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Allegory vs. Symbolism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on November 3, 2023
"Allegory" is a narrative where characters and events represent abstract ideas, while "Symbolism" uses specific symbols to convey deeper meanings.

Key Differences

"Allegory" and "Symbolism" are both literary devices used to convey deeper meanings, but they function differently.
"Allegory" operates on a broader scale, often encompassing the entirety of a narrative, with characters, events, and settings working together to express a larger message or moral lesson. Think of it as a prolonged metaphor where everything in the story stands for something else. On the other hand, "Symbolism" tends to be more specific. It employs individual symbols—whether objects, characters, or events—to represent larger ideas or concepts within a story.
While an "Allegory" might use a whole tale to depict the battle between good and evil, "Symbolism" could use a lone object, like a black crow, to signify impending doom.
Furthermore, "Allegory" is typically more deliberate in its intention to convey a particular message, whereas "Symbolism" can be open to interpretation, allowing readers to derive their own meanings from the symbols presented.

Comparison Chart


Entire narrative
Specific elements within a narrative


Characters/events/settings signify deeper meanings
Objects/characters/events represent larger ideas


Often has a clear intended message
Can be open to reader's interpretation


Convey abstract ideas through narrative
Add depth and layers to a story


Continuous throughout the story
Can be sporadic or recurring

Allegory and Symbolism Definitions


A story, poem, or image that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning.
George Orwell's Animal Farm is an allegory about the dangers of totalitarianism.


An artistic and poetic movement emphasizing inner meaning over realistic representation.
The red rose often carries the symbolism of love and passion.


An extended metaphor where the components of the story have a deeper significance.
The Lord of the Flies serves as an allegory of the inherent evil in human nature.


The underlying meanings attributed to symbols used.
The raven in Poe's poem holds the symbolism of death and melancholy.


A narrative in which abstract ideas are personified.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist's journey is an allegory of the Christian's journey to salvation.


The use of symbols to signify deeper meanings or qualities.
The dove is often used in literature as a symbolism of peace.


A symbolic representation.
The allegory of the cave in Plato's writings represents the pursuit of knowledge.


The practice of representing things by symbols.
The heart symbol has the symbolism of love and emotion.


The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.


The practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships.


A story, picture, or play employing such representation. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick are allegories.


A system of symbols or representations.


A symbolic representation
The blindfolded figure with scales is an allegory of justice.


A symbolic meaning or representation.


(rhetoric) A narrative in which a character, place, or event is used to deliver a broader message about real-world issues and occurrences.


Revelation or suggestion of intangible conditions or truths by artistic invention.


A picture, book, or other form of communication using such representation.


Symbolism The movement, theory, or practice of the late 19th-century Symbolists.


A symbolic representation which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, usually a moral or political one.


Representation of a concept through symbols or underlying meanings of objects or qualities.


A category that retains some of the structure of the category of binary relations between sets, representing a high-level generalisation of that category.


(obsolete) A combining together of parts or ingredients.


A figurative sentence or discourse, in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances. The real subject is thus kept out of view, and we are left to collect the intentions of the writer or speaker by the resemblance of the secondary to the primary subject.


The act of symbolizing, or the state of being symbolized; as, symbolism in Christian art is the representation of truth, virtues, vices, etc., by emblematic colors, signs, and forms.


Anything which represents by suggestive resemblance; an emblem.


A system of symbols or representations.


A figure representation which has a meaning beyond notion directly conveyed by the object painted or sculptured.


The practice of using symbols, or the system of notation developed thereby.


A short moral story (often with animal characters)


The science of creeds; symbolics.


A visible symbol representing an abstract idea


A system of symbols and symbolic representations


An expressive style that uses fictional characters and events to describe some subject by suggestive resemblances; an extended metaphor


The practice of investing things with symbolic meaning


A work that can be decoded to unveil a moral, political, or philosophical depth.
The Chronicles of Narnia are often interpreted as an allegory of Christian faith.


An artistic movement in the late 19th century that tried to express abstract or mystical ideas through the symbolic use of images


Are all allegories symbolic?

Yes, allegories inherently use symbols to convey deeper meanings.

Is allegory limited to literature?

No, allegory can be found in art, music, and other forms of expression.

Are allegorical meanings always obvious?

Not always. Some allegories are more subtle and open to interpretation.

Can a symbol be an allegory?

Not exactly. While symbols convey deeper meanings, they don't encompass an entire narrative like an allegory.

Can one story contain both allegory and symbolism?

Absolutely. A story can be allegorical in nature and still contain individual symbols.

Why is symbolism used in writing?

Symbolism adds depth, layers, and can evoke emotions or thoughts in the reader.

Does symbolism have a universal meaning?

Some symbols carry universal meanings, but interpretation can vary by culture or individual.

Are fables and parables forms of allegory?

Yes, both fables and parables are types of allegories that convey moral lessons.

Do all cultures interpret symbols the same way?

No, symbolism can vary widely across different cultures.

Can symbols change meaning over time?

Yes, the interpretation of symbols can evolve based on cultural or societal shifts.

Is symbolism always intentional?

While often intentional, readers or viewers may interpret unintended symbolism.

Is allegory always serious in tone?

No, allegory can be used in comedic or light-hearted contexts as well.

Is allegory used in modern literature?

Yes, allegory remains a powerful tool in both classic and contemporary works.

What's an example of a common symbol in literature?

The journey is a frequent symbol, often symbolizing personal growth or change.

How can I identify symbolism in a story?

Look for recurring objects, characters, or events that seem to carry a deeper significance.

Can real-world events be used as symbols?

Yes, real-world events can be imbued with symbolism, especially in allegorical or symbolic retellings.

Is understanding allegory and symbolism essential to enjoy literature?

While it can enhance understanding, many works can be enjoyed without deciphering their allegorical or symbolic elements.

Why are allegory and symbolism important in literature?

They allow authors to convey deeper meanings, enrich narratives, and engage readers on multiple levels.

Can allegory be found in film?

Absolutely, many films use allegory to convey deeper meanings or commentaries.

Can an entire character be an allegory?

Yes, characters can represent larger ideas or concepts in an allegorical narrative.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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