Against Allegory

For the last several years, I’ve been teaching the Honors Introduction to Literature course at my small pilgrims-progress-mpChristian college. It has traditionally been taught as an introduction not to literature in general but to specifically Christian literature, and I do not rock the boat, at least not in this case. One of the things my students are consistently surprised to learn is that I do not, like most of them, like John Bunyan’s classic 1678 allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, I don’t like allegory much at all as a literary genre.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was first reading “important” books as a zealous teenager, I generally assumed that what made them great was a hidden, allegorical meaning—usually a theological one—below the literal surface. I don’t remember where I got this idea from, but I suspect The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had a lot to do with it. This assumption, naturally enough, led to some truly nimble interpretive acrobatics. I was finally broken of the habit by T.S. Eliot’s early prose-poem “Hysteria”:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark cavern of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden . . .” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

Perhaps some critic, more devious than I, can interpret this in such a way to make the speaker Christ and the woman the Church, but this task was beyond my seventeen-year-old abilities, and I decided that not every poem was a religious allegory. As time went by and my own thought became more sophisticated, I became embarrassed of my earlier assumption—and eventually I grew to dislike allegory itself, which I saw as a form of authorial pre-digestion.

The critic and essayist Susan Stewart, on the other hand, conceives of allegories as distinctively readerly texts, in the sense that “In allegory the vision of the reader is larger than the vision of the text; the reader dreams to an excess, to an overabundance.” I can’t say I agree with this. In allegory, as I understand it, the additional meanings are actually present in the text, folded in layers beneath the literal meaning of the words. This is why Dante can famously suggest that his writing must operate on four levels at once.

So, while it’s true that the literal text of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe never announces that Aslan is Christ, it’s not correct to say, as Stewart does if I’m reading her correctly, that the connection exists only or chiefly in the mind of the reader. It exists in the text itself, and even in the intentions of the author. (It’s not readers, after all, who turn Aslan into Christ—Lewis does that.) It’s just that the allegorical meaning of the text sounds in a different register than the literal meaning. All of this is carefully constructed by the writers of allegories, which is why Stewart goes even further afield when she argues that

The eschatological vision of allegory makes the reader the producer of the text in the sense that closure can be achieved only through conversion. But the production of the eighteenth-century novel is divided between the author and his reader, and the reader’s production is subsidiary to, and imitative of, the author’s work.

This schema, it seems to me, is exactly opposite. I agree with Stewart that the “realist” novel (broadly conceived so as to include Richardson, Joyce, Robbe-Grillet, and parts of Melville in addition to James and Cheever) involves an interpretive apparatus divided between author and reader, with the latter imitating the former’s initial creative act. But the author is much more present in allegory than in realism, and his intentions are far more transparent. But they are heavy at the same time they are transparent—so heavy that the reader cannot push them out of the way to conduct the secondary creative act of critical interpretation.

To return to the example I began with, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is thick with the sort of heavy transparency I’m talking about. When your characters have names like Christian and Mr. Worldly Wiseman and have what being they have in places called things like the Slough of Despond and the Doubting Castle, the author’s intentions have been made so abundantly clear that only a child could fail to pick up on them—or be proud of herself for picking up on them. The allegorical register of Pilgrim’s Progress is played so loudly that no other register is audible.

There’s an argument to be made, of course, that not every allegory is as heavy and transparent as Pilgrim’s Progress—and of course this is true. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, for one, offers an almost infinite space for the secondary creative act. But I would argue that that space opens up in the places where the poem is the least allegorical—allegorical in the sense of the genre here, rather than as a vague synonym for analogical.

The least artistically interesting book of The Faerie Queene is, not coincidentally, the most transparent and the heaviest: the first, in which the knight of faith seeks theological unity amidst schism. It’s often less clear what Spenser was trying to do in the other books. His characters tend to become so fleshly that they break through their allegorical bonds—witness Britomart, who supposedly represents female chastity but who ends up becoming a strikingly masculine knight in her own right. The literal register is interfering with the allegorical register, and the result is that readers are given a chance to help Spenser say something, instead of passively listening to him.

This is also true, incidentally, of Lewis—Till We Have Faces is a more interesting and powerful book than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It still has the faint appearance of allegory to it, but the pieces don’t quite fit together. We recognize, reading this novel, that there are signifieds lurking behind the signifiers of the characters and plots, and we know, for example, that Cupid is meant to map onto the Christian God, with some corners sticking out—but we never see any of this except through a glass darkly. Till We Have Faces thus welcomes readers to join in the act of creation to a degree that the Narnia books sometimes don’t—though they are still a universe ahead of Pilgrim’s Progress in this respect.

Allegory, I’m saying, works better as a literary element among literary elements than as a genre unto itself. Such a statement, of course, presupposes a particular teleology for literature and a particular table of values for literary criticism. It should be clear by now that I value ambiguity over precision in terms of the moral argument of literary work—authors and texts that are humble enough to invite the reader to their party. (The reader, in turn, must wipe her feet at the door and treat her hosts with genuine respect.)

Strict allegory does not have this humility. I have little sense of who he was in the non-imaginative world, but the Bunyan who dreamed up Pilgrim’s Progress is not humble. He is a preacher rather than an artist, and the reader of his allegory would no more think of joining in the creative act than a congregation would think of joining its pastor at the pulpit. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with preaching; I’m offering you a sermon of sorts here, after all. But it is not literature, and however good Bunyan’s theology is, his art is lousy.

One of my goals for that Honors Introduction to Literature course—and one of my general goals when teaching literature in all of my classes—is to open up a space for artistic expression beyond allegory. In part, perhaps, this may be an expiation for the sins of my youth. But the discovery of the ambiguity of the worlds presented through art (and the one we all live in together) is, in some sense, the discovery of a higher ethical realm—and certainly a higher artistic one.

3 thoughts on “Against Allegory

  1. “It should be clear by now that I value ambiguity over precision in terms
    of the moral argument of literary work—authors and texts that are
    humble enough to invite the reader to their party.”
    I guess that would be why I appreciate allegory, and have so little patience for the kinds of literature that “serious” literary scholars seem to prefer.  I value clarity and precision in my moral arguments.  Maybe it’s the anti-Freudian in me.  Don’t make me have to guess what the cigar means; lay your cards on the table.
    I love Pilgrim’s Progress.  I see far too many reflections of my own spiritual journey in Christian’s long walk to dismiss it as not “high” enough art to be ingested, and it is one of the few books that I read again and again (at least once a year).  Thanks to your Faerie Queene episode, I am still working my way through that one (currently part way through Book Four), and the more direct the allegory, the better I like it.

  2. Charles H Really, I suppose I might should have argued that Pilgrim’s Progress is better appreciated as a work of theology or of autobiography than as a work of literature. Certainly in moral arguments–in theology, and philosophy, and perhaps in psychology, too–clarity and precision are valuable. But I don’t think the primary purpose of a work of literature should be to impart a moral argument (though most literary works have moral arguments in them), and so I find myself suffocating on Pilgrim’s Progress and the like. 

    But to each his own!

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