Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book Bite - The Problem with Allegorical Novels (Part 1)

Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas such as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.

Purely by coincidence, I’ve read a lot of allegorical novels in the last year, which prompted me to write this post. All fiction uses some type of allegory, depending on how much the author is into using symbolism to convey the deeper meanings and themes of his story. To clarify what I mean when I say “allegorical novels” though, are novels where the whole framework is being used to represent abstract ideas and demonstrate some thesis. They do so in a way that tips the reader off to the “game” of this dichotomy, so that the story can be enjoyed on both levels – the basic plotline, and the deeper symbolic level. Sometimes they’re successful; sometimes they're less so.

Surprisingly enough, out of all the allegorical novels I've read this past year, the two which I enjoyed the most and felt like were successful both in their purpose and as a piece of literature, were Young Adult fiction and were both about the art of language: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Phantom Toll Booth. By pure chance, both of these novels had an overall theme regarding language and storytelling. Haroun was a fairy tale which, in and of itself, was an allegory about the lost art of telling fairy tales. It celebrates the art of storytelling and the beauty of stories, while also being the very thing it's talking about. You can read my full review of it here.

The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster is similar in that it celebrates the beauty of language itself. A very bored boy comes home one day to find a mysterious toll booth has appeared in his room. He pays the toll and through it enters a strange world full of eccentric characters. It is very much an “Alice in Wonderland” type adventure. The book is filled with brilliant satire, double- entendres and irony. The author revels in the wonder that is the rules and structure of language and creates personifications of the various tools of writing. I suspect that anyone who has an appreciation for language and literature will thoroughly enjoy this book.

In both of these stories, I was invested in the main characters, like I would be any other fiction work. I was concerned for their safety, cheered them on in the battle, and celebrated with them in their victories. I was interested in the plotline and curious to see how things would turn out. Haroun even made me cry a little bit, with the pure joy of its fairy tale happy ending.

So far, I've described what any good work of fiction should do: engage, entertain and maybe even inspire. Yet, with allegorical novels, it's almost as if you have to read them with a split mind, because you're also appreciating all the deeper meanings carried in the allegories of the characters, the locations, etc. Everything in an allegorical novel is symbolic for something else. There would be times, when reading these novels, that I would stop and think about what was going on and realize that the deeper allegorical level of the novel was working just as well, and was just as tight, as the top-level plot. The allegorical aspects of the novel never interfered with the enjoyment of the story, or detracted from the emotions and humanness of the story. If anything, the allegories only added another sweet, rich layer to what was being said.

These are just two examples of what I consider to be good allegorical novels. However, this past year I've also read two other allegorical novels that left much to be desired. I will discuss them in a separate post. In the meantime, leave me a note and let me know what your favorite allegorical novel is. The Chronicles of Narnia is another favorite that comes to mind... what about you?


chandy said...

I really enjoyed Phantom Tollbooth too...I'm thinking of reading it to Elliot in a year or so.

I've never actually read Chronicles of Narnia, but that's on my list. Would that be a good read along for Elliot, or should I wait a few years? (I know she wouldn't get all of it, but as long as it doesn't have anything 'scary' I think she'd enjoy reading with me.)

I've been wanting to dig into Pilgrim's Progress as well...I've not read that either.

But I bet I can guess which allegorical novel you didn't enjoy! Did is start with an S and end with 'hack'? ;)

D.L. White said...

You could start with "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" with Elliot, and see how it goes, but I'm guessing she's a little too young yet. I would say maybe 7 or 8 years old would be a good age? But I dunno - I don't have kids, and I was reading well above my age level when I was younger, so what do I know? I guess it all depends on the kid.

My favorite Chronicles of Narnia book (other than that one) is "Voyage of the Dawn Treader". :)

And yes, I didn't particularly hate "The Shack" but I think it's definitely an example of an allegorical novel that doesn't succeed or work well. I had to split up this post, because my review of "The Shack" is taking up the majority of the second half of the article. :P

Jes said...

I find it quite funny that I just gave you an allegorical novel. :)

D.L. White said...

@Jes - Oh wow - you're right! How wild is that? I guess I'm destined to read allegorical novels for the rest of my life. :P I'll have to do a follow-up post once I've read it! :)

mikeo75 said...

Even though I read your description, I am still confused a bit on how you KNOW a book is an allegorical story.

But recently I read the City of Ember, which kind of seemed that way, and really dug it.

I want to read this Phantom Tollbooth now.

D.L. White said...

Hi Mike - I know - it's a shifty thing to define, since all fiction uses allegory and symbolism to some extent. I think the key is when ALL the characters, places, etc. in the story directly symbolize something else.

Like, "the savior" figure is used a lot in literature, as someone who sacrifices themselves to save others, and parallels can be drawn between how that character is similar to Christ. However, for example, in the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is a direct allegorical image for THE Christ. He is a mythical lion named Aslan, but he also functions as an allegorical representation of Jesus himself. As the witch is satan, the snow represents sin, the kids represent the apostles, etc.

In "The Phantom Tollbooth" a little boy is on a journey into the mountains to save two princesses. It's a simple adventure story. However, the mountains are called "Mountains of Ignorance" and the twin princesses are named "Rhyme and Reason". So, aside from the story about the boy, all the allegories are working towards saying something about ignorance and reason, etc.

Most times with allegorical novels, you're tipped off right away to the "game" of what's going on - like naming the princesses Rhyme and Reason - that's obvious. Some are more subtle like Narnia.

I hope that helps - or did I just confuse you more? lol :P

Laura said...

I love the use of allegory albeit not so much as satire. I struggled with Alice In Wonderland as a child because it was so satyrical that the meaning was totally lost to me and I couldn't even enjoy the characters. As an adult, I have read several analyses of Lewis' work to make sense of the use of political characters and I have enjoyed rereading it now with the aid of "commentaries". ;)

I suppose the point of literature as "art" is always debatable... after all, if someone has to explain it to you, did the author really do their job? What's the point of reading something impossible to grasp?

Of course, as the wife of a gifted artist and after traveling throughout Europe (with a fine art gallery on every corner) I understand the need for expression without having to explain it to anyone. However, there is good art and then there is art that only the pretentious can understand. I find that not so much art as freedom of expression that requires clear boundaries.

Just thoughts, I certainly love to read books with ideas that are challenging and help me grow as a human being but there's something to be said for the sweet story that you can take just for the beauty of the written words from a truly gifted author.

And that's the key, finding that gift over and over.

mikeo75 said...

I haven't read it recently, but on the subject of CS Lewis, my favorite books by him are his Space Trilogy, which is highly allegorical and a cool "sci-fi" representation of creation, the fall, etc.

It's wonderful...have any of you read it?

D.L. White said...

@ Laura - Your comments lead perfectly into the second half of my post (which I haven't finished yet) regarding when allegorical novels don't work.

I think Alice can be enjoyed as a silly little adventure, without knowing all the meaning behind the meaning. Especially the Narnia books too. I enjoyed them as a kid for the pure fantasy adventure of it and the well crafted characters. I had no clue about the allegory. As an adult, I still appreciate them in that way, but now with the added layer that I understand. I dig that!

In regards to art being intentionally unapproachable or pretentious... I don't have time for that either! The whole point of art is to connect, to communicate, etc. Might hafta to do a separate blog post on that!

@ Mike - yes, we own Lewis' sci-fi trilogy. I'm impressed you know about it. I've started the first book "Out of the Silent Planet" but haven't finished it. (Ugh - I have so many started-but-not-finished books in my house right now. It's ridiculous.)

ScoJem said...

If you have the time (it's a short book) and the inclination I would love to hear your thoughts on "Night On The Invisible Sun" by Alec Bryan. It is an allegorical novel. I really enjoyed it.