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 “
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?