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Mark Freivald

January 2008

Allegory vs. Symbolism — What’s It All Mean?

The January issue of Flash Fiction Online gives us an excellent example of symbolism in Boleslaw Prus’s “Mold of the Earth”. The story’s colorful symbols — the stone and the botanist — evoke immense and unfathomable things. As the story progresses, the symbols take on an allegorical nature, and seem to imply only superficially interesting things: they say something about diverse perceptions of reality, but provide little depth. As I reached the end, I didn’t expect to discern anything profound. Still, it was seductive in a way that encouraged me to try to come to grips with its meaning.

But then Prus unmasked the symbols for what they are. The ending completely surprised me because the story suddenly wasn’t about the meaning of the symbols themselves; it revealed something about human nature by the way the characters respond to the symbols — and it might even reveal something about the reader by how he responds to it. It was a fantastic turn of symbolism that made an apparently shallow story into a deeply insightful one.

Your Allegory Needs Fixing

The best explanation of symbolism and allegory I ever received came from one of my professors at university. I fail to remember which class or which professor, but he can take comfort in the knowledge that I paid attention despite how forgettable he apparently was.

He explained that allegory starts by examining abstract ideas in a context that has a fixed one-to-one correspondence between the symbols and something in reality. It’s usually more than that, though. An allegory isn’t just a correspondence of subjects — it’s a correspondence of the way those subjects interact, a complete system of congruities. Allegory retells the story of real things in a new context, exploring the implications of what they are.

Franz Kafka’s short story “The Hunger Artist” is an allegory that shows us the artistic world of Kafka’s day. The players and articles that interact with the hunger artist symbolize real institutions, people, and objects. Their interactions with the hunger artist show us how Kafka perceives the real objects interacting with art in the real world. Kafka is telling us how it is — the symbols represent a comprehensive observation of the art world of his time.

The Narnian Chronicles are also allegory. They are rife with symbols that represent real things and real events in Christianity, and the books give us C.S. Lewis’s observations of how those things relate to each other. He’s telling us in allegorical language how things really are, but in a form that appeals to and reaches out to kids.

Hm...does this mean symbolism, as opposed to allegory, doesn’t represent what "really is?"

No. But to see that, we have to get the utterly forgettable professor’s explanation of symbolism.

What If It’s Symbolism?

Symbolism, he said, above all asks the question: What if? It doesn’t focus upon real situations that can be observed and compared to it. We don’t find ourselves nodding as we might at allegory and thinking, "Yep. That’s how it was." Instead, symbolism explores possibilities. It attempts to explore the nature of things — mostly human nature — by putting them to some test of imagination.

The short story “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an example of this. The story shows how a humble couple and the denizens of their humble place respond to a magnificently tattered and beaten creature that fell to the earth in their courtyard. It doesn’t correspond to the real world; it explores what Marquez speculates about the real world if it were faced with the fantastical. The creature represents the fantastical.

Time out: that seems like allegory. “The fantastical” means something specific and real. So doesn’t this winged geezer directly represent something specific and real?

Yes, but "the fantastical" doesn’t represent a specific fantastical thing in the real world. It doesn’t represent the Virgin of Fatima, for example. Neither do the events around it represent anything in particular. Marquez didn’t set out to show the reactions to the original broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" in a different light. The symbolism of the creature and the fantastical are proposed as a way to explore human nature with the question: What if real, gritty, poopy, cranky, compassionate, arrogant, good, and evil human beings were confronted with this fantastic creature?

Marquez goes even further than that. The fantastical is not only represented by an amazing creature, but by a decrepit, wounded, and beaten creature: a very odd picture for a fantastic being. He is exploring more with this symbol than merely "the fantastical." The symbol might not be as easy to pin down as it would be in allegory — but it does, nonetheless, have a correspondence with something real. As one might expect, this can make distinguishing symbolism from allegory a matter of some controversy. Even respected resources don’t seem to help much in the endeavor.

Concrete Thoughts About Abstractions

What does all this mean in a practical sense to us as readers and writers?

Allegory, by nature, creates limitations and brings in problems of accuracy. L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is said to be a political and monetary allegory. But do his characters and situations accurately reflect the real-life politicians and situations they attempt to reveal? An allegory demands some honesty in the representation of its subjects and a prudent author will limit his characters to retain their authenticity. He may also be overly careful, or he may be utterly unfair with how he represents things. The representation of things is completely at the mercy of the author’s biases.

Even if we overlook the biases, the author has to be coherent relative to the subject in allegory. He has to shoehorn his observations and biases into something that mirrors reality. He cannot consider the many natural paths that his characters might otherwise choose if they strayed from those observations. The constriction can sometimes suffocate creativity.

Symbolism, on the other hand, invites creativity and depth. Once you ask "What if?" you are led into speculation, imagination, wonder, and a general openness to creativity. Just about anything can happen. There is no great concern for accuracy or shoe-horning into an uncompromising stencil of reality. Getting back to my question above: Does this make symbolism any less about what is real?

Symbolism requires some footing in reality or it becomes nonsense. By reality I don’t mean realism. I mean that it must be true to the concept or abstraction that it represents, and characters must respond to it in real and honest ways. Marquez’s winged man would not be believable or effective if he started singing rap music and playing checkers against a garden hose. Making characters try to squeeze his toes to decorate cakes wouldn’t help the meaning either. Although symbolism is murkier than allegory — because it explores the unknown — that doesn’t mean it should devolve into gibberish. Characters must interact with something symbolic in real and credible ways, or the symbol becomes less symbolic: it loses whatever value it had in the first place. By demanding honest interactions, but not limiting the characters and symbols to predetermined relationships, symbolism examines humanity in a much deeper way than allegory can. It allows us to really consider the truth of men’s hearts and souls as they are put to the test. The response must be real, or it will fall flat. It’s not really about what is real in the symbol (though it may have dimensions of that, too) — it’s about what is real in those who respond to it.

This has great implications for writers. If a deep thinker starts with allegory, there is only so far he can go. Regardless of his penchant for depth, he risks coming across as simple-minded. Allegory constrains his depth. On the other hand, if even a shallow materialist starts with symbolism, he has opened doors to wonder and fascination. Only a true master at allegory will make good allegory, but even a shallow writer can find some depth through symbolism.

I have not tried to hide my bias in this article. I much prefer symbolism to allegory. Nevertheless I do enjoy some allegory. I love the Narnia books, and I find it challenging and fun to pick apart the subjects of the symbols in allegory. There’s something seductive about finding the meaning to either nod my head or smugly recognize the delusions of the author. But it doesn’t draw me in like symbolism. It doesn’t even come close to providing the kind of delightful surprise I got from Boleslaw Prus in “Mold of the Earth”.

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About the Author

Mark Freivald

The eyes of Mark Freivald

Mark Freivald is an avid reader whose only literary credentials stem from his years studying Latin American Literature for his degree in Spanish. As such, his essays will have to stand or fall on their merits alone. He is, however, the foremost authority regarding his personal delusions, so any delusion sightings should be reported to him right away.

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