A form of extended metaphor in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, either in prose or verse, are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. Thus, it represents one thing in the guise of another—an abstraction in that of a concrete image. The characters are usually personifications of abstract quality, the action and the setting representative of the relationships among these abstractions. Allegory attempts to evoke a dual interest, one in the events, characters, and setting presented, and the other in the ideas they are intended to convey or the significance they bear. The characters, events, and setting may be historical, fictitious, or fabulous; the test is that these materials be so employed that they represent meanings independent of the action in the surface story. Such meaning may be religious, moral, political, personal, or satirical. Thus Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is on one level a chivalric romance, but it embodies moral, religious, social, and political meanings. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress describes the efforts of a Christian to achieve a godly life by triumphing over inner obstacles to his faith, these obstacles being represented by outward objects such as the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.
It is important but by no means always easy to distinguish between allegory and symbolism, which attempts to suggest other levels of meaning without making a structure of ideas the controlling influence in the work, as it is in allegory.