allegory 1 Allegory, symbolism designate methods of representation in art. Both characteristically aim to represent concretely something that is abstract or for some other reason not directly representable. Allegory is applied to a form of representation found not only in literature but also in painting and sculpture. It evokes a dual interest, one in the story, scene, or characters presented and the other in the ideas they convey or the significance they bear; it demands not only aesthetic enjoyment but intellectual interpretation. The incidents, scenes, or characters may be historical or fictitious or fabulous, but if the artist has given to the historical an added meaning or has invented his material to convey an idea or truth, he has employed allegory. Symbolism is applied to a form of representation used not only in literature, painting, and sculpture but also in music, architecture, ceremonial, and pageantry. It implies an attempt to represent what by its very nature is incapable of direct representation because it is immaterial, ideal, or spiritual. Originally symbolism denoted representation by an accepted sign or symbol (see SYMBOL 1); in painting and sculpture the divinity of Jesus was represented by a nimbus enclosing a cross and sainthood by a simple nimbus usually enclosing rays. In modern use symbolism also implies artistic imitation and invention as a means of suggesting not only something that eludes representation because of its nature but also something of which the literal representation is taboo (as by reason of defiance of the generally accepted moral code). Thus, a poet employs symbolism when his images, his rhythms, or his words evoke ideas or emotions that escape analysis; a painter employs symbolism when he uses arrangements of colors and of lines not to represent definite objects but to suggest something that is impalpable or intangible; a novelist or dramatist employs symbolism when his novel or play carries more than its surface meaning or offers hints of an underlying significance. Especially in literature symbolism is not always clearly distinguishable from allegory. The latter term, however, implies organization and a pattern in which the characters, incidents, and setting serve as symbols.
2 Allegory, parable, myth, fable are comparable as literary forms that typically tell a story for the sake of presenting a truth or of enforcing a moral. An allegory veils its true meaning (its underlying or allegorical sense) by leaving it to be deduced from the story it tells (the outward or literal sense). Its characters and incidents are therefore either figurative or typical; they serve as a bait to the consideration of dull or unpleasant truths (as in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), as a graded approach to the apprehension of ideas too difficult for the ordinary man (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy), or as a cloak for an attack on persons (as in Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel) or for an exposure of vices and follies (as in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). When the allegory is very short and simple and narrates or describes a familiar occurrence in nature or life that by analogy conveys a spiritual truth, it is called a parable. The term is specifically applied to the brief allegories used by Jesus in his sermons (as the one likening the kingdom of heaven to the growth of a mustard seed). Myth is applied to a type of brief allegory used especially by Plato in expounding a difficult philosophical conception. Such myths are, as a rule, invented and their characters and incidents are purely imaginary. In a fable the moral is usually clearly stated at the end. Its characters are animals (as in Orwell’s Animal Farm) or inanimate things that by talking and acting as human beings reflect the weaknesses and follies of men.

New Dictionary of Synonyms. 2014.

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