Allegory vs Symbolism: What’s the Difference?

Does the difference between allegory vs symbolism confuse you? Read on to learn how they are different and similar!

Literature is full of symbolism and literary devices with a deeper meaning beyond what the words on the page say. Allegories and symbolism are two such literary devices commonly used in English writing.

Symbolism is a series of symbols that make abstract ideas easier to understand. An allegory is a story, poem or image with a hidden meaning. An allegory is a type of symbolism, but other types exist as well.

To better understand this question of allegory vs. symbolism and how they are related and different, let’s take a closer look at the meaning of these words. We’ll also cover some examples of allegory or symbolism from literature so you can use this common literary device in your stories.

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Understanding Allegory

Allegory vs symbolism

An allegory is a work that has a deeper meaning. It is the entire work, not just part of the work. Many times allegories attempt to use fiction or poetry to communicate important moral or political messages. 

In general, allegory has the following characteristics:

  • In the form of prose or a short story with a literal meaning and a metaphysical meaning.
  • Used to teach a lesson or faith principle.
  • Can be satirical for social change or political teaching.
  • Can convey a moral ideal.
  • Uses one-to-one symbols to tell a story but lets the reader interpret the meaning of the symbols.

This is similar to a parable, but the goal isn’t to show universal truth. Instead, the goal of an allegory is to teach a principle and get the reader to think more deeply about a particular concept or problem.

Types of Allegory 

There are four main types of allegory you can study. These include:

  • Classical Allegory: This type of allegory is highly philosophical in nature, getting the reader to think about the world and how they interpret it. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is one of the most famous examples. 
  • Medieval Allegory: Many stories written during the Middle Ages have an allegorical bent. Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene is an example of this.
  • Modern Allegory: Many literary scholars have started finding allegory in classic works that were not originally intended to be so, a process known as allegoresis. This type of allegory is modern allegory.
  • Biblical Allegory: These allegories take themes from the Bible, like the struggle of good and evil, and weave them into a fictional tale. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia are an example.

Examples of Allegory in Literature

Some famous works of literature are examples of allegory. One of the most famous is George Orwell’s Animal Farm (0451526341). This book is a political allegory that shows the follies of Communism, the Russian Revolution, and modern-day slavery. 

Some allegories are religious allegories. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan tells the tale of the journey of Christian to the Celestial City. This allegory is full of symbolic meaning about the Christian experience.

Aesop’s fables are also examples of tales with allegorical meaning. The whimsical stories of animals actually break down complex ideas and make them easier to understand.

Understanding Symbolism

Symbolism is broader than allegory. Symbolism comes from the Greek word that means “to throw together,” and it takes abstract ideas and real-life items and puts them together. 

Symbolism does not necessarily have to be an entire work. It can be just one part of the work, like the letter “A” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter representing both “Able” and “Adultery” as Hester Prynne shows in spite of her misdeeds, she is a capable and strong woman.

Types of Symbolism

Literature and art offer many types of symbolism. These include:

Examples of Symbolism

Allegory Vs Symbolism
Red roses are a symbol of love

There are some examples of symbolism that are common in our culture that may help you understand this literary device. Many of these are figures of speech or commonly-accepted symbolic meanings.

  • Red roses are a symbol of love.
  • A broken heart symbolizes broken love.
  • The color white or a dove is a symbol of peace.
  •  A snake or serpent symbolizes evil and darkness.

The Differences Between Allegory and Symbolism

Because allegory is a type of symbolism, there are fewer differences between the two, but there are some.

The main difference between allegory and symbolism is how they are presented. Allegory is a narrative, as the moral lesson is in the form of an allegorical story. Symbolism is a literary device that presents one particular item, like a dove, to represent something else (peace). 

In other words, an allegory is a whole story, poem, or book. Symbolism can be just a part of the story, poem, or book. If you liked this post, you might also be interested in our guide on the grammatical expletive.

A Final Word on Allegory vs. Symbolism

Literary tools make writing more interesting and engaging, and knowing the differences between them is helpful both in writing and in interpreting literature. 

Allegory has a story with a hidden meaning. It is not direct but asks the reader to dig in and discover the meaning of the work. Symbolism, which includes allegory, is a literary device that uses an item to represent something else, usually a physical, observable time that represents something metaphysical. 

Because an allegory is a type of symbolism, there is some overlap between the two, but understanding how writers present allegories will help you interpret works more easily as you discover the hidden meanings behind the stories you love.

FAQs About Allegory vs Symbolism

What is the definition of an allegory?

An allegory is a story, tale or poem that has a hidden meaning. It is commonly used in literature to teach a moral or lesson.

What is the difference between symbolism and allegory?

An allegory is a type of symbolism that takes the symbol and extends it through the entire story.