Plato is considered one of the greatest philosophers in history. His "Allegory of the Cave" gives us great insight into the human condition. Allegory is a type of symbolism in which there is a direct one-to-one relationship between a character, object, or place and an idea or concept. In layman terms, it is symbolism that is blatant and obvious. Plato's cave has several such symbols, as well as some that are not so obvious.
The story starts out as a conversation between two men. One is teaching the other about the human condition through allegory and symbolism. The first symbol we encounter is the cave itself, which represents the ignorance of mankind. The prisoners in the cave represent humanity. The chains that hold the prisoners represent humanity's inability to become enlightened, either because of internal forces such as stubbornness, laziness, or external forces such as government or religion. So therefore, Plato is saying that we are all trapped in our own ignorance, both because of our own disabilities and those of the society we live in. .
Next we are told about a fire burning behind and above the prisoners. In front of this fire is a puppet stage, and people carry objects along behind the stage, so that they cast shadows on the cave wall in front of the prisoners. The only noises the prisoners hear are echoed off the cave wall. "In every way, then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects" (par. 13). Plato is saying that we see the world only in terms of what we have learned from other ignorant people. The fire represents false or at best incomplete knowledge. The puppeteers those individuals who continue to teach such false knowledge, thereby perpetuating ignorance.
One of the prisoners is then freed from his chains, forced to stand up and look toward the fire and at the objects that cast the shadows he used to see.