What Is the Difference between Allegory and Metaphor?

Geisha A. Legazpi

An allegory is a narrative in which a component, such as a character or setting, is representative of a particular value or underlying idea. A metaphor is a figure of speech wherein an unfamiliar subject is described using an attribute of a familiar subject. Both allegory and metaphor also make great use of symbols. Although allegory and metaphor are often used interchangeably, they are not strictly one and the same.

"All the world's a stage" is a metaphor.
"All the world's a stage" is a metaphor.

Allegory and metaphor have key similarities, which is why a lot of people frequently mistake one for the other. Both are literary devices that make use of rhetoric. In general, an allegory can be more accurately considered as an extended form of a metaphor. Metaphor deals with only a singular idea or symbol, and typically consists of a single phrase or sentence, while an allegory tells a complete story that consists of different symbols related to one another. William Langland’s Piers Plowman and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown are examples of allegories, while the plays of William Shakespeare and the poems of John Donne are rich in metaphors.

William Shakespeare's plays are filled with metaphors.
William Shakespeare's plays are filled with metaphors.

Learning the different components of both allegory and metaphor will help people understand the difference between them. A metaphor is a figure of speech, just like a simile. Metaphors and similes are almost the same except that similes make comparisons using the word “like” or "as". For instance, “her smile was like sunlight shining down on me” is a simile, whereas “her smile was sunlight shining down on me” is a metaphor.

"Love is a rose with thorns" is a common metaphor for love.
"Love is a rose with thorns" is a common metaphor for love.

With the metaphor “her smile was sunlight shining down on me,” the tenor or unfamiliar topic is the woman’s smile, which may be something another person has yet to see. To make it easier for the other person to visualize the woman’s smile, a familiar subject or vehicle is used in comparison. The writer is assuming that the vehicle he or she is using is familiar to all. When the writer makes a wrong choice of vehicle, a metaphor fails to make sense.

Allegories are often mistaken for parables and fables. Although all have similar functions and components, the main difference lies in their themes and use of symbols. Parables and fables typically have a single theme or lesson, and all symbols used in them are related to the lesson being imparted. Allegories may have more than one lesson to impart.

The Good Samaritan is an allegorical tale from the Bible.
The Good Samaritan is an allegorical tale from the Bible.

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Discussion Comments


@stoneMason-- You can but you don't have to. Although allegory and metaphors may often be seen together in a piece of work, they are definitely not the same.

Allegory is symbolism and in my opinion, it is usually hidden or not very apparent immediately. So for example, let's say there is a poem about a sick man and how he needs to be treated. One may read this poem and believe that it is just about a sick man. But the author may reveal that it is actually an allegory about a country at war. The sick man may be symbolic of a war torn country and peace may be the remedy required. But you might never know this without a hint of some kind.

A metaphor, on the other hand, explains something by likening it to something else. It may not be as apparent as a simile where the use of words such as "like" and "as" make it very easy to spot the comparison. But I still think that it takes more skill for a writer to use allegory and it also requires a careful reader to know it when he sees it.


Are allegory and metaphor usually used together? I mean, if I were to use allegory in a short story, should I also use metaphors?


Shakespeare is the king of allegory. He has used this literary device countless times in his works and very few people have been able to use allegory as well as Shakespeare.

One that comes to mind right now is Shakespeare's famous play Hamlet. There is a scene in Hamlet where Ophelia's brother Laertes asks Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. He describes woman as a flower and warns her about the dangers of intimacy. In another scene of the play, after Ophelia has gone mad, she is giving out flowers around her.

It is not apparent at first glance, but it is apparent that Shakespeare used allegory to explain to the audience that Ophelia has been "deflowered," meaning that she has lost her virginity. The flowers symbolize her virginity.

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