An allegory is an extended metaphor; the elements of the story— characters, setting, objects, plot points—mean something beyond the literal. They can be interpreted to represent something else.
In rare cases it is possible to interpret an allegory in multiple ways, but most times each part of the story can only be interpreted one way if it is all to make sense. All the major parts of the story should reasonably parallel something to class it as an allegory.
Fables and parables are forms of allegory.
The Scorpion | Paul Bowles
An old woman lives in a hollowed out cave that her sons had prepared for her before they left to live in the town. She is content there and doesn’t talk to anyone who passes by. The cave is also home to many scorpions.
This story can be read in the preview of The Stories of Paul Bowles.
“The Dumb Man” by Sherwood Anderson
The narrator knows a story but can’t tell it. He has the characters—three men in a room downstairs, and a woman upstairs. A fourth man then arrives.
This story can be read in the preview of Triumph of the Egg and Other Stories.
Young Goodman Brown | Nathaniel Hawthorne
Goodman Brown has to go on a journey through the forest one night on an errand. The walk is unsettling, and he meets others from his town on the way.
This could be an allegory for loss of faith in God or humanity.
This is the seventh story in the preview of 100 Great Short Stories.
Before the Law | Franz Kafka
A man tries to gain access to the law. He waits for years, but the doorkeeper prevents him from entering. The man tries various bribes to gain entry.
This parable could illustrate the futility of searching for meaning in life, or the indifference of the universe to humans.
This story can be read in the preview of The Complete Stories.
The Destructors | Graham Greene
A gang of teenage boys decide to demolish a house when the owner goes away for a few days.
This is an allegory about postwar England: the authority, traditions, and values of the past are rejected by the younger generation.
It can also be read as an allegory about power, such as the young postwar generation seeking power or dictators who escalate conflicts.
This story can be read in the preview of Twenty-One Stories. (Select “Kindle” version)
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas | Ursula K. Le Guin
The citizens of Omelas are happy, but the narrator is vague as to what exactly they have which makes them so. However, the people’s happiness depends on one thing, which all the citizens are aware of.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is the third story in the Amazon preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story.
The Ones Who Stay and Fight by N. K. Jemisin
It’s the Day of Good Birds in the city of Um-Helat, where everyone is happy. Decorations of feathers and wings are seen all over. The beliefs of the citizens vary, and all are honored. They speak many languages and have various backgrounds. They all care for each other. They know what needs to be done to make the world a better place, and they’re practical enough to do it.
This story parallels “The One Who Walk Away From Omelas”.
It is the first story in the preview of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (25% into preview)
“The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us: A Stoku” by Ben Okri
A group is gathered at an open-air feast on the grounds of a mysterious host. Some are seated at the table and some stand behind. It seems that there isn’t enough food for everyone.
This very short story can be read in the preview of Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World. (46% into preview)
The Three Hermits | Leo Tolstoy
A bishop hears about three hermits who live on an unnamed island and devote themselves to serving God. He arranges to visit them to teach them the right way to pray.
The Bound Man | Ilse Aichinger
A man awakens on a path robbed, bleeding, and with arms and legs bound. He struggles to his feet and tries to make his way to the nearest town.
A Hunger Artist | Franz Kafka
A hunger artist—a professional faster—puts on public fasting exhibitions. The public responds enthusiastically at first, but eventually loses interest.
This allegory could represent the misunderstood artist who isn’t appreciated by the public.
A Day Goes By | Luigi Pirandello
A man finds himself in a deserted train station with no memory of how he got there or who he is. He leaves the station, trying to get a sense of his identity and what is happening.
This allegory parallels a man’s life from birth to shortly before death. More specifically, it is likely an allegory for Pirandello’s life.
Half a Day | Naguib Mahfouz
A young boy has his first day in school. His experiences parallel the events of a lifetime.
The Fence | Hamsad Rangkuti
It’s raining heavily in Sumatra and an old vagrant man is taking shelter under the eaves of a family’s house. The mother doesn’t like this. She’s worried the man will knock on their door. The father doesn’t mind; he would even let the man inside if he knocked. They debate the merits of building a fence to keep people away from the house.
This story can be interpreted as an allegory about society’s responsibility to less fortunate ones.
The Jewbird | Bernard Malamud
The Cohen’s lives change when a crow flies into their lower-middle class New York apartment seeking refuge from anti-Semitic birds. The Jewbird, Schwartz, wants to stay, but Mr. Cohen is against it.
This could be an allegory of Jewish self-hatred.
The Alligator War | Horacio Quiroga
A group of alligator’s is worried when a large boat comes by their home. It scares away all the fish. To preserve their food supply, they decide to build a dam to keep the boats away.
The Gentleman of the Jungle | Jomo Kenyatta
An elephant asks a man if he can put his trunk inside his hut to keep it out of the rain. The man agrees but soon the elephant pushes the man out completely. An argument ensues causing the king (the lion) to appoint a Commission of Enquiry into the matter.
This is an allegory for European colonialism in Africa.
The Stones | Richard Shelton
The narrator likes to watch stones grow in the desert. Young stones move more and seek adventure; old stones are sedentary and suspicious of change.
This could be an allegory for the way the young and old view life, or how older people tend to be more conservative than younger people.
The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind | Ray Bradbury
A city, probably in ancient China, is surrounded by a wall shaped like an orange. The leader gets a message that the adjacent city, Kwan-Si, is going to build a wall shaped like a pig. Since a pig could eat an orange, the inhabitants are worried that their city will suffer and Kwan-Si will prosper. At the suggestion of his daughter, the leader consults with the city’s stonemasons and builders to come up with a plan.
This story can also be read as an allegory for the cold war.
The Swimmer | John Cheever
While relaxing at a friend’s pool, an affluent man decides to make his way home by swimming the length of the pools in his neighborhood.
This could be an allegory for aging or the stages of the life cycle.
Twilight | Wladyslaw Reymont
Sokol, an old horse, lies dying. He is neglected, aside from an occasional visit from the hunting-dogs. Sokol is miserable and afraid as he dies alone.
This could be an allegory for the plight of the Eastern European peasant.
A Sorrowful Woman | Gail Godwin
One evening a woman gets sick of seeing her husband and children. The family is supportive, letting her rest and taking over her duties.
This fablelike story is about a woman who can’t accept the prescribed role for females.
Kitty | Paul Bowles
A young girl nicknamed Kitty figures she must be called this because she will turn into a cat. She keeps close watch on her appearance. One day she thinks she sees tiny whiskers.
This could be an allegorical story that shows a child’s view of comfort and safety.
Totem | Thomas King
Some visitors and staff at the Southwest Alberta Art Gallery and Prairie Museum are annoyed by the noise coming from a totem pole. The director, Walter Hooton, didn’t even know they had a totem pole. He decides to have it moved into temporary storage until they can remove it completely.
This seems like an allegory for the way First Nations people have been treated in Canada.
The Fable of the Preacher Who Flew His Kite, But Not Because He Wished To Do So | George Ade
A preacher realizes that his parishioners aren’t impressed with his sermons. He has a clear, straightforward style. His congregation thinks he’s common. He decides to dress up his sermons.
The Story of the Lizard Who Had the Habit of Dining on His Wives | Eduardo Galeano
At age eighteen a lizard with a human face asks for a wife. His family is rich and there is no trouble finding him one. There was also no trouble finding another and another and so on. One day he sees a woman with glasses by the river.
On Discovery | Maxine Hong Kingston
A Chinese explorer, Tang Ao, discovers The Land of Women. He is captured and forced to undergo a grooming process so he can meet the Queen.
On Discovery is an allegory of Chinese immigrants’ experiences in America and of the treatment of Chinese women, or women in general.
The Middle Years | Henry James
Dencombe, a writer, is in failing health. He sits at a resort reading a copy of his latest novel, The Middle Years. He observes three people walking at a distance, and speculates about their relationship. One of the group, a young doctor, sits by Dencombe. They discover they’re both reading the same book.
This is a parable-like story about the value of art.
The Miracle of the Birds | Jorge Amado
The narrator claims a miracle occurred in a Brazilian town, one that can be attested to by hundreds of people. Ubaldo is a balladeer, known for his success with women. Captain Ezequiel is a hired killer, and the husband of Sabô, a bold beauty.
This story seems like a fable, but I don’t know what the message is.
The House Behind | Lydia Davis
There is a house in front with spacious apartments inhabited by people with higher incomes, and a house behind with more cramped apartments and lower income residents. The narrator, who lives in the house behind, tells the story of a murder that happened in the courtyard a year ago.
This story is a parable for the resentment that can arise from class differences.
Read “The House Behind” (Scroll down a bit)
A Mother’s Tale | James Agee
A calf excitedly approaches his mother, asking her to explain what he’s seen. A large herd of cattle are being driven along by men on horseback and dogs. His mother says they’re going on a long journey, but it’s better to stay home. The young ones’ persistence leads her to tell the story of The One Who Came Back.
This is a beast fable that could be about a refusal to acknowledge the horror of the Holocaust.
On Hope | Spencer Holst
A gypsy has a monkey trained to steal jewelry. One day it brings him The Diamond of Hope, a necklace belonging to the princess. It’s too recognizable to sell, and it’s cursed. Wanting nothing to do with it, the gypsy mails the necklace back to the princess.
This fable is about hope and fate.
The Outrage: A True Story | Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
Nineteen Jewish lawyers are gathered on a hot day to find out who’s behind the last pogrom against the Jews. The doorman intrudes, saying a group of seven men has arrived who wish to be seen. The lawyers agree. The men are from an association of thieves, which confuses the group.
Seven Floors | Dino Buzzati
Giovanni Corte arrives at a sanatorium on a spring day. He only has a mild case of a particular ailment, but this is the best place for treatment. It’s a pleasant place, seven stories high and like a hotel. He is shown to a room on the top floor. When he talks to a nurse, he finds out that the floors divide residents by the severity of their illness—mild cases on the seventh floor down to hopeless cases on the first floor.
This could be an allegory for the inevitability of death.
The Fable of the Preacher Who Flew His Kite, But Not Because He Wished To Do So | George Ade
A preacher realizes that his congregation isn’t impressed by his sermons—they’re too clear and straightforward. They think he’s common. He decides to elevate his material with opaque quotations and esoteric references.
Read “The Fable of . . .”