As even a cursory glance at this blog would reveal, I am not an expert on literary theory. My formal study of literature ended when I was 16 and I’m far more interested in reading books than in analysing them to death. So, don’t expect any conceptual fireworks or literary revelations in my post for this week’s Literary Blog Hop from the Blue Bookcase. You won’t be finding an explanation of hermeneutics or a description of mimesis. Postmodernism makes me itch and textuality just makes me snigger in a juvenile kind of way.
There are, however, a couple of literary devices or ideas that I both understand and like. None of them are particularly earth-shattering but I’m afraid it’s the best I can do this week. So, I am going to talk a little about allegory.
Allegory is the technique of making a point or expressing an idea by talking about something totally different. Or, if you prefer, it is the art of conveying a secondary, figurative meaning through a surface narrative. I’ve heard it said that an allegory is a metaphor stretched to encompass the whole story.
Allegory has a long and varied history. Aesop’s Fables, dating back to around 600 BCE, are, of course, allegories. At the risk of alienating Christian fundamentalists or other believers of the literal truth of the Bible, the Bible is full of allegorical writing (Jonah and the Whale, for example). The Faerie Queene, Pilgrim’s Progress and the Water Babies are all allegorical, as is The Wind in the Willows. Medieval and Renaissance literature and art are studded with complex symbolism and allegory. Moving to more modern times, Orwell’s Animal Farm is classic allegory.
Allegory demands thought from the reader. To appreciate allegory, the reader must be able to hold at least two different ideas in his or her head throughout the reading. On the surface level, Animal Farm is an entertaining tale about what happens when a group of animals overthrow the farmer and take control of their own farm. However, it’s also a specific allegory about the Russian Revolution, the early days of the
Soviet Union and the gradual corruption of its ideals. Moreover, it’s also a general allegory about the tendency of power to corrupt.
The problem of allegory, however, is that it is tempting to read it into everything. Reams have been written to discuss whether The Lord of the Rings is at least partly an allegory about the Second World War, an interpretation lent credibility by the fact that much of the book was written during that period, or more generally about the dangers of totalitarian government or even about the atom bomb (apparently, the One Ring). There are elements of the book that can clearly be fitted into this kind of reading. Not so, cried Tolkien, who maintained that it was not an allegory, either general or specific, but was open to interpretation by the reader.
But here’s a thought: maybe it is actually an allegory, despite Tolkien’s denials. Maybe Tolkien sub-consciously created an allegory. Silly? Well, take the case of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. On the surface, it is a tale about a world being destroyed by a plague and a party thrown by its callous ruler, intending to see out the plague time in luxury. There is a commonly-expressed view that it is actually an allegory about the futility of trying to stave off death. Indeed, as John Sutherland says of the story, “Allegorical? Surely yes, Edgar.”
Here’s the thing though. Poe hated allegory and said so. It is difficult to see that he would have actively written something allegorical. So, is it possible that a writer can sub-consciously write allegorically? Or can we, the reader, impose allegory on a suitable text? Or are we so obsessed with hidden meaning that we stretch allegory, seeing its ghost in places where it was never meant to be?
Personally, I prefer to see it as something that the author must intend. Otherwise, the whole idea of allegory is tainted and weakened. It becomes less clever, less skilful. If Orwell really intended just to write a fairytale about some pigs and horses, I suspect Animal Farm would be considered in a very different light these days.