Quick intro to Allegory

An allegory is a story told on two levels simultaneously, the literal level and the metaphoric level. Some of the best known examples of allegory are fables. Many will be familiar with Aesop's Fables, those very short stories intended to teach lessons by asking readers to understand the metaphoric meaning of the story. It is from fables that we get sayings such as "sour grapes." On the literal level, the story is simply of the fox trying to get the grapes from a high branch. But on a metaphoric level the story stands for something else -- in this case despising what you cannot get.

In allegories, as in the sub-genre of fables, the literal version of the story stands for something else and asks us to make a leap of interpretation. Another example of allegory, and a very different take on the fable, Orwell's Animal Farm, is literally the story of farm animals who rise up against a farmer. But as an allegory the story takes on much greater meaning, notably the critique of authoritarian socialism.

One of the most famous examples of allegory is Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." For those who have not read it in the original in the Republic, see for starters the short video:

If the reader takes this story only on face value a big part of the message has been missed. Plato has told this story as a way to talk about something else and the story is not meant to be taken literally. Many interpret Plato's "Allegory" as being about our everyday awareness of the world, and the implication of the story is that not many people are living with their eyes truly open. Plato's allegory has been taken up and adapted in modern culture in a number of guises. One good example is in The Matrix.

(this video first... no embedding allowed)

It is difficult to accept a literal version of either Plato's story or the Matrix -- to think that humans are really chained up in a cave or are really plugged into a gigantic computer is absurd. But on a metaphoric level the stories have meaning in that they offer insights on modern society and individual alienation. They seem to ask whether people are truly aware of what is happening around them, or whether what we think of as the everyday world is what Poe famously called "a dream within a dream."