Allegory vs metaphor: What's the difference?
Figurative language tools can make writing more engaging and impactful. They can help the reader picture more vividly what the writer is saying.
Allegories and metaphors are literary devices or figures of speech that will improve your writing.
Allegories and metaphors may seem similar, but they’re not the same.
Many writers use the metaphor and allegory regularly but often without knowledge of what the devices are and how they work. Skilled writers know the differences and how to wield each one well.
Both the allegory and metaphor compare two unrelated ideas or objects to create more impactful writing.
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 to write persuasively.
What Is a Metaphor?
Metaphors are literary devices that compare two unrelated objects. A metaphor describes one thing by comparing it to another without using “like” or “as.”
A metaphor describes a single idea or symbol. It is short, often finished in one phrase or paragraph, and is 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, while explaining more in the description. For example, “Time is a thief, because it steals moments of our lives just like a thief steals belongings.”
Examples of Metaphors from Shakespeare
To demonstrate metaphors more clearly, let’s look at a few examples. William Shakespeare wrote some of the most famous metaphors in literature. These phrases compare unrelated items for rhetorical effect.
“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. This metaphor describes two unrelated things to give meaning and vibrancy to a topic otherwise difficult to understand.
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;
Clearly the world is not a stage. People are not actors. This illustrationallows 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 read 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 “like” or “as” to make their comparison. When those words are in the phrase, the expression becomes a simile. This is a similar literary device that is more direct in its presentation.
Using Metaphors Effectively
Metaphors can be powerful tools, but they can also be clichéd. Relying on overused terms is a common writing mistake even seasoned writers make. Some metaphors, like “the calm before the storm,” have been widely overused. Knowing when to use metaphors and leaving clichés behind is important.
Use metaphors sparingly and only when they add meaning to your writing or draw a visual picture. It’s also important not to mix metaphors by including two in the same sentence.
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” suggests a train. This mixes two metaphors and confuses the reader.
You could state the same thing more powerfully like this:IThe sports car barreled through the traffic with a full head of steam.
This maintains the image of a train throughout the statement.
In general, use metaphors when they provide 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.
Definition of an Allegory
Allegories are stories including a symbolic representation or the expression of truth using symbolic, fictional characters.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. Allegories can be powerful and direct or 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 does not extend through the entire narrative. While allegories sometimes use symbolism, they are not the same thing.
In some ways, allegories are extended metaphors. They compare two unrelated things in a story, however, the objects are not really what they appear to be.
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 draws 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 series by C.S. Lewis takes themes from the Christian Bible and expresses them in a fantasy story about a mythical land called Narnia.
- Animal Farm – George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm tells the society the animals on a farm create to criticize 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 author Edmund Spenser provided commentary on Queen Elizabeth I and her reign through the poem.
The Scarlet Letter – This novel written in the 1800s is an allegory on sin and the way society punishes evil behavior. It also explores hypocrisy, particularly in highly religious societies like the Puritans.
The power of the allegory is clear. Many of these works show up in literature classes around the country.
Academics and critics debate and discuss allegorical works to explore what the author’s meaning or intention might have been. Because authors rarely state the purpose of their allegories, years of debate can flourish in the academic world.
Read our guide to Hero's Journey writers.
Using Allegories In Writing
The allegory is more challenging to use in writing than a metaphor because you must weave it through your entire piece. For full effect, you must find a story idea that connects to your larger idea then devise the allegory to let your fictional characters explore your real-world topic.
When writing an allegory, remember that the audience must figure out what your characters and story represent. Finally, give readers enough clues to let them see your overall purpose without stating your meaning and message. Be subtle, but ensure readers see the meaning 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 helps the reader understand ideas that are difficult to grasp. Both the allegory and metaphor allow this in your writing.
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