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How Do I Interpret an Allegory?

"The Cave" by Greek philosopher Plato is one famous example of an allegory.
In literature, an allegory is an extended metaphor.
The Good Samaritan is an allegorical tale from the Bible.
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  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 04 September 2014
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An allegory is a piece of literature that acts as an extended metaphor. Like a fable, it often incorporates a hidden moral message, though not all allegories are written to convey a moral. The allegory should be viewed as a story in its own right, but also as a representation of some other concept or idea. One famous example is Plato's "The Cave," in which prisoners trapped in a dark cave are representative of an unenlightened and uneducated population. While interpreting the hidden meanings within an allegory can be challenging, the process of dissecting these works is largely a matter of practice and experience.

Symbolism plays a major role in allegorical works. To spot symbolism, pay close attention to words or ideas that are frequently repeated or emphasized throughout the writing. In shorter works, readers may have to search for sections where the writer uses a large amount of detail to elaborate on a concept. Repetition and extended descriptions often point towards a term or object that is used symbolically.

Once you spot a symbol within an allegorical text, think beyond the words on the page to others ideas that this symbol could represent. This can be done by considering what you know about that object or phrase, then using this information to go beyond the literal meaning. For example, water can be used to represent concepts such as free flowing or calm, as well as more concrete ideas like nourishment and the environment.

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Next, look at these symbols within the context of the work. This can help you determine how the author intended the words to be interpreted. For example, fire can be a good thing, as it represents passion and intensity, or a bad thing, as it represents danger or hell. Consider how each symbol fits into the story as a whole to understand how these terms fit into the story.

When you're first learning to interpret an allegory, one of the easiest tactics is to look for basic and commonly used themes or symbols. Biblical and astrological symbols are among the most widely used, as are concepts like good and bad, or dark and light. Consider what you know about the period in which the work was written or set, as well as history prior to that period.

Finally, use your own life experience to help you interpret an allegory. Put yourself in the shoes of the characters and imagine what you would have done in their place. What feelings or emotions would you have in those circumstances, and what decisions would you have made differently? What should they have learned, and what did you learn as the reader? Think about how the story would have changed if the characters had made different decisions.

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