Youth led by Experience

Youth led by Experience

In Brief

Figure of speech. Stephen enters the newspaper office with Mr. O'Madden Burke, who stages the appearance as a comical parade of abstractions: "Youth led by Experience visits Notoriety." Ancient rhetoric and poetics referred to figures of this kind as allegory: a story which evokes a second level of meaning.

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Allegory (AL-uh-gor-ee, from Greek allos = other + agoreuein = to speak) means "speaking in other terms," i.e., speaking figuratively. The Ad Herennium defines it as "a manner of speech denoting one thing by the letter of the words, but another by their meaning." Quintilian calls it an extended metaphor. In The Mystery of Rhetoric Unveiled, John Smith notes "that in a Metaphor there is a translation of one word only; in an Allegory, of many; and for that cause an Allegory is called a continued Metaphor. And as a Metaphor may be compared to a star in respect of beauty, brightnesse and direction; so an Allegory may be likened to a constellation, or a company of many stars. An Allegory is a sentence that must be understood otherwise then the literal interpretation shewes."

Allegories are always narrative––stories with metaphorical significance, or metaphors that have been elaborated into stories. The literal events in such tales point beyond themselves to hidden meanings on some more abstract level, usually moral, spiritual, religious, political, or historical. The greatest allegories, like Dante's Divine Comedy and Spenser's The Faerie Queene, are consistently entertaining and believable (in a fictive sense, at least) on the literal level, but they encourage readers to search for non-literal significance in some of their details. In weaker, more mechanical forms of allegory, almost no feeling of reality inheres in the literal events. Readers regard them solely as things to decode or translate into the real meaning of the tale.

Allegories of this second type sometimes direct audience interpretations by personifying abstract qualities, turning them into human-like figures who can move about in the world, acting and being acted on. The supreme examples in English literature are the medieval play Everyman and John Bunyan's novel Pilgrim's Progress, both of which Joyce parodies in the Oxen of the Sun chapter. Bunyan's protagonist is named Christian. Searching for heaven, he is assisted by characters like Evangelist, Help, and Goodwill and drawn backwards by people like Obstinate, Pliable, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman.

Mr. O'Madden Burke's trio is cast in this kind of mold. His one-sentence story does not ask to be taken literally. Instead, his hearers are to understand that Youth is Stephen Dedalus, the character of Experience leading him is Burke, and Notoriety names Burke's journalistic colleagues––themselves.

John Hunt 2023
The allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, in an illustration owned by Getty Images. Source: