Grammar Gremlins: Allegory, Alliteration, and Allusion

The Gremlins recently suggested that we do a column on similes and metaphors. When I looked those up in Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, I found them embedded in a long list of “Rhetorical Figures and Faults,” from Allegory to Zeugma (no, I don’t know that one either, but we’ll get there eventually). Aha, I said to the Gremlins, material for months to come.


With the exception of Bernstein, no one on my reference shelf even mentions allegory, which Bernstein defines as “a metaphorical narrative in which the surface story and characters are intended to be taken as symbols pointing to an underlying, more significant meaning.” He mentions Pilgrim’s Progress and The Faerie Queen (neither of which I remember actually reading, even in my long ago high school classes) as examples.

. offers some more recent examples of allegory, including some I have read: George Orwell’s Animal Farm and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle an allegory of good versus evil? Tolkien himself said no, but LiteraryDevices points out that it can certainly be read that way. Perhaps if we try hard enough we can find an allegorical meaning in much of literature (shades of high school English class: Moby Dick, anyone? What did all that whale butchering represent?). Personally I don’t think The Wizard of Oz was meant as an allegory of 19th century American politics, but some people do, and that’s fine.


Proceeding alphabetically, we come to alliteration, the “repetition of sounds at the beginnings of words or in accented syllables.” You know, like Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Unless you’re striving for comic effect, that one’s way over the top. Peter Piper loved to eat peppers, and popped them whenever possible. Have fun.


Alliteration is often used to better effect in poetry, and Bernstein points out that it’s useful in advertising, as alliterative slogans and names are easily remembered (Bed, Bath & Beyond, Krispy Kreme, PayPal, and countless others). Many memorable characters have alliterative names or descriptions as well (the Wicked Witch of the West, Lois Lane, Spongebob Squarepants, to cover a wide range).


Allusion makes a point more understandable, and/or more colorful, by linking it to a literary character, situation, proverb, etc. The trick with allusion is to be sure that it will benefit your audience. A romance author might allude to the story of Romeo and Juliet (although not as an example of a happy ending!), but perhaps not to some tale from, say, medieval Japanese literature.


On the other hand, in The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelidis’ allusion to Euripides’ Alcestis heightens the mystery and suspense by its very obscurity. (Well, I sure as heck had no clue what it meant until the end—fascinating book, by the way). So unless you have some trick up your metaphorical sleeve, be sure your allusion will resonate with your reader.


Nest month: analogy, anticlimax, and beyond.

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