“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled: and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, ‘What shall I do?’” – John Bunyan
Pilgrim’s Progress is the story of one man’s dream of the Christian life. As such, the story is filled with images and symbols. Pilgrim’s Progress is identified in literature as an allegory. What is an allegory?
An allegory is a narrative or visual representation in which a character, place, or event represents a hidden meaning; with moral or political significance. Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are understood or impacting to viewers, readers, or listeners.
Writers and speakers typically use allegories to convey semi-hidden or complex meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, or events. Together, these create the moral, spiritual, or political meaning the author has in mind. Many allegories use personification of abstract concepts, persons, places or things.
The allegory, as a distinct genre of literature, was first used in English in 1382. The word allegory comes from Latin allegoria, the Latinization of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoría), meaning “veiled language, figurative”, which in turn comes from both ἄλλος (allos), “another, different” and ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), “to harangue, to speak in the assembly” which originates from ἀγορά (agora), “assembly.”
“Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues, allegories may be read into many stories which the author may not have recognized. This is allegoresis, or the act of reading a story as an allegory. Examples of allegory in popular culture that may or may not have been intended include the works of Bertolt Brecht, and even some works of science fiction and fantasy, such as The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis,” explains one historian.
While the allegory genre may be found in visual art and music, the following examples are from literature.
- Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene: The several knights in the poem actually stand for several virtues.
- William Shakespeare – The Tempest: an allegory of the civilization/barbarism binary as it pertains to colonialism
- John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress: The journey of the protagonists Christian and Evangelist symbolizes the ascension of the soul from earth to Heaven.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne – Young Goodman Brown: The Devil’s Staff symbolizes defiance of God. The characters’ names, such as Goodman and Faith, ironically serve as paradox in the conclusion of the story.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter: The letter represents self-reliance from America’s Puritan and conformity.
- George Orwell – Animal Farm: The pigs stand for political figures of the Russian Revolution.
- László Krasznahorkai – The Melancholy of Resistance and the film Werckmeister Harmonies: It uses a circus to describe an occupying dysfunctional government.
- Edgar Allan Poe – The Masque of the Red Death: The story can be read as an allegory for humans’ inability to escape death.
- Arthur Miller – The Crucible: The Salem witch trials are thought to be an allegory for McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Communists in the United States of America.
- Shel Silverstein – The Giving Tree: The book has been described as an allegory about relationships; between parents and children, between romantic partners, or between humans and the environment.
I encourage you to obtain a copy of The New Pilgrim’s Progress (in today’s English). It contains an updated text by Judith E. Marlham with instructional notes by Pastor Warren W. Wiersbe. Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Soli deo Gloria!