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Allegory: Definition and Examples

Updated on May 9, 2015
Definition of Allegory
Definition of Allegory | Source

Definition of Allegory

Etymologically, the word allegory has been derived from the Greek word allegorein, meaning to speak in other terms. According to Encarta Encyclopedia, “Allegory is a fictional literary narrative or artistic expression that conveys a symbolic meaning parallel to but distinct from, and more important than, the literal meaning.” Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines allegory as “a story or visual image with a second distinct meaning partially hidden behind its literal or visible meaning.” We can define allegory as an extended narrative where more is meant than meets the eye or the ear, i.e. which carries a second meaning along with its surface story. Allegory uses personification and metaphor to represent abstract ideas as human beings. That’s why; the characters in an allegory do not have individual traits but are embodiments of abstract ideas and bear such names as Lechery, Pride, Meekness etc. An allegory may be a prose narrative such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a poem, such as Spenser’s Faerie Queen, or a play such as Everyman.

Definition of Allegory
Definition of Allegory | Source

Examples of Allegory

Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’ as an Allegory

Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is a good example of allegory. In this story, the protagonist’s wife is named Faith, which carries a double meaning. During the story, the Young Goodman Brown sets out on a journey to meet an elder traveler, who is thought to represent a Devil or Satan. When the Young Goodman Brown reaches over there and meets the Devil, he asks the Young Goodman Brown as to why he is late. The Goodman replies that Faith kept him back a while. Here the reply of the Goodman suggests that he was physically detained by her wife, while on another level it means that his faith in God kept him back for a while.

Examples of Allegory
Examples of Allegory

Watch this Video on Allegory:

Spenser’s Faerie Queen as an Allegory

Spenser’s Faerie Queene is another good example of allegory. There are two kinds of characters in the Faerie Queene: Good and Bad Character. Good characters symbolize various virtues, while the bad characters stand for vices. The Red Cross Knight represents holiness, while the Lady Una represents Truth, Goodness and Wisdom. Her parents symbolize the Human race, and the Dragon who has imprisoned them stand for Evil. The mission of Holiness is to help Truth to fight Evil and thus regain its rightful place in the human heart.

In the course of its mission, Holiness has to engage in many adventures and fight several evils. Initially, it has to face a terrible monster which is Error. Given that Holiness is helped by Truth, it is able to overthrow the forces of Evil. Consequently, the Red Cross Knight encouraged by Lady Una kills the monster and marches on his way. Holiness and Truth may defeat Error when it faces them openly without any disguise, but it proves too much for them when it confronts them in the subtle guise of Hypocrisy. Archimago, the symbol of hypocrisy, succeeds in separating Holiness from Truth. The Red Cross Knight takes Duessa, symbolizing Falsehood, to be his lady-love, and Lady Una wanders in search of her champion.

Holiness, when separated from Truth, turns out to be too weak to resist falsehood. Thus, the Red-Cross Knight is now guided by Duessa and is like a puppet in her hands. Truth, too, becomes weak without her champion, Holiness. Lady Una is helped and protected by a lion which stands for primitive courage. Truth overcomes Abessa (Abjectness), Corceca (Blind Faith) and Kirkrapine (Carnal Passions). But she again falls an easy prey to Hypocrisy represented by Archimago, who this time comes to her in the guise of the Red-Cross Knight. Similarly, she is too weak to face Lawlessness symbolized by the pagan knight Sans Loy. Truth is often suppressed in as State of Lawlessness.

Duessa takes the Red-Cross Knight to the palace of Lucifera who stands for Pride. There he comes in contact with the six other deadly sins—Idleness, Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Wrath and Jealousy. As a result of this evil company, Holiness is weakened and so is defeated and imprisoned by the giant Orgoglio, representing Pride. But the dwarf, his page, symbolizing Humility, escapes from the clutches of the giant, and plans to save his master.


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In the meanwhile, Truth is rescued from the captivity of Lawlessness (Sans Loy) by Sir Satyrine symbolizing Natural Force. This means that Lawlessness is unnatural and cannot suppress Truth for any length of time. It is natural for Truth to assert itself with the passage of time.

The dwarf (Humility) meets Truth and tells her of the plight of Holiness. At this stage, Truth meets Arthur (Magnificence) in search of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. With his help Holiness is freed. As he has been much weakened, Truth leads him to the palace of Divine Grace where he regains his former strength. He then defeats the Dragon (Evil) and restores Lady Una’s parents (Humanity) to their rightful throne.

Symbolism and Allegory

Symbolism is different from allegory. Symbolism uses words, characters or objects to represent something beyond its surface meaning. For example, Rose stands for beauty, Lion represents courage and power, Cross stands for Christianity etc. On the other hand, allegory is a story having double meaning. It uses characters to represent abstract ideas in the shape of story. It may be in prose or verse. Every character in an allegory is a symbol, which represents some abstract idea. That’s the difference between symbolism and allegory.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq


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