Difference Between Allegory and Symbolism

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.


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Some novels achieve lofty classic status, while others fade into relative obscurity. Authors, journalists, and screenwriters generally use many 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 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.

Key Takeaways

  1. An allegory is a narrative that uses characters and events to represent abstract ideas, while symbolism uses symbols to represent a deeper meaning.
  2. Allegories are often longer and more complex than symbolic representations, while symbolism focuses more on individual objects or concepts.
  3. Allegories are usually written to teach a moral lesson, while symbolism can be used in any medium to convey a deeper meaning.

Allegory vs Symbolism

An allegory is a poem or a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. At the same time, symbolism is a figure of speech which uses symbols to signify ideas and qualities. Allegory places less emphasis on images, while symbolism gives more emphasis on the use of images between detail.

Allegory vs Symbolism

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Comparison Table

Parameters of ComparisonAllegorySymbolism
DefinitionAn allegory 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 ImagesSymbolism gives a lot of importance to using images between detail and ulterior meaning.Symbolism gives a lot of importance to the use of images between detail and ulterior meaning

What is Allegory?

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

Abstract ideas, concepts, and political or historical situations are shown through characters, events, and the story’s setting. Although the story appears simple in allegory, it always 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, 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”, Christian interacts with every character, object, and location along his journey, symbolically fitting into a larger moral or lesson about the path to reaching heaven.

Generally, Allegory operates on two levels as a literary work. But, the emphasis of allegory is typically placed on the abstract ideas 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 use symbolism can be called as an allegory. 

There are three types of Allegory:

  1. Biblical Allegory: This allegory borrows themes from the Bible, which often explores 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 represents how humans live, 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 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 different from its literal sense.

Many traditional symbols are ambiguous and 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 a country’s flag, the traffic light’s colours, 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 with 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 literally symbols representing more complex narratives or beliefs. Symbolism was widely used, mostly with religious connotations, even during the middle ages

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

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

Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. Hence symbols are ubiquitous and important in our life. Any symbolism definition points to our values as part of our culture. Colours have different meanings in the Western world 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 essentially dissimilar things.
  3. An allegory uses characters and events to reveal a hidden meaning or message. Allegory is 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 refers 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 as 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. An allegory is a narration or description where characters, events, or symbols reveal a hidden meaning or message. In contrast, Symbolism represents 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 uses symbolism, whereas Symbolism is a literary device that adds meaning to the text.
  4. Allegory can be 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 the work is an allegory. Hence all symbolisms are not allegories.
  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.
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  1. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/389535?journalCode=mp
  2. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963947005051287
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