“The term derives from Greek allegoria ‘speaking otherwise.’ As a rule, an allegory is a story in verse or prose with a double meaning: a primary or surface meaning; and a secondary or under the surface meaning. It is a story, therefore, that can be read, understood and interpreted at two levels (and in some cases three or four levels). It is thus closely related to the fable and parable (qq.v). The form may be literary or pictorial (or both, as in emblem-books, q.v.). An allegory has no determinate length.
To distinguish more clearly we can take on the old Arab fable of the frog and the scorpion, who met one day on the bank of the River Nile, which they both wanted to cross. The frog offer to ferry the scorpion over on his back provided the scorpion promised not to sting him. The scorpion agreed so long as the frog would promise not to drown him. The mutual promises exchanged, they crossed the river. On the far bank the scorpion stung the frog mortally.
‘Why did you do that?’ croaked the frog, as it lay dying.
‘Why’ replied the scorpion. ‘We’re both Arabs, aren’t we?’
If we substitute for the from a ‘Mr. Goodwill’ or a ‘Mr. Prudence,’ and for the scorpion ‘Mr. Treachery’ or ‘Mr. Two-Face’ and make the river any river and substitute for ‘We’re both Arabs…’ ‘We’re both men…’ we can turn the fable into an allegory. On the other hand, if we turn the frog into a father and the scorpion into a son (boatman and passenger) and we have the son say ‘We’re both sons of God, aren’t we?,’ then we have a parable about the wickedness of human nature and the sin of parricide.
The best known allegory in the English language (if not in the world) is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). This is an allegory of Christian Salvation. Christian, the hero, represents Everyman. He flees the terrible City of Destruction and sets off on his pilgrimage. In the course of it he passes through the Slough of Despond, the Interpreter’s House, the House Beautiful, the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle, the Delectable Mountains, and the country of Beulah, and finally arrives at the Celestial City. On the way he meets various characters, including Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Faithful, Hopeful, Giant Despair, the fiend Apollyon, and many others. In the second part of the book Christian’s wife and children make their pilgrimage accompanied by Mercy. They are helped and escorted by Greatheart, who destroys Giant Despair and other monsters, Eventually, they, too, arrive at the Celestial City.
The whole work is a simplified representation or similitude (q.v.) of the average man’s journey through the trials and tribulations of life on his way to heaven. The figures and places, therefore, have an arbitrary existence invented by the author; and this distinguishes them from symbols (q.v.) which have a real existence.
The origins of allegory are very ancient, and it appears to be a mode of expression (a way of feeling and thinking about things and seeing them) so natural to the human mind that it is universal. Its fundamental origins are religious. Much myth (q.v.), for example is a form of allegory and is an attempt to explain universal facts and forces. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, for instance, is a notable example of the allegory of redemption and salvation. In fact, most classical myth is allegorical.
Early examples of the use of allegory in literature are to be found in Plato’s Timaeus, Phaedrus, and Symposium. The myth of the Cave in Plato’s Republic is a particularly well-known example.
In the lost sixth book of De Republica by Cicero (1st century BC) there is a dream narrative (usually known as the Somnium Scioponis) in which Scipio Aemilianus makes a journey through the spheres and from this vantage point sees the shape and structure of the universe. Later (c.AD 400) Macrobius Theodosius compiled a commentary on the Somnium Scioponis which was to have considerable influence in the Middle Ages.
The journey through the underworld and the journey through the spheres are recurrent themes in European literature.
Another example in Classical literature is The Golden Ass (2nd century AD) of Apuleius. The fourth, fifth and sixth books deal with the allegory of Cupid and Psyche. A further key work for an understanding of Greco-Roman allegory is About Gods and the World (4th century AD), by Sallustius. But perhaps the most influential of all is Prudentius’s Psychomachia (4th century AD), which elaborates the idea of the battle within, the conflict between personified vices and virtues for possession of the soul. It is thus a kind of psychological allegory and establishes themes which were used again and again during the middle ages, as we can readily verify by examination of sermon literature, homilies, theological handbooks, exempla and works of moral counsel and edification. Above all, we find the themes in the Morality Plays (q.v.) which in their had a deep influence on the development of comedy (q.v.) and especially comedy of humors (q.v.).
Allegory, largely typological, pervades both the Old and the New Testaments. The events in the Old Testament are “types” or “figures” of events in the New Testament. In The Song of Solomon, for instance, Solomon is a “type” of Christ and the Queen of Sheba represents the Church: later explained Matthew (12:42). The Pashcal Lamb was a “type” of Christ.
Scriptural allegory was mostly based on a vision of the universe. There were two world: the spiritual and the physical. These corresponded because they had been made by God, The visible world was a revelation of the invisible, but the revelation could only be brought about by divine action. Thus, interpretation of this kind of allegory was theological. St Thomas Aquinas analyzed this in some detail in his Summa (13th century) in terms of fourfold allegory; thus having four levels of (q.v.). This exegetical method can be applied, for instance, to the City of Jerusalem. On the literal level, it is the Holy City; allegorically, it stands for the Church militant; morally or as a trope, it signifies the just soul; and anagogically, it represents the Church triumphant, In his Convivio Dante elaborated this theory in terms of poetry.
Some notable instances of allegory in European literature are Bernardus Sylvestris De Mundi Universitate (12th century); Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (12th century); the Roman de la Rose (13th century) by Guillaume de Lorris, and later continued by Jean de Meung; Dante’s Divina Commedia (13th century); Langland’s Piers Plowman (14th century); Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1574); Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1589-1596); Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) and The Holy War (1682); Dryden’s allegorical satires Absalom and Achitophel (1681), Mac Flecknoe (1684) and The Hind and the Panther (1687); Swift’s Tale of a Tub (1704) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726); William Blake’s prophetic books (late 18th century); Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860); Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited (1901); C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress (1933); Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941); and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). More recent developments of allegory in the novel have been Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), which uses baseball as a kind of metaphor to satirize religious attitudes in America; and Richard Adams’s story of a group of rabbits in Watership Down (1972).
Allegorical drama, since the demise of the Morality Plays, has been rare, Two interesting modern examples are Karel Capek’s The Insect Play (1921) and Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice (1964).”
Excerpted from: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992.