"I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other resides in the purposed domination of the author."

When it comes to writing thematic stories, there are essentially two methods to go about it: allegory or applicability. Which method you use will depend on how obvious you want your theme to be.

In an allegory it's the author who supports only one interpretation of the work as canon. J. R. R. Tolkien himself hated formal allegory because the reader was forced to see nothing but the author's point of view on what they considered the theme. In answer to the many allegorical readings of the The Lord of the Rings — which he eventually got tired of getting letters about — he stated the book was not an allegory, but had applicability — the story simply happened to be comparable and applicable to many Real Life issues.

Applicability encourages the reader to interpret what the theme of any given work is. Sometimes a reader's interpretation of the meaning of the story is very different from authorial intent. Anvilicious works with high applicability can see alternate interpretations on part of the audience. Put another way, applicable works support multiple interpretations, only some of which are those that the author specifically intended. Applicability can give a fictional work different interpretations even on different readings, and is one reason Alternate Character Interpretation and Wild Mass Guessing are such active topics in fandoms.

Compare Lowest Common Denominator. Death of the Author is the enforcement of this trope, regardless of authorial intent. Contrast with The Walrus Was Paul, where the audience tries to find meaning in a work when in fact the work isn't supposed to have a hidden meaning — the author's just messing with them.

Often leads to Periphery Demographic, Misaimed Fandom, Shipping, Broken Base, and/or Internet Backdraft. This is the root of many an Epileptic Tree. See also Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory, What Do You Mean, It's Not Political?, Values Resonance.


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    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Watchmen. Seriously, go to the Headscratchers page for it, and you'll see people who see Rorschach as the only heroic character, people who see Rorschach as the least sympathetic of all the characters, people who argue over exactly how long Ozymandias's peace will last (and whether or not he was justified), people disgusted by Dr Manhattan's revelation over the Comedian and Sally Jupiter getting together after he attempted to rape her, and people who see that moment as a heartwarming moment. Alan Moore has officially stated that he was very much aiming for this, and compared his vision for the book to a diamond with many different facets, where any reader can look through any of the facets that they choose and still get a completely consistent and coherent view of the story and all the events in it.
  • Invoked and discussed In-Universe by Alan Moore in Issue 7 of Providence. After seeing Pitman's paintings, Robert Black puts on his amateur art critic hat and theorizes ghouls/zombies and other beings as metaphors for middle-class fears of class uprising. Pitman notes that he's never seen things that way but Sure, Let's Go with That.
  • Anti-mutant prejudice in X-Men can stand in for a metaphor for any number of Real Life prejudices. Fans have tended to take this very literally and argue about what the "originally meaning" and how it has changed. Word of God has confirmed, upon occasion, that individual writers have used it for a specific metaphorical purpose (Grant Morrison has said that he used his run to comment to the Demonization of young people. Not even this squares completely with his comics, but it makes a lot more sense if you sympathize way too much with Quentin Quire). But that does not mean that every writer has used it as a metaphor, or has used it for the same one every time.
    • That it has been so readily used as allegory for such diverging issues as racial tensions, LGBT, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and generational conflict is proof enough of this.
    • Interestingly, the movie series takes it at face-value: normal humans are terrified of going extinct, and the prospect of actually siring the species that will replace us is unthinkable, thus the fear and hatred.

    Films — Animated 
  • Invoked by co-director Phil Lord for The LEGO Movie. "My dream is to have terrible undergraduate term papers written about the movie."
  • Frozen:
    • The song "Let it Go" is about the joy and relief of no longer hiding a secret about yourself. This is open to interpretations including, but not limited to, coming out of the closet.
    • Elsa has a personal secret which isolates her from her family, and is never seen eating. This did not go un-noticed by anorexics.
  • While Zootopia has a very clear anti-prejudice message, its open-ended manner of execution of said theme has led many to come to different conclusions about what it is commentating on, ranging from simple racism, white supremacy, social justice circles, police brutality, the LGBT movement, patriarchy, political conflict between the right and left wings, election debates, and even the War on Drugs.

    Films — Live-Action 

  • J. R. R. Tolkien kind of coined the word, as seen in the quote at the top. He always denied his Middle-earth works to be an allegory of anything, but said that because they were just so archetypical and universal (literally a lost mythology), their stories and themes could be compared and applied to many real-life/historical/fictional stories and issues. It's one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so difficult to pigeonhole and figure out what the theme is — he didn't put any obvious one in. This explains why people from a wide spectrum of viewpoints tend to read the same book and yet get widely different interpretations of the theme of the book. This lack of an obvious theme also makes it hard for some readers to get into the books because they expect the books to clearly show what theme it is.
    • In later editions of the book, Tolkien specifically goes into detail about the incorrect notion of his book being an allegory of World War II, which was probably a comparison he was tired of. He argued that if his book were based on World War II, Saruman would've gone into Mordor during the chaos and found out the knowledge needed to make his own Ring of Power. The War of Ring would end up being a war with Evil Versus Evil with Hobbits being destroyed in the process. It even goes a bit further, as he stated in the foreword of the book, most of the things people tie to WWII were written before the war even started. Meaning that either he's was a prophet or (more likely) people are projecting their own ideas in the works.
    • The Éowyn subplot can remind western readers of the story of Joan of Arc. To Chinese readers Éowyn's story can easily be seen as a version of the story of Hua Mulan.
    • In a letter, a fan asked Tolkien if the flying steeds of the Nazgûl (large naked, leather-winged birdlike monsters ) were pterodactyls. His reply was that if that's what the reader thought they were, it could be a valid interpretation of the text.
    • The infamous debate about the Balrog's wings is the result of this. The text itself about the balrog was vague (it can be interpreted to mean the Balrog had wings, or it can be interpreted to mean the Balrog's shadow made it look like it had wings). but it has been fiercely debated whether or not the Balrog has wings.
    • On the cast commentary for the Lord of the Rings movies, Sir Ian McKellen makes tacit reference to the "innocent physical affection" displayed by Sam towards Frodo in the book and the rather famous modern interpretation of it. Bean and Wood also comment on a specific scene, mentioning a fan who wrote in to thank them for including a nod to this rather than avoiding it.
  • Miguel de Cervantes originally wrote Don Quixote as a spoof of Knight Errant tales, but its hero was interpreted as idealism personified for many readers. Annoyed, Cervantes wrote a sequel to hammer home the point the readers apparently missed. Much to his shock, the second half of was considered more brilliant and well received. Different ages have tended to read different things into the novel. When first published, it was usually interpreted as a comic novel. After the French Revolution it was popular in part due to its central ethic that individuals can be right while society is quite wrong and seen as disenchanting — not comic at all. In the 19th century it was seen as a social commentary, and the Russian's interpretation of Don Quixote has shadows of the Messiah Creep, but no one could easily tell "whose side Cervantes was on".
    • Literary critic Harold Bloom's wrote in his article,''The Knight in the Mirror'': "The aesthetic wonder is ... when we stand back from the huge book and ponder its shape and endless range of meaning. No critic's account of Cervantes's masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic's impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader. How can this bashed and mocked knight errant be, as he is, a universal paradigm?" That means that every reader will interpret Don Quixote on his own way, and all of those interpretations will be valid. It also means that none of them could be valid, because every readerís impression of himself is reflected by the novel.
    • This was parodied by Jorge Luis Borges in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." The story is about a man who attempts to write a novel identical to Don Quixote, from a modern perspective.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a case of confusing applicability with allegory. The connection between The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the then-contemporary American political landscape was not even raised until 1963, when summer school teacher Henry Littlefield, while trying to teach the 1896 Presidential election and the turn-of-the-century Populist movement to bored history students, stumbled upon the idea of using the characters and events of The Wizard of Oz as metaphors to teach the concepts. He and his students made a number of connections - the Scarecrow represented the farmers, the Tin Woodman the factory workers, the Wizard was President Grover Cleveland or Republican presidential candidate William McKinley, the Cowardly Lion was Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, the silver shoes were the silver standard, the yellow brick road the gold standard, and so on - and Littlefield eventually wrote an article, "The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism," which was published in the magazine American Quarterly in 1964. You can read this article here. Unfortunately, this was eventually taken as Baum wrote his book as an allegory of the political landscape at the turn of the century despite the fact Littlefield believed Baum had no political agenda when he wrote the book.
  • Umberto Eco is a major pioneer in this technique. The Name of the Rose itself is about this; the detective character is constantly trying to interpret the clues in their proper contexts. There are so many ways to read the book that like the symbolic rose, the conflicting interpretations make it practically meaningless. All the interpretations any reader gets are all valid. The same holds true for Foucault's Pendulum. In one of his essays, Eco wrote that even giving a work of fiction a name is to determine the reader's interpretation of it too much.
  • This essay, which argues that Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges's biggest influence was the internet, which was invented four years after he died.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has a huge number of different interpretations as to what Hunter S. Thompson was trying to say with it, whether it's supposed to be a comedy, whether it's supposed to be serious, political, or just an exaggeration of things Thompson actually did. The reality is that they are all right, as the whole point of Gonzo journalism is to allow the reader to be put in the same frame of mind as the author, whatever the author was thinking at the time, which in the case of Thompson, a man who was politically astute, had a great sense of humor, and was known for being over the top, you get a book much like him: something equal parts genius, lunatic, and poet.
  • This article from Cracked lists several books whose main theme was interpreted in a completely different manner than expected.
  • Several books have been written on the subject of Harry Potter symbolism, to the point where there is now a greater body of work devoted to explaining Harry Potter than there is Harry Potter to explain. Whether Harry goes on a Grail Quest, sacrifices himself as a Christ figure, purifies his soul with alchemy, or re-enacts a mythological journey to the Underworld, there's probably a book explaining it somewhere.
  • Guy Gavriel Kay commented that from South Korea to Poland to Quebec people have been praising him for basing the plot of Tigana on their national history. For reference, he based it on Renaissance-era Italy. His writing philosophy is that history-inspired fantasy, among other things, lets a story have more of a universal appeal than mundane historical fiction would.
  • Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has enough of this going on that Lucy Mangan's Milestone Celebration retrospective Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory devotes two sidebars to examining the Marxist and Freudian interpretations (albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek!).

    Live Action TV 
  • The Big Bang Theory is a show that runs with nerd stereotypes but does so in such a way that they don't all fall into the exact same character mold. As a result a lot of people are able to find themselves in the characters despite being on the extreme end of "smart people." Sheldon's rampant Schedule Fanatic and Super OCD behavior lead A LOT of people to assume he has Asperger Syndrome. Leonard is timid and a pushover while trying to stay a Nice Guy. Howard is a Casanova Wannabe who has a hard time understanding why women aren't falling for his excitable energy. Raj is painfully shy around women to the point he can't even speak in their presence. And Penny, the only non-nerd/non-genius of the cast, is easily overwhelmed by the nerd topics and science talk and often ends up the odd man out. It's covering this wide spectrum of personalities that lead many reviewers to speculate this is the reason behind the show's success.
  • The 100 features a lot of political, cultural, and military conflicts that people have compared to World War II, the colonization of the Americas, modern generational conflicts, China's One Child policy, American slavery, and others. However, in most cases it's hard to make a one-to-one parallel line up, and even if you could, the show generally refuses to make definitive moral statements, preferring to have characters take conflicting stances on various issues, and leaving it up to the audience to decide who's right.
  • Defiance: The backstory bears a resemblance to the European refugee crisis of 2015: an international coalition (Earth/the European nations) finds itself having to deal with large numbers of desperate people (the Votan/refugees and migrants). This despite the fact that the show began in 2013.

  • The Eagles's song "Hotel California" has several interpretations due to the way the lyrics were written. Don Henley called it "our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles" and later reiterated "it's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about." Still it's interpreted as an allegory of cocaine addiction, Satanism, or a mental hospital.
  • During The Beatles era:
    • Paul McCartney wrote a song in support of the American Civil Rights Movement. He changed it from "Black Girl" to "Black Bird" in the spirit of this trope — in his words, "so you could apply it to your own problems".
    • Paul's mom was the inspiration for the "Mother Mary" lyric from "Let It Be". When asked if the song referred to the Virgin Mary, McCartney has typically answered the question by assuring his fans that they can interpret the song however they would like.
  • U2's music is known for its wide range of interpretations, be it religious or secular, universal or personal, literary or pop-cultural.
  • Imagine Dragons has produced several songs that encouraged multiple theories about their meanings. To quote the frontman:
    Dan Reynolds: I always like to leave art and music open to interpretation.
  • Dream Theater's songs are well known for being able to be interpenetrated in different ways.

  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller. At the time it was staged during the witch hunts of the 1950s, Miller strenuously denied The Crucible was written as an allegory concerning the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who became notorious for his excessive zeal in rooting out Communist sympathizers. When the play, The Crucible, was staged in China in the early 1980s, people had just recovered from the turmoil of the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76). During that time, Mao had a policy of stamping out all that he deemed old and useless, like Taoism. In the play, they found the similarities between the events of the Cultural Revolution and The Crucible. This explained why the play received such a warm welcome at that time. The play was certainly a reaction to and commentary on the activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but Miller deals with it as a series of broad, timeless themes, rather than as a direct allegory for any particular series of events. Very little can be read as directly symbolic of any contemporary events; rather, the content is archetypal in nature.
  • William Shakespeare is a wonderful case for this. All of his plays have been subject to multiple interpretations throughout history and even argued over today on This Very Wiki. There's so little in the way of clear stage directions, or of the Bard's own writings, to be sure of what he thought of anything. For examples:
  • Bertolt Brecht, every single play, explicitly so. Especially the songs. To illustrate: the song "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera has been used as a sociopolitical allegory by Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Alan Moore, Lars von Trier, Dorothy Gambell and something called "Anarchy Comics". And Brecht would have probably approved of all of the above. Maybe not for their individual message, but for the fact that he inspired later authors to think for themselves and appropriate his texts in their own social contexts, which is exactly what he wrote them for. He also applied this to all literature before him, though, stealing poems and plays left and right because he considered everything applicable and "common commodity". After being found out, he casually said he couldn't be bothered to spend time thinking about intellectual property when he had art to do, and besides, he expected (and wanted) people to do the same with his work.

    Video Games 
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask:
    • Is the game an adventure or a mystery? The one that draws you into the story (or out of it) will directly have an effect how much you enjoy the experience.
    • The dungeons and subplots, when played in order, line up with the five stages of grief. The entire plot is shaped by apocalyptic cataclysm coming on the fourth day. Is the game a metaphor for death, or even Link's Dying Dream? Or is it just a tale of a wanderer, in a far-off land, trying to do the best he can?
  • Super Smash Bros., especially Brawl.
    • It's either a fighting game which stars as many Nintendo characters as possible (and a few 3rd-party guests), or it's one of the most interactive and wacky cartoons of all time.
    • Alternatively, it's the story of a boy growing up and having to put his toys away.
  • Nintendo called Metroid Prime a first-person adventure to specifically break up the "Is it a first person shooter, or an adventure game done in first person?" arguments that surrounded its launch. The exact same thing was done with Geist, another game that can be interpreted as a First Person Shooter or an adventure game done in first person.
  • Persona 4:
    • Naoto is intended to be seen as someone struggling in a male dominated work environment, but many Western fans see her to be a Transsexual.
    • Shadow Kanji's effeminate behavior is supposed to represent Kanji's interest in things that aren't considered masculine, but its led Western fans to wonder if he's actually a closet homosexual.
  • Chihiro Fujisaki from Dangan Ronpa tends to be seen by Western fans as transsexual, but his backstory is intended to address the issues of bullying and strict enforcement of gender roles in Japan, since Chihiro was ruthlessly bullied for his frail and unmanly physique and crossdresses to avoid the ridicule.
  • Yume Nikki is a game built around this. Is it an ambiguous character study? An allegory for Japan's social problems? A simple Wide Open Sandbox that isn't supposed to be analyzed deeply? Kikiyama's official website suggests the latter, but its lack of plot and abundant symbolism makes fans think otherwise.

    Western Animation