I once rented a video entitled The Wide Sargasso Sea. It was a bit odd, as though the story began in the middle rather than the beginning. In the tale a man gets tricked into marrying a woman on the edge of madness (an inherited trait from her mother’s side of the family). Well aware of the signs of impending insanity, her father and brother found some poor starry-eyed young man of means and foisted her off on him. After a few happy months his world fell apart. While watching this perplexing movie, recognition suddenly hit me. The poor sucker was Edward Rochester and his wife was dangerously crazy Bertha. The Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel-style novel written in 1966 by Author Jean Rhys, was the back-story to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
I remember reading a quote by the author Jean Rhys saying something about mad Bertha Rochester being Charlotte Brontë’s symbolic reference for the hidden rage of women. No kidding. The second-class citizen world of Charlotte Brontë was little better for women than Jane Austen’s world twenty-five years before. That sad time of very few rights and no fair representation under the law would have enraged me too. Today’s all too similar political shenanigans enrage me now.
Anyway, before I express my hidden rage…
As part of my 2016 symbol series, I’ll look into symbolism in literature over the next few days. I’ll begin than with Allegory. Etymology: From the Greek, “to speak so as to imply something other.”
Allegory is the representation of abstract ideas or principles where characters and events symbolize the deeper moral or spiritual meanings of human life. Search for a broader definition and you get this:
- The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.
- A story, picture, or play employing such representation.
- A symbolic representation e.g. the blindfolded figure of a woman holding a scale is an allegory of justice.
Allegory has been used in teaching principles for ages. We’ve been treated to allegory from practically day one. What child doesn’t know the story of the Tortoise and the Hare or the Ant and the Grasshopper by Aesop? Conveying that you shouldn’t give up, or it’s better to be prepared are both excellent principles to live by.
One truth always stands in this type of storytelling–an allegory is not meant to be taken literally. You must look for the symbolic reference.
Authors often use this device in their writing to convey a personal statement. I certainly do. If I’d put any more statement into Loving Leonardo, no one would be able to lift the book of the table! I find such thoughts enhance the reading experience. As a reader, when I’m able to draw a deeper meaning from a passage, it always feels like the author wrote it for me. And I like that. You’ll often see this tool in older works. Authors such as Steinbeck, Melville, C. S. Lewis, Swift, and Milton all dabbled in it. Good luck trying to find it in a modern work. If modern allegory is out there, no one is talking. Here are a few of the best-known allegorical works from the past:
- The Divine Comedy, an epic poem by Dante is also an allegory to keep on the straight and narrow lest you end up in hell.
- The Wizard of Oz, an allegory of the populist movement of the 1890s.
- The obvious one The Allegory of the Cave by Ancient Greek philosopher Plato suggests man has a tendency to accept convention without question, even to his detriment.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding. A disturbing abstract on rationality, order, and democracy.
- Animal Farm by George Orwell is an equally disturbing abstract on the communist regime of Stalin.
Beyond those books forced upon me in school, I haven’t completely tackled all of the above and probably never will. Heck, I can’t get half-way through any Steinbeck before it makes me cry. I’m more of an informational reader anyway. Give me a set of encyclopedias with an occasional run of historical romance/fiction and a dash of Harry Potter and I’m good.
How many allegorical works have you read? Feel free to share titles in comments.
Tomorrow: a bit more.
“You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.”
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