The simplest definition of allegory is a ‘symbolic narrative’ in which the major features of the movement of the narrative are all held to refer symbolically to some action or situation. Allegory has long been a prominent feature of literary and mythic writing throughout the world, but it becomes particularly significant for post-colonial writers for the way in which it disrupts notions of orthodox history, classical realism and imperial representation in general. Allegory has assumed an important function in imperial discourse,in which paintings and statues have often been created as allegories of imperial power. Consequently, one form of post-colonial response to this has been to appropriate allegory and use it to respond to the allegorical representation of imperial dominance.
Fredric Jameson made a controversial suggestion, in Third World Literature in the Era of Multi-national Capitalism (1986), that all Third World literatures, indeed all Third World cultural constructions, are ‘necessarily’ national allegories. Aijaz Ahmad vigorously criticized the homogenizing nature of this statement (In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures). But Stephen Slemon suggested that what is really wrong with the suggestion is that it simply takes a Euro-centric literary notion of allegory and applies it to colonized societies. Slemon suggests that we might rather see allegory as a function of the ‘conditions of postcoloniality’. This is because allegory has always been a dominant mode of colonial representation and therefore becomes a particularly valuable form in which postcolonial literature may conduct forms of counter-discourse.
This means, firstly, that post-colonial cultures may use allegory to ‘read’ the text of colonialism (Slemon 1987a: 11).So much of the life of the colonized subject has been constructed by, that is,metaphorically ‘written’ by, colonialism that allegory becomes a way in which such writing may be contested. But there are many other ways in which allegory has been used by post-colonial writers. One group of postcolonial allegories, such as Ayi Kwei Armah’s An African Fable, for example, seeks to contest colonialist or Euro-centric notions of history.
In other texts, such as Lamming’s Natives of My Person, or Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, allegory is employed to expose the ways in which the allegorical formis used in the colonizing process. Thus in the Coetzee text, for example, the life of a magistrate isolated on the boundaries of an unnamed empire, and his peaceful relations with the people beyond the boundary, is disrupted when they are re-classified as ‘barbarians’ by the visit of an egregious secret policeman. This causes the magistrate to realize for the first time the full truth about the society in which he lives. Although such texts do not deal directly with specific colonial situations, they present a powerful allegory of underlying colonial ideology. In other texts again, such as Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline or Kofi Awoonor’s This Earth My Brother, the use of the allegorical form seeks to replace monolithic traditions with a cross-cultural pluralism. In Stow’s novel, for example, the small Western Australian mining town of Tourmaline is opened up to a perspective that places it in an older landscape of the Dreaming traditions of Australian Aboriginal cultures. The limited world of the small white town is framed by the huge forces of desert and sky, not merely as back-drops, but as symbols of a different and more integrated way of conceiving of the human relationship with nature and the natural world. In these latter cases, a ‘post-colonial’ allegory contests and disrupts the narrative assumptions of colonialism, such as the inevitability of ‘development’, of ‘progress’, of ‘civilization’, the dominance of the chronological view of history, the Euro-centric view of ‘the real’. By reinforcing the fact that ‘real’events occupy various horizons of meaning, post-colonial allegory becomes a common strategy of resistance in post-colonial texts.
Further reading: Ahmad 1992, 1995a; Buchanan 2003; Franco 1997; Hulme 2005; Jameson 1986; San Juan 1996; Schmidt 2000; Slemon 1987a; Szeman2006.