Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.
Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)
The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”
And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?
It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.
I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.
In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.
But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.
To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.