What Is the Connection between Symbolism and Allegory?

Laura Metz

The connection between symbolism and allegory is that both use symbols. Every allegory must use symbols, but not all stories with symbolism are allegories. Symbolism can also have many figurative meanings within a work, but an allegory allows only one literal understanding and one metaphorical.

The four leaf clover is often used as a symbol of good luck.
The four leaf clover is often used as a symbol of good luck.

Any writing that uses symbols is a work of symbolism. Symbols are specific objects, settings, characters, or actions that represent an abstract idea or person. Some meanings are restricted to their context, while others have become commonplace and cliché from overuse. Examples include the heart symbolizing love or the four leaf clover symbolizing good luck.

Symbolism and allegory are both used in literature.
Symbolism and allegory are both used in literature.

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Symbolism and allegory are different because an allegory is composed entirely of symbols, while a work with symbolism may only have one symbol. An allegory is a complete story of any type which can be understood both literally and figuratively. Novels, short stories, poems, or plays can all be allegories.

The Good Samaritan is an allegorical tale from the Bible.
The Good Samaritan is an allegorical tale from the Bible.

The simplest examples of allegories are often fables. Literally, Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” concerns two animals having a race. As a metaphor, this children’s story is about two ways of living and working, and the eventual reward of persistence. In an allegory, every character, action, object, and setting is also a symbol for something abstract.

Like Aesop’s fables, the majority of allegories are intended for use as ethical instruction. Everyman is a morality play written by an anonymous author in the late fifteenth century, and uses both symbolism and allegory. The title character, a symbol for humans in general, learns he is about to die, so he attempts to take something with him: friends, family, knowledge, or even his five senses. In the end, a character called Good Deeds is the only one willing to accompany him through death.

Some stories use symbolism and allegory to help the reader understand an abstract idea through obvious character names, such as Good Deeds in Everyman. Similarly, the protagonist in John Bunyan’s seventeenth century novel Pilgrim’s Progress is named Christian. Characters such as Obstinate, Faithful, and Despair, act as symbols for the trait named.

Allegories are common in religious writings. Examples include Everyman, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. Perhaps better known are the parables from the New Testament, such as the story of the Prodigal Son.

Not all allegories are religious or moral. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a political allegory. Other allegories provide a different perspective on life, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Masque of Red Death” and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Dante's "Divine Comedy" is a classic example of allegory.
Dante's "Divine Comedy" is a classic example of allegory.

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Discussion Comments

literally45

SarahGen-- Absolutely.

I'm not an expert on Shakespeare but we just read Hamlet in class recently. Hamlet has a lot of allegory and symbolism, some more apparent, some not so much. One opinion is that the deceit, lies and deaths in Hamlet are an allegory for a war-struck country or a society which is becoming morally corrupt. Hamlet's mother marries his uncle. The play's setting is Denmark in the 14th century and it's about to be invaded by Norway. So Hamlet's mother's status could be an allegory for the state of the country, or the motherland.

There is also symbolism. The skull that Hamlet holds up in the graveyard obviously symbolizes death and the afterlife. And it is said that the flowers Ophelia handed out in one scene symbolizes her innocent or virginity.

The thing with allegory and symbolism is that they can be very open to interpretation. So sometimes, it's difficult to know whether the writer really meant that or something else.

SarahGen

I have a class assignment on symbolism and allegory. Shakespeare uses both symbolism and allegory correct? Does anyone know any examples for these in Shakespeare's works?

SteamLouis

I love stories with allegory. Allegory, thanks to its extensive use of symbolism, creates layers within a story. The story becomes deeper, more meaningful and more entertaining for the reader or audience.

When we read or watch a story that is simple and straightforward, there isn't much excitement. It becomes mundane and predictable. But stories with allegory get the audience to think. It pushes their limits of imagination and allows each person to construct his or her own understanding of the story. So the piece of work becomes a personal one.

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