“An allegory is used to make the reader think one thing and then find out they were wrong and something else happened.”

As the academic year begins, this statement is an important caveat to all teachers.

We’ll set aside the use of “they” to refer to “reader.” This has become murky territory ever since feminism made us squeamish about using the masculine as a universal singular. I have students who won’t even use “he” to refer to “father” or “boy,” where one wouldn’t normally see much controversy.

No, much more interesting here is the cri de coeur of today’s student confronted with yet another literary deception. How many teachers of literature have been frustrated by the common student assumption that poetry is, somehow, a secret language, and all a student can (or perhaps should) do is read the words and then wait for the teacher to translate them into a “meaning” that can be written down and memorized for the test? How many students have triumphantly announced that “the rose in this poem is a symbol of love” and then had nothing to say when asked why, or in what way, or what that possibility added to the poem as a whole?

In the case of allegory, fable, parable, and other multilevel narratives, this student belief that some secret language is being deployed becomes even more insistent. Perhaps it’s the loss of exposure to the argumentary (pardon the coinage) sermon, the text-interpretive sermon, the exemplary homily, that makes this kind of thinking or reading so mystifying, where it seems to have been practically a habit of mind in earlier centuries and cultures. Even with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where the main character, Christian, encounters such pitfalls and temptations as the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, many of my students have had difficulty reading beyond the adventure and into the journey of the soul. Those in doubt should refer to my post on the parable of the lost sheep, “Do not be greedy.”

The definition of allegory, above, was offered in the short-definitions section of a midterm that covered readings including Everyman. I don’t know what the student had thought Everyman was about, with characters such as Good Works and Death, before the class discussions on the play; but I do know that while I knew what my student meant, I don’t find this a correct albeit clumsily worded definition—I find it an honest statement from a frustrated reader.

Note also that verb in “an allegory is used to….” Clearly the student is seeing the writer as intending to mislead the reader, wielding a weapon of obfuscation and deception. Is literature, then, as some say about law, written primarily to make jobs for the interpreters? And all along I’ve been thinking it (literature, not law) was the product of a deeply human need to express clearly a specific and important truth….

It’s good to start a semester out by putting oneself in the perhaps new shoes of the student, rather than in the comfortable sandals of the professor who can read the secret language of literature. But where do we go from here?

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““An allegory is used to make the reader think one thing and then find out they were wrong and something else happened.”

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