Allegory: The Shy Genre
Allegory is indirection. It’s writing about one thing under the guise of writing about something else. It’s a literary work (novels, story, poem, play, even essay) in which people, places or events stand for ideas. It’s an artistic work (painting, picture, drawing, building, film…) in which shape, line, color, form, figures, objects, or design stand for ideas. In short, it’s any kind of work or production in which ideas are presented indirectly.
Any kind of writing in disguise (fable, parable, homage, parody, pastiche, abecedarium, roman à clef…) is indebted to allegory.
Allegory is as old as literature. Every myth is a version of an allegory. Greek plays (take the Oresteia or The Bacchae as examples) are all allegorical.
Allegory flourished in the Middle Ages, which means it affected the Renaissance, the 18th century, the 19th century, and modern times.
But let me be clearer.
When Blake writes “The Garden of Love,” his poem seems to be about a garden, but it’sreally about love. When Shelley says, I fall upon the thorns of life; I bleed,” he means living causes suffering. He doesn’t care about scratches from brambles.
The A of B Metaphor
This form of metaphor in which the first term is concrete (garden/thorns) and the second term is abstract (love/life) is the essential form of all allegory.1 In the absence of another name for this linguistic formation, I call this the A of B metaphor, but I am alone in doing so.
Occasionally this form of metaphor refers to one specific thing. Crane’s phrase “The red badge of courage” refers to blood. Blood is “the red badge” of courage. Courageous people are willing to shed their blood. Blood (or spilled blood) is the emblem of their courage. Thus Crane’s book is really about the blood of courage, which Henry Fleming, Crane’s protagonist, literally and figuratively attains.
The A of B metaphor can be found everywhere all throughout history.
• from Bunyan’s “Slough2 of Despond” to Dr. King’s “the quicksand of racial injustice”
• from Spenser’s “Bower of Bliss” to President Kennedy’s phrase “casting off the
chains of poverty”
• from Shakespeare’s “the womb of time” to Conrad’s “heart of darkness”
• from Emerson’s “we lie in the lap of immense intelligence” to Sinclair’s appeal to
help those “caught beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of Greed.”
Of the Allegorist’s Party without Knowing It
If you name your novel Envy as Yuri Olesha did, or Jealousy as Robbe-Grillet did or Ada or Ardor as Nabokov did, or Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion as Jane Austen did, you’re an allegorist.
If you set part of your novel in Dotheboys3 Hall as Dickens did in Nicholas Nickleby or in the Great Ohio Desert4 as David Foster Wallace did in The Broom of the System, you’re an allegorist.
Do not pretend Llareggub is a real place in Wales. It’s Dylan Thomas’s allegorical middle finger: “llareggub” backwards is “bugger all.”5
Do you really believe Penistone6 Crags in Wuthering Heights is not allegorical?
The Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby is not very distant from the Valley of Humiliation in Pilgrim’s Progress.
If you name your characters Pliable or Talkative or Faithful or Hopeful or Ignorance, not to mention Christian (Pilgrim’s Progress), or Faith (“Young Goodman Brown”) or Urizen7(“The Book of Urizen”) or Pangloss (Candide), or Benny Profane, Rachel Owlglass, or Herbert Stencil (V), or Tyrone Slothrop (Gravity’s Rainbow), or Rick Vigorous or Candy Mandible (The Broom of the System), or Stephen Dedalus (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), or Christopher Newman8 (The American) or Murdstone9 (David Copperfield) or Mr. Merdle10 (Little Dorritt) or Lord Verisopht11 (Nicholas Nickleby) or Mr. M’Choakumchild (Hard Times), or Christy Mahon12 (The Playboy of the Western World) or Mr. Allworthy (Tom Jones), or Mr. Gall, Mr. Treacle, and Mr. Cranium (Headlong Hall), or Miss Celinda Toobad, Reverend Mr. Larynx, The Honorable Mr. Listless, or The Honorable Mister Lackwit (Nightmare Abbey), or Mr. Chainmail or Susannah Touchandgo13 (Crotchet Castle), or Roger Chillingworth (The Scarlet Letter), or Lady Circumference (Decline and Fall) or Miles Malpractice (Vile Bodies) or Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden. or Gail Hightower (Light in August) or Hazel Motes (Wise Blood) or Gossamer Beynon or Polly Garter (Under Milk Wood), you, if not yourself a card-carrying allegorist, align yourself with that tradition.
Occasionally the “of” or “of the” is missing.
• Hill Difficulty = The Hill of Difficulty
• Doubting Castle = The Castle of Doubt
• Castle Perilous = The Castle of Peril
Occasionally the terms are reversed.
• Heartbreak Hotel = The Hotel of Heartbreak
• The Romance of the Rose = The Rose of Romance
The longer the work, the easier it is to forget the true subject. In The Romance of the Rose, keep your eye on romance.
Some works are intentionally allegorical
• Pilgrim’s Progress
• The Faerie Queen
• Gulliver’s Travels
• The Chronicles of Narnia
• Animal Farm
• The Butter Battle Book
Some works, intentional or not, are read allegorically:
• The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
• The Wizard of Oz
• The Lord of the Rings
• The Crucible
• Why Are We in Vietnam?
Allegory vs. Symbolism
There’s a lot of confusion between allegory and symbolism. That’s because modern sensibilities like symbolism (it’s excitingly complex!) but despise allegory (it’s boringly reductive!). In reality, there’s no difference.
Symbolism is vestigial allegory. Or, if you prefer, allegory that is undeveloped, underdeveloped, or not fully developed.
The symbolic dimension of any work is essentially what’s left of or what’s predictive of its original allegorical intent.
The Modern World’s Interest in Classical Allegory
The modern world is NOT interested in the allegory of classical allegory. It is interested in classical allegorical works for any other reason. It wants to read classical allegory in any other way except as allegory. Thus Bunyan, to take only one example, becomes, in his presentation of dialogue, a master realist, is reread as a genius of colloquial prose.
Realism’s Slide toward Allegory
It seems that the medieval habit of reading things allegorically is so deeply ingrained in us we cannot escape it. We read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Mississippi becomes a symbol/emblem/image of freedom. We read Cervantes and by the end of the novel Don Quixote stands for idealism and Sancho Panza stands for practicality. The works of Gogol, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, George Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, Henry James, Zola, Turgenev, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton,14 even Robbe-Grillet–after our initial enthusiasm for their realism or naturalism—all begin to be read and understood allegorically.
Thus there is a meeting in the middle. Allegory moves toward realism. Realism slides toward allegory. Every work, with or without its author’s consent, partakes (albeit unequally15) of both.
But what is realism other than specificity? What is allegory other than generality? The marriage of the particular and the universal is the hallmark of the best poetry. And all great art.
There are five writers who worked both sides of the coin (that is realism and allegory) simultaneously. I think that accounts for their enduring popularity. I consider these writers the great poets of prose: Gustave Flaubert, Knut Hamsun, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges.
1. If both terms are concrete, the phrase is not a metaphor, e.g. The Cricket on the Hearth or Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
2. pronounced sloo
3. = do the boys
4. = G.O.D.
5. Similarly “Erewhon” and “nowhere” i.e. “utopia.”
6. = penis stone
7. = your reason
8. = new man
9. = merde/shit + stone
10. = merde/shit
11. = very soft
12. = Christ Man
13. = touch and go
14. The scene of the breaking of Zeena’s “pickle dish” in Ethan Frome is as allegorical (psychologically in Wharton’s novel) as any of the scenes in the House of the Interpreter in Pilgrim’s Progress.
15.See James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice.
Bill Yarrow, non-fiction editor for Blue Fifth Review, is the author of Blasphemer (Lit Fest Press 2015), Pointed Sentences (BlazeVOX 2012) and four chapbooks. His poems have appeared in many print and online magazines including Poetry International, RHINO, Contrary, DIAGRAM, FRiGG, THRUSH, Gargoyle, and PANK. He is a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where he teaches creative writing, Shakespeare, and film. His new book The Vig of Love was recently published by Glass Lyre Press.
This essay appeared in Blue Fifth Review.