When I use symbolism, I think of replacing something concrete with an abstract idea, but can you use these abstract ideas and then tell a story inside a story that's inside a story?

As in:

Using symbolism to tell an allegory and use the symbolism inside the allegory to tell yet another allegory.

Actual story > Allegory > Another allegory

I feel like this is not possible, or was never done. When I think of symbolism, I think of an unique space where all symbolism have the same depth? Are there other ways in which a symbol can be deeper than another one?

  • 4
    For a real example (and a brilliant exposition of the technique), read Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which has an allegory within an allegory within a story. Feb 17, 2019 at 22:26
  • Well done symbolism will work on lots of levels. For example Frankenstein can be read as a cautionary tale about science run amok, about a man's hubris and refusal to take responsibility for his own actions, about a broken parent/child relationship, about the ethical ramifications of creating life, about how the most innocent creature can be turned into a monster by the cruelty of humans, and so on. The hard part is coming up with a concept that can work on more than one level.
    – GordonM
    Mar 31, 2019 at 23:34

3 Answers 3


Yes, this is possible. It's called deeply nested fiction (and happens to be a particular interest of mine!). Many of the great classic works of world literature, such as the Arabian Nights, use this pattern. It's likewise common in modern metafiction.

In general, in my experience, the more deeply you nest your fiction, the simpler, the less realist, the more archetypal and the more symbolic the deeper levels become. So there's an effective limit to how many levels you can reasonably have.


You may be interested in experimental literature -- not everyone is into writing for the sake of Standard Storytelling.

I adore 4th-wall breaking theater, such as "Six Characters in Search of an Author." I love meta. Behind-the-scenes tours at Disney are amazing -- you see not the story of the ride, but the decisions made, and perhaps what they're revealing about the time of their creation (both the source material and the ride itself). So I get you about being interested in nested symbolism.

In Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics)'s TED Talk, he divides expression into several quadrants, and some are about experimenting with form, and some more focused on storytelling. From around 05:25

In comics, I know that it results in sort of a formalist attitude towards trying to understand how it works. Then there's another, more classical attitude which embraces beauty and craft; another one which believes in the pure transparency of content; and then another, which emphasizes the authenticity of human experience and honesty and rawness. ... And they reflect a dichotomy of art and delight on left and the right; tradition and revolution on the top and the bottom. And if you go on the diagonal, you get content and form, and then beauty and truth.

Some related terms (to see if you have a "home" in one of these) to check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_poets https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdist_fiction https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_modernism (and the list of subgenres in the info box)


Here's the problem with what you are proposing:

What you should be telling, what your readers want to read, is your actual story. Symbolism is a tool you use to tell that story: by using the symbol, you shed light on your story, you show and accentuate something that you couldn't have shown otherwise, or at least couldn't have shown with equal clarity. For example, in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights:

My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it; I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary.

You can also use symbolism to connect the particular of the story to the universal. Consider, for example, the famous monologue from Shakespeare's As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
they have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

(Look here for more examples, and their explanations.)

Now, what do you do by hiding the symbolism behind even more symbolism, by using an allegory for an allegory? Instead of clarifying, you're obscuring. Instead of understanding better, you reader now has to puzzle out what you want to say. That's a sure way to lose the reader: if one can't understand what you're saying, why would one read it?

  • Doesn't Moby Dick use symbolism to tell an allegory?
    – Sayaman
    Feb 16, 2019 at 11:52
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    @repomonster Moby Dick isn't an allegory. An allegory is supposed to have one and only one meaning. Moby Dick can be interpreted to convey a range of particular meanings. Narnia is an allegory - Aslan cannot be interpreted as anything other than Jesus, and the rest of the story follows the same interpretation. It is thus a Christian allegory. There are multiple particular instances of symbolism within Narnia that work together to form the Christian allegory. Is that what you're trying to do? Feb 16, 2019 at 23:14
  • I heard Moby Dick was a symbolism for homosexuality. I just want to know how we can use symbolism to the fullest extent.
    – Sayaman
    Feb 16, 2019 at 23:16
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    @repomonster Symbolism is a tool. Asking "how to use this tool to the fullest extent" is like asking "how do I use a drill to the fullest extent". I don't know - what are you trying to do with that drill? You're trying to build a house? Great, here's where you would need to use a drill. Using a drill is not your goal - building a house is your goal. Feb 16, 2019 at 23:23
  • 3
    Sorry to downvote this, but this is actually a useful technique, one that isn't necessarily going to lose you your readers. So I find this answer misleading. Feb 19, 2019 at 19:17

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