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.
You say your formal study of literature ended at age sixteen, but you've still gone one leg up on me; despite the fact that my formal study of literature ended at twenty (sounds like an additional four years on you), my final year was in 1977 (which, I might guess, was probably before you were born!) Somehow I completely missed postmodernism and...what was the other word?...oh yes, textuality (whatever that is).
I like allegory as much as I like any literary device. Here's my attempt to pick my favorite literary device. Also, I'd like to invite you to throw your name into the hat for a $25 Amazon gift certificate in Readerbuzz's July Giveaway!It's international!
I love an allegory. I do think it is generally something the writer "intends" within a work. Much of writing is subconscious (I believe), but I'm not sure how you could accidentally come up with a simile. :-)
loving allegory & your list of it in action, great post.
Very interesting post. Does allegory have to be intentional? It seems like it should be, or readers could just go wild. On the other hand, I prefer a little ambiguity. If it's too obvious that the author was going for a specific allegory, if there's no sublety, it doesn't leave the reader any interpreting to do at all. So maybe that's why an author would want to leave some wiggle room.
I like to speculate on whether things I'm reading are allegorical. I particularly like it when it is less obvious, and I certainly believe someone could write an unconscious allegory.
Check out my post here.
I don't really think you can compare the One Ring to the atomic bomb, no matter how deep your allegory is.
Very interesting and well done. "Unintentional Allegory" is certainly a fascinating phenomenon to ponder. I suspect it does occur in varying degrees, but I also agree with you that in it's pure form allegory must also be the authors INTENT. How otherwise could we celebrate the author's mastery?
Deb - You are being far too kind to me. I was most definitely around in 1977 and ermember being taken to see Star Wars when it came out in the UK that year!
Jillian - I agree. I would probably think of the sub-conscious approach as being more like ambiguity.
Parrish - thanks!
Susan - thanks. I think ambiguity where it is crafted makes a book a much richer experience.
LBC - I do see your point.
Ondrej - You share my view but it is a comparison that has been made by a number of people.
Jay - Thanks and I totally agree!
I agree. An allegorical piece can only be so if the author intended it to be. The rest a merely interpretation by individual readers. Besides, in Tolkien's case, his works were bound to have something of his experience in it, in terms of better understanding of certain situations, battle tactics, and the like. But call all of this allegorical is a bit much.
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