[[quoteright:350:[[Literature/ThePilgrimsProgress http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/pilgrims-map_94.jpg]]]]
[[caption-width-right:350:How will we ever break the news to Simple, Sloth and Presumption's families?]]

->''"Everything represents, nothing is."''
-->-- '''Creator/IngmarBergman''', from ''The Magician''

Fiction often works on several levels. On the one hand, you have the story that's actually being told, and the characters the story involves; on the other, you have the meaning behind the story, abstract ideas represented by the characters and symbols reflecting the story's view of the world. Even if the writer didn't intend for the story to have a deeper meaning, {{applicability}} may give it a resonance and context that goes beyond the basic plot. ''Literature/MobyDick'' is a story about an obsessed whaler hunting down a monstrous whale, but it's also about humanity railing uselessly against an uncaring universe. ''Literature/LordOfTheRings'' may have been intended just as a fantasy epic, but it has symbolic applications ranging from World War 2 to the loss of innocence.

But then sometimes you have stories with ''no'' literal level. At all.

These are the stories where the only answer to "why did the main character turn into a hawk and fly into a volcano at the end" is "because the hawk represents his desire for freedom and the volcano is the burden of free will". There is no straightforward, realistic storyline masking the symbolism, there's not even a MagicAIsMagicA sense of logic tying it all together. This is subtext without the text; subtext ''as'' text. The characters are complex self-representing archetypes and the events that unfold make no physical sense whatsoever unless you take the whole thing as a [[{{Postmodern}} semiotic play]] of some kind.

Needless to say, this sort of plot [[VoodooShark can prove frustrating]] for literal-minded audiences who expect a more concrete answer to a plot hole than "because the plot hole symbolizes our inability to define existential truth". Such complaints about the story's lack of narrative logic are often dismissed by its fans with ViewersAreMorons, with fans and non-fans talking past each other and on entirely different levels. Literary allegory has been [[TropesAreNotBad a respected genre]] since about [[OlderThanDirt as long as myths have been written]], and it got its start in myths and folklore meant to both explain and symbolize the forces of nature and humanity's place in the world. [[TropesAreTools On the other hand]], one can argue that a modern-day author whose story doesn't hold together on every level has only written half a story; Shakespeare's plays may be full of symbolism, but they also work just as well as straightforward comedies and tragedies.

Such stories are often a source of incurable MindScrew, since there's really no way to make narrative sense out of them, and an EveryoneIsJesusInPurgatory outlook is just about required. When most people think of TrueArt books, movies and so on, this is usually the sort of thing they're thinking of, though [[TrueArtIsIncomprehensible it can all fall down]] if it's mixed up with too much gratuitous FauxSymbolism. If the fandom insists on coming up with [[EpilepticTrees a literal explanation]] for what's happening, ThroughTheEyesOfMadness or AllJustADream are common rationales.

See also RuleOfSymbolism, which is what happens when an otherwise realistic story relies on a momentary suspension of disbelief in the name of symbolism, and RuleOfCool, which does the same thing for the sake of awesomeness.



[[folder: Anime & Manga]]
* ''Anime/RevolutionaryGirlUtena'' runs on this sort of logic, relying on Jungian archetypes alone to explain immortal power struggles, surreal landscapes and a bewildering tournament set in an ostensibly modern, ordinary world. If you've ever found yourself lying awake at night wondering how the heck human girls can inexplicably lay eggs or turn into cars, this might not be the anime for you.
%%* ''Anime/MawaruPenguindrum''
* ''Anime/YuriKumaArashi''. In this case, there's a lot of allegories for Japan's view on lesbians versus how they're portrayed in works from the YuriGenre.
* ''Anime/SerialExperimentsLain'' has the premise that the real world and the internet are gradually merging. It sounds simple enough, but the way it's depicted is entirely this trope. Anything explained is done as a GeniusBonus, but the vast majority of the plot relies on vague symbolism and inferences.
* Creator/JunjiIto's horror manga usually rely on this sort of explanation for TheReveal. For one low-key example, ''The Earthbound'' has people mysteriously losing their will to live and becoming inexplicably rooted to one spot. The revelation that [[spoiler:they're being weighed down by the guilt of their secret crimes]] might not make any literal sense, but it's the only one offered.
* ''Webcomic/AxisPowersHetalia'' involves anthropomorphic embodiments of nations living lives that reflect major events in each one's history, initially focusing on UsefulNotes/WorldWar2 but eventually moving both forward and backward through history. There are some vague attempts every now and then to flesh out the setting into a more literal, realistic context, but ironically, they only make things ''more'' confusing.
* ''Anime/AngelsEgg'' is basically a visual poem with no real plot or characters; they are all simply symbols taking part in a huge visual metaphor. What it stands for? [[MindScrew Well, it has something to do with Christianity]].
* ''Anime/HaibaneRenmei'' is centered around the mystery of the setting, and ultimately almost none of it is explained. The details of ''why'' don't matter, though, because the important part is the extended metaphor for the important questions of life.
* ''Anime/{{FLCL}}''. Oh, ''mamma mia'' ''FLCL''. One theory is that they took the plot of ''Anime/NeonGenesisEvangelion'', removed the depression, and condensed it down to six episodes, without removing a single phallic symbol.
* ''[[Anime/PuellaMagiMadokaMagicaTheMovieRebellion Madoka Rebellion]]'' amps up the symbolism from [[Anime/PuellaMagiMadokaMagica the original anime]], which mostly included this in the witch barriers. In Rebellion, it's prevalent throughout the whole movie. [[spoiler:Justified, because Rebellion actually ends up taking place almost entirely within one of those barriers, which are [[MentalWorld representations of the mind]] of the witch during their last moments as a magical girl, and naturally would be heavily symbolic.]]

[[folder: Comic Books]]
* ''ComicBook/TheSandman'' operates more on a metaphorical level than on a literal one, to the extent that the physical reality can be said to be an extension of metaphors. Rather appropriate for a series centering around the AnthropomorphicPersonification of dreams.

* Creator/DavidLynch's movies have a reputation for falling into this category. Though some of them do have a comprehensible story, there's simply no way to take movies like ''Film/{{Eraserhead}}'' and ''Film/InlandEmpire'' on anything except a very symbolic, fever-dream level.
* The Shinya Tsukamoto cult film ''Film/TetsuoTheIronMan'' starts off in a realistic world and gradually delves deeper into BodyHorror territory. Like Junji Ito's stories, however, TheReveal for what's happening to the protagonist only makes sense only on a symbolic level.
* Lars von Trier's ''Film/{{Antichrist}}'' also works on this level. Critical discussions on it range the topics of love and hate, order versus chaos and the nature of guilt. Questions about precisely where the talking fox and the tree with hands came from are a different matter.
* ''Film/{{Identity}}'' runs on a symbolic level. [[spoiler:The entire world and all the characters are actually nothing more or less than the pieces of a madman's fractured mind, and the struggle between the characters are his internal mental struggle]].
* The ending of ''Film/SnowInAugust'', where protagonist Michael Devlin [[spoiler: is able to summon the Golem of Jewish folklore and has it beat up the Falcons (the [[TeensAreMonsters teenaged thugs that have been terrorizing him]]). He then heals Rabbi Hirsch of his extremely life-threatening injuries (inflicted by the Falcons), after which Hirsch reunites with his wife who had been killed in the Holocaust]]. The whole thing seems to have been an allegory for the healing power of religious faith and may have also been symbolic of Michael's extreme CharacterDevelopment, though some have interpreted it as] an AssPull.
* ''Film/{{Pandorum}}'' works on this level by being an allegory to the degradation of the human condition in ''Literature/WorksAndDays'' and ''Literature/TheDivineComedy''.
* ''Film/MadMaxFuryRoad'' can be easy to miss due to the chaos and the fact that it's a never ending chase, but one can pick almost any scene and find some level of symbolism in it. Chains are widely used to represent oppression and slavery, both in connection with Max and Nux, Immortan Joe having his "failed" wives milked like cattle, Nux's chest scars formed into an engine, etc.
* ''Film/JohnWick'' and its sequel ''Film/JohnWickChapter2'' are chock-full of mythological and historical references, usually to Greek myths, fairy tales and Christianity. For example, the concierge of the Continental hotel is called Charon, ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, signaling the parallel between the "world of the dead" of Greek mythos and the world of crime in the movie. Second movie even has two of its primary antagonists be called [[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ares Ares]] and [[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cassian Cassian]] to drive the theological motifs home. [[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3P1ejh9pGs&t=467s One video attempts to collect all the parallels made in the first film]] and it ''still leaves quite a few out''.

* ''Literature/ThePilgrimsProgress'', though it narrowly averts the trope by presenting itself [[AllJustADream as a dream]], remains one of the most famous "pure" allegories in literature. Just in case there's any confusion over the matter, the characters are actually ''named'' things like Christian, Good Will, Hypocrisy and Ignorance.
** Bunyan also wrote a less well-known allegorical novel called ''The Holy War,'' in which [[{{God}} King Shaddai]] and his son [[UsefulNotes/{{Jesus}} Emmanuel]] fight against [[{{Satan}} Diabolus]] for rulership of the town of [[EveryoneIsJesusInPurgatory Mansoul]]. This one dispenses with the AllJustADream disclaimer, and is considered much less successful.
* C. S. Lewis's ''Literature/ThePilgrimsRegress'', being a sort of personalized version of Pilgrim's Progress, has this.
* The works of Creator/FranzKafka are also famous for not making sense on anything but the metaphorical level. In his case, though, even the metaphor's very much up for debate. In ''Literature/TheMetamorphosis'', Gregor Samsa turns into a giant bug. Why that happened and what it represents, if anything, is entirely up to the reader. The most common interpretation seems to be that the transformation represents mental illness and that Gregor is just imagining his transformation due to insanity but it's still debated.
* Modernist literature in general approaches its stories from this perspective, most famously in T.S. Eliot's long poem ''Literature/TheWasteLand''. The images are bizarre, disturbing and can only begin to make sense if the reader takes every everything symbolically.
* ''Literature/TheAlchemist'' by Paulo Coelho, about a shephard boy's journey to Egypt, works on this level.
* ''Literature/TheRimeOfTheAncientMariner'' by Creator/SamuelTaylorColeridge mixes some supernatural elements into the story, though if you're left wondering why birds are such incredibly SeriousBusiness, remember that it's all an allegory about faith and atonement.
* Norton Juster's ''Literature/ThePhantomTollbooth'' has the tollbooth leading to a world of pure allegory and language come to life (often in [[HurricaneOfPuns puntastic]] form). There might be magic involved with the tollbooth itself (it's not made clear), but once Milo crosses it, he's off to places like the island of Conclusions (that you arrive at only by [[IncrediblyLamePun jumping]]) on a quest to return the princesses Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason to the kingdom of Wisdom. Yeah.
* ''Literature/ThePowerOfFive'': [[spoiler: [[MessianicArchetype Matt is Jesus]], the dream world is Heaven, and the [[ChekhovsGunman lady that Scar saw in the Library]] is the Virgin Mary. Scott could also be seen as Judas.]]
* ''Literature/TheThingsTheyCarried'' is modern {{Surrealism}} that reaches this level, just about everything is symbolic, and the UnreliableNarrator makes it clear that fiction is sometimes truer than the truth.

[[folder: Live Action TV]]
* ''Series/ThePrisoner'' similarly more or less defies a literal explanation, as one early episode after another seems intentionally designed to blow away any rational theory about The Village's nature. The GainaxEnding certainly didn't help matters; it's notable that the 2009 remake resolved the setting by placing it [[spoiler: within a literal world of symbols... i.e. a dream world]].
* Many of the episodes of ''Series/TheTwilightZone'' occur on a purely symbolic level as well, mixed in with more straightforward science fiction and fantasy stories. For instance, in "I am the Night, Color Me Black", why hasn't the Sun risen and why is darkness spreading all over the world? Because [[spoiler:all the hatred in the world has blotted out the light]].
* ''Series/TwinPeaks'', being created by David Lynch, also approaches pure allegory at times. There might be supernatural forces at work in the town, or the whole thing might be a prolonged allegory about something else entirely.

[[folder: Tabletop Games]]
* TabletopGame/MageTheAscension has a few elements of this in various places, as well as in its general mechanics. Notably, there is the Astral Umbra, which Mages can access with the sphere of Mind. In this realm, literally everything is the symbolic made manifest, with dream logic, mythopoetic structure, and metaphor acting as the rules of the realm.
* ''TabletopGame/MageTheAwakening'' is similar in many respects. Not only in its Astral Space, but many aspects of the "real" world are implied to be purely symbolic abstracts made manifest (most strongly in the sourcebook "Keys to the Supernal Tarot"), and Imperial Mysteries depicts the [[EldritchLocation Supernal World]] as utterly requiring the imposition of symbolism on it to make interaction that does not [[BrownNote utterly obliterate human existence]] to be possible.
* TabletopGame/{{Nobilis}} is built around this trope. In the game, players enact Nobles, figures of power that stems directly from the aspect of reality that they embody. They wield these powers through symbols and thoughts that act on a world that is completely a WorldOfSymbolism. By manipulating these symbols, they are able to create acts in the physical realm which are truly massive.

* ''The Summoning of Everyman'', an English morality play. God sends Death to summon Everyman, who represents mankind, and Everyman meets characters like Good Deeds and Knowledge. 15th century morality plays weren't known for being subtle.
** Imitated in the early 20th century by ''Everywoman'' and ''Experience''.

[[folder: Video Games]]

* ''VideoGame/{{Killer7}}'' makes no sense whatsoever on a literal level. Just to begin with, there's the fact that the main character physically turns into their split personalities. Think it's just ThroughTheEyesOfMadness? If said split personalities die, they turn into their own severed head in a paper bag which can then be retrieved by a different personality. Even more obviously metaphorical is the fact that [[spoiler:two of the main characters, who represent the West and the East and their conflicts, are immortal, because of the futility of war]].
* ''VideoGame/{{Journey}}''. While the story obviously resembles TheHerosJourney, you may feel free to interpret it whatever you want, as no words are heard at all here, even when you communicate with a companion. The backstory is told through confluences and glyphs. The only voices you hear in the game come from [[SentientPhlebotinum cloth creatures]] and [[LostSuperweapon machines]], and still no words.
* ''Franchise/MetalGear'' is a notorious example.
** ''VideoGame/MetalGearSolid'' was mostly realistic.
** ''VideoGame/MetalGearSolid2'' spends about two-thirds of the game hinting that it's this before jumping headfirst into trippiness.
** ''VideoGame/MetalGearSolid3'' flirts with it. Most of the game is a straightforward-ish spy thriller, but the boss fights just throw bizarre MagicRealism at you.
** ''VideoGame/MetalGearSolid4'' abandons it entirely in order to provide concrete answers to every question the series raised.
* ''ThePath'' runs wild with this trope, as it's a metaphorical horror take on the Red Riding Hood story. Why are six girls named after different shades of red each visiting their creepy grandmother one by one, walking through the woods alone and confronting [[spoiler:a shapeshifting being that leads them to a nightmarishly transformed version of grandma's house]]? Well, it's because the wolf represents temptation, grandma's house symbolizes death (or adulthood), the path is a metaphor for obedience, the girls embody different stages of adolescence...
* ''VideoGame/RuleOfRose'' has got symbolism coming out its ears, and it's never made clear what most of it means and what actually happened to Jennifer.
* The ''Franchise/SilentHill'' series is famous for working, to some degree, on this level, though how much of it can also be explained via supernatural phenomena varies from game to game theory to theory. The second game in particular presents its story almost solely on a symbolic level. What is Pyramid Head? [[spoiler:A reflection of James' guilt, sexuality and need for punishment]]. Who is Maria? [[spoiler:An idealized yet distorted memory of his dead wife]]. Yes, but, literally, what ''are'' they and where did they come from? At the very least, you'll need information from the other games to even start making guesses.
* ''VideoGame/NeverendingNightmares'' justifies this with the game taking place in the main character's head. Everything from the environments to the enemies to every individual line of dialogue has some subtext to it representative of his mental state and his wide variety of real-world issues and worries.[[note]]What those issues are is, of course, up to you to figure out.[[/note]]
* ''VideoGame/{{Anodyne}}'' is seemingly representative of the protagonist's mind, so the whole thing is different degrees of this. The endgame is particularly symbolic.
* ''VideoGame/TheBindingOfIsaac'' tells, very symbolically, the story of a very creative young man and the [[AbusiveParents abusive]] [[TheFundamentalist fundamentalist]] [[OneBadMother mother]] who believes God has ordered her to abuse and eventually sacrifice him.
* In a lighter example, many of the jokes in ''VideoGame/{{Neptunia}}'' rely on the characters as the embodiments of video game companies and concepts.

[[folder: Interactive Fiction/Visual Novels]]
%%* BlueChairs
* ForAChange goes out of its way to avoid describing much of anything with concrete detail. Symbolic interpretations are therefore ''easier to make'' than literal ones.
* {{Metamorphoses}}, mostly, but it has a sort of ''Literature/TheChroniclesOfAmber'' thing going on, such that the symbolic explanation is the same as the literal one.
* ''VisualNovel/War13thDay'' is built beautifully on this [[spoiler:as it's [[AllJustADream Wildfire's dream]]]], and it even explains what everything represents in the True End. It doesn't completely clarify the true version of events, but as the opening act to ''[[https://lemmasoft.renai.us/forums/viewtopic.php?f=43&t=36651 War (X Playing Pieces)]]'', it definitely knows how to whet one's appetite.
* Once you get past the initial MindScrew of ''VisualNovel/UminekoWhenTheyCry'', many of the fantasy scenes (i.e, scenes involving magic and magical beings that are [[UnreliableNarrator narrated by Beatrice]]) can be seen as symbolic of various things, from aspects of murder mysteries to the characters' inner conflicts.

* ''Webcomic/{{Erfworld}}'' has an entire branch of magic devoted to this called Signamancy. Just about everything in Erfworld involves a pun and/or a reference to the real world, which implies some deeper meaning about the given entity. For example, when Parson negotiates with a King resembling President Nixon, Parson realizes that this means he is untrustworthy and shrewd.
* [[http://www.viruscomix.com/page531.html This]] ''Webcomic/{{Subnormality}}'' strip is a symbolic take on "[[{{Pun}} the human race]]."
* Parodied in ''Webcomic/{{Oglaf}}''. A man walks the Path of Vengeance, which includes tasks such a physically grappling with Hope and being handed a small basket full of Justice, until he meets the Allegory for Allegory itself.

[[folder: Western Animation]]
* Apparently WesternAnimation/TwelveOunceMouse fits this trope.
%%The Videos are unavailable, and thus, there is no example. Commented out until someone fixes it.%%
%%* Any single short of the Brothers Quay. Examples: [[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gIb0bTWj6w This]][[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5Mp-xyqQRo&feature=related This]] And [[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6Uaww0yon4&feature=related This]] TrueArtIsIncomprehensible.%%