Allegory vs. metaphor: What are they? And how different are they?
Well, simply put, they’re both figurative tools that are used to embellish works of literature and art in general. These tools help make writing more engaging and give it a bit more meaning—and for you, that means the use of literary devices such as allegories and metaphors will improve your writing.
And, while the two may seem similar, they’re not the same thing.
There’s no question, you’ll need them; in fact, you might have used metaphors and allegories regularly without knowing what they were or how they work. However, you have to know them first before you effectively use them in your writing.
That is exactly why I stitched this article together, so continue reading to understand what allegories and metaphors are and the differences between them.
What Is A Metaphor?
A metaphor is a short phrase or paragraph used to make a comparison of unrelated objects and actions.
Using this figure of speech, one dishes out an expression to refer to something that it does not literally denote, with the intent of implying a similarity.
A metaphor achieves this kind of comparison without using “like” or “as,” subtly using an attribute of one subject to describe another.
Here are some examples of metaphors in a sentence:
- “He took the weight off his shoulder.”
- “No one liked him, he was the black sheep in your family.”
- “She is a workaholic and she’s in her office, buried in a sea of paperwork.”
- “You know what they say, no man is an island.”
- “He’s not in touch with reality; actually, I think he’s living in a bubble.”
Metaphors in Literature
“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”—Romeo.
“The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light.”
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all”
Uses of Metaphors
Metaphors are used to add meaning to content and create effects beyond the literal meaning of the words.
Here are some of the many uses of metaphors:
- Evoking certain emotions and beliefs: A good example is an emotion and image evoked by describing someone as a lion, which is completely different from being described as a rat.
- Sending an implied message: Metaphors are used to represent an indirect message and to things or ideas other than the literal meaning.
- To enhance an Image: Metaphors are used to enhance an entity’s image; for example, metaphors are used in marketing to make the seller’s product look better. Here’s a good example: “Even in the darkest of nights, Parker’s light is your sun!”
What is an Allegory?
Unlike a metaphor, an allegory is a narrative that uses a seemingly unrelated story to represent a particular value or underlying idea.
Allegories are used to subtly present a message, usually touching on moral or socio-political issues. The components of a story, such as a character, plotline, or setting, are constructed to make them symbolic of issues affecting a particular society.
Allegories can be written in either prose or verse, but the consistent thing is that the allegories represent something larger than what they literally mean.
Types of Allegory
Allegories are of different types and each type has a distinguished purpose. Below are some of these:
1. Biblical Allegory
Biblical allegory draws on biblical themes and frequently discusses the conflict between good and evil. Biblical allegory can also relate to metaphorical, rather than literal, readings of the Bible.
2. Classical Allegory
A very good example of an allegory in classical literature is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Plato imagines humans living in a cave and can only see objects as shadows reflected on the wall from a fire inside the cave, rather than seeing them directly.
Plato uses the cave to represent the way humans live in the world, painting an underlying difference between human experience and reason, or belief and knowledge.
3. Modern Allegory
In a modern allegory, simple objects and animals are used as symbols that we can all relate with and they are portrayed in a funny, paradoxical, or uplifting way. The intention is to create a positive and inspiring message; and to convey a theme of values, ethics, and morality.
Examples in Literature
1. Animal Farm by George Orwell
In this satirical allegorical novella, George Orwell tells the story of a group of farm animals who revolt against their human farmer in the hopes of establishing a society in which all animals are equal, free, and happy.
But, in the end, the rebellion fails to achieve its purpose and under the dictatorial leadership of a pig named Napoleon, the farm deteriorates to the previous state.
Orwell used the farm fable to criticize the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union that followed.
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
In Moby Dick, Melville used different allegories, some of which might have existed accidentally.
For example, Captain Ahab’s obsession with catching one particular white whale can be interpreted as mankind’s search for meaning or search for a deity.
It can also be seen as a metaphor for the notion that vengeance might turn into a self-destructive obsession.
There are many other allegories in the story and the same line or part of the story might have more than one allegorical meaning.
3. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a story about a man, Christian, who travels on a grueling journey; from his hometown, the “City of Destruction, to the “Celestial City.”
In this story, the “City of Destruction” refers to “the world we live in,” the “Celestial City” refers to “that which is to come or Heaven,” and the great burden that weighs down Christian is the knowledge of his sin, which Christian attributed to his reading “the book in his hand” (referring to the Bible).
This is, evidently, a biblical allegory and it conveys the author’s beliefs on what’s necessary to achieve salvation.
Characteristics of an Allegory
The components of an allegory are presented in a way that paints a moral, usually from the writer’s belief system.
So, the biggest characteristics of an allegory are the political or moral values of the author. For example, George Orwell’s “Animal farm” shared his political views in the wake of Russia’s 1917.
To give the story and its characters—which are usually nonhuman—beliefs, mindsets, and attitudes that represent societal values, writers use personification.
Personification lets the author hide the real-life meaning of their story under a cast of non-human characters.
An allegory tells at least two stories and hence there are multiple meanings—there’s the literal part of the story, presented in the words, and the figurative part, which is usually hidden under the former.
The two stories combined portray a bigger human experience that the author wants to address.
Mark Twain might have claimed that his stories neither had a moral lesson nor portrayed a picture bigger than the literal meaning of the story.
When addressing a moral issue, the author of an allegory is often confronted by polarizing oppositional views or relationships.
This is so because society always has opposing views on moral issues and hence allegories cover opposite extremes oftentimes.
How Are Allegories Used in Literature?
Looking at the four characteristics in the previous section, we easily identify the uses of allegories.
Elaborate the Stories Theme: Allegory is used to broadcast a moral message that the central theme is all about. The author creates characters or objects that take on a particular meaning to convey the message and, although this message is presented subtly, the writer inserts some clues.
Complementing Satire: Allegory is used with satire critic socio-political events, systems, or figures.
To hide Criticism: Writers use allegories to criticize a system or particular conduct without being too overt about it. This might be done to protect the writer from violent reactions by the subject.
The Differences between Metaphor and Allegory
Allegories are longer narratives, like an extended metaphor, and hence the latter is easier to spot.
Metaphors are usually one line long or even a short phrase or paragraph.
An allegory conveys a message that has a deeper, hidden meaning. For example, “Horton Hears A Who”—which was published after World War II—shares Ted Geisel’s thoughts on how people stand up to defend smaller and weaker people.
On the other hand, a metaphor compares two unrelated things like Martha is a rose to him.
An allegory always has a hidden meaning, ALWAY. Some hidden meanings that allegories carry are easy to decipher, but sometimes readers may have to do some digging to understand the hidden meaning.
I think that metaphors also have a hidden meaning, to a lesser extent; for example, if someone tells Hank that “he is a cockroach” and Hank doesn’t know what a cockroach is, this metaphor can be said to have a hidden meaning.
But, normally, metaphors are straightforward.
In an allegory, characters, events, or images represent something else; on the other hand, a metaphor is typically a poetic comparison of two things.
On the element of relatedness, allegory is closer to reality while metaphors aren’t that connected to reality.
Length and Literary Devices Used
An allegory is—in some way— an extended metaphor. It is lengthier and more intricate than a metaphor.
Plus, an allegory—more often than not— uses symbolism to convey a message and metaphors use imagery.
A good writer is supposed to know and use devices like metaphors and allegories to spice up their writing.
Not only do these instruments spice up your writing, but they also help elaborate ideas and help your readers to understand them.
Keep reading texts that have made use of metaphors and allegories and keep practicing to perfect your art.