Classic Books of Allegory
Allegorical literature has experienced popularity over many centuries. Some of the most prominent pieces of allegorical literature include:
- Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
Pilgrim’s Progress is likely the most famous piece of allegorical English literature. Written by a preacher intending to spread the word of Protestant doctrine, particularly the concept of what is necessary in order to achieve salvation, there are myriad representations of individuals and actions in the book. Exploring this work highlights and clarifies the elements of allegory.
- The characters are clearly representative of people and concepts that Bunyan is discussing without naming them more explicitly.
- As Ian Johnston stated in his lecture at Vancouver Island University, “The characters in the work almost all serve exclusively to present unambiguously a certain principle in the doctrine; we do not have to argue about the significance of people like Ignorance, Talkative, Lord Hategood, Obstinate, Pliable, and so on. In a sense they are not characters; they are not even character types; they are the personifications of very explicit characteristics introduced into the fiction in order to illustrate a clear point. Their very names make this tendency obvious to the reader.”
Also in Pilgrim’s Progress, the ferocity that Bunyan feels in relation to the strictness of the religion is made clear.
- Self-control and regulation of self were highly regarded in the radical sect of Protestantism to which Bunyan belonged.
- The first place in the novel in which Bunyan metaphorically reveals the importance of these concepts is through the fact that the main character’s necessary journey toward salvation requires him to turn his back on friends and family.
- While in other religious allegorical text, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is clear that social interaction is highly regarded in relation to one’s spiritual journey, Bunyan’s treatment of individuals in the text reveals his highly opposite opinion.
In relation to this point, Johnston states in his lecture that, “…people are to be instantly summed up and, if they fail the basic test of the disciplined spirit, they are to be dismissed as fools, threats, hell-bound sinners. In Pilgrim’s Progress the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the individual’s spiritual journey as the only thing that matters: charity towards one’s neighbour has been almost entirely replaced by introspection and self-imposed spiritual flagellation.”
Bunyan’s treatment of the characters in the text is used to metaphorically convey his opinion regarding those who are “sinners” or “fools” and to impress the importance of that viewpoint on the reader.
The text also metaphorically shares the concept that while many may get close to salvation few will actually achieve it. This concept is portrayed in the story with the appearance of characters such as “Ignorance” arriving “at the Celestial City” but never able to get in.
Throughout Pilgrim’s Progress each element, from people, to nature, to material goods are representative of other forces and of concepts related to them. Pilgrim’s Progress is a fictional work that epitomizes the allegory and stands as a strong example of metaphorical writing.
Moby Dick uses allegory on many different levels. For instance:
- The Pequod’s journey mirrors the one the U.S. took before the Civil War and the story is a reflection of Melville’s feelings about America in the time leading up to the war.
- The conflict that occurs between Ahab and the whale is a metaphor for the relationship that man has with God.
- Ahab’s struggles are a metaphor for the struggles all men go through when they are attempting to achieve major dreams or monumental life goals.
- Moby Dick may also be a metaphor for the idea that revenge can become a self-destructive obsession.
These are just some of the ways in which this work may be seen as an allegory. Different readers over time have read different meanings into the book, which shows the level of depth that Melville managed to include in his work.
Animal Farm is an allegory that uses animals on a farm to represent the overthrow of Tsar Nicolas II, the actions of Stalin and the revolution in Russia before World War II. The struggles of the animals on the farm may be seen as a metaphor for:
- How greed and indifference corrupted revolution
- The dangers that can occur without a smooth transition to a people’s government
- The way in which those in power positions can manipulate the ideologies of society
Many literary critics and historians have also directly linked each of the characters within the book to the central players in the Russian revolution. For instance, Mr. Jones represents the last Russian Tsar. Further, the doctrine of “animalism” in the book represents real life communism, allowing Orwell to make clear his position on the political situation in Russia through the use of metaphor and allegory alone.
Looking for more examples of allegory or examples of allegory outside of literature? Check out YourDictionary’s article on allegory examples.