from Allegory  in America: From Puritanism to Postmodernism, Studies in Literature and Religion Series (Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 1996)






Allegory in the Old World



This chapter sets out the models of European allegory from which the American tradition developed. These models formed the allegorical inheritance which was transported to the New World with the first Puritan settlers. I begin with a survey of the originary styles of allegorical interpretation because the narrative form of literary allegory developed historically from classical and biblical models of allegorical interpretation and, as such, the narrative genre is characterized by the thematization of allegorical hermeneutics within the story or plot. Differing assumptions about, and practices of, interpretation have given rise to an enormous diversity of allegorical narratives. What they all share is the quest for spiritual meaning which is sought through the correct interpretation of material signs: the signs of temporal history, corporeal nature and human reason. This spiritual meaning is assumed to explain the character of the human condition in terms of some culturally important book. The authority of this sacred book and also the legitimacy of its cultural representations are protected and promoted by the practice of allegorical interpretation. Allegory, in fact, appears at times of peculiar cultural crisis, when the authority of the sacred book is under threat from various quarters. Classical Hellenistic allegory responds to the degradation of the Homeric myths by literal readings; Judaistic allegory, practiced in Alexandria by Philo Judeus, seeks to counter the threat posed by adopted Greek ideas to the authority of the Torah; Christian allegory responds to the problematical relationship between the two Testaments and the hostility of pagans and Jews to the new Christian theology. In all three cases, allegory offers a rhetorical means of coping with historical and cultural change by accommodating these changes to the continuing authority of the sacred text. All three forms of allegorical interpretation seek a further spiritual or philosophical dimension of meaning beyond the literal but the strategies by which they do this differ quite radically.

               In particular, classical and Christian allegory differ in the assumptions they make about the relationship between literal and spiritual ‘levels’ of meaning. Classical allegory assumes that a ‘higher’ meaning is extrinsic to the text, that the text is indeterminate and that allegory is the activity of identifying the extrinsic significance of the text in some autonomous philosophical or religious discourse. Philo’s allegory shares the classical assumption that meaning is independent of the literal ‘surface’ of the text but Alexandrian interpreters attribute a more limited indeterminacy to the text than do their classical counterparts. Within this allegorical context the text may mean many things but it cannot mean just anything. Meaning is assumed to reside in the divine ‘soul’ of the text which is generous enough to encompass all aspects of human experience. Both the text and the interpreter are divinely inspired and are thus guided towards the correct meaning of the sacred book. Early Christian practitioners of allegorical interpretation share this view that the accuracy of individual interpretations depends crucially upon the faith of the exegete. But it is the text alone which is inspired as the Word of God, in the Christian account. Christian allegory assumes that meaning is intrinsic to the literal narrative of Scripture and that meaning is accessible through a complex pattern of divine hints and analogies: the pattern of typology. Typology describes the interpretation of Old Testament events and characters as foreshadowings of the events of the New Testament and the promise of a new dispensation represented by Christ. In this way, typology regulates the referential indeterminacy of allegory by prescribing the meaning of scriptural images and making them refer only to the two testaments. This restriction of allegorical freedom was achieved by the early Christian interpreters; later, the applicability of typology was widened to include all manner of non-scrpitural signifing forms. The assumption that spiritual significance resides in all the signs created by God was generalized by the Apologists to encompass the secular signs found in nature, temporal history and the individual consciousness as well as Scripture. This extension of the techniques of typological interpretation from the specific context of the sacred book into the secular realm was particularly significant for the development of a tradition of allegorical narratives which took as their subject the interpretation of secular experience by the individual protagonist for clues to the soul’s ultimate destiny. The generalized field of typological interpretation also meant that the restrictive power of typology could be used for distinct ideological purposes because typology acquired importance in the interpretation of the individual’s spiritual life which supplemented the typological interpretation of the sacred text.

               The awareness of doubleness which is of such importance to the hermeneutic endeavour to reconcile literal with spiritual dimensions of meaning permeates the entire literary tradition of allegory. From the homily, which demonstrates the dogmatic meaning of individual images, to fully extended imaginative narratives which incorporate the interpretation of their own images, literary allegory depends upon (even when it questions) the assumption that literal signs possess further abstract significances and that the reconciliation of these levels of significance offers a legitimate and authoritative foreshadowing of the terms of individual salvation. The precise meaning of salvation, of course, is prescribed by the sacred book and so the narrative is required at some point to displace the narrative quest for spiritual meaning into the interpretation of the anterior sacred text. This then raises what is the most fundamental issue in regards to the practice of allegory: when spiritual meanings are manifest in secular signs they no longer remain purely spiritual and yet they are not purely secular; they are corrupted but not transformed by these corporeal signs. In pre-Romatic allegory, the solution to this rhetorical aporia was to take recourse to the interpretation of the sacred book and to displace responsibility for the spiritual meaning of the narrative onto the faith of the individual interpreter. But in the period since Romanticism we find that this kind of aporia becomes the focal point of the entire narrative for it is at this point that the sovereignty of the individual subject, promoted by Romantic aesthetics, defeats the power of faith to discover an approved spiritual meaning. It was the Protestant Reformation which accelerated the trend towards elevating the role of the individual subject in the exegetical process and this generated a distinctive style of Protestant allegory. This new form of allegorical interpretation sought a direct communion with God through the inspired text of Scripture and independently of the hermeneutic traditions of the Church. The rejection of the Church as an objective arbiter of scriptural meanings meant that responsibility for accuracy in interpretation was placed with the individual and the relationship between that individual and the Holy Spirit. In the case of redeemed individuals, according to Protestant hermeneutics, God will act through the mediation of the Holy Spirit to guide the solitary exegete to the correct reading of the book. This emphasis upon the individual and the power of subjectivity was exaggerated by Romantic theories of individual genius and led to the emergence of a distinct tradition of post-Romantic allegory within American literature. However, allegory is more than simple a theme or even an idea that recurs throughout American literature. The concern with interpretation and the wider cultural implications of hermeneutic practice is an important theme in the prominent writings of the American canon: from the Puritans to nationalists like Benjamin Franklin, to the nineteenth-century Renaissance writers, to postmodernists like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. But allegory also represents a form of engagement with the European tradition of allegory that dates back even further than Christian exegesis to classical Greek and Roman allegory. So allegory articulates a profound sense of continuity wit the European past and also it represents an equally profound perception of the uniqueness of the New World environment. This environment may be thought of in physical, cultural and theological or political or, anyway, broadly ideological terms. Allegory has provided the rhetorical terms for expressing a vision of  New World destiny that is more compelling for the roots it has established deep in Western cultural history.

               The distinctively American tradition of literary allegory began with the Puritan writing of diaries, providential histories, spiritual autobiographies, captivity narratives and a very large body of sermon literature. The Puritan settlers of New England used the legacy of European allegory to formulate that complex mythology of New World ‘exceptionalism’ which was mentioned earlier. They interpreted their experience of migration and the hardships they endured in typological terms as significant repetitions of biblical models and as signs of God’s special interest in his new chosen people. Typology revealed to the orthodox congregationalists of New England that their’s was a divine mission to establish a perfectly reformed church which would stand as an example to all the nations of the world: their redeemer nation would be guided by God towards a glorious destiny and, in millenialist interpretations, would even be the site of Christ’s return to earth. Allegory functions as a conservative response to a perceived cultural threat. Allegory seeks to sustain the authority of some culturally important sacred text by establishing the ongoing relevance of this text both to individuals and to the community at large. Certainly, this was the role of allegorical interpretation within the context of the colonial New England orthodoxy. The relevance of the Bible to the experience of migration and settlement was promoted by the typological interpretation of colonial experience as a repetition of such biblical models as Moses leading his people out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land. American Puritans tended to interpret the biblical significance of their sufferings - through hunger, disease, Indian attack, and inter-colonial conflict - by stressing the punitive aspect of typology. The jeremiads of the second generation, particularly, emphasized the experience of suffering as punishment for sin or as merciful chastisement by a loving yet exacting God who was concerned that His chosen people should not backslide but should realize the glorious destiny that awaited them. The interpretation of experience as representing a pattern of rewards and punishments brought the colonial experience ino relation with the sacred text that also was interpreted as representing a complex pattern of divine punishments and rewards. The relevance of the biblical model to New England life (secular and spiritual) was thus assured through the practice of allegorical interpretation.

               But those like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and non-Separating congregationalists who rejected the orthodox view of America’s exceptional destiny also used allegorical rhetoric to register their dissent. By undermining the referential structure of conventional allegorical (specifically, typological) rhetoric they were able to disrupt the operations of mythologizing discourses which had transformed the American continent into a redeemer nation. This disruption of orthodox Puritan allegory created a space for the articulation of an alternative vision of America’s destiny. More importantly, however, this subversive use of allegorical rhetoric provided the means by which voices that otherwise would remain silent could participate in important cultural debates. As we shall see, this was the case for orthodox Puritan women who wrote of their spiritual experiences using the typological rhetoric of captivity narratives and, later, elements of this allegorical rhetoric were used by slave women such as Harriet Jacobs to articulate their dissent from the orthodox myth of America. It is the indeterminacy at the heart of allegorical interpretation, that uncertain space opened up between the literal and the spiritual, that enabled such writers to appropriate allegorical rhetoric and apply it to alternative constructions of America’s national destiny. Where an orthodox Puritan such as Mary Rowlandson uses typology to describe herself as a privileged subject of American exceptionalism, Harriet Jacobs uses typological reference initially to describe her exclusion from the national mythology, and then to enact a wholesale condemnation of that brand of Christianity which she sees supporting slavery in the southern states and consequently undermining America’s claim to an exemplary spiritual and moral status.

               The rhetorical indeterminacy which made allegory such an empowering form of discourse for women like Jacobs and Rowlandson, who otherwise would have remained silent, came under attack during the nineteenth century by proponents of Romantic aesthetic principles: principally, in Europe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, in America, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both Coleridge and Emerson promoted the authority of individual imagination in the person of the interpreter who is able to read symbolically the spiritual dimension of Scripture and the mystical language of nature. But the primacy of subjectivity in matters concerning allegorical interpretation produced a corresponding devaluation of objective forms of hermeneutic authority. The absence of a source of interpretative legitimation outside the individual interpreter produced a radical sense of  indeterminacy and an inability to reconcile conflicting (literal versus spiritual) dimensions of meaning within the allegorical narrative. That aporia, the irreconcilable conflict between transcendent meaning and temporal sign, which is the subject of allegory becomes in allegorical narratives of the post-Romantic period the expression of a hermeneutic legitimation crisis. This is particularly the case in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, writers who are renowned for the pervasive ambiguity of their allegorical narratives. Allegories such as Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter address the conditions necessary for an accurate understanding of the relationship between the ideal and the real but conclude in paradox, with the discovery that the transcendent is dependent upon the temporal for representation but once represented in language the transcendent is no longer pure transcendence - yet only language offers access to the transcendent. The ideal and the real are neither identical, nor are they radically different. Each depends upon the other: the ideal and the real, Truth and Falsehood, the subjective and the objective, the sacred and the profane, the self and the Other. This forms the central problematic of post-Romantic allegory: the interdependence of absolute categories and the inability of unaided subjectivity to negotiate an authoritative relationship between them.

               In the work of Hawthorne and Melville this allegorical critique of Romantic subjectivism is addressed as part of a wider attack on the mythology of America which Emerson, in particular, supported. Hawthorne and Melville developed the ambiguous nature of post-Romantic allegory into a style of rhetoric that perfectly expressed their dissent from the orthodox vision of America as possessed of a manifest spiritual destiny. So an allegorical narrative like Rappaccini’s Daughter subverts the operations of conventional typology to reveal the claim upon the interpreter’s faith that is essential to the workings of typology. One must believe in the spiritual continuity revealed by typology among disparate but spiritually identical events within God’s providential history. In the absence of faith, or a reliable guide to verifiable spiritual meanings, typology breaks down and the powerful indeterminacy of allegory reasserts itself. The pattern of significant repetitions upon which the mythology of America is constructed dissolves in the absence of faith into discrete and unrelated units. And Hawthorne and Melville display a remarkable degree of scepticism in their allegorical narratives. The coupling of scepticism with subjectivism in recent accounts of literary allegory, and in modern allegorical narratives, is the legacy of Romantic theories of allegory. In postmodernist allegorical narratives, like those written by John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, scepticism is taken so far as to put into question the culturally constructed nature of subjectivity itself. In such narratives as Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, far from acting as a hermeneutic authority, subjectivity is shown to be an intertextual construct incapable of revealing anything but that which is already known. In the absence of any external authority, the allegorical protagonist is unable to determine whether meaning is projected or perceived. The modern ‘crisis of belief’, in postmodernist allegories, renders unknowable the national destiny that has been Europe’s allegorical legacy to the New World.

               In the discussion that follows I offer a brief survey of this inheritance, beginning, in the first section, with a survey of the kinds of allegorical interpretation from which the narrative genre developed. The distinctive nature of allegorical narrative is produced by the thematization of these interpretative forms within the context of the narrative plot. The variety of ways in which allegorical interpretation can be incorporated into a narrative, and the different kinds of narrative to which this gives rise, is the subject of the following section. First, it is the origin of allegory as a rhetorical means of coming to terms with historical and cultural change that is my focus.1


Models of Allegorical Interpretation


The earliest recorded instances of allegorical interpretation reveal that it was used primarily to defend the sacred Homeric myths from critical attack. There were some who understood the myths in a literal manner and were outraged by the stories that told of adultery and stealing, lying and deception, among the gods. The poets, Homer and also Hesiod, were accused of debasing the divine character of the gods by portraying them in this style. These criticisms were answered by a reading of the myths as allegorical encodings of separate stories: stories that expounded moral and ethical lessons, or explained physical and natural phenomena. In an allegorical reading, the gods could represent the powers of nature or the faculties of the human body, as they do in the interpretation given by Metrodorus of Lampsacus, for example.2 From this initially defensive role of demonstrating the value of the sacred myths, allegorical interpretation developed an increasingly complex character. For allegory was perceived as an effective means of preserving the relevance of the sacred texts in the face of inevitable cultural change. More and more, the divine beings described by Homer and Hesiod were deprived of any historical reality and were thought of as representing knowledge that was valuable to have. So rather than being worthwhile because they make available knowledge about divine beings, the myths were valued for the lessons they taught about the practice of justice, instances of wisdom, models of good behaviour and explanations about the nature of the world, lessons that are represented by the gods and the stories they have to tell. The literal stories have value only in so far as they support and figure forth these more abstract, broadly pedagogical, narratives.

               The philosophical schools, and particularly the Stoics, found that allegorical interpretation offered them a powerful vehicle for disseminating their views. Allegorical readings of  the myths could make available the authority of an old and established religion while representing the details of a new set of philosophical ideas. Homer and Hesiod were to be praised for their exceptional wisdom in anticipating Stoic ideas in the figurative details of their poetry. The details of mythological narratives are, in such allegorical interpretations, related point by point and image by image to the moral or ethical or physiological doctrines encoded in an external philosophical narrative. In this way, the meaning of the sacred myths was seen to be not intrinsic to the texts themselves but dependent upon the prescriptions of the interpreter. Sacred meaning was thus rendered indeterminate: a number of distinct significances could be imported to explain the meaning of the same mythical narrative. So whilst changes in patterns of belief and the emergence of new schools of philosophical thought were not perceived as crises in Hellenistic culture, since these new ideas were adapted and presented through the familiar discourses of Homeric poetry, the violence done to the authority of the poets and the literal fabric of the myths was significant.

               Allegorical interpretation became such an entrenched method in classical hermeneutics that in the work of Cicero and later rhetoricians allegory itself is subject to rhetorical analysis. Cicero treats allegory not simply as a way of interpreting texts, the meanings of which have become indistinct or otherwise problematical, but as a style of rhetoric that characterizes texts which demand interpretation. So Cicero perceived allegory as a quality inherent in certain kinds of texts. This is a new departure from earlier uses of allegory which treated allegorical interpretation as quite separate from the text to which it was applied. But whilst Cicero described allegory as a style of rhetoric that invites interpretation, he emphasized that the meaning generated by interpretation would always be a subjective meaning determined by the interpreter and not by the text. So the text was empowered to determine the hermeneutic activity of its interpreter but not the results of that interpretative activity, in Cicero’s analysis.3 The technique by which the allegorical text prescribes its own interpretation is allusion; the specification of examples or comparisons or contrasts, within the narrative, points to the hermeneutic connections that the interpreter is required to make. Meaning thus is consciously hidden or made indeterminate by the writer who uses an allegorical style of rhetoric. The classical legacy for subsequent theories of allegory lies in the predominant assumption that meaning is extrinsic to the text (be that a sacred or secular text) and that allegory describes the interpretative activity that produces a connection between narrative details and their extrinsic significances.

               Perhaps the best known of early Jewish writers to use an allegorical method of interpretation, and the only Jewish allegorist in the classical sense, is Philo Judaeus. And the dilemma to which he applied his allegorical activity was the problem of reconciling the Greek philosophy dominant in his contemporary Alexandria with the Mosaic writings. So Philo was confronted with the same kind of issue as faced the Homeric apologists. But where the Homeric myths were challenged by the literalism of their readers, the significance of the Pentateuch was challenged by the powerful cultural influence of adopted Greek ideas. The outcome, so far as the development of allegory was concerned, was largely a repetition of the classical deployment of allegorical interpretation. To Moses was attributed an ‘allegorical’ intention: in the biblical stories, it was argued, he anticipated later philosophical concepts and doctrines. The biblical stories were valued less for themselves or their literal plots than for the abstract meanings encoded in their figurative texture; Philo, in fact, termed his allegorical practice the method of the Greek mysteries.4 As a consequence of his devaluation of the literal ‘surface’ of the sacred text, Philo was able to achieve a wholesale appropriation of the Mosaic Law which he transformed into a revealed divine philosophy. And this was made possible by the use of allegorical interpretation.

               Philo likened the sacred text to a living creature, possessed of a literal body and a divine soul.5 The purpose of interpretation, then, was seen to be the penetration of the literal body in order to reveal the spiritual meaning intentionally encoded within. To read only in terms of the literal is to reveal a lack of spiritual insight and an impious disregard for the divine intention.6 Philo assumes that Scripture is informed by a benevolent divine intention and this benevolent divinity constrains the range of possible meanings that can be found in the sacred writings. All scriptural meanings must be worthy of God, as their divine originator, and they must be beneficial to humanity. Any significances that appear to be inconsistent with these overriding principles must be intended, by God, to be interpreted figuratively, by which Philo means allegorically, to reveal their ‘true’ meaning. All of Scripture has a secondary transcendental meaning, according to Philo, but in most cases this secondary significance is easily discerned. Only when the divine meaning is especially hidden do inconsistencies and absurdities appear in the sacred text. Philo’s main contribution to the history of allegorical theorizing is his attempt to systematize the varieties of figurative meaning that Scripture can possess.7

               He distinguished two ‘levels’ of figurative reference: the mystical and the moral. The mystical dimension of Scripture relates to the universal meaning of the divine mystery and so is of collective significance. In contrast, the moral aspect of the sacred text refers to the individual and interior meaning of divine revelation and relates to the relevance of that revelation for the development and spiritual progression of the individual soul.8 Philo’s method of scriptural exegesis remained essentially that which originated with the classical allegorists. Each event depicted in the sacred writings was related to a distinct phase in either the spiritual destiny of Israel or in the progression of the soul and its relation to the phenomenal world. The literal narrative of Scripture was valued as the inspired creation of God but this narrative of literal events and personalities was held to be significant only in so far as it revealed a secondary meaning of divine intent. And this secondary meaning, as the important aspect of the text, was largely independent of its literal vehicle. Allegorical interpretation held distinct the body and the soul of Scripture, decoding the one in order to discover the other. Philo shared the classical view that meaning is not intrinsic to the literal sense of the sacred text but can be detached from it. He also shared the view that, whilst absurdities and inconsistencies are not to be tolerated in the interpretation of Scripture, within this constraint the sacred book is not bound in terms of what it can signify; and this view he shared with the earlier rabbinical exegetes who practiced a style of allegorical interpretation known as ‘midrash’.

               Rabbinical exegesis responded to the threat posed to the sacred character of the Torah by the cultural invasions of Greece and Rome not by adapting the sacred text to these new intellectual forces but by seeking to protect the inviolability of the sacred book. The Torah was to be seen to affect every aspect of life and its authority was to be disseminated in every conceivable way. The rabbis sought to achieve this by multiplying their interpretations of the Torah. The laws, precepts and ordinances of the sacred text were to be interpreted from every angle, literal and spiritual, so as to establish the absolute authority of the Torah within the culture of Judea. Contemporary currents of thought, collective aspirations and cultural traditions, all were to be imbued with the authority of the sacred text.9 Midrash arose from these conditions. There are two primary forms of midrash: halakah, which is used to deduce or to elucidate the legal points and principles that are encoded in the sacred text; and aggadah, which is a homiletical method of exegesis used to reveal the religious and nationalistic significances of Scripture. Aggadic midrash is more closely related to the kind of allegorical interpretation practiced by Philo Judaeus, though Philo was disowned by the rabbis and his work ignored; aggadah is described by The Jewish Encyclopedia as ‘the exegetical amplification of a Biblical passage and the development of a new thought based thereupon’.10

               The development of new thought inspired by the sacred text was, however, bound by principles for proper interpretation, though these principles allowed an enormous amount of freedom to the midrashic interpreter. First, the sacred text may be read as revealing prophetic statements which are realized in current historical events so that the significance of Scripture can be seen to reside in the foreshadowing of what is now coming to pass. Secondly, several passages of Scripture, chosen by the exegete, can be brought together to explain a specific passage of the Torah so that a pattern of internal allusions and echoes can be discerned which lends meaning to each of the constituent parts. Thirdly, textual obscurities can be explained and enlarged by narrative interpolations or even alterations which are added by the interpreter. These interpolations can even be fictional, so long as they are directed towards expanding the meaning and relevance of the sacred book. Midrash, in this way, seeks new ideas as well as an authoritative confirmation of what is already known, from the Torah.

               The proliferation of divine meanings was the intention of midrashic interpretation. According to the rabbis, the spiritual truth of Scripture was rich enough to sustain as many interpretations as its human interpreters could devise. This meant that all aspects of meaning - Judaic and ‘foreign’ (whether from Greece, Rome or wherever) - could and would be subsumed by the sacred Jewish book. So far as the Torah could take account of foreign intellectual developments, the authority of the book to speak for Judaic culture was assured. The cultural authority of the Torah as the repository of all conceivable meanings was separated by the practitioners of midrash from considerations of historical or literal veracity. As J. Duncan Derrett argues, midrashic exegetes approached Scripture with an ‘as if ‘ kind of logic: they cited the sacred text ‘as if ‘ it were historically true, they quoted scriptural passages as if they were true regardless of their original contexts.11 Like the more extreme classical allegorists, the midrashic writers had little regard for the historical status of the literal sense of the sacred text. They assumed an arbitrary form of signification which linked the literal to the figurative dimensions of the text and, further, they assumed that correctness of interpretation was dependent upon the divine intentionality of the text coupled with the divine guidance of the interpreter. In order to preserve the faith and cultural unity of a people returned from exile, the midrashic interpreters relied on faith to support and to lend authority to their amplification of the cultural role of the sacred book.

               The sharpest contrast between Judaic and Christian styles of allegorical rhetoric is to be found in their opposed attitudes towards the literal sense of Scripture. Christian allegorism never departs from a strong commitment to the historical reality and veracity of the sacred text. For this commitment to history is the strategy by which Christian writers came to terms with the major cultural crisis facing them: Hebrew hostility and aggression towards Judaeo-Christianity.12

               The early Christian writers explained the new revelation through Christ as the inevitable development of redemptive history and as evidence for this view of historical progression they interpreted the Old Testament for divine foreshadowings of the new dispensation. So, the earliest instance of the term allegory in Christian exegesis occurs in Galatians 4:24 where St. Paul explains that Abraham’s two sons signify the two covenants. One son is born of a bondwoman, the other is born to a freewoman which St. Paul interprets as ‘an allegory: for these are the two covenants’. The conflict between the two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, provides St. Paul with an explanatory context within which to view the contemporary persecution of Christians: ‘But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the spirit, even so it is now (Gal. 4:29). In St. Paul’s deployment of allegorical interpretation - properly called typology - the Old Testament is stripped of its Judaistic meaning and is revealed to be the shadow or typos of future events: the events depicted by the New Testament. The two Testaments are assumed to share a single divine ‘spirit’ which is encoded within the figurative texture of the narratives but this spirit is determined by the character of the New Testament. The old Law is exposed as the foreshadowing of  a covenant of grace; salvation through works is subordinated to redemption through faith. Here as elsewhere, the two Testaments are linked by a pattern of typological repetition: the persecution of Christians by Hebrews has been foreshadowed by the persecution of the Hebrews in Egypt. And what forges these links between the two books is the historical parallel, the similarity of existential circumstances, in which they are involved. That typological allegory is grounded in the assumption that textual figures also possess a real historical status is emphasized by A. C. Charity in his analysis of Christian typology.


One thing does not mean another in typology: it involves it, or has inferences for it, or suggests it, and it does all these things for no other reason than that there is a real, existential, parallel, as well as a certain historical dependency and continuity between the events which typology relates.13


The early Christian writers, in Charity’s view, use past events as a way of articulating the new and of revealing the significance of the past for the present moment and for the future.

               Typology is a kind of allegorical interpretation and it departs from other forms of allegory in that it most emphatically does not assume an arbitrary relationship between the figurative and spiritual dimensions of the sacred text. Interpretation serves to reveal an historical continuity which exists as the real and powerful meaning inherent in Scripture. The significances at which the interpreter arrives are determined not by the individual exegete (whether inspired or not) but by the intrinsic meanings contained in the Bible. This is an important point because this is one of the issues over which Catholic and Protestant interpreters were to disagree so radically, and as such it has significant implications for the style of allegorical intepretation adopted by the American Puritan writers. For the early Christian interpreters of the two Testaments, interpretation was authorized by the authority of the sacred book.

               The Christian Apologists wrought the first major departure from the original Pauline conception of Christian allegorism. They extended the domain of allegorical interpretation from the sacred book to include the ‘book of nature’, temporal history and human reason as well. They applied the techniques of allegorical interpretation to all of God’s creation. But this created difficulties, because the interpretation of textual rhetoric differs from the interpretation of corporeal signs, most obviously in the fact that textual rhetoric is consciously figurative. So, in the work of Justin Martyr, particularly, we find an attempt to transform nature, history and rationality into rhetorical figures. Just as the two Testaments share the same divine spirit, Justin argues, so before the Advent a divine spirit or logos was disseminated among all humanity. This interpretation allows Justin then to propose an assimilation of Christian with pagan and Hebrew religious or intellectual cultures. For if all rational creatures possess the divine spirit or logos then pagan philosophers and Hebrew rabbis all were inspired by the same transcendental forces as Christians. Before Christ’s advent, the marks of God were to be found in ‘the book of nature and also in the inner deliverances of their reason’.14 And these discoveries inspired their writings in a way compatible with the ideas of Christianity. But they are not equivalent to Christianity; only Christ Himself manifested the entire truth and so earlier, pre-Christian writers had access only to a partial interpretation of the divine truth.

               The diversification of allegorical interpretation created problems of terminological obscurity. The allegorical had come to name the spiritual dimension of the sacred book to which the narrative’s figures referred. This spiritual dimension, however, was variously described as partial or whole, as prefiguration or as fulfillment, as mystical or as moral, as individual or collective in its significance. The contribution of  Origen of Alexandria, the single most influential patristic writer of allegorical interpretation, to the history of allegorical theory is his attempt to organize and systematize the varieties of allegorical rhetoric. As we have seen, he was not the first to attempt such a rationalization: Philo Judaeus had attempted the same thing in regard to classical and Hebrew allegorism.

               Origen was motivated in this task by what he perceived as the threat posed by several forms of ‘false’ interpretation. First, there was a style of Hebrew exegesis that relied upon literal interpretation and claimed to be awaiting the fulfillment of literal scriptural prophesies; secondly, Gnosticism adhered to the literal sense of Scripture and so revealed inconsistencies in the Old Testament; and then there were ‘simple’ Christians who rejected the spiritual interpretation of Scripture in favour of a literal reading and so were guilty of impiety.15 These interpretations appeared ‘false’ from Origen’s perspective because they all refused the allegorical style of interpretation which removed or at least normalized inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments. These false methods of interpretation placed in question again the status of the Old Testament within the new dispensation of Christianity at a time when Christian allegorism was coming under attack by pagans like Celsus. In order to establish the authority of allegorical interpretation, Origen set out to organize the various styles of spiritual exegesis into a methodical sequence.

               In the Periarchon he describes a trichotomy of spiritual meaning. The ‘somatic’ signifies the obvious meaning of a figurative expression; the ‘psychic’ denotes the significance of the figure for the individual Christian soul; and the ‘pneumatic’ refers to the mystical significance of the figure.16 He proposes another trichotomy of allegorical meanings, in the same work, which is based upon a scale of spiritual awareness. Correspondingly, the ‘simple’ man is edified by the ‘flesh’ of Scripture; those who have progressed some way towards spiritual enlightenment are edified by the ‘soul’ of Scripture; and the ‘perfect’ soul is edified by the ‘spirit’ of the sacred book. The three parts of man - body, soul and spirit - are interpreted by Origen as a sign intended by God to indicate the way to salvation through the figurative connection between these human parts and the mystical dimensions of Scripture.

               In conjunction with his work of systematizing the styles of spiritual exegesis, Origen endeavoured to produce his own scheme for the correct figurative interpretation of the spiritual dimension of Scripture. It is the Christological dimension of Scripture which lies at the centre of Origen’s own practice of allegorical interpretation. He describes two ways of reading the sacred book, both of which are based upon the decoding of a secondary level of reference beyond the literal or historically true. First, the ‘moral’ refers to the Church and to the truths of the faith; secondly, the ‘mystical’ or Christic meaning refers to an ascetic dimension of meaning and figures the progress of the redeemed soul towards God. In both cases, Christ mediates between the literal and secondary meanings of Scripture. Christ communicates to the inspired interpreter a spiritual understanding of the sacred book. Origen argues that Christ represents a principle of unity in the Testaments which reflects the relation of human and divine elements in His incarnate body.17 Fundamentally, in Origen’s view, there are only two dimensions to the meaning of Scripture - the literal and the Christological - but the Christological sense is represented in as many aspects as Christ presents. The Christological senses, revealed in the Pauline writings, Origen sought to systematize in his own exegetical practice into the Christic, ecclesiastical, mystical and eschatological significances.

               Origen, like many of his predecessors, assumes that the rhetorical structure of Scripture reflects the metaphysical structure of the world. The spiritual meaning of the New Testament matches the ‘carnal’ Law of the Old Testament; the redemptive significance of the whole Bible sanctifies the literal text: like Christ in His Advent, the Bible is the incarnation of God, the logos, the force that links the two dimensions of meaning. The status accorded the logos in Christian exegesis serves to distinguish Christian from classical and Judaistic allegorism. The latter share a common assumption that allegorical interpretation is based upon the identification of an arbitrary signifying relationship between the figure and its referent. But for Christian interpreters of the two Testaments, the allegorical referent was determined from the start: according to the logic of typological allegory, Christ is represented in the Old Testament and in the New Testament He is present. Christ, as the subject of typological interpretation, links the two sacred books and this typological link is reinforced by the mystical interpretation of the logos which is assumed to constitute the spiritual dimension of meaning of both texts. This logocentric prescription for scriptural meaning is extended, in Origen’s writings, to include the interpreter also. Origen claims that understanding of the allegorical senses of Scripture is enabled by the grace of the Holy Spirit operating upon the soul of the exegete. Christ, the spiritual significance of the Bible personified, appeals to the image of God which resides in the soul of every Christian and so empowers the individual to read correctly the spiritual or allegorical meaning of the sacred book. This determination of the rhetorical relationship between allegorical figure and referent distinguishes Christian allegorism from the styles of allegorical intepretation that preceded it. Of course, this Christian style of allegory did not displace completely the more arbitrary style of classical allegorism; often the two kinds of interpretation are to be found side by side in the same exegetical exercise. But these distinct styles of allegorism offered quite different models to those writers who looked to allegorical interpretation for clues to the writing of allegorical narratives. It is to their work that we now turn.


The Development of Allegorical Literature


The incorporation of styles of  interpretation that are known as ‘allegorical’ into fully-fledged literary narratives has resulted in a basic confusion that is the legacy of allegorical theorists today. Allegory has come to name both interpretative methods and the abstract meaning or ‘moral’ that is generated by those interpretations. So the form and the substance of allegory have become hopelessly confused. Allegory describes a style of rhetoric and the narrative substance represented by that rhetoric. This is an ironic fate for the allegorical genre because, more than any other literary genre, allegory thematizes the complexity of  interpretative practices and so reveals what is, ultimately, the arbitrary character of all determinations of meaning. Rather than present a simple ‘moral’, allegories instead tend to focus upon the difficulties inherent in the attempt to represent a single meaning as the significance of any sign. This awareness of duplicity and indeterminacy dates from the Christian reinterpretation of the Old Testament and the inscription of ‘doubleness’ as an intrinsic part of the meaning of the sacred book. And if the Bible is not immune from ambiguity and duplicity, then secular signs certainly are not either. Where the Bible can at least claim a transcendental authorship, guiding its signifying patterns to a preordained end, the signs manifest in temporal history and unredeemed nature have a more contingent claim to divine intentionality and hence issue a more demanding imperative for rigorous interpretation. The secular genre of allegorical narrative addresses the implications of this imperative by incorporating the rhetorical styles once reserved for the interpretation of sacred books into temporal plots that are concerned with the interpretation of  human history and the corporeal world. The ways in which these hermeneutic modes are thematized by individual allegorical narratives are many, and account for the diversity and richness of allegory as a literary genre. Although the development of allegorical literature out of the tradition of allegorical interpretation may lead one to suspect that allegory is no more than applied exegesis, the richness of the allegorical literary canon denies this. In what follows, I offer a survey of the various kinds of narrative that go by the name of allegory. But the allegorical form with which I begin, the homily, does in fact present us with what is, in effect, applied exegesis or dramatized moralities with little aesthetic value.

               As I noted at the end of the previous section, the development of a specifically Christian style of biblical interpretation did not put a stop to interpretation in the classical tradition. In fact, so powerful was (and still is) the influence of classical allegorism that the Bible was subjected to interpretation in this style. The early homiletical narratives abound with examples of scriptural tropes, taken out of the context of the scriptural narrative, and interpreted as complex figurative statements of Christian dogma. Usually it was moral lore that was expounded in this fashion which was perceived to be comprehensible to laymen as well as to clerics.

               An example of this moralization of scriptural tropes is to be found in Jacob’s Well, a treatise dealing with penitential lore, which incorporates an interpretation of the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-4) and its five porches. Jacob’s Well describes the five porches as being akin to the five ‘wyttes’ of the soul: understanding, desire, delight, mind and will. The pool is likened to the conscience, and the angel the preacher of God’s word who casts out corrupt water with the ‘scoop of  penance’. The five spiritual ‘wits’ are, in turn, identified with the five physical senses: sight with understanding, hearing with desire, taste with delight, smell with lust, and feeling with will. We are warned that it is through the five ‘porches’ of the physical senses that the soul is incited to sin.18 Each of the elements of the biblical image is related in a one-to-one correspondence to some aspect of penitential lore. The narrative interpretation of the figure does not recognize any claim to authenticity by the original context of St. John’s Gospel but claims to offer an illustration of Christian dogma that is sanctioned by the biblical text. In this respect, Jacob’s Well resembles the kind of interpretation practiced by the rabbinical practitioners of midrash. The Christian homily reflects a similar disregard for historical or textual veracity but instead seeks to expand the significance of Scripture into everyday life through the allegorical interpretation of sacred rhetoric. That the meaning discovered is arbitrary in regard to the biblical image is less important to homiletical writers than the lived morality that is their imported concern and the constructed sphere of reference.

               The homiletical use of allegorical interpretation is not exclusive to medieval treatises; as George Owst has shown in his classic study of  pulpit rhetoric, the style of pulpit moralization changed little from Catholic to Protestant usages.19 The same exegetical approach characterizes many of the sermons preached in colonial America. John Cotton, one of the most renowned of colonial preachers, used the homiletical style of allegorical rhetoric to describe the process of conversion in God’s Mercie Mixed with His Justice or His Peoples Deliverance in Times of Danger (1641). Drawing on the scriptural imagery of Acts 16 and Psalms 24, Cotton likens the effect of the preacher’s inspired word upon the hearer to God’s entrance into the soul; to accept Christ is to open the door of the soul to God. ‘[I]f hee be opened unto you ... you have a strong entrance into your own salvation’. In His mercy, God will knock on that door which is the human heart with ‘the hammer of his word’ but he breaks open that door through the ‘favour of Jesus’.20 In the next colonial generation after Cotton, Joshua Moody presented in his  Artillery Sermon of 1674 a sustained image that describes all of human life, not just the experience of conversion and salvation, in terms of the figure of warfare. Moody explained why he was compelled to use this technique, thus:


The Lord takes care to make us spiritual in all our Imployments, by spiritualizing all our Imployments. ... [T]he Lord is in his word teaching us by such familiar and known Metaphors taken from those Callings that we are versed in.21


In examples such as these, figures taken from the Bible are moralized according to orthodox Christian dogma. The value of the biblical image lies less in its original sacred context than in the significance it acquires after interpretation. How this significance is discovered is neither described nor discussed; the technique of interpretation itself has value only in so far as it is able to reveal moral and spiritual truths in line with Christian dogma. The dogmatic meanings of scriptural images are assumed to reside in an obvious and predictable way within the textual figures, and so their discovery through interpretation does not warrant discussion. But the meanings obtained in these homiletical texts are arbitrary with regard to the original context from which the figurative expressions are taken; the reluctance of such allegorical interpreters to take note explicitly of their hermeneutic practice might well be read as an unwillingness to recognize the arbitrariness of the interpreted meanings of which they write.

               Within the kind of homiletical interpretation represented in sermons and treatises, the original text disappears and is supplanted by an interpreted version of itself. This is in line with the valuing of biblical images for their capacity to carry or to communicate an abstract meaning. But in fully-fledged allegorical narratives, not only the original textual figures but also the secondary commentary upon them is incorporated into the narrative texture. The two are incorporated into a single narrative continuum: the text is presented and subsequently is interpreted. In this way, Prudentius’s narrative departs from the homiletical texts we have been considering. Aesthetic values are of much greater importance in the Psychomachia which, while it does not compare in sophistication with the work of later allegorists like Chaucer and Spenser, does have significant literary or aesthetic qualities in terms of narrative craft, the use of symbolism and the representation of psychological conflict. So we find in the preface to Prudentius’s Psychomachia that a biblical episode is quoted and the conditions under which it will be interpreted are set out. Prudentius chooses the same passage from the Old Testament as is interpreted by St. Paul in Galatians (discussed in the previous chapter): Lot’s rescue from the Sodomites by Abraham and Sara’s miraculous conception. These scriptural events are chosen as paradigmatic of the battle between personified vices and virtues which is described in the main narrative. The biblical story is interpreted as


... a model for our life to trace again with true measure, showing that we must watch in the armour of faithful hearts, and that every part of our body which is in captivity and enslaved to foul desire must be set free. ... 22


Sara’s angelic conception is seen as an image of the fertility of the Holy Spirit which is able to enter and redeem the souls of the faithful. Physical conception is made to signify spiritual regeneration. Sara’s biblical experience offers ‘a model for our life to trace again’. And in this way the narrative invokes scriptural authority for the interpretation of biblical figures in terms of the moral and spiritual values they are said to represent. The values of lived morality, and the potential for salvation to be found by the faithful in the biblical stories motivate the allegorical interpretations represented in the Psychomachia.

               As each of the Vices are defeated by a corresponding Virtue, victory is celebrated in the quotation of the biblical model which has been imitated. So Chastity’s victory over Lust is crowned with a triumphant speech praising Judith who destroyed lust in the form of Holofernes, the Assyrian king. Where Pride boasts of her sovereignty over all men and cites the expulsion of Adam from Eden as evidence of her power, Lowliness quotes David’s victory over Goliath and so defeats her. The mystical meaning of each encounter is prescribed by each of the Virtues as the victory of Christ in a battle for the individual soul. The Virtues appropriate the significance of each battle for Christ as they seek an end to conflict in the reconcilation of the flesh and the spirit. This reconciliation is figured, within the narrative, by the building of a temple in which Wisdom is enthroned: an image which signifies the acceptance of Christ by the individual soul. In the manner prescribed by patristic exegetes like Origen of Alexandria, the allegory of the Psychomachia reveals the Christological significance of Scripture and the relevance of this dimension of meaning for the salvation of souls.

               The Psychomachia thematizes the activity of allegorical interpretation in a way that is impossible within the limits of  homiletical writings. Prudentius has the scope to create fictional characters who then dramatize the complexities involved in interpreting the biblical text. Such subtlety contributes importantly to the literary status of the text and is impossible within the limited range of a sermon or treatise. But by combining the fictional or literary with the serious business of interpreting the spiritual significances of sacred books Prudentius contributed to the beginnings of a tradition of secular allegory, where the thematization of interpretation was directed less at the certainties described in Scripture than towards the ambiguities and uncertainties of human life. The corporeal world and temporal experience became the focus of a style of allegorical interpretation which seeks in the signs of nature and the events of history clues to the soul’s ultimate destiny. Though the nature of this spiritual destiny is prescribed in the sacred books, the place of the individual within the grand sweep of providential history is most at issue in the tradition of allegorical narratives that has emerged since Prudentius’s groundbreaking narrative. Importantly for the kind of allegorical narrative that developed in America, Prudentius incorporated the practice of typological interpretation, as an attitude of mind or way of viewing the world, into the substance of his narrative. The battle between the Vices and Virtues is, exegetically speaking, a conflict between classical (pagan) and Christian (typological) allegory. The Vices seek an arbitrary one-to-one correspondence between words and things; the Virtues seek a Christ-centered and scripturally based interpretation of the meaning of the signs around them. The victory, then, of typology over other allegorical forms can be seen as Prudentius’s response to the resurgence of paganism among his contemporaries. Prudentius’s engagement in the cultural crisis of his time then takes the form of an allegorical exploration of competing world views which are represented as mutually exclusive hermeneutic endeavours.23

               The preface to the Psychomachia makes reference to the biblical story of Abraham and Sara as a model to be repeated in the future and in our own lives. The typological significance of the story resides in the idea that just as these biblical figures were touched by God, so may we experience the grace of the Holy Spirit if we establish in our hearts and minds a spiritual ‘temple of Wisdom’ akin to that which the narrative, echoing the earlier description of Abraham’s tent, finally constructs. The narrative process of the Psychomachia, then, seeks to bring together the biblical past and the reader’s present in the service of  future salvation. The biblical story is a fable which prefigures a future fulfillment in the fictional victory of the narrative’s Virtues over the Vices, and this victory foreshadows a future victory over sin within the soul of the redeemed individual. Thus is the pattern of typological interpretation, originally applied to the two Testaments, incorporated into the narrative of a secular text.

               The narrative process is organized around the conflict between the personified Vices and Virtues and seeks reconciliation through the victory of the Christian Virtues. The typological understanding of providential history and its determination of the soul’s destiny is often thematized by the allegorical narrative in such a way. That is, the reconciliation of competing narrative elements and a typological understanding of those elements are often represented as identical within the allegorical narrative. It is in this way that typology emerges as the privileged and so authoritative hermeneutic mode.

               An example of this thematization of typological interpretation, in a fully-fledged literary work, is offered by William Langland’s medieval poem, Piers Plowman. In this narrative, the plot is motivated by the protagonist’s quest for ‘Dowel’. In his search, Will has recourse to a number of potential advisers and guides - Wit, Clergy, Dame Studie - but they all prove inadequate to his purposes. For none of them inform him that Dowel is neither a person nor a thing but a verb, to Do-wel. The active nature of Dowel becomes apparent only when the narrative appeals to the anterior text of Scripture through characters such as Haukyn, Piers and Abraham, who possess explicit biblical significances. These characters introduce to the narrative a typological model of interpretation which is unavailable to personifications. Personifications reveal their significance through a one-to-one correspondence between their names and their attributes. Personifications emerged from the classical allegorical tradition and, in fact, this trope was subject to extensive analysis by the classical rhetoricians. Personifications are essentially static, bound by the signifying limits of the concept that determines them. Characters which are typologically determined, in contrast, are involved in a dynamic historical process.

               As in the Psychomachia, the figure of Abraham foreshadows the Christic operations of faith under the new dispensation: he represents literally the old Law and spiritually the covenant of faith. And the example of Abraham offers the promise of future salvation to individual believers. As a narrative trope, Abraham participates in the past, the present and the projected future. In Piers Plowman, not only Abraham and Haukyn but especially Piers himself introduce Will, the protagonist, to the potential power of typological interpretation. The personification, Conscience, explains to Will that Christ represents many things and that the significance of the primary images of the narrative is grounded in Christ-the-logos. But it is the figurally constructed character of Piers the Plowman who repeats the typologically significant events in the life of Christ and by repeating these acts Piers draws together the typological meanings of the sacred events. At first Piers, blood-stained and bearing a cross, imitates ‘Jesus the justere’. This narrative image, which has been represented in the narrative by figures like the various knights of the poem, the King’s knights, the true knight of Holy Church, and Conscience, now takes on an additional spiritual, Christological, meaning. And to underline this point, the narrator tells us that it is through the figure of the knight, who possesses the character or the ‘kynde’ of a conqueror, that Jesus has revealed to mankind the new covenant: ‘And there bigan God of his grace to do wel’.24 So the person Dowel whom Will has been misguidedly seeking is revealed to be the conqueror of sin, Jesus. But in the context of this new law of grace, Jesus claims a new name: not Dowel but ‘Dobet’. Yet it is as the conqueror of death, and the harrower of Hell, that Christ’s nature is most fully revealed as ‘Dobest’. And because Piers understands these three dimensions of typological meaning - Dowel, Dobet and Dobest - Christ grants a pardon to Piers. Christ links the three concepts, Dowel, Dobet and Dobest; he offers a spiritual archetype for the knight figures of the poem and other defenders of the true faith; and he reveals the spiritual significance of temporal history as he progresses from Filius Marie to King of Judea, to redeemer and the bringer of pardon. Each of the principal images or concepts of the narrative gain in significance as they acquire additional contextual meanings and they are resignified in terms of this web of Christological significances which reside in Scripture. Piers reads both the sacred book and the world in which he operates as meaningful purely in typological terms and as a consequence it is he who is able to make sense most fully of  that world which appears so perplexing to characters like Will. Only typological interpretation provides access to the logic according to which the fictional world operates. It is significant that representatives of the Church who are sought out by Will in the course of his quest are unable to provide this insight. Part of Langland’s scathing attack on abuses of Church power and the corruption of the clergy is articulated by the device of representing characers such as Lady Holy Church and Clergy as personifications (associated so closely with pagan forms of interpretation) and not as typologically represented characters - the latter form of representation being reserved for Piers the Plowman alone. In this way Langland responds to the crisis both within the Church and affecting his culture at large. It is with subtlety that Langland represents his perception of the critical cultural conditions in which he lived and this subtlety is made possible by the historical distinction between pagan allegorism and Christian typology. 

               The narrative of Piers Plowman achieves a resolution of the conflicts which have been explored in the plot by recourse to the anterior, sacred text. Above, I remarked that one of the most important distinctions between Christian allegory, on the one hand, and classical and Judaistic allegory, on the other, is that where the latter styles are inherently arbitrary when it comes to assigning meanings to allegorical figures, Christian allegory is determined from the start by the assumption of a pervasive Christological dimension of meaning which lends significance to the narrative of Scripture and, by extension, to the things of nature and the events of history. A secular text such as Piers Plowman shares this commitment to a pervasive set of Christological meanings but it is unable to demonstrate a divinely intended dimension of meaning within the terms of its own literal narrative. And so it has recourse to the sacred text of Scripture, drawing into its narrative plot characters, events and images which have already been interpreted for their Christological significances within the context of biblical exegesis. The determination of the meaning of Piers Plowman therefore depends upon the authority of Scripture and makes a strong claim upon the Christian faith of the individual reader.

               The allegorical plot is characterized by the displacement of meaning into a succession of narrative tropes. The plot is then motivated by the activity of interpreting these figures as part of the quest for an explanatory context that will reconcile competing signs into a self-consistent signifying pattern. This pattern, in the case of Piers Plowman (as for so many allegorical narratives of the medieval and Renaissance periods), is the pattern created by repetition within a providentially guided history. So allegory is motivated primarily by the desire for referential unity, a unity which is thematized as the ‘redemption’ of the narrative’s semantically incomplete  signs. This desire is sublimated into hermeneutic activity and is satified only when the narrative displaces its own interpretative activity into the prior activity of interpreting an anterior scriptural authority. Referential unity is achieved among the narrative signs of Piers Plowman, but only through the narrative’s recourse to a prior text - the Bible. And this means that even Christological interpretation is revealed to be fundamentally arbitrary, because it depends crucially upon the reader’s belief in the spiritual authority of Scripture. There is an interesting parallel to be made between this allegorical narrative impulse and Augustine’s description of the way in which the figurative language of Scripture operates. Jon Whitman emphasises this aspect of Augustine’s thought about the seeming indeterminacy of the sacred language and its relevance to the development of allegorical interpretation.


The very basis for the figurative language of Scripture, Augustine emphasizes, is that the thing a text signifies should in turn signify another thing, until all signs eventually disappear in God. In this process of perpetual conversion, res themselves thus become signa, transitory vehicles moving toward a divine destination (De doctrina christiana I, 4; I, 35; II, 10).25


This is a very important point for the future development of allegorical literature. The ‘divine destination’ of Augustine’s description has to be the sacred book and allegorical narratives until the Romantic period used Scripture in this way as part of a displacement strategy that allowed the narrative to deal with interpretative issues that cannot be resolved in corporeal terms. But the strategy relies crucially upon the assumption that the reader shares a commitment to the sacred book as being sacred and so capable of functioning as a ‘divine destination’. As we shall see in the following chapters, writers of allegory have not always been able to make this crucially important assumption. It is the absence of a shared commitment to the spiritual authority of the Bible that has produced a crucial change in the nature of allegory since the Romantic period. And in the twentieth century, the pervasive lack of faith in the authority of any text at all has caused further alterations in the nature of narrative allegory. In post-Romantic narratives, generally, there can be no recourse to some authoritative anterior text; the irresolution of the plot cannot be displaced into some transcendent context and so there is a very perceptible increase in ambiguity and openendedness in allegorical narratives of the post-Romantic period.

               The first major shift in the character of narrative allegory was generated by the rise of Protestantism, with its distinctive style of biblical exegesis, during the period of the Reformation. This shift was to prove crucial for the practice of allegorical interpretation and the writing of allegorical narratives by the Puritan colonists of the New World. For typological interpretation was, as we shall see in the following chapter, to be the preferred rhetorical style for the colonial expression of their ‘errand into the wilderness’ of the New World.26 Typology solved an important issue for the early Christian interpreters of the Bible: the question of what was to be the status of the Hebrew scriptures in relation to the New Testament. But typology also raised the question of the need for ongoing typological interpretation. If the New Testament interprets and fulfills the Old Testament, what then interprets and fulfills the New Testament in God’s ongoing providential history? Another way of phrasing this question is to ask, if the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament, what then does the New Testament prefigure? The patristic response to this question was to argue that the spiritual sense of Old Testament events is Christ and the spiritual sense of Christ’s deeds is the Church.27 Consequently, it is to the Church that interpretation must look when seeking to discern the significance of the spiritual dimension of Scripture. The ultimate arbiter of allegorical readings of the Bible is the Church; in fact, the Church possesses the authority to legislate every individual’s hermeneutic relationship with the sacred text. Where the individual cannot know God’s intention, this uncertainty can be displaced into an authoritative ecclestiastical tradition.

               Protestant exegesis, in sharp contrast, is motivated by the desire for a direct communion with God which is mediated only by Scripture, the direct word of God. The role of the Church as translator of divine significances is assigned, in Protestant exegesis, to the Holy Ghost, who empowers the chosen individual to understand God’s intentions in relation to their soul’s destiny. The correctness of interpretation cannot be validated by the ecclesiastical institution; the burden of proof is shifted to the mystical relationship between the soul and Scripture. The objective validation of interpreted meaning provided by ecclesiastical tradition is supplanted by the subjective authority of the individual Protestant believer. As a result, Protestant allegorism tends to place a premium upon uncertainty in matters relating to interpretation. Because human understanding cannot comprehend the pure and ineffable reality of God, any claim to absolute knowledge must be symptomatic of hermeneutic delusion. While the typological dimension of an allegorical narrative (represented by typologically significant images or characters, and by a typologically structured narrative plot) can indicate the operations of a providential scheme within temporal history, it cannot make that scheme present to knowledge. The faithful Protestant soul has no external means of measuring the progress made within the scheme of typological repetitions. Only God knows how close that soul is to salvation. The Protestant interpreter, like Bunyan’s Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, discovers that Scripture is not so much a proof-text as a guide to Christ. Scripture reveals the need for, the way to, and the meaning of, redemption as a progressive revelation that is guided by faith rather than certain knowledge. Through the operations of grace, the redeemed soul is released into a life-process of sanctification in which the application of Scripture to daily life must continually be rediscovered. Assurance of final salvation can be neither objectively verified nor actively earned: assurance is purely a subjective product of interpretation. What is at stake in Protestant, as opposed to patristic, allegorism is then quite distinctive. Patristic interpretation of Scripture involves the gaining or losing of salvation. Protestant interpretation, however, involves the certitude of election through the workings of grace in the soul.

               Where the emphasis upon the Christological dimension of Scripture found in patristic exegesis led early typological narratives to rely upon the reader’s faith  in the authority of the biblical text, the emphasis upon the individual authority of the redeemed soul leads Protestant allegory to depend even more upon the reader’s faith. As I commented above, this reliance upon faith leads to a fundamental arbitrariness in the production of narrative meaning. For in the absence of this necessary faith, the allegorical narrative is seen to bring together signs and significances that do not inherently and necessarily belong together. I would like to conclude this brief survey of the variety of allegorical narrative styles by looking at four of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short narratives in which he explores the interpretative liabilities to which Protestant exegesis is prone.

               In ‘Young Goodman Brown’, for instance, Hawthorne deals with the ambiguities that arise when the individual subject is unable to interpret authoritatively the fundamental categories of elect and preterite. Goodman Brown’s inability to interpret accurately is indicated by his ignorance of his own place within a typological scheme of redemption. He expects that he can ‘keep covenant’ with the Devil for one night only and then return to his ‘Faith’ and ‘follow her to Heaven’.28 The diabolical figure who awaits Goodman Brown takes advantage of his hermeneutic weakness to destroy the last remnant of faith that Brown possesses. If Brown can see, consorting with the Devil, those authorities to whom he has always looked for moral and spiritual guidance, then he is satisfied to place his trust in the evidence of his senses and never even to suspect that he might be wrong or that he might be manipulated by malevolent rather than benevolent spiritual forces. Goodman Brown anticipates a relationship of simple identity within the sign. He does not distinguish the literal from the spiritual and expects that the one will manifest the other. It is the sight of his wife’s pink ribbon, fluttering in a tree near the witches’ coven, that convinces him of the depravity of all souls as he comes to believe that his Faith is quite lost. ‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name’, he cries. ‘Come, devil! for to thee is this world given’ (p.141). The appearance of absolute depravity causes Goodman Brown to abandon all hope for redemption. He assumes that his sight is empowered to perceive only the correct meaning of the signs with which he is confronted. The subjective style of interpretation that is his as a Puritan does not allow for the corruption of  perception by sin or by the influence of evil and there is no external means of hermeneutic legitimation to which he may have recourse.

               It is not only the emphasis upon the subjective in Puritan exegesis that Hawthorne criticizes. He also addresses the complexities of the notion that the individual soul has access to the operations of providential history through the divine pattern of significant repetitions. The story ‘Earth’s Holocaust’ criticizes the idea that the present may benefit from a meaningful relationship with the past and instead explores a scenario where the present is shackled to the past, a dystopian past, such that reform or change are rendered impossible. Represented by the incineration of all past sources of value - cultural, familial, political, religious - is a contemporary contempt for any spiritual value which may inhere in, or be signified by, material objects. Destruction is associated with purification, material conflagration with an apotheosis into a pure realm of transcendent abstraction. It is assumed by the millenialist reformers described by the narrative that the destruction of the earthly part alone will be sufficient to create a relationship with the transcendent. So some destroy their money in the belief that ‘universal benevolence, uncoined and exhaustless, was to be the golden currency of the world’.29 The spiritual values that require no physical representation assume a value that is identical to itself, a meaning that is transparent and unequivocal. And the nature of these meanings is prescribed by the reformers’ zeal. That the legislative function reserved for the Bible, in patristic allegory, and the exegete inspired by the Holy Spirit, in Puritan allegory, should be appropriated for the subjective judgements laid down by ethusiastic reformers indicates that the sovereignty of the subjective has reached its peak. For these millenialists are committed to the idea that they can themselves control the direction of history by forcing the spiritual transformation of the material world in which they live. And this overweening arrogance is condemned by the narrator as a ‘mockery of the Evil Principle’ (p.357). The real condition for change is located by the narrator in the material yet transcendent realm of the individual soul.


The Heart - the Heart - there was the little, yet boundless sphere, wherein existed the original wrong, of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that inner sphere; and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms, and vanish of their own accord  (p.357).


The pattern of typological repetition is seen to refer to the repetition of an original sin and to lead further into perdition rather than towards salvation. The radical linkage of the present with the past denies access to accurate subjective (and objective) interpretations of truth. There is no pattern of promise and fulfillment to be found in this narrative. Instead, Hawthorne focusses upon the elevation of subjectivity itself into a timeless, and hence changeless, semantic pattern within which redemption is impossible.

               Hawthorne’s retelling of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in ‘The Celestial Railroad’, also presents a dim view of the relevance of Puritan typology for nineteenth-century America. Hawthorne’s narrator-questor lacks a guide like Christian’s companion, Evangelist, to identify for him the spiritual significance of the narrative’s images. The liberal, urbane and cultivated protagonist of Hawthorne’s story is accompanied by a modern ‘Worldly Wiseman’, Mr. Smooth-it-away who habitually interprets in such a way as to reduce all signs to their basest literal terms. According to Mr. Smooth-it-away’s account, then, the entrance to Hell is no more than a volcanic crater, recently converted into a railroad forge. This, like all of his explanations, is comforting in its common-sense credibility, which is congruent with the ideology of liberal progressivism that Smooth-it-away and the narrator share. The images which bear the burden of spiritual and moral value in Bunyan’s narrative are assessed here according to the values of fashionable society. In the place of solitary Christian are ‘parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood, setting forth towards the Celestial City, as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a summer tour’.30

               The naivete of Bunyan’s Christian also characterizes Hawthorne’s questor as he reports at face value these reappraisals of the pilgrimage. Yet Christian is made aware of the progress he makes in his journey by the biblical references that constitute a marginal gloss on his story. No authoritative biblical context is mobilized in ‘The Celestial Railroad’, though Hawthorne’s allegory does use the techniques of typology to point to the irrelevance of typology in the absence of any substantive faith. Typology no longer situates the individual within the context of providential history. The past cannot be repeated and fulfilled in a present moment which does not recognize, or even notice, the spiritual import of such repetitions. But the final unmasking of Smooth-it-away’s satanic character demonstrates that whilst the past may have become irrelevant for the existential present, it is not yet discontinuous with, or inaccessible to, the present. And this perhaps offers some cause for future optimism. But it remains a doubtful optimism.

               Hawthorne explores the debasement of typological interpretation within the context of New England typology in the story, ‘The Gray Champion’. The ancient champion of the colonial people represents the values of temerity, determination, independence and community feeling that are recognized to be anachronistic by the oppressed subjects of Governor Andros. Less ‘the type of New England’s hereditary spirit’ in the strict exegetical sense of ‘type’, the gray champion is exemplary, typical of  ‘the American under threat’; he reifies an assurance that ‘New England’s sons will vindicate their ancestry’.31 This ancestry, however, is no longer the community of biblical exiles with which the founding fathers identified but those immigrants who willingly departed England to follow the dictates of their faith. The narrative displays a preference for the human character of the past, not its ideal spiritual dimension. The venerable champion of New England signifies a secular and narrowly patriotic image of the exemplary American. And so the future he promises is a future determined by the values of liberal progressivism. Hawthorne rewrites the history of his Puritan ancestry in such a way that it promises and fulfills a secular potential that promises nothing in terms of the future spiritual destiny of the New World. Hawthorne uses the techniques and vocabulary of typological allegory to question the significance of the Puritan legacy to which he felt himself heir and also to criticize the spiritual myopia of his own contemporary America.

               Just what was meant by those ancestors, the Puritan colonists of New England, when they used the rhetoric of allegorical interpretation is the question to which  I now turn.



1. See also my Rereading Allegory: A Narrative Approach to Genre (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994; Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1995), Phillip Rollinson, Classical Theories of Allegory and Christian Culture (Pittsburgh & Brighton, Duquesne University Press & Harvester Press, 1981), and Jon Whitman, Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).


2. On Metrodorus, see J. Geffcken, ‘Allegory, Allegorical Interpretation’, in James Hastings, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), p.328. See also Phillip Rollinson, ibid.,  Rudolphe Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1968), and Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages Upon the Christian Church (London, Williams & Norgate, 1891).


3. On the details of Cicero’s analysis of allegorical rhetoric, see J. Geffcken, op.cit. and Phillip Rollinson, op.cit.


4. Edwin Hatch, op.cit., p.69.


5. Philo Judaeus, de migr. Abr. I. 450, cited by Geffcken, op.cit., p.329.


6. Philo Judaeus, de Jos. II. 46, cited by Geffcken, ibid.


7. Here we see the origin of later Christian speculation about the number and nature of allegorically encoded ‘levels’ of meaning which finally became institutionalized in the medieval distich - ‘Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegorica, / Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia’ - which prescribed a ‘fourfold’ approach to figurative meaning.


8. See W. J. Burghardt, ‘On Early Christian Exegesis’, Theological Studies, 11 (1950), pp.96-8.


9. Rabbi Dr H. Freeman and Maurice Simon, trans. and ed. Midrash Rabbah, 10 vols. (1939, 3rd imprint, London, Soncino Press, 1961), Foreword, p.x.


10. Isadore Singer, ed. The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, KTAU Publishing House, n.d.), p.580. See also M. Gertner, ‘Midrash in the New Testament’, Journal of Semitic Studies, 7 (1962), pp.267-70, 291.


11. J. M. Duncan Derrett, Jesus’s Audience: The Social and Psychological Environment in which He Worked (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973), pp.110.


12. It is true that early patristic writers like Clement and Origen, whose work is discussed a little later, were often more concerned with the spirit than the letter of scriptural history. However, they did not disregard historical veracity in their exegesis of the multiple spiritual significances represented by Scripture


13. A. C. Charity, Events and their Afterlife: The Dialectics of Christian Typology in the Bible and Dante (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1966), p.199.


14. Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement and Origen (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966), p.16.


15. W. J. Burghardt, op.cit., p.92.


16. J. L. McKenzie, ‘A Chapter in the History of Spiritual Exegesis: Henri de Lubac’s Histoire et Esprit ‘, Theological Studies, 12 (1951), p.367.


17. Henry Chadwick, op.cit., p.157.


18. Jacob’s Well, An Englisht Treatise on the Cleansing of Man’s Conscience, ed. Arthur Brandeis. Early English Text Society (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1900).

19. See George Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (1933, rpt. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1966), esp. chapter 2, ‘Scripture and Allegory’.


20. John Cotton, Gods Mercie Mixed with His Justice or His Peoples Deliverance in Times of Danger (1641), ed. Everett Emerson (1958, rpt. New York, Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977), pp.3-13.


21. Joshua Moody, Souldiery Spiritualized, Or the Christian Souldier Orderly, and Strenuously Engaged in the Spiritual Warre (1674), in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, ed. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of their Writings, 2  vols. (1938, rev ed. New York, Evanston & London, Harper & Row, 1963), I. pp.367-68.


22. Prudentius, Psychomachia, trans. H. J. Thomson, Loeb Classical Library (1949, rpt. London & Cambridge, Mass., Heinemann & Harvard University Press, 1962), pp.277-78.


23. For a more detailed discussion of this point see Rereading Allegory, op. cit., pp.139-141


24. William Langland, The Vision of Piers the Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (1978, rpt. London & Melbourne, Dent, 1984), XIX. 83.


25. Jon Whitman, Allegory, op.cit., p.79.


26. On the construction of a Tudor mythology which provided an important precedent for the New World Puritans and their development of a mythology of American ‘exceptionalism’ see Frank Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971) and my Rereading Allegory, op. cit., p.99.


27. See James Samuel Preus, From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretation from Augustine to the Young Luther (Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969), pp.55-8.


28. Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘Young Goodman Brown’, (1846) in Michael J. Colacurcio, ed. Selected Tales and Sketches of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York, Viking Penguin, 1987),  p.134.


29. Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘Earth’s Holocaust’, in Colacurcio, ibid., p.348.


30. Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The Celestial Railroad’, (1846) in Colacurcio, ibid., p.318.


31. Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The Gray Champion’, (1837) in Colacurcio, ibid., p.132.