Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction


Chapter 12: Symbol and Allegory


12.1 The Symbol in Semiotics


There have been many definitions of the symbol, which is a problematic word to define.  In semiotics, one prominent definition regards the symbol as a sign which is differentiated from the icon and the index.

A sign has a signifier and a signified. The English word ‘table’, for example, is a signifier, and its signified is the thing (or concept) that it represents, which is the table itself. For a symbol, the relationship between the signifier and signified, which is sometimes called signification, is arbitrary: the word ‘table’ does not in any way resemble the object that it signifies. The written words of English are in fact symbolic, as  they do not resemble what they are supposed to signify.

An icon, however, is a representation that has some similarity with what it refers to (see section 12.3 below).

An index indicates that something else which the sign is associated with occurs at the same time, or is adjacent to it. Hence the sign points towards the existence of another sign, such as the relationship between fire and smoke.


The semiotic relationship between the signifier and signified, or signification,


Signification: relationship between the signifier and signified


arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified


the signifier resembles the signified in some ways.


the signifier points towards the existence of the another sign.


12.2 How Arbitrary Are Symbols?


Although the relationship between the signifier and signified of a symbol may be arbitrary, the relationship between certain signifiers of symbols may not be arbitrary. Symbols may form an indexical relationship with each other, in the sense that the presence of one symbol may be motivated by the presence of another symbol, or group of symbols. Thus, in narrative analysis, patterns of relationships between signs may exist, often because these signs are conventionally related to each other.


12.3 Iconic Signs


As mentioned above, the written words of English are symbolic. They thus have an arbitrary relationship with their signifieds. However, there are some signs in language which are actually iconic, and thus, their signifiers are to a certain extent motivated by their signifieds. Some Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example, are iconic, especially when one refers to Egyptian logograms, as they resemble the objects that they are supposed to represent. Some spoken words in English are also iconic, especially when one refers to onomatopeioa, as the sounds of these words have some similarity with the sounds that they are supposed to represent. However, it can be argued that there is a symbolic dimension to onomatopoeia as well, as onomatopoeic words of the same meaning in different languages, do not always resemble each other in their sound.


12.4 Iconic Signs and Narrative


Aspect of iconicity which is of interest to narrative:

The equivalence of the sequence of events at the level of story to that at the level of discourse

There is another aspect of iconicity which is of interest to narrative, and that is, the sequential correspondence between the events as they appear at the level of story, with those which appear at the level of discourse (see Leech & Short 1981: 233-243, for this and other aspects of iconicity).  In other words an iconic sequence of events appears in the way it should appear or has appeared in the ‘real’ world.

Iconicity in narrative may, in certain instances, be an effective narrative device, especially if one is dealing with actional sequences.  Iconicity has even been regarded as essential to narrative. To the sociolinguist William Labov, for example, in his article ‘Some Further Steps in Narrative Analysis’ and elsewhere, the ‘sequence of events that have entered into the biography of the speaker’ should correspond to ‘the order of the original events’, and this is how he ‘separates narrative... from other means of telling a story or recounting the past’. However, this definition of ‘narrative’, although influential, is mistaken, as it conveniently dismisses elements of anachrony which occur frequently in narratives, including narratives that are relevant for sociolinguistic research.


12.5 Semiotic Emphasis on Iconicity in Aesthetics


There are some semioticians who have placed a strong emphasis on iconicity in relation to aesthetics.  C.W. Morris for instance, in his ‘Esthetics and the Theory of Signs’, claims that aesthetic signs are usually iconic.  However, this is problematic in relation to the anachronic elements of narrative (see 5.8). Indeed, for anachronic narratives, it may be the case that the artistry of these narratives will suffer if iconic ordering is reverted to.  Anachronic narratives therefore suggest that aesthetic signs may not always be iconic, and in some anachronic narratives at least, the opposite may, in fact, be true: if the anachronic elements in the narrative are taken out, the narrative becomes, in effect, less artistic. In some works, such as Joseph Conrad's Nostromo and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II, the anachronic elements are essential to their artistry.

It has been claimed in the previous chapter that cinematic signs are more iconic than those of written narratives (11.24). Again, it does not follow that cinematic narratives are therefore more ‘artistic’ than written narratives.  It must also be stated that not every semiotician agrees with Morris's view.  To Mukařovsky for example,  the aesthetic sign is not only the mediator of meaning, but exists as an end in itself; it  therefore cannot be regarded as iconic, where the signs exist as a mediator of the real world, and not as an end in itself.


12.6 The Meaningfulness of Fiction


The discussion on semiotics above brings us to the question of the meaningfulness of fiction.  A concept quite frequently encountered in the study of meaning is that of denotation (what language means),  Denotation is often opposed to connotation (what language suggests).  If we look at the concept of denotation from the perspective of semiotics, we find that it is associated with the concept of reference.  As regards reference, one views the relationship between signs and their referents strictly in terms of referents which are real objects (i.e. objects that have an external physical existence, and not merely an idea or concept).  However, as Charles Sanders Peirce and Saussure have noted, referents that are real objects cannot always be found, and some referents are purely abstract.  The absence of real objects however, may not ultimately be a problem in semiotics, although it may be a problem, at least traditionally, in semantics. From a semiotic perspective, the indexical relationships between signifiers in a text may be meaningful by themselves and as a whole.  There is therefore no necessity for words to have a relationship with real exterior objects in order for them to be meaningful.

Another difficulty with the referential theory of meaning above has to do with symbolization, which is a term used by Louis Hjelmslev in relation to the emotive use of language.  Hjelmslev has pointed out that a ‘flame’, for example, may signify an actual flame in referential terms, but it may symbolize ‘love’ in certain literary works (cf. denotation and connotation above).  However, both uses of the word ‘flame’ are meaningful.


12.7  Metaphor


Metaphor: the process by which the conventional referent of a semiotic symbol is shifted or changed.

The discussion on Hjelmslev's idea of symbolization leads us to a discussion of metaphorMetaphor can be described as the process by which the conventional referent of a semiotic symbol is shifted or changed, such as when one uses the word ‘flame’ to indicate love.


12.8 Literary and Scientific Definitions of the Symbol


We have to note here that the conventional literary conception of the symbol is narrower than the definition of the term in semiotics.  We can say that the conception has a closer association with the concept of metaphor. The literary conception of a symbol is thus

●   more closely associated with the more restricted definition of signs whose conventional referents have been changed,

●   and less with the wider semiotic conception of signs as signifiers which have an arbitrary relationship with their signifieds

When compared to the semiotic conception of the symbol, the literary conception is thus less ubiquitous.  However a wider definition of the symbol is found in other disciplines.  In the physical sciences, a symbolic model, which may be in the form of a programme, a linguistic description or a set of mathematical equations, is contrasted to a physical  model, which may be in the form of a scaled down concrete representation of a large object. In semiotic terms, a physical model is iconic, as there is some resemblance with the object that it is supposed to represent. However, a symbolic model may not be iconic, as it may not look like the original object that it is supposed to represent. The word symbolic in symbolic logic (which is closely related to mathematical logic), is also used in a similar way.


12.9 Going Beyond the Conventional Literary Definition of Metaphor


Further to our discussion of the conventional literary conception of the symbol, we can say here that the conventional literary conception of metaphor is likewise more restricted than the way metaphors are now understood in non-literary disciplines. Metaphors are actually essential for everyday language, and this has been pointed out by, amongst others, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their study Metaphors We Live By (1980). Examples of metaphors in everyday language can be found in the adjectives of expressions such as heightened consciousness, and high achiever.  There are in fact, quite a number of expressions in ordinary language which are metaphorical, but are not regarded or perceived as such by most people.  Such metaphors are called dead metaphorsDead metaphors are important for the understanding of idiomatic usage.

In general, metaphors are cognitively needed for a variety of purposes, as people find it difficult to understand abstract concepts without resorting to concrete models.  Thus a concrete metaphor may make an abstract concept easier to understand.

We can say that the more restricted literary definition of metaphor, just as the literary definition of the symbol, refers more to the creative or innovative use of metaphor rather than metaphor per se.  In the same vein, we can say that literature places more emphasis on ‘live’ metaphors (as contrasted to dead metaphors).

Among the more significant terms used in the study of metaphor, are those of I. A. Richards in his Philosophy of Rhetoric.  According to Richards,

●   the tenor of a metaphorical expression is its abstract or literal meaning,

●   the vehicle is the concrete or figurative meaning itself, and

●   the ground refers to the basis of the use of the metaphorical expression.

For example, in the phrase ‘my love is sweet’, ‘my love’ is the tenor, ‘sweet’ the vehicle, and the ground is the reason for the use of the metaphor, which may refer to the pleasant sensation of being in love, or to the pleasant personality of the lover etc.

Lakoff and Johnson have used other terms for tenor and vehicle: the metaphor's target domain and its source domain. In ‘my love is sweet’,

●   the target domain (Richards' tenor) is ‘my love’, and

●   the source domain (Richards' vehicle) is ‘sweet’.


12.10  Narrative Interest in Symbol, Metaphor and Allegory


The narrative interest in symbol or metaphor is not on symbols or metaphors themselves, but on their sequential arrangement in a meaningful, and not a random order. Extended symbols or metaphors may give rise to allegory.  In an allegory, these symbols and metaphors are not arranged in as random a manner as in symbolist poetry or symbolist writing in general.

I have said that the creative or innovative use of metaphors is important in literature. But it is often the case that in allegorical literary works the dead metaphors are extended in such a way that they become innovative.  So, it is more the innovative use of dead metaphors which is of importance in allegory, rather than the ‘live’ metaphors per se.

An allegory can be described as referring to symbolization which works at a macro-level.  In this light, Geoffrey Leech, in his A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry (1969:163) states that

ALLEGORY stands in the same relation to an individual symbol as extended metaphor does to simple metaphor: in fact, an allegory might be described as a ‘multiple symbol’, in which a number of different symbols, with their individual interpretations, join together to make a total interpretation.

But it needs to be pointed out that allegory probably has a relationship to both (the literary) symbol and metaphor, and not to symbol alone.  One further distinction that can be made between symbol and allegory is that symbols by themselves are static, whereas allegory refers to a processual use of symbols.


12.11 Features of Allegory


Some of the generic features of allegory are the extended use of personification and personified abstractions (for example, characters who are personified as lust, virtue, etc.), and the motif of the journey, quest or pursuit.  Allegories also involve a process of learning (both in relation to the main character(s), and the readers). Allegories serve an ideological or religious purpose. By their very nature, they are didactic. They usually advocate a political system that is hierarchical and conservative, although some modern allegories, such as George Orwell's Animal Farm, may challenge existing political systems.

Allegories can be described as the most abstract genre of narrative.  In spite of their abstraction, the writer of an allegory needs to have a strong sense of visual imagination (cf. my earlier point (4.1) that a concrete metaphor is often used to make an abstract concept easier to understand).  Allegories can also be described as intellectual.  In this regard, we can draw another distinction between symbol and allegory based on this particular feature of allegory, as symbols, when they are used at the micro-level, are more emotive than intellectual.

Allegories are often associated with narratives written around or before the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  However, allegories are not limited to the Middle Ages, as they are still present today. Animal Farm is mentioned above. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and C. S. Lewis' Narnia books, have also been described as allegorical. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia can be associated with more traditional religious allegories, even though Lewis and others have argued that they should not be regarded, strictly speaking, as allegorical. However, the allegorical element may not be as overtly present in modern allegories, especially in relation to serious literature.  Allegories perhaps exist more clearly in narratives found in popular culture today, as ideas, in the popular mind, of what is likeable or otherwise, or of what is good or evil, are often embodied in certain characters of popular narratives.