Uses of Allegory

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The Daily Writer by Fred White

Every aspiring writer should read an allegory now and then because it illustrates in a vivid, compact way the essence of storytelling. An allegory is a narrative in which abstract principles are represented by persons, places, objects. Thus gluttony might be represented by a foul-smelling swamp, or by a grotesquely obese character named Gluttony.

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One of the finest allegories ever written is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The hero, Christian (allegories are supposed to be explicit), journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City—but the journey is fraught with nearly overwhelming obstacles like the Slough of Despond into which he sinks because of his heavy burden of sin (think of the Ghost of Marley’s chains in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), or the Worldly Wiseman, who tries to talk Christian out of his dangerous journey.

In an allegorical story, then, worthy goals are fraught with obstacles the hero must triumph over. Like parables (stories that teach a religious or moral lesson), or fables (stories in which the characters are animals whose actions reveal their wisdom or stupidity), allegories convey wisdom by translating abstract principles into dramatic incidents. We all learn best though example.

Think about the way facets of your life can be represented allegorically. To see how allegory can serve as a guide, read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In this novel, all four of the March girls—Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth—turn to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to guide them through difficult times as they struggle to support their family while their father is away.

Compose an allegory, keeping in mind that each of your characters represents an abstract trait. Give your main character a goal he or she struggles against powerful obstacles to attain. For example, imagine that your main character is Compassion, who struggles to reach the Land of Honor by helping impoverished people in Third World Countries. In order to get to the Land of Honor, however, she must escape from Fear (who saps her spirit by describing the deadly dangers she must face).