Allegory: How much background do you need?


Well-Known Member
Dec 21, 2015
Many straight out allegories are written about current (to the authors) events. How much knowledge of that is necessary to enjoy them?

"Gulliver's Travels" , for instance. I had realised that the conflict between the Big-Enders, who believed boiled eggs should be opened at the big end, and the Little-Enders, who believe the opposite, was a satire on the struggle between those who suppported transubstantiation (Catholics) and those who believed in consubstantiation (Protestants).

I didn' know that the High-Heelers were supposed to be the Tories, and the Low-Heelers the Whigs, and the fact that the Emperor's son wore one high-heeled shoe and one low-heeled shoe was supposed to be a take-off on the Prince of Wales' (the future George II) encouraging the Tory opposition to his father.

Likewise I read "Animal Farm" when I was very into Marxist politics and history. This followed current events so closely that Orwell changed the part during the attack on the farm from Napoleon (the pig) fleeing with all the other animals to Napoleon standing his ground, because Stalin had remained in Moscow to face the German attack.

Now that the USSR has thankfully vanished into the dustbin of history, how important is it for readers to know Old Major was Karl Marx/Lenin; Napoleon was Stalin; and Snowball was Trotsky? Or that Boxer was the proletariat, Molly the White Russian exiles, or Moses the Raven the Russian Orthodox Church?

Other examples?

Ursa major

Bearly Believable
Staff member
Aug 7, 2007
One could argue that the writer should make their allegories enjoyable as possible for those readers who have no idea whatsoever that they are reading an allegory, let alone what its target might be, although (one would hope) the enjoyment might** be greater if the reader was aware of the subject of the allegory).

(I only found out recently -- the last month or so -- what the meanings of egg-ended-ness and low-heel-height were in Gulliver's Travels.)

** - Some readers may not like it that their own views are being satirised.

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