however, actions are the least important manifests of the true nature of a man. The Devil, as Reverend Hale said, is a wily one, and, until an hour before he fell, even God thought him beautiful in Heaven.
In this passage, Miller makes it clear that he perceives a clear connection between the behaviours of the early settlers in Salem and the persecution of potential communists in America in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Step 3: See what the allegory is attempting to say
The Crucible is commenting on the intolerance that can emerge in a society. To understand what society was being intolerant of, we need to know a little more about the period when Miller wrote the play.
Shortly before Miller began to research The Crucible, one of his friends was subpoenaed by an American Congressional Hearing. The Committee was known as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. This committee was used to investigate figures who were accused of treason or loyalty to a foreign power. It was formed in 1938 but gained notoriety in the late 1940s and early 1950s when it was used to investigate actors and directors as part of an investigation into Hollywood.
The HUAC committee ruined the careers of many Hollywood actors, directors, or writers who were accused of having communist sympathies. HUAC became synonymous with Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Junior Senator from Wisconsin who launched several investigations into communists and homosexuals int he public service. While he never served on HUAC, he was a senator, he was the patron of a young congressman called Richard Nixon who did sit on the committee. The committee’s investigations often dovetailed with Senator McCarthy’s concerns.
One of the individuals called before the committee was an actor and director known as Elia Kazan. Kazan was a close friend of Miller’s until he testified before HUAC and named other directors and actors as being former communists. Kazan had initially been reluctant but ultimately testified against others from his industry that he had worked with.
We can deduce, then that there is a parallel between the characters in the text and those in real life:
Members of the House Un-American Committee/ Joseph McCarthy:
- John Danforth
- Rev. Samuel Parris
- John Hathorne
- and, until he turned his back on the committee, Rev. john Hale.
Witnesses who testified against their peers – such as, Elia Kazan, either freely or under duress:
- Abigail Williams
- Mary Warren and the other girls
Witnesses who defied the committee such as actor Lionel Stander:
- Rebecca Nurse
- John and Elizabeth Proctor
- Giles Corey
We now understand how The Crucible is an allegory, but now we need to understand why Miller has written it in this way.
Step 4: Ask yourself, “how does this develop meaning for the reader?”
Allegories allow audiences to separate the ideas being discussed from the context they are from. MIller’s use of the Salem Witch trials allowed him to draw a parallel between an horrific event from America’s past and the present investigations into Hollywood. The Crucible is a tragedy, it depicts the ultimate fall and death of its protagonist, a flawed but heroic man who stood up to corrupt authority and paid for it with his life.
The Crucible allows viewers to understand the HUAC trials outside of the lens of political ideologies. Viewers can see how individuals turn on one another to protect themselves and their interests when placed under duress. This allegory depicts how social changes create situations where a change in social and political expectations produced a reactionary response, or as Miller said – “perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.”
Step 5: Write up your insights using a T.E.E.L structure
Now we need to communicate this in a structured manner. We must use a T.E.E.L structure to explain what we feel the allegory is stating:
- Technique: The technique used in the example;
- Example: The example;
- Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning;
- Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.
You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses).
Let’s use this T.E.E.L structure to write about allegory in The Crucible:
- The technique being used is Allegory.
- The example of the Allegory is the text’s representation of political repression. Miller argues that, “A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a coterie of plots and counterplots and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.” In The Crucible, this is achieved by the paralleling of historical figures in the play with figures from Miller’s own context – Abigail Williams / Elia Kazan; Nixon/ Hale and Danforth; Lionel Stander / John Proctor.
- The effect of this allegory is that the audience is given to consider the HUAC trials, and similar witch-hunts, without being coloured by political ideology.
- For the purpose of this example, the link to our argument about Module C: People and Politics is that Miller uses this allegory to criticise any powerful body that takes a corrupt approach to investigating members of the community, especially one that turns members of that community against one another needlessly.
Let’s put this together into a complete piece of analysis about this allegory:
|Miller’s The Crucible is, superficially, an allegory about the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) and at a deeper level about any corrupt governing body that creates paranoia amongst is members or citizenry. Miller frames this issue in Act One, where he states in the interlude that “A political policy is equated with moral right and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a coterie of plots and counterplots and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.” Here, Miller describes how ideology is used to pit citizens in a Manichean battle for the moral high-ground. In The Crucible, this division is between the characters Parris, Hathorne, and Danforth who embody the government (these characters paralleled the contextual figures of Nixon, McCarthy, and other members of HUAC) who were aligned against the citizens of Salem who were called before the court and resisted it – such as, Giles Putney and John Proctor (who reflected figures such as Lionel Stander and even Elia Kazan). Miller’s use of allegory is a powerful structural technique that allows audiences to understand conflicting political motivations within a society and the catastrophic consequences political corruption can have on a society.|
Now we have a solid grounding on how to analyse allegory, let’s look at one last example to ensure that you understand it thoroughly.
Rosemary Dobson – Young Girl at a Window
Let’s consider the poem Young Girl at A Window by Rosemary Dobson.
This poem describes a young girl waiting by a window and watching the world go by outside. But if you read this poem closely, it is an allegorical representation of a young girl passing through puberty. We can get a better sense of this by considering the first stanza:
“Lift your hand to the window latch:
Sighing, turn and move away.
More than mortal swords are crossed
on thresholds at the end of day;
The fading air is stained with red
Since Time was killed and now lies dead.
To go from being categorised as ‘a girl’ to being categorised as ‘a woman’ means that your social identity and definition change. The space between these categories is a dangerous or special time (depending on the cultural context). In Western culture, menarche signals that a change in social category is imminent
as the category ‘woman’ is defined by the capacity to reproduce. Clearly, the young girl at the window is an allegory for young girls transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
So, how do we discuss this?
We need to discuss the allegory, but we also need to discuss the other techniques in the stanza that demonstrate that the text is allegorical. Consider:
|The young girl is at a “[threshold] at the end of day” this signals that the poem is allegorical and suggests that the young girl is on the threshold between girlhood and womanhood. By extension, the visual imagery “air …stained with red” is a sunset (which would operate as a METAPHOR for the end of an era), while “stained with red” connotes bleeding, staining of clothing and sheets. Dobson is not so concerned with the messy material side of things, although the imagery does imply it. The poem renders the experience as a social and metaphysical discovery. In addition, ‘Crossing swords’ is an idiom for conflict, but it is important that the menarche is not simply a physical (“mortal”) change. The blood of the menarche is the blood of ‘killed Time’, where
the death of Time is the death of the girl’s girlhood! ‘Young Girl at a Window’ allegorically presents the menarche as an experience of discovery of time itself, the passing of time.
Want to take your textual analysis to the next level?
- Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English to learn how to get Band 6 for Engish Advanced!
- Read the article: Literary Techniques Part 2: How to Analyse Poetry and Prose to learn how to analyse literary techniques in poetry and prose with reference to all the major techniques.
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