Difference Between Allegory and Symbolism (With Table)

It is fun to see what an artist’s intent is. We could walk away after reading a piece of writing or studying a piece of art. A story stands the test of time because of a lot of factors. It can be the splendid writing or the compelling characters of the story. Some novels achieve the lofty classic status while some others fade away into relative obscurity.

Authors, journalists, and screenwriters generally use many different types of literary tools to enhance their writing. These tools are used to lay deeper meaning to their writing so that they are left open to endless reinterpretation. Without all these readers would probably have little to think about and hence put down the books quickly.

No matter how many ways an article is written it is not just easy to evoke something that the English language cannot capture. Rhetorical devices are used to strengthen arguments and help persuade the audience. Allegory, Symbolism, Metaphors, and Allusion are the common instruments in a writer’s kit. Here we will be seeing how Allegory and Symbolism are used.

Allegory vs Symbolism

The difference between Allegory and Symbolism is that Allegory is a recital of a story or poem which interprets to reveal a hidden meaning while Symbolism is to use symbols to signify ideas and qualities.

Comparison Table Between Allegory and Symbolism

Parameters of ComparisonAllegorySymbolism
DefinitionAllegory is a poem or a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaningSymbolism is a figure of speech which uses symbols to signify ideas and qualities
GenreAllegory is a narrativeSymbolism is a literary work
Inter-relationAllegory is created using symbolismSymbolism uses allegory to add meaning to their text
Types1. Biblical Allegory
2. Classical Allegory
3. Modern Allegory
1. Metaphor
2. Simile
3. Allegory
4. Personification
5. Archetype
6. Hyperbole
7. Irony
8. Metonymy
CharactersAllegory uses plants, animals, and forces of natureSymbolism uses an object, a character, or an animal
Use of ImagesAllegory gives less emphasis on images and more on one-to-one relationshipSymbolism gives a lot of importance to use of images between detail and ulterior meaning

What is Allegory?

Allegory is a description or a narrative in which actions, events, characters, or objects convey a hidden meaning of specific abstractions or ideas through the use of symbolism or events. Allegory makes extensive use of symbolism so that there is a broader moral or meaning to the narration.

Abstract ideas, concepts, political or historical situations are shown through characters, events, and the setting of the story. Although the story appears to be simple, in allegory, always it has a more serious deeper meaning. In the story, the characters and the events may also stand for something larger than what they stand for. Thus, in allegory, the story and the characters are multidimensional.

Every aspect of allegory right from the characters, objects, dialogues, settings, and major plots typically interprets a secondary symbolic meaning that fits into the allegory’s broader meaning. For example, in the seventeenth-century allegory, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, the protagonist named Christian interacts with every character, object, and location along his journey symbolically fits into a larger moral or lesson about the path to reach heaven.

Generally, Allegory operates on two levels as a literary work. But, the emphasis of allegory is typically placed on the abstract ideas which are represented or symbolized. Thus, the meaning behind the surface narration has even greater value as a literary work.

Some allegories have morals that are easy to understand such as “The Hare and the Tortoise” but some others can be so precise that it becomes unclear whether the author wanted the story to have another meaning or in other words to be an allegory.

Even though allegories use symbolism exceedingly, not all literary works which uses symbolism can be called as an allegory. 

There are three types of Allegory:

  1. Biblical Allegory: In this, allegory borrows themes from the Bible which often explore the battles between good and evil.
  2. Classical Allegory: The well-known narrative in the classical allegory is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” In this story Plato visualizes people living in caves where the cave is used as a symbolic representation of how humans live in the world, contrasting reality against our interpretation of it.
  3. Modern Allegory: This includes many instances of an occurrence which refers to the interpretation as allegorical without necessarily being intended that way.

What is Symbolism?

Symbolism is used as a literary device to represent great or abstract qualities using characters, objects, or settings. Symbolism signifies ideas and qualities. It gives an object a symbolic meaning which is different from its literal sense.

Many traditional symbols are ambiguous and they cannot be explained as having a single constant meaning. For example, the heart does not always stand for love. A symbol also communicates something beyond itself such as the flag of a country, the colors of the traffic light, or the candles on a dining table.

Symbolism is a broad category and allegory is under it in the hierarchy. Anything in literature could be a symbol and any symbol could have a wide range of meanings and explanations. It is a one-to-many relationship.

The earliest recorded storytelling by humans either in cave paintings or hieroglyphics are quite literally symbols that represent more complex narratives or beliefs. Symbolism remained in wide use even during the middle ages mostly with religious connotations. 

William Shakespeare used symbols to depict inner conscience(the blood in Macbeth), William Blake used religious symbols to represent human emotion and desire.

Symbolism can be subtle and so it is not always easy to identify or understand. It is not easy to say what an author intends to convey something to be symbolic or not. Writers do not say anything outright in symbolism and it is conveyed to their readers poetically or indirectly.

Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, hence symbols are ubiquitous and play an important part in our life. Any symbolism definition points to our values as part of our culture. Colours have different meanings in the Western world when compared to the Asian continents.

There are different types of symbolism whether in the literary field or daily speech. Some of the types of symbolism are:

  1. Metaphor: This shows similarities between two things or ideas even though they have obvious dissimilarities.
  2. Simile: A simile denotes direct comparisons between two things that are essentially dissimilar.
  3. Allegory: This refers to a narrative using characters and events to reveal a hidden meaning or message. Allegory is basically an extended use of metaphor or symbolism
  4. Archetype: Archetype refers to characters, themes, or images that embody a universal meaning or human experience symbolically.
  5. Personification: Personification is used by writers to give human form to various non-living things and help their readers to relate better to such non-human objects.
  6. Metonymy: Metonymy is used to refer to a thing by the name of something closely associated with it. It gives a more complex meaning to any general or ordinary word.
  7. Hyperbole: They are used to give exaggeration while making a specific point or to add emphasis either for a comic or serious purpose. Hyperboles catch your attention as well show a contrast between two things.
  8. Irony: Irony is used to intend a meaning which opposes the literal meaning of the words expressed. It helps to engage readers to add another layer to a fictional tale.

Main Differences Between Allegory and Symbolism

  1. The main difference between Allegory and Symbolism is in their definition itself. Allegory is a narration or description where characters, events, or symbols reveal a hidden meaning or message whereas Symbolism is the method of representing ideas or stories through symbols thus giving a symbolic meaning rather than a literal sense.
  2. The genre of Allegory is a narrative whereas Symbolism is a literary device
  3. Allegory makes use of symbolism whereas Symbolism is a literary device that adds meaning to the text.
  4. Allegory can either be long and extended over an entire book or a series of books or it could be short or a part of a longer work whereas Symbolism can be just a mark, sign, or a word that signifies an idea.
  5. Allegories use a lot of symbolism but the presence of symbolism does not automatically mean that work is an allegory. Hence all symbolisms are not allegory.
  6. Allegory is specific and limited. Hence, it has a one-to-one symbolic function. But Symbolism is a broad category and allegory comes under it in the hierarchy. Anything in the literary world can be a symbol and symbols can have a wide range of meanings and interpretations. Hence, Symbolism is a one-to-many function.


It is difficult to tell the difference between Allegory and Symbolism. It is important to remember that allegory is dependent on symbolism but the presence of symbols does not make a literary work an allegory. 

Allegory and Symbolism have the power to immortalize literature because they express universal and timeless ideas. By using these literary tools, a writer can widen the appeal of their work beyond the boundaries of culture, class, creed, or generation.

We sometimes return to reading certain stories not only because they are very good stories. This is because not only because of the way these stories are communicated but also because they remain personal and immediate despite the passing of time.

Allegory and Symbolism elevate a story making it more specific to the events that take place in the narration. Maybe they are even able to alter our perception of the world around us.


  1. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/389535?journalCode=mp
  2. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963947005051287