Allegory: More than a Children’s Story

Have You Ever?

Have you read George Orwell’s Animal Farm? At the beginning of the story, all the animals work together to overthrow their cruel farmer and run the farm themselves. Though they agreed to treat each other fairly and equally, that doesn’t end up happening. The pigs end up in power and raise the puppies into a threatening security force to ensure that they are not resisted. Meanwhile, the other animals are forced to work in equally bad, if not worse, conditions until they work themselves to death. By the end of the story, the other animals can’t tell the difference between the pigs and humans.

The Explanation

If you’re familiar with history, you likely saw parallels between Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of the Soviet Union. This isn’t a coincidence: Orwell designed his book to be an allegory of the rise of communism. The pigs are stand-ins for communist leaders like Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, the puppies the KGB, and the other animals represent varying types of working-class people. 

Definition of Allegory

An allegory is a work in which characters, places, and actions represent broader ideas or concepts. Allegories often make use of other literary devices like personification, symbolism, and extended metaphor to more effectively make a point.

The History

The term “allegory” was first popularized in the fourteenth century. It comes from the French allegorie, meaning “hidden meaning.” The French allegorie came from the Greek allēgoria, which translates literally to “other speaking.” 

While it was first used broadly, its definition -  at least in academic fields - was narrowed down slightly in order to cut down on word overlap and thus confusion. Allegory’s meaning changed from “the use of symbols in a work to convey a hidden meaning” to “a work which uses symbols to convey a hidden meaning.” While this might seem like arguing insignificant semantics, it’s an important distinction. The first definition is functionally the same as symbolism, whereas the second is not. Symbolism means that a specific object, character, or event in a work stands in for another, e.g., the rose is a symbol of love. An allegory requires the entire story to represent something else, e.g., a love affair between two people symbolizing the good relationship between two countries.  

Using It

Allegories are often used to convey political, social, and moral meanings. They’re effective at doing so because they are presented in an easy to read and understand format. Take Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches. It depicts the tensions between the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches. The Star-Belly Sneetches always mistreat the Plain-Belly Sneetches, so the Plain-Bellies find a way to get stars on their bellies too, which upset the Star-Bellies to the point of finding a way to get rid of their stars and so on and so forth until everyone is confused over who belonged to the original groups. Finally at the end of the story, the Sneetches decide to just be kind to each other and stop their rivalry. Now, you probably aren’t surprised that this story is about racism. This is because the allegory boils down the complicated issue into its core component - unfairly judging others based on their appearance. From that simplified essence, a message is created and shared - being racist is beneficial to no one; it’s better to just try to be kind to everyone. 

Allegories work for a wide variety of audiences because they are designed to be comprehensible. A child can often understand an allegory as well as a fully educated adult. This means an author can spread important messages to a large number of people. If you have an issue you want others to be motivated about, creating an allegory about it might be the best way to get people to hear your story.

Think Further

  1. What are some famous allegories you’ve heard? What hidden meaning do they convey?
  2. What political, social, or moral issues might be best expressed through allegory?
  3. Where do you often encounter allegories?


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Learn More

  1. Cowan, Bainard. “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory.” New German Critique, No 22, Winter, 1981, pp 109-122. DOI: 10.2307/487866.
  2. Kelley, Theresa M. Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0521432073.
  3. Quilligan, Maureen. The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre. Cornell University Press, 1992. 
  4. Tambling, Jeremy. Allegory. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. ISBN: 0-203-46212-2.