Symbolism, Metaphor, Allegory, and Allusion, Explained
With three examples from literature of each one
Excellent writers in every genre — fiction and nonfiction alike — naturally use several literary devices.
Symbolism, metaphor, allegory, and allusion are common instruments in the writer’s kit, elegant shorthands and poetic means to evoke something that the English language just can’t capture, no matter how many ways you write it.
This essay’s title is self-explanatory, so let’s get to it.
A symbol is a signifier that communicates something beyond itself, such as “the wedding ring, the cross, the national flag, the colors of a traffic light, the red rose, the black of mourning, the candles on a dinner table…” (Biedermann).
Keep in mind that “many traditional symbols are ambiguous: they cannot be explained as having a single, constant meaning.” For instance, dragons aren’t necessarily evil in every culture. “The heart does not always stand for love” (Biedermann).
“When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it” (Meister Eckhart, as quoted in Ronnberg).
3 Examples of symbolism
- Eclipse means “that the ordinary lights on which we depend are temporarily quenched.” Eclipse comes from the Greek ekleipsis, meaning “abandonment, falling, cessation, omission, or flaw” (Ronnberg). A life or an ego can be eclipsed in many ways, but the scientific understanding of eclipse ensures that the darkness is only temporary. “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse / Without all hope of day …” — from “Samson Agonistes” by Milton.
- Rocks are symbols of steadfastness, but they can also be hard, cold, and sometimes ugly. “My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary.” — Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
- Gates and portals frequently symbolize entrances and the spaces beyond. “The gate, portal, or gateway is associated with the entry into a space, realm, or domain of great significance, just as the bridge is associated with transition” (Hans). “A door is doubtless the most significant component of a house. It is opened and closed; it is where we knock, and it is the door that is locked. It is threshold and limit. When we pass through or out of it, we enter a space where different conditions prevail, a different state of consciousness, because it leads to different people, a different atmosphere” (Algernon Blackwood, as quoted in Biedermann).
“The Gate of Hell” by Gustave Dore (public domain)
A metaphor is a comparison between two unrelated things that share a common characteristic.
“In simple English, when you portray a person, place, thing, or an action as being something else, even though it is not actually that ‘something else,’ you are speaking metaphorically” (source).
This literary device is so common that we use it in everyday speech without even realizing it. If you’ve ever called someone a couch potato, you’ve used a metaphor (by comparing a sedentary person to a root vegetable).
- The only difference between metaphor and simile is that the latter uses the words “like” or “as” to make the comparison.
“Unless you are at home in the metaphor … you are not safe anywhere.”— Robert Frost in “Education by Poetry”
3 examples of metaphor
- “He could hear Beatty’s voice. ‘Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh? Light the third page from the second and so on, chainsmoking, chapter by chapter, all the silly things the words mean, all the false promises, all the second-hand notions and time-worn philosophies.” —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- “The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light.” —John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
- “Dying is a wild night and a new road.” — Emily Dickinson
“The Tuscan Road” (1899) by Amedeo Modigliani (public domain)
Allegory is closely linked to symbolism and metaphor because it uses both devices to convey a grand moral, political, religious, or ethical idea. You can think of symbolism and metaphor as bricks in an allegory wall. (See what I did there?)
Keep in mind that allegory encompasses the entire narrative. Symbols and metaphors are used along the way. The allegory needs all the pieces combined to convey a higher concept.
3 examples of allegory
- Plato’s “Cave” is the classic example of allegory. Appearing in The Republic the story describes people who have been living in a cave all their lives. The only reality they know is informed by shadows that appear on the cave wall because of objects passed in front of a fire behind them. One day the prisoners break free and emerge from the cave and discover the sun and a whole new existence. They come to understand that the “truth” they have previously known was but mere shadowplay of real objects (and ideas).
- Animal Farm by George Orwell is an allegory that uses animals to say that greed, corruption, and power can lead to the degradation of society. In this case, Orwell was directly referring to the Communist Revolution in Russia.
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel teaches the reader that it is better to live comfortably with God than to try and escape Him/Her, even if you’re totally unaware that God’s presence is near.
Three examples of allegory
An allusion is a mention of the name of a real person, historic event, or fictional character not as a straightforward reference but as a way to conjure or capture the embodiment for which the reference comes to stand.
Think of Hercules, Robin Hood, Eve from the Garden of Eden, Steve Jobs, Oprah, the decline of the Roman Empire, the quagmire that was/is the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kennedy’s call for landing on the moon, the murder of George Floyd.
3 examples of allusion
- Oz is a “fantastic or ideal place” (Delahunty). “Fundamentalist religion is very big out there, and getting bigger. You have to do things and do them right, and if you don’t you’re gonna suffer terrible consequences. If you do them right, you’re gonna enter Emerald City. You’ll be Dorothy and Toto running down the yellow brick road to Oz.” — Studs Terkel, American Dreams: Lost and Found
To cross the Rubicon is “to commit oneself to changing to a new course, leaving no possibility of turning back” (Adonis). In 49 B.C.E. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river from Gault to Italy. Because he violated a law that forbade him from bringing troops into Gaul he became committed to war. “He had crossed his Rubicon — not perhaps very heroically or dramatically, but then it is only in dramas that people act dramatically.” — Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
- To call someone Lancelot is to say that he is “the model of chivalry, bravery, and fidelity,” a regular knight-in-shining-armor (Evans). “‘You must have fainted. You slid forward off the lounger and nearly fell in the pool. He,’ Kat made up by emphasis for not knowing his name, ‘came along just at the right moment and got you out. Sir Lancelot’” — Staynes & Storey, Dead Serious.
This article was originally published on medium.