Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: Book Review

I enjoyed the class on allegory (traditionally defined as extended metaphor) I took in college, and I’ve thought about allegory directly and indirectly for awhile (I also want to write an allegory–not just as in “a book that has definite themes that form a sustained second layer of meaning” but as in “a book in which apparently human characters with names like Love and Envy wander around embodying their names”).

So, maybe two years ago, I read Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, intending to write about it in a now-defunct theory blog, and I found it an infuriating experience that I thought I’d talk about a little here. Apparently this work is considered a classic by people like Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish, so my problem may well be a tendency to nitpick combined with a lack of background knowledge that would allow me to see the larger shape of Fletcher’s argument—but I still can’t help but suspect that in this case the emperor has no clothes. I grant that the breadth of Fletcher’s knowledge is intimidating, and he has interesting ideas in spades, some of which I hope to make use of. But I find myself exceedingly skeptical of many of those interesting ideas.

My first problem was, as it is with much dense critical theory, trying to understand the writing. Some Amazon reviewer thought Fletcher was more readable than Northrop Frye, but I don’t. I enjoyed Frye a great deal, though I often disagreed with him, and he lost me at times. On the plus side, Fletcher (like Frye) writes in English rather than jargon, unlike some of the more recent criticism I’m allergic to, but it was a real struggle to make even a semi-coherent whole out of Allegory in my head and to understand the relevance and use of his points. While I never did pinpoint what in Fletcher’s writing made it so difficult for me to connect the dots, I recall that one of my class leaders thought Fletcher was not a linear thinker, and I have the feeling that more summarizing and explaining would have made this book a much easier read.

The worse problem, though, as I suggested, is that many of Fletcher’s arguments seem strained. He connects allegory to other ideas (to daemonic possession, as a prominent and bizarre example, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or adornments indicating rank and power, or…) by associations that seem tenuous (sometimes through the varied definitions of a word) and then stretches his concept of allegory to the breaking point in order to maintain the connections; some of his arguments seem to me to be in conflict with one another. As you might imagine, this added to the difficulty in reading him, because I kept trying to figure out precisely what it was in his ideas that didn’t work and eventually just got tired.

In writing this, I initially hoped to discover the overarching structure I kept failing to see in Fletcher’s arguments (I think I did, to some extent) and to figure out whether I really disagreed with as many of those arguments as I felt I did as I was reading (unfortunately, I think I do). So, here are the large points I took away from Fletcher’s Allegory:

1. Allegory is not an art form inherently inferior to “symbol” or “myth,” let alone “mimesis.” Many Romantic thinkers differentiated sharply between “symbol” and “allegory,” calling the former a true embodiment of the general in the particular and a product of “imagination” where allegory is an arbitrary conjunction of two layers of meaning and a bloodless intellectual exercise. Fletcher states that for many of his contemporaries, “myth” was preferred to allegory in much the same way that “symbol” once was, because myth derived from Jungian archetypes, supposedly fundamental pieces of the human psyche. Meanwhile, large parts of the literary tradition since Aristotle have favored “mimetic” fiction–that is (as I understand it), fiction that imitates the texture of everyday life and avoids thematic excess. Fletcher argues convincingly that both Romantic symbol and many readings of myth are allegorical, and, furthermore, that allegory is on a par with both myth and mimesis as a mode with its own strengths and limitations.

2. Allegory is not a bloodless intellectual exercise. While it does involve reason–indeed, a potentially pathological excess of reason–it depends on irrational thought (obsessive-compulsive thought patterns, to be precise) and arouses strong feeling because of its dependence on emotionally charged signs of power. 

3. Allegory is not one thing. It is a mode, like irony and mimesis, that can occur in a huge variety of types of literature.

4. Allegory is not a dead art form, although the worldview it reflects and the iconographies it draws on have changed radically since what we think of as its heyday in the middle ages; allegory continues today (well, today was 1964, but whatever*), albeit with different iconography and less optimistic thematic freight.

I find all of this interesting and worth discussing, though I’m a little bit iffy about #2. But when we get into the nitty-gritty, the problems start. The introduction provides a good example of the problems that seemed to me to litter the book.

In the introduction, Fletcher does not define allegory; in his view, “no narrowly exclusive stipulated definition will be useful, however desirable it might seem, while formal precision may at present even be misleading to the student of the subject.”

This could be okay, and indeed, generally, he seems to discuss allegory inductively, by looking at traits that he argues group together around certain works traditionally known as allegories, creating something like a psychiatric diagnostic category by doing the imprecise non-mathematical version of seeing what traits are statistically likeliest to coincide. (This makes me wonder whether a precise mathematical version of that process might not yield very interesting insights into literature. What I mean is that one could make a list of different traits a work of literature can have, ranging across all areas of form and content, and then figure out which traits correlate with one another until one has many blindly formed “diagnostic” categories of books. Making the list of traits and determining which works of literature had which traits would be messy, interesting, and full of bias, but the statistical analysis would still, I think, tell us more than using the obscenely buggy heuristics that come loaded in our brains. But I digress.)

However, instead of laying out this methodology (or whatever his methodology really is), he goes on to give allegory a maddeningly broad description: “In the simplest terms, allegory says one thing and means another” (this and the previous quotation come from pages 1 and 2, but I don’t have them in front of me to be more precise). After offering that pseudo-definition, he proceeds to discuss forms of allegory that do not, in my view, fit even that description.

Right after calling allegory “saying one thing and meaning another,” he says that George Orwell’s newspeak is the logical extreme of allegory. When I try to understand the connection, I only get more confused. When I think of “saying one thing and meaning another” (and of allegory, for that matter, independent of that semi-sort-of definition), I think that the speaker intends meaning #2, the buried meaning, and, furthermore, intends someone in the audience to understand meaning #2, whereas in newspeak, if I remember correctly, neither speaker nor listener is even supposed to be able to mean meaning #2, which isn’t even properly a meaning, because constantly calling war peace or whatever has so completely screwed up the speakers’ heads that they don’t have a concept of either. Or, in the case of the people who exploit the masses and designed newspeak, I would think that, although meaning #2 is true, the speaker doesn’t mean it but rather means meaning #1–that is, intends it to be the thing taken from his speech–even though he knows meaning #1 is false. I don’t think that lying is the same thing as saying one thing and meaning another; I don’t think that a liar means the truth, because to mean in that context means to me to mean to communicate and not merely to know.

Maybe, though, Fletcher was actually commenting in a fuzzier and deliberately less rigorous way that newspeak has things in common with tendencies he sees in allegory. I  certainly see parallels beyond what he points out. Newspeak combines opposites (war and peace, love and hate) in single unintentionally ambivalent words (he says that ambivalence is key in allegory but that seeing that ambivalence and paradox is a quality of myth, not allegory, whereas allegory is, like doublethink, an anxiety-laden denial of and struggle with that ambivalence). Likewise, newspeak and allegory both exercise or try to exercise power over the thoughts and actions of the users of the language (in the case of newspeak) or consumers of the artwork (in the case of allegory).

As if this were not confusing enough, Fletcher does not think that allegory has to be obvious or conscious in conveying its second level of meaning, so that he considers most genre fiction to be allegory. I suppose I can see how this might occur without completely destroying the meaning of the word mean. After all, I might just intend to tell a story with a happy ending, but my strong feelings on all sorts of moral issues would shape what I considered to be a happy ending, so that on some level I could be said to have meant a bunch of didactic stuff that never consciously entered my mind. Still, it seems like a stretch; alternatively, perhaps the author is so dead that the agency of meaning is attached to the work instead, where it is posited that the work says one thing and means another, where the second meaning is found or created–Fletcher doesn’t get into which–by his “sophisticated” readers.

This is just one example of what it’s like to try to understand Fletcher. I may take another run at him later (perhaps one of his later books, in which his thoughts may have developed further), but I know I felt like a strong person for getting through this book.

*the online book blurb says that in his afterword to the 2012 edition of Allegory, Fletcher notes that a “disturbing new type of allegory–allegory without ideas” has emerged. That sounds intriguingly creepy and possibly true of deliberately “depthless” work. Sadly, the library I use has the 1964 edition instead.


2 replies on “Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: Book Review”

I am skimming over Fletcher’s book and I agree that his original definition is confusing. He hits his stride, though, more in the Cosmic chapter, allegory for didactic purposes, and that sort of thing. I wonder if he is right about detective stories being allegories because they solve enigmas, riddles. So I guess you might be right about the vagueness when it comes to the confusion between symbol and allegory–he says it is a purely historical issue with Goethe. Still, the footnotes are a rich source of info–at least I thought they were.

Liked by 1 person

Hey! Thanks for thinking about this book and my post and commenting 🙂 I’m totally with you that it’s a book rich in exciting information and ideas, though I’m less sure about the ways he connects them. I’m not convinced about detective stories and allegories—I think saying mysteries ARE allegories just because both have an element of riddling or puzzle-solving expands the definition of allegory beyond what I’m comfortable with (or at least far beyond what I actually naturally think of as allegory), but it’s an interesting parallel to note for all that, and one that makes a person think hard about what makes allegory allegory. Some of my strong negative reaction to the book occurred because I’m literal-minded and have a hard time appreciating ideas that are creative and interesting when they don’t seem to me to stand up logically too…. unless, of course, they are written in a way that I strongly identify with—that is, if their irrationality feels enough like MY irrationality that they seem natural to me, in which case they can be absurd and I’ll still love them. All of which is to say I’m probably being rather unfair. I think Fletcher and I just think very differently.


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