Difference between an Allegory and Metaphor

Updated on April 25, 2017

Allegories and metaphors are commonly used literary devices which a lot of people get confused with and use interchangeably. This article aims to highlight and explain the difference between these literary and artistic devices.


A golden Lady Justice statue in Bruges, Belgium

An allegory is a literary device which make use of characters, places, actions, or events to represent occurrences and happenings in the real world. Its use is present in all forms of art because it can convey complex concepts that can be easily understood by its audience.

The objective of an allegorical story is to hide meanings in symbolic images, actions or events which form the ideas the author wishes to impart. Thus, the narrative is often an attempt to entertain and capture the imagination while the author shares ideas that can be of political, spiritual, or social value because of its symbolism. Another example is fables, a popular form of a short allegory that conveys a single basic idea, which is the moral.

Allegories are not only confined to written stories as they can also be applied to objects such as sculptures or paintings. Uncovering the message of any allegorical work, be it a painting, sculpture, or literary work would typically require some imagination and thought. The sculpture of Lady Justice wearing a blindfold, wielding a sword in one hand and a set of scales on the other symbolizes the moral force of judicial institutions.

It is common for people to misinterpret a story by giving it a meaning not intended by the author. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is viewed by many people as an allegory for the World Wars which the famed author has refuted on several occasions..

Allegory has been a favorite literary technique across almost all cultures. Many authors made clever use of this technique as a way to express criticisms where it is not wise to do so directly.

A good example of a metaphor

A metaphor is a way of speaking figuratively. It does not make use of a word in the most basic sense; that is, metaphors utilize a word to draw a comparison of sorts. We run, and we also say our noses run. We also say if one runs from responsibilities, he will eventually run into trouble. Thus, a metaphor makes use of words to intentionally leave an image in our mind. It makes use of a word from its original meaning, then gives it another meaning.

Metaphors are an important component of everyday language. It may prove impossible to speak or write in a world without metaphors. Take our example; the word “run”. Its most basic meaning is to move about in quick steps while never having both feet on the ground at the same instance. The Concise Oxford Dictionary further lists 34 other uses of the word as a verb and 21 other uses as a noun. We don’t normally see it, but these are all metaphors.

Metaphors are used to infer indirect comparisons without the use of words such as “like” or “as”; otherwise, it would be called a simile. A metaphor typically uses the verb “to be”. For example, “God is love” is a metaphorical phrase, while “God is like love” is not.

Allegory vs Metaphor

So what’s the difference between an allegory and a metaphor? An allegory is a figure of speech that when used in stories, pictures, paintings or sculptures, provides more complex ideas than a metaphor. Regularly used more in literature than anywhere else, a metaphor deals with one idea or symbol and is usually made up of a single sentence or phrase. An allegory tells a narrative composed of various symbols that are connected to each other.

Comparison Chart

Figure of speech applied in storiesA phrasal expression
Substitutes an object or actionCompares unrelated objects or actions
Applied in literature, paintings, and sculpturesApplied only in literary works
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