December 23, 1999

From Gerald R. Lucas


An allegory is a narrative in which the agents and action, and sometimes the setting, are contrived not only to make sense in themselves, but also to signify a second, correlated order of persons, things, concepts, or events.

There are two main types:

  1. Historical and political allegory, in which the characters and the action represent, or “allegorize,” historical personages and events. So in Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (1681) King David represents Charles II, Absalom represents his natural son the Duke of Monmouth, and the biblical plot allegorizes a political crisis in contemporary England.
  2. The allegory of ideas, in which the characters represent abstract concepts and the plot serves to communicate a doctrine or thesis. Both types of allegory may either be sustained throughout a work, as in Absalom and Achitophel and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), or exist merely as an episode in a non-allegorical work. One example of episodic allegory is the encounter of Satan with his daughter Sin, as well as with Death—the son born of their incestuous relationship—in Paradise Lost (Book II).
Pauwels Franck, Allegory of Earth

Another example, so brief that it is tableau rather than a developed narrative, is the passage in Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry sooth the dull cold ear of Death?

The central device in the typical allegory of ideas is the personification of abstract entities such as virtues, vices, states of mind, and types of character; in the more explicit allegories, such reference is specified by the character’s name. Thus Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress allegorizes the doctrines of Christian salvation by telling how Christian, warned by Evangelist, flees the City of Destruction and makes his way laboriously to the Celestial City; enroute he encounters such characters as Faithful, Hopeful, and the Giant Despair, and passes through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Vanity Fair. A passage indicates the nature of a clear-cut allegorical process:

Now as Christian was walking solitary by himself, he espied one afar off come crossing over the field to meet him; and their hap was to meet just as they were crossing the way of each other. The Gentleman’s name was Mr. Worldly-Wiseman; he dwelt in the Town of Carnal-Policy, a very great Town, and also hard by from whence Christian came.

Allegory is a strategy which may be employed in any literary form or genre. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a moral and religious allegory in a prose narrative; Spenser’s Faerie Queene fuses moral, religious, historical, and political allegory in a verse romance; the third book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (the voyage to Laputa and Lagado) is an allegorical satire directed primarily against philosophical and scientific pedantry; and William Collins’ “Ode on the Poetical Character” is a formal lyric poem which allegorizes a topic in literary criticism—the nature, dignity, and power of the poet’s creative imagination.

Various literary forms may be regarded as special types of allegory, in that they narrate one coherent set of circumstances which signify a second order of correlated meanings. A fable is a short story that exemplifies a moral thesis or a principle of human behavior; usually in its conclusion either the narrator or one of the characters states the moral in the form of an epigram. Most common is the beast fable, in which animals talk and act like the human types they represent. In the familiar fable of the fox and the grapes, the fox—after vainly exerting all his wiles to get the grapes hanging beyond his reach—concludes that they are probably sour anyway; the express moral is that men belittle what they cannot get. An early set of beast fables attributed to Aesop, a Greek slave of the sixth century B.C.; in the seventeenth century a Frenchman, Jean de la Fontaine, wrote a set of witty fables in verse which are the classics of this literary kind, Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the story of the cock and fox, is a beast fable; John Gay wrote a collection of fables in the eighteenth century; James Thurber’s Fables Our Time (1940) is a recent set of short fables; and in Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell expands the beast fable into a sustained satire on the political and social conditions of his age.

A parable is a short narrative presented so as to stress the implicit but detailed analogy between its component parts and a thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to us. The parable was one of Jesus’ favorite devices as a teacher; examples are his parables of the good Samaritan and of the prodigal son. Here is his parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9:

A certain man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and looked for fruit, but found none. Then said he to the keeper of the vineyard, “For three years I came seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why encumber the ground any further?” The keeper answered: “Lord, let it alone this year also, until I fertilize it to see if that helps. If not, then we will cut it down.”

An exemplum is a story told as a particular instance of the general text of a sermon. The device was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. In Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, the Pardoner preaches on the thesis “Greed is the root of all evil” and incorporates as exemplum the tale of the three revelers who set out to find Death, but find a heap of gold instead, then kill one another in the attempt to gain sole possession of the treasure. By extension the term, exemplum is also applied to tales used in a formal, though nonreligious, exhortation. Thus Chaucer’s Chantecleer borrows the preacher’s technique in the ten exampla he tells in a vain effort to persuade his skeptical wife, Dame Pertelote the hen, that bad dreams forebode disaster.

Asterisk-trans.png          Asterisk-trans.png          Asterisk-trans.png
Gustav Klimt, Allegory of Sculpture (1889)

Allegory may be defined in several ways: from the general and somewhat cryptic view that it is a story that represents another story, to allegory as a “vexatious bitch.”[1] Despite this ostensibly flippant definition, this view of allegory is generally accurate in that a solid definition is difficult to tie down. Allegory is taken from the Greek word allegoria, meaning to “speak otherwise.” Allegory is generally an extended metaphor in the form of a story or poem that has a literal meaning and a meaning that is derived from outside the narrative itself. Allegory will often employ symbolism, personification, and typical characters.[2] Characters in allegory usually represent abstract qualities or virtues whose actions convey a significance often unrelated to the literal narrative. These allegorical meanings may represent political, personal, or satiric ideas, but mostly the religious relating to the Scriptures within medieval allegory.[3]

Medieval allegory should be regarded as a habit of mind than as any rigid system of artistic composition.[4] When discussing medieval allegory, most critics concur that a firm understanding of the audience is necessary to comprehend the significance of allegorical tropes, or its sentence—what the text implies, not what it literally says.[5] That is, the sentence is the “fruit,” or the significance of the literary work beyond its literal interpretation.[6]

This sentence, or pith of the allegorical matter, can, in most cases, be viewed in four ways: literally, allegorically, tropologically, or anagogically. The literal reading addresses facts or history—things which actually occur; the allegorical refers to the church and its relationship to people generally; the tropological is concerned with the spiritual constitution of the individual, sometimes called the moral; and the anagogical pertains to the universal, unchanging soul and heaven. Dante, in Convivio, calls such an interpretation a polysemous meaning: a multiple meaning that can be derived form a single text.[a] The medieval mind moves freely and easily between these realms of allegory as they pertain to the Scriptures.[9]

However, the act of allegorical interpretation is not limited to the Scriptures in the Middle Ages: creation itself is an allegorical book as well as things created in it.[10] A language of clerkly authority developed to help in the analysis of the Book of Nature and the pagan classics as well as the Scriptures.[11] Since God created nature, and through direct revelation He transmitted the words of the Bible to His scribes, both the Bible and Nature offer humanity a guide to charity and salvation if it can interpret the signs correctly.[12] The language of clerkly authority, then, attempts to order and understand these tropes of the physical world that represent the ineffable word of God that is beyond human comprehension.[13]

So, according to Isidore of Seville, the Christian poet draws upon established tropes for his alieniloquium, seven of which are the most important: irony (deriding through praise), antiphrasis, aenigma, charientismos, paroemia (proverbial expression), sarcasm, and astysmos (sarcasm without bitterness). These figures were understood by the medieval audience, but, states Robertson, are almost unknown to even sophisticated audiences today.

Allegory attempts to make sense out of the world of individual human experience and how it relates to the “more real” world of universal human experience; the literal sense is an imperfect world of human action compared to the figurative sense of an idealized, perfected humanity.[14]

While some critics suggest that the effectiveness and appropriateness of allegory within a particular work falls within the purview of the critic,[2] others posit that allegory is only present within literature when the author or narrator explicitly states that he/she intends a meaning other than the literal,[15] exemplified by Chaucer’s Clerk:

This storie is seyd nat for that wyves sholde
Folwen Grisilde as in humylitee,
For it were inportable, though they wolde,
But for that every wight, in his degree,
Sholde be constant in adversitee
As was Grisilde; therefore Petrak writeth
This storie, which with heigh stile he enditeth. (CT 1142-8)

Finally, the literal level of a work is just as important as an allegorical level. Without the literal level of language, there can be no interpretation, and no art.[16] The greatness of all art lies in its literal sense as well—not just what it says, but what it is.[17] While medieval allegory may instruct its listeners, it is the literal level that delights them and makes the interpretation possible.

The Clerk’s Tale as Allegory

Robertson suggests that Chaucer was well-versed in literary allegory and expected a certain degree of allegorical response from his audience.[18] In the General Prologue, the Host states that

     which of of yow that bereth hym beste of alle—
That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
Tales of best sentence and moost solaas-
Shall have a soper at oure aller cost.[b]

The Clerk’s Tale

The Host states that whichever pilgrim tells a tale that is both the most entertaining (“moost solaas”) and has the greatest significance (“best sentence”) will win the contest; this directive also exemplifies what the practitioners of medieval literature felt to be the purpose of poetry: that it must teach and delight.[19]

The Clerk's Tale puzzles critics and readers alike. Critical approaches to the Clerk and his tale range from simple interpretations of an ostensible allegory, to mock exemplum,[20] to psychological readings of Chaucer's motivations for having the Clerk tell such a horrific tale.[c] While much critical attention addresses the latter issue and other speculative readings based upon the etymology of the tale itself,[d] this study focuses on The Clerk’s Tale as allegory.

Probably the most basic and agreed upon exegesis of The Clerk's Tale as allegory is contained within Miller (1979). On the literal level, readers might find Griselda's behavior as both a wife and a mother repugnant; Sledd calls her a conceivable a “dolt” and a “ninny.”[21] However, when she is viewed allegorically, she becomes representative of the individual soul and its relation to God.[22] Huppé suggests that Griselda, whom Knapp calls naturally noble,[23] could also stand for the Virgin Mary, evidenced by her birth near “a litel oxe stalle” and her response to Walter's marriage proposal.[24] This same evidence is used by Hinckley to support her allegorical relation to Jesus, as the figure of perfect devotion, sacrifice, and love.[25] Also, an allusion made by the Clerk himself to Job, suggests that Griselda may be likened to Job-a dear indicator to the Clerk’s sentence,[26] Job's patient humility and obedience represent the only solace that humans can find, especially when the trials never cease. Finally, Spearing makes a connection between Abraham and Isaac, likening Griselda to the latter in his patient acceptance to God’s will through his father.[27] Whichever the case, the critics almost all agree that Griselda typifies the true Christian in her relationship to God: patient and obedient. This relationship, as the Clerk himself suggests (quoted above), represents a single human virtue that we should strive for figuratively; Griselda's literal devotion should only be given to God.[28] The lesson: patience and obedience will be rewarded.

Walter, most critics agree, allegorically stands for God.[e] He is God's literal representative on earth as a Marquis, and he has control over both Griselda and his serfs, allowing him to test Griselda.[29][f] The story's political, or allegorical, meaning is represented by the peasantry’s obedience to their lord.[31] This social order, states Huppé, is also reflected in the marriage, which lends the tropological reading.[32] Defiance of God's will would only bring confusion and chaos; this allegorical explanation helps to justify Walter’s supposed cruelty, and Griselda’s humble obedience.[33] Yet, states Allen and Moritz, Walter is too self-assertive and anxious by attempting to unite the perfection of heaven with his kingdom, and subsequently breaks his duty to himself, his wife and his serfs.[34]

Some critics, like Sledd and Knapp, question Walter's role in the tale. The Clerk himself only offers words of disdain for Walter, whom he blames for being too passionate and willful (e.g. II. 78-84, 460-2). Yet, does the allegory break down because of the Clerk’s or the reader’s disapproval? No, states Knapp, in that Walter could represent the Clerk and his propensity to probe and push, or any one of us as we search for the answers in this universe.[35] Walter, in his obsession, has missed watching his children grow up and spending time with his wife. Truly, while there is no certainty in an interpretation of this difficult tale, there is, equally, no certainty in anything in life that we as humans choose, or are subjected to. While we cannot have the answers, we can have patience and submit to the tribulations that the universe throws our way.

Allen and Moritz conclude their discussion of The Clerk's Tale by suggesting that it "represents the mortal order of the merely human, evil or lacking when it fails to remember that it is derivative and not absolute, and even then capable of being the context of great individual moral achievement.”[36] This statement seems to sum up the argument of the allegorical levels between critics and readings: when the tale is taken literally, its realism is questioned; however, when viewed allegorically, The Clerk's Tale represents a complex tale about human struggle to reach the divine. Some characters, like Griselda are naturally noble, while others, like Walter, are still questing. The Clerk’s allegory, despite much debate, might be successful.

  1. This is not to say that every poem deemed “allegory” will contain all of these polysemous levels; not everything in an allegorical poem needs to be an allegory just as not everything in a comedy can be comic.[7] Seemingly, only Dante in The Divine Comedy was successful (or cared about being so) in incorporating all of the levels of allegory.[8]
  2. ll. 796-99.
  3. See Spearing (1972) and references.
  4. See especially Severs (1942).
  5. See Allen & Moritz (1981), Knapp (1985), Huppé (1967), and Spearing (1972).
  6. See also Huppé (1967, p. 145). Allen and Moritz stare that Walter correctly displays the proper devotion to himself, his family, and his realm by placing his Fate in the providence of God at the beginning of the tale, yet does not remain faithful.[30]
  1. Leonard 1981, p. 7.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ackerman 1966, p. 137.
  3. Robertson 1966, p. 289.
  4. Miller 1979, p. 270.
  5. Robertson 1966, p. 287.
  6. Bloomfield 1972, p. 301.
  7. Leonard 1981, p. 10.
  8. Ackerman 1966, p. 139.
  9. Robertson 1966, pp. 293–294.
  10. Robertson 1966, p. 296.
  11. Miller 1979, pp. 171–172.
  12. Ackerman 1966, pp. 137–138.
  13. Ackerman 1966, p. 138.
  14. Leonard 1981, p. 11.
  15. Frye 1971, pp. 89–91.
  16. Bloomfield 1972, p. 315.
  17. Bloomfield 1972, p. 317.
  18. Robertson 1966, p. 365.
  19. Ackerman 1966, p. xiii.
  20. Knapp 1985, p. 335.
  21. Sledd 1959, pp. 232–233.
  22. Miller 1979, p. 281.
  23. Knapp 1985, pp. 338–339.
  24. Huppé 1967, p. 143.
  25. Hinkley 1959, p. 220.
  26. Huppé 1967, p. 142.
  27. Spearing 1972, p. 99.
  28. Allen & Moritz 1981, p. 191.
  29. Knapp 1985, p. 339.
  30. Allen & Moritz 1981, p. 189.
  31. Knapp 1985, pp. 339-40.
  32. Huppé 1967, p. 145.
  33. Knapp 1985, p. 340.
  34. Allen & Mortiz 1981, p. 190.
  35. Knapp 1985, p. 341.
  36. Allen & Moritz 1981, p. 192.
Works Cited
  • Ackerman, Robert W. (1966). "Appendix 4: Allegory". Backgrounds to Medieval English Literature. New York: Random House. pp. 136–142. Ackerman supplies a general definition of allegory based upon its medieval backgrounds and significance. A brief survey of critical positions on allegory make up the remainder of his essay.
  • Alford, John (1986). "The Wife of Bath Versus the Clerk of Oxford: What Their Rivalry Means". The Chaucer Review. 21 (2): 108–132. Alford address the litarary contention between Rhetoric and Dialectic, and likens the Wife of Bath to the former and the Clerk to the latter. Alford supports his strong argument by illustrating that the portraits of the Wife and the Clerk are distinct opposites and that they “are destined to clash” (109). He further supports his contention by supplying more than ample evidence about the tradition of allegory in the rhetoric versus dialectic debate.
  • Allen, Judson Boyce; Moritz, Thersea Anne (1981). A Distinction of Stories: The Medieval Unity of Chaucer's Fair Chain of Narratives for Canterbury. Columbus, OH: Ohio UP.
  • Bloomfeld, Morton W. (1972). "Allegory as Interpretation". New Literary History. 3: 301–317. Bloomfield suggests that all who study literature are allegorists in that allegmy is an interpretative process. Through the use of allegory, scholars modernize works of literature by interpreting their relevance for their contemporary world. He states: “True literary scholarship aims at making literature of the past continuously relevant either by establishing its original significance or its modern significance” (302). After surveying different types of allegory, Bloomfield suggests that the literal level of a work of an is the most important in that, without the literal, there could be no allegorical significance.
  • Condren, Edward I. (1984). "The Clerk's Tale as Man Tempting God". Criticism. 26 (2): 99–114.
  • Edden, Valerie (1992). "Sacred and Secular in the Clerk's Tale". The Chaucer Review. 26 (4): 369–376.
  • Frye, Northrup (1971). Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
  • Hinkley, Henry Barrett (1959). ""The Debate on Marriage in The Canterbury Tales". In Wagenknecht, Edward. Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 216–225. This article responds to Kittredge’s claim that The Clerk’s Tale answers the Wife of Bath. He discusses another possible order for the tales that refutes Kittredge’s claim. Yet, Hinckley is a proponent of The Clerk’s Tale as allegory.
  • Huppé, Bernard F. (1967). A Reading of The Canterbury Tales. New York: State University of New York. Huppé states that The Clerk's Tale contains “no obvious allegorical mechanisms” (137), yet goes on to suggest a tropological and an allegorical meaning for the tale. He states that Griselda's trials exemplify what all human beings on this earth must endure, and that Walter's kingdom reflects God's order on earth. He compares Griselda with Job and the Virgin and Walter with God. Huppé also suggests that the Clerk’s reply to the Wife of Bath could not have been better, for the Clerk ironically undermines the Wife and her “secte” by suggesting that “in obedience may be found the possibility of real triumph, not its mere illusion” (146).
  • Kittredge, George Lyman (1959). "Chaucer's Discussion of Marriage". In Wagenknecht, Edward. Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 117–125. Kittredge's essays concerns itself with the idea that circumstances, as well as the character of each storyteller, also contribute to the story being told. He, as a proponent of the Marriage Group theory states that the Clerk’s Tale is definitely within character and is an excellent retort to the Wife of Bath. Kittredge supports the view that The Clerk's Tale is an allegorical construct "'to show to what lengths [Griselda’s unvarying submission] could go” (189). The Wife of Bath, the Merchant, and the Franklin are also addressed as they fit into the marriage drama.
  • Knapp, Peggy A. (1985). "Knowing the Tropes: Literary exegesis and Chaucer's Clerk". Criticism. 27 (4): 331–345. Knapp's survey of criticism is invaluable to one studying The Clerk's Tale. She begins her essay with a quotation from Saint Augustine that suggests that knowing tropes will assist one in interpreting “hidden things” (331). Knapp suggests that The Clerk’s Tale may either be read as an "exemplum on obedience" or as “an ironic commentary on exemplary tales” (334). Knapp concludes that Walter allegorically stands for the Clerk himself and his desire to see that his chosen way of life is justified.
  • Krieger, Elliot (1975). "Re-Reading Allegory: The Clerk's Tale". Paunch. 40–41: 116–135.
  • Leonard, Frances McNeely (1981). Laughter in the Courts of Love: Comedy in Allegory, from Chaucer to Spencer. Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, Inc. Leonard offers an amusing and jocund look at Chaucer's use of humorous allegory in several of his works, including briefly The Canterbury Tales. Leonard's succinct survey of allegory from many works is well-written and informative for a general definition of allegory based on several scholarly attempts to define such a broad idea. A bibliography is provided.
  • Miller, Robert P. (1979). "Allegory in The Canterbury Tales". In Rowland, Beryl. Companion to Chaucer Studies. New York: Oxford. pp. 268–290. Miller's essay outlines the medieval allegorical tradition generally and how this tradition is exemplified in Chaucer specifically. Miller traces the history of allegorical criticism applied to Chaucer, and also Chaucer’s classical and medieval sources for allegory. Medieval al1egory and its three­ fold interest in the Book of Nature, the Scriptures, and pagan texts constitute most of Miller's essay. Finally, a brief application to Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale and The Man of Law's Tale ends the article. Miller provides a general bibliography.
  • Nakao, Yoshiyuki (1984). "Allegory and Realism in Chaucer". Hiroshima Studies in English Language and Literature. 29: 15–26.
  • Neuse, Richard (1991). Chaucer’s Dante: Allegory and Epic Theater in The Canterbury Tales. Berkley: U of California Press.
  • Robertson, D. W. (1962). A Preface to Chaucer. Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton UP. In his chapter "Allegory, Humanism, Literary Theory," Robertson offers a substantial survey and explanation of medieval allegorical sources, how allegory exists within the framework of the later Renaissance humanism, and a dose reading of Chaucer's allegorical exegetes-not including the Clerk. However, Robertson's work is important to this study in that he addresses allegory, both general and medieval, thoroughly.
  • Severs, Jonathan Berke (1942). The Literary Relationships of Chaucer's Clerkes Tale. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Sledd, James (1959). "The Clerk's Tale: The Monsters and the Critics". In Wagenknecht, Edward. Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 226–239. Sledd, as his title suggests, examines several critical approaches and points out that none of them have looked at the literal level of the tale, and have, thus, missed the point. Sledd interprets the literal level of The Clerk’s Tale to reveal that it is straightforward and that its values can be appreciated even by a contemporary audience. He suggests that Chaucer revives a old folk tale and brings in both Christian morality and narrative rhetoric to make his audience feel “compassionate wonder” (238). While Sledd’s essay provides a succinct overview of previous criticism and a strong explication of the text of The Clerk's Tale, his conclusions seem tenuous and simple.
  • Spearing, A. C. (1972). Criticism and Medieval Poetry (2nd ed.). New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc. In his chapter “Chaucer's Clerk’s Tale as a Medieval Poem,” Spearing discusses the importance of considering the narrator to an overall interpretation of the tale itself. Spearing takes a position somewhere in between The Clerk’s Tale as allegory or the tale as realism. He discusses the contention between these opposing views and offers support for both. Spearing discusses the different aspects of the Clerk as narrator: he expresses disapproval, he urges women to rebel, he manipulates onlookers’ opinions to sympathize with his own.
  • Steinmetz, David C (1977). "Late Medieval Nominalism and the Clerk's Tale". The Chaucer Review. 12 (1): 38–54.
  • Swann, Marjorie E. (1987). "The Clerk's 'Gentile Tale' Heard Again". English Studies in Canada. 13 (2): 136–146.
  • Van, Thomas A. (1988). "Walter at the Stake: A Reading of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale". The Chaucer Review. 22 (3): 214–224.