Friday, December 3, 2010


I confess I'm not sure I know exactly what an allegory is. I know one when I see one, (see my list below), but I'm not sure how to define it or how to put it into practice. The reason this is important is that this month I am studying allegory with the notion of employing it in the fourth volume of my novel in four volumes. In September, you may recall, I studied Tragedy with the emphasis on Shakespeare. In October it was Apocalyptic Literature (not post-apocalyptic like 'The Road'), and last month the emphasis was on Prose Epic. So now - Allegory.

As near as I can figure, a work is allegorical when the meaning of the story is conveyed symbolically - where one thing represents something else - or when the story itself represents some other story. (If you know a better definition, please enlighten me). In a way, all literature is allegorical. The quest for Utopia (a rough idea about volume four), is the American story, for instance, or perhaps it is a universal story. Do we not all yearn for a perfect life? But a perfect life means different things to different people, and there is the rub. (American Anglo settlers destroyed indigenous peoples and cultures). Anyway, we'll look deeper into Utopia next week.

Coleridge said allegory "cannot be other than spoken consciously, whereas in... the symbol the general truth may be unconsciously in the writer's mind." A symbol is a physical image of some other thing. It therefore has a deep affinity with physical things. Allegories make extensive use of symbols - the most successful I believe is 'Lord of the Flies' - but they are more than symbolic.

Plot in an allegory unfolds as an exploration of a literal truth that is found in the words themselves, and in the history of those words. This can cause confusion among readers who are used to the standard triangular plot arrangement seen in most writing today. The author may suspend a traditional plot in mid-air, so to speak, and reveal a deeper truth about characters, situations, or words. Wordplay, then, is an organic part of the genre.

Allegory works on at least two levels - the literal and the figurative. The figurative level offers up a moral or political lesson which is indicated by the characters, symbols, and everything else in the narrative. Dante claimed that his Commedia, like the Bible, worked on four levels: 1) The literal level - the historic event. 2) The typological level - writing history as a series of signs, just as God does. 3) The moral level - the turning of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace. 4) The anagogical level - the soul's departure to heaven from the body at the time of death. This definition seems to pose as many questions as answers 'nel mezzo del Cammin di nostra vita' ('halfway along the road of life', or in my case more than half way.

At what point, then, does formal allegory give way to extended metaphor or imagery? Can a sustained metaphor become allegory? All writing begins with words and letters upon the page. Writing cannot be 'real' at all - all is allegorical. The inherent truth on the page is found in the words themselves and the narrative images they produce. If I find the rules of allegory too rigid, can I find a way that does not bind the narrative so tightly? Like Milton, of course, I can choose not to write allegory at all. Or, as when Melville claimed that 'Moby Dick' was not allegory, Hawthorne pointed out that it was "part-and-parcel allegoricalness of the whole." Perhaps I can find what C.S. Lewis ('The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe'), called "the allegorical core". Thank goodness I don't have to decide today. I will continue to study the matter and invite your comments.

One allegorical novel I particularly enjoy is Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'. Yet even here some of the rules of allegory seem to be neglected or abandoned, especially when one considers how well the 'real' nature of the main characters and the demands of the tradition plot works. Still, who can forget that opening scene - an allegory if there ever was one - with the rose found at the threshold of the prison and the grim 'black and white' vista of the Pilgrim world beyond. Again and again the narrative returns to this opening scene as Pearl and the scarlet letter become one, and the scarlet letter itself becomes the 'letter of the law' written of in Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

What I am looking for may be more 'mythical' than allegorical. Myth is a story that is central to a culture or society. It embodies the values of that culture. An example of myth is, of course, the creation myth. How the universe and people came into existence. There are nearly as many creation stories as there are cultures telling those stories.

While I consider which I will use for volume four, I will be reading (or re-reading) the following books this month as examples of allegory:

'Gulliver's Travels' by Jonathan Swift
'Ulysses' by James Joyce
'Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan
'Divine Comedy' by Dante
'Sea Wolf' by Jack London
'Blindness' by Jose Saramago
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey
'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' by Carson McCullers
'Death Comes for the Archbishop' by Willa Cather
'Gravity's Rainbow' by Thomas Pynchon
and 'The Scarlet Letter' mentioned above, by Hawthorne.

Alright, I admit it may take more than a month.

Happy Holidays to you all.


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