I'll get straight to the point - I'm trying to find if there is a word to describe a property I've noticed.

Take a standard narrative - although an understanding of symbolism / metaphor in this narrative may enrich one's experience / emotional understanding of it, to understand the actual material events of the narrative (within the logical system of the narrative) requires only the knowledge of the world the characters live in.

However, take a story with a hefty dose of magical-realism. To understand the events of many stories with magical realism, narrative and symbolism are actually necessary. The internal logic of the world in these narratives is 'open' in a sense - information from beyond the literal world of the narrative is needed to explain the events of that very narrative. Or perhaps you could say instead in these worlds metaphor and symbolism are embedded parts of the world itself?

Some more extreme types of poetic texts may go even further in the degree to which information from beyond the narrative is needed to understand its events.

Is there some term for this phenomenon? I've been calling it 'the fifth wall' but that's definitely not the actual definition.

  • Welcome to the site! I've edited your title to be a bit more descriptive of the specific question (the original title was vague enough that it could apply to lots of different questions) - please check that that's an accurate description of what you're looking for.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 20, 2023 at 14:17
  • @Randal'Thor Yep I think that gets the core idea through :)
    – Andura
    Apr 20, 2023 at 14:17

1 Answer 1


One applicable word is allegory. The 1974 edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says:

We have allegory when the events of a narrative obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena. ... If the allegorical reference is continuous throughout the narrative, the fiction "is" an allegory. ... Allegory is thus not the name of a form or a genre, but of a structural principle in fiction. (p. 12)

This tracks pretty closely with what you identify in your question:

information from beyond the literal world of the narrative is needed to explain the events of that very narrative. Or perhaps you could say instead in these worlds metaphor and symbolism are embedded parts of the world itself?

Allegories can be political, such as Animal Farm, where some of the equivalences to Soviet political figures (Napoleon is Stalin, Snowball Trotsky, etc.) must be understood for the full meaning of the fable to be clear. They can be moral, spiritual, or religious, such as the first canto of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, where the Red Cross Knight's travails are emblematic of the soul's struggle in the world. They can be psychological; Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter could be interpreted in this way. Or they can be mystic, as in some of Blake's and Yeats's poetry.

The very term "magical realism" proclaims a dual identity whereby the events of the narrative refer to something beyond the surface action. Magical realism therefore lends itself to allegorical readings.

References (all links live as of April 20, 2023)

Curran, Stuart and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr, eds. Blake's Sublime Allegory: Essays on The Four Zoas, Milton, & Jerusalem. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1973. Retrieved from archive.org.

Foley, Jennifer. "Animal Farm: Allegory and the Art of Persuasion". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved from edsitement.neh.gov.

Frye, Northrop. "Allegory." The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger. 1969. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974. pp. 12–15. Retrieved from archive.org.

Katz, Seymour. “‘Character,’ ‘Nature,’ and Allegory in The Scarlet Letter.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 23, no. 1, 1968, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2932313.

Padelford, Frederick Morgan. “The Spiritual Allegory of The Faerie Queene, Book One.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 22, no. 1, 1923, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27702688.

Sidnell, Michael J. "The Allegory of Yeats's 'The Wanderings of Oisin'". Colby Quarterly vol. 15 issue 2, June 1979. Retrieved from digitalcommons.colby.edu.

  • ah thank you!! this is a tiny bit off from the exact thing im talking about, but is extremely close and provides a good way of describing what im talking about.
    – Andura
    Apr 22, 2023 at 0:45

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