Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 14

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 14
The allegory
Mirrors of ideology

The word allegory always seems to suggest hidden secrets, a puzzle to be solved. But what, exactly, is an allegory? When one considers it as a literary form, certain distinctive features quickly become evident. Clearly, the allegory is a narrative in which the details of the presented world possess plurisignificance. They are ordered not only to make sense in themselves but also to signify a correlated, second order of events or concepts. The narration of one coherent set of circumstances implicitly carries forward that other level of comprehension. Abstract entities - vices, virtues, states of mind, attitudes to life - are often personified with a consequent emphasis on capitalisation and on naming. Thus we find a process where abstract features are fused with concrete objects and, conversely, ideas appear to be objectified within the narrative. While these basic features of allegory serve to provide a definitive core of reference, it is necessary to look rather more closely at the nature of allegory to gain a clearer understanding of the artistic potentialities that are made available by the use of the allegorical form. Only then can we approach the specific work of literature.

Allegories possess (or can possess) certain formal features that exist as corollaries to the basic definitive elements that I have already outlined. One of these features, seeming to occupy a central position in the allegorical process, is that of polarities or oppositional relationships. As part of a pattern of personification, certain figures (and thus ideas) are ranged against one another in the manner of the polarities of darkness and light, night and day, death and life. While these 'original' polarities define, as Edwin Honig has pointed out, "the extent of the cosmos, the arena of human action and thought," so the nature and range of the oppositional relationships that are set up in the literary allegory define the particular area of narrative concern. Honig has also noted that these oppositional relationships in allegory often follow the example of Biblical interpretation "where figurations based on original polarities are related to objects, events, and persons having specific identities."1 In terms of the personification of ideas, particularly in literature concerned with the investigation of socio-political alternatives, this device has obvious relevance. As the unfolding of the allegorical tale proceeds, so the interplay of the personified ideas is enabled to develop. Within the scheme of moral polarities, the allegorical hero generally moves through a pattern of action, a network of obstacles and temptations. Thus the motif of the quest (usually archetypal and of more than individual significance) is commonly present in allegory.

The pattern of oppositional relationships set up by the allegorist allows for an expression of conflict between rival authorities. This conflict, with one ideal pitted against another, then becomes the motive force that underlies the development of the narrated action. Recognition of this factor is the key to an understanding of Angus Fletcher's comment that allegories "are far less often the dull systems that they are reputed to be than they are symbolic power struggles."2 As the power struggle unfolds, the text indicates the relationships between allegorical images and certain moral precepts, thus directing and defining the ideological response. Despite a polarisation of moral position in allegory, one can see, then, that the form does not necessarily imply a sterile, abstract, or irrelevant approach to the realities of (for instance) the modern African socio-political situation. On the contrary, because the form allows for a re-examination of the norms of experience, it would appear to be well suited to an investigation of competing life-styles and beliefs. As the rules of reference (or signification) are developed in the allegorical narrative, a relatively stable pattern of response to presented ideas is possible. Allegories can, therefore, raise questions of value directly and they can attempt a resolution of the pattern of oppositional relationships from which they proceed. For, to use Fletcher's striking phrase, "allegories are the natural mirrors of ideology."3 To the extent that they are also 'mirrors' of reality, literary allegories (though symbolic in method) are potentially 'realistic' in the nature of their perceptions and in the codifying and rationalising function of their allegorical patterns. Richard Hoggart has written: "Works of literature at all levels are shot through with - irradiated with - values, with values ordered and values acted out."4 The allegory can be confidently placed within that category.

The literary allegory, as it has been described here, appears to be a particularly interesting form when seen in the context of modern African literature. This point becomes clear if we examine some characteristic features of the African oral tradition (that vast cultural inheritance responsible for shaping the final form of much of the modern literary achievement). The formation of "a group conscience" has been seen by Taban lo Liyong as the chief purpose of traditional African literature, with tales that moralise forming the bulk of the fiction.5 The moralising tales (parables) are certainly allegorical in form: a short narrative presented so as to emphasise the implicit analogy between the component story-parts and the organising moral or lesson.6 As Emmanuel Obiechina has shown, this technique leads to parabolic characterisation where figures are "generalized rather than particularized ... deployed as fixed moral traits rather than explored for their psychological complexities."7 One finds then such figures as the villain, the sage, the picaresque hero, the trickster and so on. When transferred to the modern novel, parabolic characterisation results in male and female figures being defined (as in all allegory) strictly by their moral positions. It is a procedure clearly suited to those works that are concerned with social morality and, specifically, with moral corruption.

A Nigerian writer like Gabriel Okara, then, is writing with a solid allegorical tradition behind him. When one considers his novel The Voice it is important to recognise this, since a large measure of its achievement stems from Okara's effective assimilation of oral narrative elements into the modern literary design.8 Apart from the question of traditional influences, there are certain other matters to be considered in using the term allegory in relation to The Voice: how does Okara arrange his pattern of parabolic characterisation? What is the scheme of signification, the nature of the correlated 'other' order? and, if there is an attempted shaping of the group conscience here, what values are being ordered and acted out?

The basic pattern of oppositional relationships becomes clear very early in the novel. Okolo (an educated and inquisitive young man) returns to Amatu, the place of his birth. Rumours concerning the oddness of this man, spread mostly by Chief Izongo and the Elders, represent the starting-point for a definition of the Okolo figure. It becomes a case of Okolo against the rest, with Okolo as the odd man out:

Some of the townsmen said Okolo's eyes were not right, his head was not correct. This they said was the result of his knowing too much book, walking too much in the bush ... . (p. 23)

The campaign of whispers, branding Okolo as a trouble-making asker of dangerous questions, succeeds in isolating him from the surrounding community. Only Tuere (regarded as a witch) and, later, Ukele (the cripple) are aligned with Okolo's moral position. Okolo is shown struggling against the corrupt and conservative socio-political order of Izongo and his cronies. One of these men, Abadi (himself the holder of M.A. and Ph.D. degrees), attacks Okolo for his 'subversive' questioning of societal values. He calls him a coward and a madman. As for me, says Abadi:

'... I, my very humble self, knew where my services were most required and returned to Amatu to fight under the august leadership of our most honourable leader. I cannot therefore stand by when I see our cause about to be jeopardised by anyone.' (p. 44)

Such a remark (full of false modesty and fawning flattery) clearly places Abadi in the 'negative' faction. Chief Izongo manages to manoeuvre the village community into opposition to Okolo and support for himself. Having returned from a trip to Sologa for a final confrontation with the Izongo group, Okolo is tied to Tuere and together they are sent to a ritualistic death by drowning. By virtue of this grouping of figures, the moral and philosophical polarities in The Voice - good/bad, progress/reaction, search/acceptance - are clearly defined, as one would expect in an allegorical narrative.

Gabriel Okara strips his narrative of all detail that is not essential to the parabolic formation of the tale. Okolo, for instance, is introduced with a minimum of descriptive information. The reader is told little of his background, physical features, age or personal preferences for such things as food or clothing. Essentially, he is introduced in terms of his moral campaign and of public attitudes towards him.9 This device allows the text to sustain a symbolic intensity of reference where Okolo's actions are concerned. Everything Okolo says and does becomes significant. The story of The Voice is the story of Okolo, with this figure carrying forward the action and (more importantly) the parabolic significance of that action.

The identification of the various figures with their related positions in the allegorical scheme is achieved by the process of naming. At one point during the narrative the Elders of Amatu indulge in a session of praise for each other, handing out praise-names in the ancient tradition. The names that are adopted generally suggest hurtful, negative concepts ("Pepper", "Bad Waterside") or fanciful irrelevancies ("He-who-keeps-my-head-under-water").10 Along with Okara's strong satirical treatment of the scene goes the necessary placing of figures within the moral spectrum. Okolo's name, which translated means 'The Voice', is particularly appropriate. For Okolo, the truth-seeker and then the truth-teller, is the voice - the voice of reason, goodness, and honesty. Without question, the name has been selected for its parabolic significance. Okolo's voice, the voice that can be trusted, dominates the whole novel, bidding the people to seek the honest way ahead.

Fittingly, it is on the level of words that the text's scheme of signification (the key to an understanding of the allegory) begins to emerge. When Okolo returns to Amatu for the first time, "words of the coming thing" (p. 23) - Independence - are in the air. One of the Chief's messengers asks another to "'stop talking words that create nothing'" (p. 24), while Okolo, as he considers his moral predicament and the difference between money and words, comes to the conclusion that words are of paramount importance:

Money may be lost forever but words, teaching words, are the same in any age ... He (Okolo) will continue to speak the straight thing at all times, though ... it is the hardest thing to do in these new times. (pp. 51-52)

Referring to himself as "'the voice from the locked up insides'" (p. 34), he realises that the Elders wish to prevent him from speaking these teaching words (the truth). Okolo's struggle to make his voice heard constitutes the central thread of narrative exposition. The power of the spoken word can be victorious, Okolo realises, only if it is the 'right' word and that quality of rightness can be found only in the search for what is described simply, throughout the narrative, as it.

Gabriel Okara's concept of it (as a means of understanding past and present events, as a means of knowing one's true self, and as a guide for 'right' action in the future) enables him to extend the significance of Okolo's troubles beyond the confines of self. The allegorical significance of Okolo's search for it becomes clear when one investigates the careful unravelling of the meaning of this concept. It means being true to one's own conscience: "'If your inside says this is a straight thing, do it'" (p. 70). Rather than articulating the easy road ahead, it (as Chief Izongo clearly sees it) is the voice of meaningful change. He opposes it:

'We know not what it is. We do not want to know. Let us be as we are. We do not want our insides to be stirred like soup in a pot.' (p. 72)

Okolo's search, then, is seen as challenge to those whose vested interests are in a conservative retention of power. It implies an inner search, an end to corruption and selfishness: "The sweetness of his inside is in finding it ... ."11 Yet the text does not project any dichotomy between individual and collective values. On the contrary, Okolo's search is presented as being a necessity for the group, for all individuals. While Okolo speaks of revitalising "'my flagging faith, faith, in man, belief in something'" (p. 88), he stresses the general significance:

'Belief and faith in that something we looked up to in times of sorrow and joy have all been taken away and in its stead what do we have? Nothing but a dried pool with only dead wood and skeleton leaves. And when you question they fear a tornado is going to blow down the beautiful houses they have built without foundations' ... Man has no more shadow, trees have no more shadow. Nothing has any more meaning but the shadow-devouring trinity of gold, iron, concrete ... . (p. 89)

Okolo is a figure created to challenge this "shadow-devouring trinity", to find an alternative way. The extent to which his struggle takes place on a more than individual field of battle is the measure of the text's correlated levels of signification. Private and public values are under discussion. The allegorical figure of Okolo (the moral crusader) provides the focus for that debate.

"'I want the people to hear my voice'" (p. 116), says Okolo, but before they can hear it Okolo must be sure of its power and truth. Along with the allegorical motif of the quest for it, Okara presents a process of progressive purification (a movement towards certainty) involving certain temptations that are laid before his hero-figure. The first of these is carried in the advice of the friendly Tebeowei: this search will bring you trouble, "'change and do as others are doing'" (p. 49). Face the facts and conform, that is the advice. Later, there occurs a scene of sexual temptation when Okolo maintains his monastic stance in the face of anger and scorn.12 As part of the surrealistic episode of the Sologa eating-house, Okolo is given more advice: "'The people who have the sweetest insides are the think-nothing people and we here try to be like them. Like logs in the river we float ...'" (p. 84). He does not join the logs. Okolo's stream flows in another direction. Having resisted the attractions of conformity, sensuousness and moral abdication, Okolo is then offered the attraction of what could be termed a stance of tactical pragmatism. An administrative officer advises: "'Be sensible and be a good lad. This country will need men like you, if only you learn to shut your eyes at certain things.'" Okolo's rejoinder - "'You don't believe in truth and honesty, then?'" (p. 88) - works as an effective rebuttal of this advice and emphasises the essential integrity that is shown to inform his search. To see these temptations as being of only personal significance, however, would be to seriously neglect the text's scheme of correlation. For these temptations clearly represent varying ways forward for the young, educated and idealistic African who wishes to preserve the best of the traditional values in the post-Independence era. By extension, they can also be seen as alternative directions for the nascent African states.

That the concerns of The Voice are those of socio-political directions is indisputable. The allegorical pattern, far from obscuring relevant community issues, enables those issues to be raised with startling clarity. One finds the figure Abadi saying:

'... we are managing our own affairs and destinies. So you and I know what is expected of us, and that is, we must toe the party line. We must have discipline and self-sacrifice in order to see this fight through to its logical conclusion.'13

The political implications of such an acceptance of authority14 - the road to a despotism that marches under the democratic banner - required little emphasis in a time of one-man rule and the military coup. Using an image that clearly prefigures Chinua Achebe's house of Independence in A Man of the People, Okara has Okolo contradict the idea of democracy-under-threat by asking:

'Whom are you fighting against? ... Are you not simply making a lot of noise because it is the fashion in order to share in the spoils. You are merely making a show of straining to open a door that is already open.' (p. 44)

When one considers the relevance of this observation to the socio-political situation of the early Independence period (particularly, in this case, to the Nigerian First Republic), the realist thrust of Okara's allegory becomes apparent. For Okolo, as allegorical observer, constantly functions as a voice of political dissent. Realising that people are concerned only with money, cars, and concrete houses (as he sees it), Okolo looks back to gain confidence for the future:

'Our fathers' insides always contained things straight. They did straight things. Our insides were also clean and we did the straight things until the new time came. We can still sweep the dirt out of our houses every morning.' (p. 50)

In company with the young hero-figures of many African novels, Okolo is given little time to "sweep the dirt" from the house.15 Nevertheless, in the concluding section that describes Okolo's death by drowning, Okara is careful to stress an affirmative presence and the continuing influence of a forward-looking alternative to desolation. "'Your spoken words will not die'" (p. 127) says Ukele the cripple, as he moves into the outside darkness.

While The Voice is a political parable of immediate relevance to the Federation of Nigeria in the early 1960s, it can be seen to apply, equally, to any community where the "straight things" have been ignored. In a passage noticeable as much for its social insights as for the undoubted effect of the transliterated language-rhythms,16 Okara shows Okolo watching the passing human traffic:

... cars honking, people shouting, people dying, women delivering, beggars begging for alms, people feasting, people crying, people laughing, politicians with grins that do not reach their insides begging for votes, priests building houses, people doubting, people marrying, people divorcing, priests turning away worshippers, people hoping, hopes breaking platelike on cement floors ...(p. 78)

- it is not a pretty picture, this scene of alienation. The Voice, an allegory of alienation, is a text concerned with the process by which people have been severed from the realisation of their true possibilities. Yet to assess the novel as being purely pessimistic, while ignoring the clear attempts to suggest possible solutions to the dilemma, would be an error. As one would anticipate, these potential resolutions to the conflict are centred on the figure of Okolo, the voice of hope.

The thrust of the novel's projected socio-political resolution stems from the realisation by Okolo that there are "two hard things" in life: "knowing your purpose in this world" and being able "not to corrupt it after knowing what your purpose is" (p. 112). Okara places Okolo firmly in the role of crusading evangelist. This religious-type figure is to move amongst the errant masses, creating it in their consciousness, planting it and making it grow.17 Here is an idea that proceeds from a belief in truth (and the long-term victory of truth), from a belief that nobody can withstand the power of 'the voice'. While the novel would appear to project a solution based on the replacement of one kind of elitism by another, the use of the proverb "'The rain never comes before its time'" (p. 93) - suggesting the forced necessity of individual action, in the short-term - and Okolo's thoughts " ... is it possible for your body not to touch another body, for your inside not to touch another inside, for good or for bad?" (p. 110) - implying the inevitability of more than individual struggle, that no man is an island - at least partially contradict that view.18 What is certain is that The Voice, working from a pattern of oppositional relationships that combine to form the symbolic power struggle, incorporating an ordered scheme of signification, symbolic in method but realist-orientated in the nature of its perceptions, attempting to shape the group conscience, is an achieved allegory at the highest level of coherence.

There is an intimate connection between allegory and satire. This connection is effectively demonstrated in Kole Omotoso's short novel The Combat19. Two Nigerians, Ojo Dada (O.D.) and Chuku Debe (C.D.), decide to fight a duel. On one level the duel concerns the fate of a young boy. The outcome of the combat becomes irrelevant because the child has been run over by Chuku Debe's car (his identity being unknown to the men). However on a second plane of reference - where, as the author has pointed out in an interview with Dennis Walder, the work is "based on two characters involved in the Biafra war"20 - the combat remains of great allegorical relevance. For Ojo and Chuku are figures operating within both a personal and national conflict situation. Their private argument becomes the reflection of the bitter civil war, and vice versa. Thus while the text is divided into six sections (each representing one day in the Ojo-Chuku confrontation), these divisions loosely correspond to the years of inter-regional battle. Despite the rather unsteady formation of these correlated levels of action (the identification of the two men on the differing planes of realist and allegorical characterisation is, at times, peculiarly muddled21), the satiric possibilities of such an arrangement become readily apparent. One particularly effective passage demonstrates the scope for satiric comment that is enabled by the use of these twin levels of identification.

The pursuit of Nigerian unity by civil war killed between half a million and a million Nigerians.22 It was one of the first widely-televised wars. Powerful nations aligned themselves with one or other of the combatants. In one passage of The Combat, Omotoso deploys these details to create (and implicitly, to comment upon) a critique of attitudes to the war. Ojo Dada ponders the question of television coverage for the duel:

The immediate problem was how to get British Television to use the combat for its Match-of-the-Day next Saturday ... The combat was unluckily fixed for the same time as the semi-finals of the F.A. Cup championship. (p. 55)

When it becomes known that British television stations are planning "to sign on" the combatants, a committee is formed to arrange the rules. The committee decides that the Nigerian duel is "not on the same level as football matches and so cannot be put on as the Match-of-the-Day." The reason given, and here Omotoso manages to extract the full measure of bitter humour, is that the combat would encourage violence if allowed on television. Ojo Dada decides to stick with the B.B.C., "it was cleaner and there would be no advertisements to interrupt the gun shots" and, besides, they have action-replays where he could "visualize the smoke curling like some thick viscous oil out of his revolver and the bullet going slowly but determinedly into the head or heart of his friend Chuku Debe." Chuku, not to be outdone, decides to accept the offer from I.T.V. because "the masses of the people watched I.T.V. and he had the interests of the people at heart" (p. 55). Beneath the seeming levity of the passage the strength of the indictment (by allegorical implication) is hammered home. It is an indictment of both big-power cynicism and domestic insanity. The power of the satiric textual reference proceeds directly from Omotoso's creation of the allegorical frame.

The Voice and, to a lesser extent, The Combat are conspicuous instances of the formal nature and direction of modern African texts within the intricate field of allegory. The values of the post-Independence period are being ordered and acted out.


1. Edwin Honig, Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), p.62.

2. Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), p. 23.

3. Ibid., p. 368.

4. Richard Hoggart, "Contemporary Cultural Studies: An Approach to the Study of Literature and Society", in Contemporary Criticism, ed. M. Bradbury and D. Palmer, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, 12 (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), pp. 169-70.

5. Taban lo Liyong, The Last Word: Cultural Synthesism (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1969), pp. 68-70. An early work that demonstrates the influence on Nigerian writing of this moralising thrust is Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town (1952; rpt. London: Faber and Faber, 1971). See, for example, the heading: "'DO NOT FOLLOW UNKNOWN MAN'S BEAUTY'" (p. 10).

6. Numerous examples of such parables can be found in Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa, Oxford Library of African Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).

7. Emmanuel Obiechina, Culture, tradition and society in the West African novel , African Studies Series, 14 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 107.

8. Gabriel Okara, The Voice (1964; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970). Regarding traditional influences, see Okara's description of himself as "a writer who believes in the utilization of African ideas, African philosophy and African folk-lore and imagery to the fullest extent possible ...", Okara, "African Speech ... English Words", in African Writers on African Writing, ed. G.D. Killam (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973), p. 137.

9. A feature of parabolic characterisation noted by Obiechina, p. 105.

10. Okara, The Voice, pp. 98-99. Emphasis in the original. One notes here Okara's remark that "from a word, a group of words, a sentence and even a name in any African language, one can glean the social norms, attitudes and values of a people" (Okara, "African Speech ... English Words", p. 137).

11. Okara, The Voice, p. 85. This is Okolo's realisation as he watches a wood carver at work.

12. See the episode of the "outboard-engine canoe" and the girl with the "calabash breasts" (Okara, The Voice, pp. 58-70).

13. Okara, The Voice, p. 43. For a comparable presentation of what is required in following "the party line", one can refer to Wole Soyinka's play Kongi's Harvest (London: Oxford University Press, 1967).

14. It is an acceptance that raises the question: who imposes the discipline and who makes the sacrifices? It is clear in The Voice that Chief Izongo imposes the discipline and that Okolo (the embryonic voice of democracy) becomes the sacrificial victim.

15. From many such figures, one could point to the following: Sekoni (death in a car crash) in Soyinka's The Interpreters; T.V. scriptwriter Baako in Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (1970; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974) and lawyer Amamu in Kofi Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother ... (1971; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972) who are both last seen in an asylum; Obi Okonkwo (in court, charged with corruption) in Chinua Achebe, No Longer At Ease (1960; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1963). In the colonial context, one notes the figure of Waiyaki - arraigned by the Kiama - in Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The River Between (1965; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1965).

16. Throughout the novel, Okara attempts to retain the rhythms and sentence patterns of Ijaw speech.

17. "If the masses haven't got it, he will create it in their insides. He will plant it, make it grow in spite of Izongo's destroying words" (Okara, The Voice, p. 90).

18. The suggestion of an elitist approach (by Okara) has been forcibly expressed by J.P. O'Flinn who maintains that although Okara is aware of the size of the Nigerian crisis "he regards the people as an undifferentiated and ignorant mass, 'the knowing-nothing footsteps, the bad footsteps' ... more like a pack of dogs or a colony of ants ... [thus] the novel is forced to pose a different kind of elitism as the only hope for the future" [O'Flinn, "Towards a Sociology of the Nigerian Novel", in African Literature Today, ed. E.D. Jones, No. 7 (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975), p. 47].

19. Kole Omotoso, The Combat (London: Heinemann Educational Books,1972).

20. Interview recorded in Transition, 9 (i), No. 44 (1974), 46.

21. The inhibiting tension created by this process can be seen in the context of Kole Omotoso's later remarks to Bernth Lindfors: "When I started The Combat, I wanted to write a kind of send-off of the civil war, just to make fun of it, but as I wrote, I discovered that it wasn't funny at all, and the thing almost got out of hand. ... The book started as a comic allegory but developed into something with serious overtones" ["Interview with Kole Omotoso", in Dem-Say: Interviews with Eight Nigerian Writers, ed. Bernth Lindfors (Austin, Texas: African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, 1974), p. 53].

22. An estimate, from a variety of sources, settled upon by John de St. Jorre in The Brothers' War: Biafra and Nigeria (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), p. 412.

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