Allegory vs metaphor: what’s the difference?
Figurative language tools can make writing more engaging and impactful. It can help the reader picture what the writer is saying more vividly.
Allegory and metaphor are both literary devices or figures of speech that will improve your writing.
Allegory and metaphor, as literary devices, may seem similar, but they’re not exactly the same.
Many writers and speakers as well use metaphor and allegory regularly, but often without knowledge of what they are and how they work. Skilled writers know the differences and how to wield each one well.
Both allegory and metaphor compare two unrelated ideas or things to make writing more impactful.
So what’s the difference?
In general, metaphor is a short phrase or paragraph that compares two seemingly unrelated things to make a point, while an allegory is a long narrative that uses a seemingly unrelated story to teach a lesson or prove a point.
Here is a closer look at what each one is, with examples demonstrating how to use them in your writing effectively.
What Is a Metaphor?
Metaphors are literary devices that compare two unrelated objects. It describes something by comparing it to something that it is not. It makes the comparison without using the word “like” or “as.”
A metaphor describes a single idea or symbol. It is short, often finished in one phrase or paragraph, and never carried through the entire piece of writing.
The Main Difference Between a Metaphor and an Analogy
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unrelated things, like “Time is a thief.”
An analogy uses the same idea to build a type of argument, bringing more explanation into the description, such as, “Time is a thief because it steals moments of our lives just like a thief steals belongings.”
Examples of Metaphors from Shakespeare
To show metaphor more clearly, it is easier to look at some examples. William Shakespeare has some of the most famous metaphors in literature. These phrases compare to unrelated items for the rhetorical effect the comparison brings.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
Obviously, life, an intangible thing, is not actually a shadow, which is something clearly seen. This metaphor describes two unrelated things to give meaning and vibrancy to an otherwise difficult to understand topic.
In Jaques’ monologue from Act 2 of As You Like It, Shakespeare delivers one of his most famous metaphors:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances”
Clearly the world is not a stage is some cosmic play. People are not actors. But the picture allows the reader to see the similarities and start contemplating the meaning of people in the big picture of life.
Other Examples of Metaphors
Today most of us don’t study Shakespeare outside of literature studies, so how would metaphors work into our day-to-day writing and speech? Here are some examples:
- The baby’s smile was the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae.
- The snow was a white blanket covering the ground.
- Her hair was a flowing river of gold falling across her shoulder.
Metaphors do not use the words “like” or “as” to make their comparison. When those words are in the phrase, it becomes a simile. This is a similar literary device, but just a little more direct in its presentation.
Using Metaphors Effectively
Metaphors can be powerful in your writing, but they can also be cliché, which is a common writing mistake even seasoned writers make. Some metaphors, like “the calm before the storm,” have been widely overused. As a writer, knowing when to use metaphors, and when to leave cliches behind, is important.
Use metaphors sparingly and only when they bring more meaning to the writing or to draw a visual picture. It’s also important not to mix metaphors by carelessly putting two in the same example.
For instance, here’s a good example:
- The sports car flew through the traffic with a full head of steam.
In this example, “flew” brings to mind an airplane, while “a full head of steam” brings to mind a train. This mixes two metaphors and confuses the reader. It would be more powerful to state:
Here’s another good example:
- The sports car barreled through the traffic with a full head of steam.
This brings to mind a train throughout the statement.
In general, use metaphors when they bring more meaning to the story, but use them with caution. Be careful to avoid mixing metaphors, and do not use a metaphor you have heard over and over, as that could easily be cliche.
Definition of an Allegory
Allegories are a symbolic representation or the expression of truth using symbolic, fictional characters. It is a full story that lets the reader draw a conclusion.
In literature, an allegory is often called a “story within a story” or a surface story that hides a deeper truth.
For instance, a story about two neighbors getting into a squabble over a property boundary line may actually be a hidden story about a current war. Allegory can be powerful and direct or it can be subtle, depending on the writer’s goal.
How Is an Allegory Different from Symbolism or Metaphor?
Allegories are not the same as symbolism, because allegories are complete narratives. Symbolism uses one object (symbol) to stand for another within a narrative, but do not extend through the entire narrative. Sometimes allegories use symbolism but they are not the same thing.
Allegories, in some ways, are extended metaphors. They take two unrelated items and compare them in a long story. However, they are not really the same thing.
What Is an Example of an Allegory?
Storytelling is a great way to get a point across, and many stories in literature are allegorical in nature. Perhaps the most recognizable of these is Aesop’s Fables. Though Aesop does draw his conclusion at the end of each fable, the story itself is a cover story for the deeper truth.
Here are some additional examples of allegories:
- The Chronicles of Narnia – This literature series by C.S. Lewis is a Biblical allegory, taking themes from the Christian Bible and expressing them in a fantasy story about a mythical land called Narnia.
- Animal Farm – George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm uses a story of a farm and the society the animals create to criticize the problems of Communism. This book highlights the problems created through the Russian Revolution.
- The Faerie Queene –This epic poem, published in the late 1500s, follows Arthurian knights through their adventures. A deeper look shows that the author Edmund Spenser was using the poem to provide commentary on Queen Elizabeth I and her reign.
- The Scarlet Letter – This novel written in the 1600s is an allegory on sin and the way society punishes it. It also explores the theme of hypocrisy, particularly in highly religious societies like the Puritan society.
The power of allegory is clear. Many of these works of literature show up in literature classes around the country.
Academics and critics love to debate and discuss them to explore what the author’s meaning or intention may have been. Because authors rarely come right out and state what the purpose of their allegories was, this can lead to years of debate in the academic world.
Using Allegory in Writing
Allegory is more challenging to use in writing because weaves through your entire piece. To use it well, you must find a story idea that connects to your larger idea, then plan the allegory to let your fictional characters explore your real-world topic.
When writing allegory, remember that the audience is going to have to figure out what your characters and story represent. Each character needs a purpose, and you must avoid bringing unrelated characters into the story.
Finally, give readers enough clues to let them see your overall purpose, without coming right out and stating your meaning and message outright. Be subtle, but not so subtle that the readers never see the point of your allegory.
The Final Word on Allegory Vs Metaphor
Whether you choose to add a few powerful metaphors to your writing or decide to let an allegory define your ideas for you, understanding how these two tools are used will make your writing more powerful.
Comparison is one thing that helps the reader understand things that are harder to grasp. Both allegory and metaphor allow this in your writing.
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