Allegory is a term that often gets thrown around quite a bit, especially when one is considering certain pieces of art or literature, however, this can sometimes get mixed with ‘Analogy’, which is something else entirely.
In order to understand the difference, it is useful for us to define the two properly to see how these mistakes can come about due to their slight similarity to one another.
First, an analogy is quite literally a comparison between two things that are incredibly similar or very different. It is a means of understanding things by form of simplification and comparison.
Take ants and the military for example. These two examples are very different as one is insects and the other are presumably human (For all you extra-terrestrials out there), however, we use the military to understand ants due to the fact that they are both heavily regimented, organised, and have a clear and unquestionable hierarchical structure which will defend the queen (or country, Prime Minister, President, etc) until they die.
An allegory, however, is different in that it is a symbolic representation of something else that is projected through arts and mediums to convey something else entirely. True, they both draw on comparisons, but these are not as blatant as analogies and so they are open to more subjective interpretations despite the intentions of the person who has used them.
However, to understand how analogies work and how to spot them, it is always helpful to have examples to hand so that you can discern from a context that you can relate to.
Robocop has been argued by many, and confirmed by director Paul Verhoeven to be an allegory of Jesus.
This might sound barmy; however, it is the case. The character of Alex Murphy is killed and resurrected in the form of a kick-ass cyborg. Murphy’s execution was, in the words of Verhoeven, to show the devil crucifying Jesus, and as a result he would re-emerge to enact justice. Also, the guy walks on water!
There are also other allegories that run throughout Robocop, and one of these is that of The Golem. For all you who are not clued up on your Jewish myths, the Golem was an artificial being that was created to project the Jewish people from attack and to ward off evil. This was until the Golem would be deactivated the night before the Sabbath so that it does not ruin it. There are also stories of the villagers turning against the Golem when it remained because they no longer served a purpose. Robocop reflects this due to the call for his destruction by those to who created him when Robocop posed a risk to Omni Consumer Products.
Not only are there religious allegories in Verhoeven’s classic, there are also social commentaries that are presented through satire. For instance, it is argued that the whole film is about a man who has had his whole life (in the form of his memories) to a corporate enterprise that has classed him as product, and the resilience and struggle to find one’s own self in an overbearing consumer landscape.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is compulsory reading for many an English student. So it won’t come across as much of a surprise to most of you that the story has more to it than just a couple of guys on a work farm.
The novel is littered from head to toe with allegory. As the main characters, Lenny and George are out to get the American dream they begin their work on a farm to gain funds. The farm itself is something called a microcosm, which is a place, community, or situation that embodies the qualities and represents something much larger. In the case of Steinbeck’s novel, it is the USA.
On the farm are those who cannot achieve the America dream (Due to the views of the time), such as Curley’s Wife, who is never given a name because her personality and existence is merely a reflection of her husband. This is where she gets her title, however is denied of her own.
Crooks is a black man who is also disabled (where he gets his name from), Curley is the son of the ranch owner and thus has achieved the American dream but deprives others of that privilege.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s spectacular classic of trippy light effects and bone wielding primates is one of the most visually stunning and eye opening films of the 20th Century.
The whole piece can be an allegory of evolution, in that it literally depicts this via the use of the monolith’s to propel the growth of the human race, however there are more subtle interpretations too.
Namely that it could be an allegory for the growth of an individual. The primates originally on four legs, then raising to two before defeating a rival tribe of apes, the space which we see space stewardesses taking ‘baby steps’.
It has also been argues to be an analogy for cellular growth if one takes into account the space foetus, but this occurs due to Dave entering the fourth dimension. If you have not watched it, then do so.
The HAL 9000 is an allegory for IBM, if you use your head a little.
Allegories are fantastic and they have been crucial in the progression of ideas that cut across a wide variety of mediums and can greatly enrich a piece of art. It is what makes Moby Dick more than just a good old book about a man who hates a whale.
They allow you to really get your thinking caps on and work out what the author/artists intentions are, but also to come up with your own alternative interpretations of a give piece so that you can truly appreciate, and become more active in your experiences with art.