The connection between symbolism and allegory is that both use symbols. Every allegory must use symbols, but not all stories with symbolism are allegories. Symbolism can also have many figurative meanings within a work, but an allegory allows only one literal understanding and one metaphorical.
Any writing that uses symbols is a work of symbolism. Symbols are specific objects, settings, characters, or actions that represent an abstract idea or person. Some meanings are restricted to their context, while others have become commonplace and cliché from overuse. Examples include the heart symbolizing love or the four leaf clover symbolizing good luck.
Symbolism and allegory are different because an allegory is composed entirely of symbols, while a work with symbolism may only have one symbol. An allegory is a complete story of any type which can be understood both literally and figuratively. Novels, short stories, poems, or plays can all be allegories.
The simplest examples of allegories are often fables. Literally, Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” concerns two animals having a race. As a metaphor, this children’s story is about two ways of living and working, and the eventual reward of persistence. In an allegory, every character, action, object, and setting is also a symbol for something abstract.
Like Aesop’s fables, the majority of allegories are intended for use as ethical instruction. Everyman is a morality play written by an anonymous author in the late fifteenth century, and uses both symbolism and allegory. The title character, a symbol for humans in general, learns he is about to die, so he attempts to take something with him: friends, family, knowledge, or even his five senses. In the end, a character called Good Deeds is the only one willing to accompany him through death.
Some stories use symbolism and allegory to help the reader understand an abstract idea through obvious character names, such as Good Deeds in Everyman. Similarly, the protagonist in John Bunyan’s seventeenth century novel Pilgrim’s Progress is named Christian. Characters such as Obstinate, Faithful, and Despair, act as symbols for the trait named.
Allegories are common in religious writings. Examples include Everyman, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. Perhaps better known are the parables from the New Testament, such as the story of the Prodigal Son.
Not all allegories are religious or moral. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a political allegory. Other allegories provide a different perspective on life, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Masque of Red Death” and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”