literary definition for symbolism

Symbolism Definition

What is symbolism? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—usually a physical object or phenomenon—to represent something more abstract. A strong symbol usually shares a set of key characteristics with whatever it is meant to symbolize, or is related to it in some other way. Characters and events can also be symbolic. A famous example of a symbol in literature occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird , when Atticus tells his children Jem and Scout that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds cause no harm to anyone; they just sing. Because of these traits, mockingbirds in the novel symbolize innocence and beauty, while killing a mockingbird symbolizes an act of senseless cruelty.

Some additional key details about symbolism:

  • Symbolism can be very subtle, so it isn't always easy to identify or understand.
  • It can sometimes be difficult to say whether an author intended for something to be symbolic or not.
  • Symbolism allows writers to convey things to their readers poetically or indirectly rather than having to say them outright, which can make texts seem more nuanced and complex.

Symbolism Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce symbolism: sim -buh-liz-uhm

Types of Symbolism

A symbol can be a physical object, a character, or an event. Here's a brief overview of how each type of symbolism works:

  • Symbolism through physical objects: Most often, physical objects are used to symbolize an idea or concept, as a way of pointing the reader towards some of the basic themes that a work is dealing with. For example, a poet might write a poem about a flower dancing in the wind in order to convey a sense of innocence, harmony with nature, or sheer happiness.
  • Symbolism through characters: Sometimes, characters themselves can serve as symbols—of a particular virtue or vice, or of a political ideology. For example, in Edmund Spenser's famous allegorical poem, The Faeirie Queene , the female knight Britomart is a symbol of the values of chastity and restraint, traits which many 16th-century readers held in high esteem.
  • Symbolism through events: Events can also be symbolic. For example, while a character's long, wild hair might symbolize a period of youth or innocence, a scene in which the character chops off his or her long hair might symbolize a loss of innocence—or the sacrifices people have to make in the process of becoming a mature adult with responsibilities. While the act of cutting off the hair is neither an object nor a character, but it would still be an example of symbolism.

Identifying Symbolism

Writers employ a wide variety of symbols to deepen the meaning of their work. Some symbols, though, are much easier to identify than others. It's worth recognizing the ways that some symbols can be obvious, while others might be less so. For example, sea glass might be used as a fairly obvious symbol in one text, and a more subtle symbol in another:

  • Sea glass as an obvious symbol: If a character in a story gives her son a piece of sea glass just before she dies, and the son then puts the sea glass on a necklace and wears it every day, that's a pretty clear example of something being symbolic: the sea glass represents the son's relationship with his mother, his grief at her passing, or perhaps even the more general concept of loss. In this example, the author might choose to describe how the son plays with his necklace obsessively in order to convey his ever present grief at the loss of his mother—instead of having to state it outright.
  • Sea glass as a less-obvious symbol: If a character in a story delivers a monologue about sea glass in which they explain how something sharp and broken (a shard of glass) becomes smooth and beautiful only through years of being tossed about on the ocean's currents, it might over the course of the story come to be symbolic for the process of growing up or recovering from trauma—but not every reader will necessarily pick up on the symbolism. In this case, sea glass would be an example of a symbol that might be harder to identify as a symbol within the context of the story.

Is a Symbol Purposeful or Not?

In some cases, particularly when a symbol is subtle, it's not always even clear whether the author's use of symbolism is intentional, or whether the reader is supplying their own meaning of the text by "reading into" something as a symbol. That isn't a problem, though. In fact, it's one of the beautiful things about symbolism: whether symbolism can be said to be present in a text has as much to do with the reader's interpretation as the writer's intentions.

Symbol vs. Metaphor

At first glance, symbolism and metaphor can be difficult to distinguish from one another—both devices imbue a text with meaning beyond its literal sense, and both use one thing to represent something else. However, there are a few key differences between metaphor and symbolism:

  • Metaphors compare two different things by stating that one thing is the other (e.g., your eyes are heaven). This doesn't happen in symbolism, where the relationship between a symbol and what it represents is not stated explicitly and one thing is not said to be the other thing. Instead, a symbol stands for or represents something else.
  • Whereas a metaphor is used to compare one thing to another based on shared characteristics, symbols can but don't need to have any characteristics in common with what they represent. For instance, Annie Proulx's story Brokeback Mountain ends with one character taking in the smell of a shirt that was once worn by his lost love. The shirt doesn't have any characteristics in common with the lover—it symbolizes him only insofar as it once belonged to him.

Symbolism and Allegory

An allegory is a work that conveys a moral through the use of symbolic characters and events. Not every work that incorporates symbols is an allegory; rather, an allegory is a story in which the majority of characters and plot developments serve as symbols for something else, or in which the entire storyline is symbolic of a broader phenomenon in society.

For example, the characters in Edmund Spenser's allegorical poem The Faerie Queene are not very complex or deep characters: they're meant to embody virtues or ideas more than they are meant to resemble real people. By contrast, Hester Prynne (the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's highly symbolic novel, The Scarlet Letter ) exhibits a great deal of complexity and individuality as a character beyond whatever she may symbolize, so it doesn't really make sense to say that The Scarlet Letter is an allegory about adultery; rather, it's a novel that is literally about adultery that has symbolic aspects. In short, all allegories are highly symbolic, but not all symbolic writing is allegorical.

Symbolism Examples

Symbolism is very common is all sorts of narrative literature, poetry, film, and even speeches.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Authors frequently incorporate symbolism into their work, because symbols engage readers on an emotional level and succinctly convey large and complex ideas.

Symbolism in Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain"

The following passage from Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" describes a character named Ennis's visit to the childhood home of a lost lover named Jack. There, Ennis finds an old shirt of his nestled inside of one of Jack's shirts.

At the north end of the closet a tiny jog in the wall made a slight hiding place and here, stiff with long suspension from a nail, hung a shirt. He lifted it off the nail. Jack’s old shirt from Brokeback days. The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain when Jack, in their contortionistic grappling and wrestling, had slammed Ennis’s nose hard with his knee. He had stanched the blood, which was everywhere, all over both of them, with his shirtsleeve, but the stanching hadn’t held, because Ennis had suddenly swung from the deck and laid the ministering angel out in the wild columbine, wings folded. The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.

Proulx's description of the shirts sounds like it could be a description of the feeling of intimacy shared between lovers: she writes that they are "like two skins, one inside the other, two in one." The shirts symbolize the love the two men shared, but Proulx avoids having to explain Ennis's feelings directly by using symbolism in her description of the shirts, instead.

Symbolism in Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias "

In the sonnet "Ozymandias," Shelley uses the story of an encounter with a decaying monument to illustrate the destructive power of nature, the fleetingness of man's political accomplishments, and the longevity of art.

I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The symbolism in Shelley's poem transforms the half-sunken monument into a powerful representation of the passage of time. The poem reminds readers that natural forces will put an end to the reign of all empires and the lives of every person, whether king or commoner. In the final lines, the poem juxtaposes two very different symbols: the fallen statue, greatly reduced from its former size, and the huge, barren, and unchanging desert. The statue of Ozymandias is therefore symbolic of man's mortality and smallness in the face time and nature.

Symbolism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

In Chapter Ten of I nvisible Man , the book's protagonist goes to work at the Liberty Paints Factory—the maker of a paint "so white you can paint a chunk of coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through"—where he is surprised to learn that the recipe for the brilliant white paint actually calls for the addition of a few drops of black paint. The symbolism of the black paint disappearing into the white is a direct reference to the "invisibility" of black people in America—one of the major themes of Ellison's book.

"The idea is to open each bucket and put in ten drops of this stuff," he said. "Then you stir it 'til it disappears. After it's mixed you take this brush and paint out a sample on one of these." He produced a number of small rectangular boards and a small brush from his jacket pocket. "You understand?" "Yes, sir." But when I looked into the white graduate I hesitated; the liquid inside was dead black. Was he trying to kid me?

Symbolism in Film

Filmmakers often endow particular objects with emotional significance. These visual symbols may shed light on a character's motivations or play an important role later on in the film.

Symbolism in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane

In the closing scene of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane , the camera pans to a sled with the word "Rosebud" printed on it—the same word that is uttered by the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed. The movie itself portrays Kane's ruthless efforts to consolidate power in his industry. Yet in his final moments, he recalls the sled associated with the happier days of his youth. The "Rosebud" sled can be described as a symbol of Kane's youthful innocence and idealism, of which he lost sight in his pursuit of power. The sled is one of the most famous symbols in all of film.

Symbolism In Speeches

Orators often turn to symbolism for the same reasons writers do—symbols can add emotional weight to a speech and can stand-in for broad themes and central parts of their argument.

Symbolism in John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address

In the opening lines of his 1961 inaugural address , President Kennedy claims that his inauguration is the symbol of a new era in American history, defined by both reverence for the past and innovation in the years to come:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

Here, President Kennedy argues on behalf of the symbolic significance of his election, suggesting that his Inauguration Day stands for the progress in America that is soon to come. Though it's not an especially subtle use of symbolism, Kennedy's assertion that his first day in office represents the first of many steps forward for America likely had a considerable emotional impact on his audience.

Symbolism in Barack Obama's Speech on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Marches

In his speech on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches , President Obama casts the Edmund Pettus Bridge (in Selma, Alabama) as a symbol of American progress and resilience.

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

In this example, President Obama paid tribute to the activists who were beaten brutally by state troopers after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a 1965 demonstration in Selma, Alabama. Likening their perseverance in the face of police brutality to other prominent examples of American resistance, such as the American Revolution, Obama claims that the demonstrators symbolize a quintessential American trait: a commitment to securing and protecting personal freedom. Thus, in Obama's speech, crossing the bridge can be said to function as a symbol of the long struggle for civil rights.

Why Do Writers Use Symbolism?

It's hard to find a work of literature that lacks any kind of symbolism. Symbolism is an important literary device for creating complex narratives because it enables writers to convey important information without having to state things directly. In addition, the use of symbolism is widespread because it can:

  • Help readers visualize complex concepts and central themes, and track their development.
  • Afford writers the opportunity to communicate big ideas efficiently and artfully.
  • Invite readers to interpret a text independently, rather than be directly told what the author means.
  • Add emotional weight to a text.
  • Conceal themes that are too controversial to state openly.
  • Imply change or growth in characters or themes through shifts in the way that characters interact with particular symbols, or ways in which the symbols themselves change over time.

Other Helpful Symbolism Resources

  • The Wikipedia Page on Symbols : A rather theoretical account of symbolism, which delves into competing definitions of the term that might be more complicated or detailed than is necessary for many readers. Still, the page demonstrates just how pervasive symbolism is in language and thought.
  • Cracked's List of 7 Films With Symbolism You Didn't Notice : Though the author's speculations verge on conspiracy theories at times, at its best, the list demonstrates how artists might use symbols to bury risqué themes in works for popular consumption.
  • The HyperTexts Page on The Best Symbols in Poetry and Literature : The explanations here aren't especially in-depth—certainly not as sophisticated as the symbols they discuss. Still, this is useful as a survey of poems by major writers with examples of concrete, object-based symbolism.

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Definition of Symbolism

Symbolism is a literary device that refers to the use of symbols in a literary work. A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else; it represents something beyond literal meaning. In literature, a symbol can be a word, object , action, character , or concept that embodies and evokes a range of additional meaning and significance.

For example, in his poem “ Fire and Ice ,” Robert Frost utilizes symbolism to indicate to readers how the world may be destroyed:

Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice.

In the poem, fire symbolizes destructive and consuming emotions such as jealousy, desire for power , anger, and impulsivity. Ice, in the poem, symbolizes destructive and withholding emotions such as hate, indifference, loneliness, and isolation. Of course, the poet indicates to the reader that the literal meanings of fire and ice make them capable of destroying and ending the world. However, it’s the symbolism of fire and ice that enhances the meaning and significance of the poem.

Common Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life

Everyday words, objects, and even concepts often have more than a single meaning. Across time, certain aspects of everyday life and experience evolve in meaning and associated significance, making them symbols of something besides what they actually are. Here are some common examples of symbolism in everyday life:

  • rainbow–symbolizes hope and promise
  • red rose–symbolizes love and romance
  • four-leaf clover–symbolizes good luck or fortune
  • wedding ring–symbolizes commitment and matrimony
  • red, white, blue–symbolizes American patriotism
  • green traffic light–symbolizes “go” or proceed
  • tree blossoms–symbolize spring season
  • Pilgrim hat–symbolizes Thanksgiving holiday
  • dollar sign–symbolizes money, earnings, wealth
  • image of shopping cart–symbolizes online purchases

Examples of Types of Symbolism and Their Effects

Writers utilize many types of symbolism, both as a way to convey meaning to their overall readership and as a method of allowing individual readers to make their own interpretations and discover meaning. In addition, different types of symbols create different effects for readers, though the overall goal of symbolism as a literary device is to enhance the reader’s experience with literature.

Here are some examples of types of symbolism and their effects:

  • emotion : symbols often evoke emotional responses in readers, allowing them to invest in the plot and characters. This emotional effect of symbolism also creates a lasting impression for the reader of the literary work.
  • Imagery : symbols can create imagery and provide visual elements that allow readers to understand complex literary themes. This also has a beneficial effect for writers so that they don’t feel an overreliance on language to explain their intended meaning.
  • thematic connection: symbols can connect themes for readers within a single literary work and across literature itself. This allows for greater understanding of literature as an art form.
  • Character attributes: symbols can represent different attributes of characters, both in a literal and figurative sense. This has an effect for readers in that they can identify character traits and understand their actions based on symbolism in the literary work.
  • deeper meaning:  symbolism also allows writers to convey deeper meaning in their work for the reader. This creates a layered effect of understanding so that different readers can find their own individual significance in a literary work, and individual readers can find different levels of significance with each exposure to the literary work.

Famous Examples of Symbolism in Movies

Symbolism is a device utilized by many film artists as well. Symbolism in cinema allows the audience to make connections and understand meaning, adding to both the entertainment and thematic value of a film.

Here are some famous examples of symbolism in well-known movies:

  • white cowboy hat = hero in classic Westerns
  • mockingbird = innocence in  To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Balloons = hopes and dreams in  Disney’s Up
  • feathers = beginnings and endings in Forrest Gump
  • Yellow Brick Road = street paved with gold in  The Wizard of Oz
  • coin toss = fate, chance, free will in  No Country for Old Men
  • Fog = confusion and the unknown in  Apocalypse Now
  • cat = home and belonging in  Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • doors = separation and transition in  The Godfather
  • deer = prey and vulnerability in  Get Out

Difference Between Symbolism and Motif

Symbolism and motif are both effective literary devices that can appear to be synonymous or interchangeable. However, these devices serve different purposes in literature. Symbolism, as a device, utilizes symbols such that the concept of a word or object represents something beyond its literal meaning. Symbols can be featured singularly or several times in literature. A motif is a recurring element, in the form of an image, phrase , situation, or concept, that is integral to the plot and appears several times throughout a literary work and emphasizes or draws attention to the overall theme .

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism is an effective literary device utilized by writers to connect with readers and allow them to actively participate in understanding the deeper meaning of a literary work. Writers use symbolism to evoke emotion, create a sensory experience, and to demonstrate artistic use of language so that words have both literal and figurative meanings. Here are some examples of symbolism in literature:

Example 1:  The Glass Menagerie  (Tennessee Williams)

Yes, movies! Look at them — All of those glamorous people — having adventures — hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America , while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone’s dish, not only Gable’s! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves — Goody, goody! — It’s our turn now, to go to the south Sea Island — to make a safari — to be exotic, far-off!

In Williams’s play , Tom’s character frequently goes to the movies to escape the monotony and pressure of his life at home with his mother and sister. Therefore, movies offer Tom both a literal and figurative escape from his home, though it is a passive escape in darkness with no true experience of adventure. The movies symbolize Tom’s dreams and fantasies as well as their unattainability and manufactured reality. In this passage, Williams also makes artistic and ironic use of the word “movies” in that the act of going to the movies actually makes Tom feel more stagnant, stuck, and unmoving.

Example 2:  The Lesson  (Toni Cade Bambara)

Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and I got a headache for thinkin so hard. And we lean all over each other so we can hold up under the draggy ass lecture she always finishes us off with at the end before we thank her for borin us to tears. But she just looks at us like she readin tea leaves. Finally she say, “Well, what did you think of F.A.0. Schwarz?” Rosie Giraffe mumbles, “White folks crazy.”

In Bambara’s short story , the famous New York City toy store F.A.O. Schwarz is a symbol for economic wealth and frivolous spending. Miss Moore’s character, by bringing a group of underprivileged black kids to the toy store, also wants F.A.O. Schwarz to be viewed as a symbol of systemic racial and social division in America as well as monetary separation. By exposing this group of kids to such an outrageously expensive toy store, Miss Moore intends to teach them a lesson and instill a deeper concept of failed American opportunity and equality through the symbolism of F.A.O. Schwarz.

Example 3:  The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night . Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The color green is a strong motif in Fitzgerald’s novel , used frequently to reinforce the theme of money, wealth, and materialism. The green light across the water from Gatsby’s home does play a role in this color motif; however, Fitzgerald uses the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock as symbolism in the novel. In fact, as the narrator Nick Carraway mentions in the above passage, Gatsby “believes” in the green light because of what he feels it symbolizes.

The light not only represents Gatsby’s future hopes and dreams, especially in terms of his love for Daisy, but the green color of the light symbolizes, to Gatsby, permission to follow and pursue these hopes and dreams. Despite the knowledge that Daisy is a married woman, Gatsby views the green light as guidance and a signal to proceed with his futile quest to win Daisy.

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literary definition for symbolism

What is Symbolism? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Symbolism definition.

Symbolism  (SIM-buh-liz-uhm) is when an object, person, or place represents an abstract idea beyond its literal meaning. Symbolism in literature can be as obvious as a storm representing a character’s internal turmoil or as subtle as a character’s yellow shirt  foreshadowing  a pending friendship.

Symbolism began as an artistic movement in French  poetry  in the 19th century to combat  realism  in favor of  romanticism . It comes from the Latin word  symbolus , which means “a sign of recognition.”

Examples of Symbolism

Symbolism exists beyond literature and can be found in everyday life. Certain colors, animals, and objects are known for symbolizing conceptual ideas; here are some examples.

  • Colors:  Most colors are associated with a feeling or meaning. White symbolizes purity, red is love, green is envy, and yellow is joy and friendship. Red is also known to symbolize stopping, which is evident in stop signs and traffic lights. When red and green are placed together, such as on a Wi-Fi router, red means something is wrong, and green means everything is functioning correctly.
  • Animals:  An animal can be symbolic based on its characteristics or its association with a holiday or event. Lions symbolize courage and majesty due to their ranking in the animal kingdom, and black cats symbolize bad luck or spookiness because of their association with Halloween.
  • Objects:  Everyday objects can represent a myriad of ideas. Balloons, for example, symbolize celebration, and a rose can represent romance.

Symbolism can also depend on  context . Pine trees can symbolize nature, but if you add lights and a star, it can also represent Christmas.

How Writers Express Symbolism

Symbolism in writing is generally expressed in three ways: through the characters, objects, or events of the piece.

Symbolism in literature most commonly comes through in objects, which can help the reader understand a complex theme of the  plot . For example, in  The Hunger Games , the mocking jay pin was first a symbol of home for Katniss, then it evolved into the symbol for the districts’ rebellion against the Capitol.

When symbolism is represented in a character, it’s shown through their actions, and it’s usually part of an  allegory . In  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe , for example, the character Aslan symbolizes Jesus because he sacrifices himself to save Edmund but then comes back to life—similar to Jesus dying on the cross and rising again three days later. In  The Pilgrim’s Progress , characters represent different temptations the main character faces on his way to the Celestial City, such as the Interpreter, who explains Biblical passages.

Sometimes, an author uses an occurrence in the plot to act as symbolism. For example, in  The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants  series, the pants represent the girls’ childhood bond. When the pants are lost in the fourth and final book, it symbolizes the loss of their childhood and entrance into adulthood. The event of their disappearance is a symbol independent from the pants themselves.

The Level of Subtlety

In literature, symbolism can be blatantly obvious or subtle. For example, if a woman has a miscarriage after buying toys for the baby, she might find a rattle months later and cry. It would be obvious to the reader that the rattle symbolizes the loss of her child.

A subtle example of the same concept would be if she purchased a black onesie. The color could  foreshadow  the miscarriage, but that may not have been the author’s intention, and not every reader would recognize it right away.

Concepts Conveyed through Symbolism

Since its inception in the late 1800s, symbolism has expressed three key concepts: religion,  romanticism , and emotion.

Religious Symbolism

Perhaps the most widely known and accepted use of symbolism is religious  allusions . In the late 1800s, it was popular to include religious symbolism in novels and  poetry , such as  Paradise Lost  by John Milton ,  which is a retelling of the Bible’s book of Genesis. The Bible itself is inundated with symbolism, including the Lamb of God, the serpent as the devil, and several parables with included symbolism.

Romantic Symbolism

Romanticism emphasized feeling over reality and creativity over practicality. It became a popular movement in literature after its birth as an artistic movement.  Shakespeare ’s  sonnets  are a great example of romantic symbolism, as he talks of beauty and ugliness through symbols like flowers and weeds.

Emotional Symbolism

Using concrete things to convey emotion is popular in literature. Poetry will describe the waves of the ocean to symbolize peace and serenity or rain to symbolize sadness in a character. The appearance of these symbols can express the emotion of a scene or character in a more poetic fashion.

Why Writers Use Symbolism

Symbolism is beneficial in literature for several reasons. It can simplify a complex theme or idea by giving it a characteristic the reader can understand. It can also give a more insightful meaning to something by giving a literal example of something non-literal.

Another reason is for sheer creativity. The author will relay information implicitly so that the writing sounds more poetic. The subject matter is suggested rather than outwardly stated, making it more enjoyable for the reader to deduce its meaning.

Symbolism and Related Terms

Symbolism vs. Allegory

An  allegory  is a story that uses characters to hide a moral or political message using symbolism. However, not every story with symbolism is an allegory. For example, the mockingbird in  To Kill a Mockingbird  symbolizes innocence, but the characters don’t represent abstract ideas, so the novel isn’t an allegory. Books such as  Animal Farm  and  The Pilgrim’s Progress , however, are allegories: the former is a reference to the Russian Revolution, and the latter references the difficult life of a Christian.

Symbolism vs. Metaphor

While both consists of one thing representing another, the main difference between a  metaphor  and a symbol is that the former explicitly compares two things by saying one is the other.

In the Bible, Jesus says he is the vine, and God is the farmer that prunes his fruit-bearing branches. This is a metaphor for God’s love and mentorship. Symbolism doesn’t have explicitly stated comparisons. Instead, one thing stands in place of the other.

Symbolism vs. Motif

Motif supports the theme of a story through repetition of an image, idea, or action. While a motif can be symbolic, they aren’t one in the same. Symbols are usually mentioned once, while a motif appears several times throughout a written work.

For example, a prevailing motif throughout the Harry Potter series is the discrimination against muggle-born wizards. It first appears in  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  when Draco calls Hermione a “Mudblood,” a slur that refers to wizard and witches who have Muggle (non-magical) parents. Because this discrimination returns later in the series, when Bellatrix cuts the word into Hermione’s arm, it can be considered a motif.

Symbolism Outside of Literature

Symbolism can be found in movies, songs, and even company branding.

The glass slipper in the movie  Cinderella  is an iconic symbol to this day—any appearance of a glass slipper will bring up memories of this classic movie. But in the movie, it also has a symbolic meaning: it’s Cinderella’s ticket to freedom from a life of servitude.

Another example can be found in the movie  E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial . There’s a plant in Elliot’s bedroom that represents the alien E.T.’s health. When he’s sick, the plant begins to die, and when he heals, the plant comes back to life. In this way, the director could show the status of E.T.’s health without having to explicitly state it.

Companies use symbols to promote their brand in the form of logos, images, fonts, and colors that consumers can easily recognize. Some examples include the red and white Target bullseye, the McDonald’s golden arches, and the Nike swoosh. These logos symbolize their companies and provide easy recognition so customers can engage in brand loyalty.

Emoji are another reference to symbolism, as each character represents a larger idea. Some are more literal, such as the animals, but the wedding bells, for example, could be used to congratulate a friend on their marriage or hint at a future successful relationship.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

1. Emily Dickinson, “ Because I Could Not Stop for Death ”

Dickinson frequently wrote about death, and this  poem  is no exception. Death is personified in this poem, and several symbolic objects help carry out the theme of death:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

In this poem, the carriage itself symbolizes a hearse, as it takes Death, Immortality, and the speaker to eternal life. The carriage ride symbolizes the time slowly passing before death occurs, and even the dashes at the end of each line signify that the poem is never-ending, just like immortality.

2. Nathaniel Hawthorne,   The Scarlet Letter

In the beginning of the novel, Hester Prynne has a scarlet letter  A  pinned to her clothing as a symbol of her adultery. It represents the sin and shame of her act:

They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth tinged in an earthly dyepot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the nighttime. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.

Throughout the novel, as Hester gains confidence in her strong work ethic, the scarlet letter comes to mean  able  instead of  adultery . It becomes a symbol of identity that Hester can wear proudly after changing its meaning with her charity and kindness. In this way, it parallels Hester’s character arc and symbolizes her character development.

3. Jane Austen,   Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth has just been informed that her sister, Jane, has become ill at the Bingley residence, and she is determined to check in on her, no matter the obstacles in getting there:

“Is this a hint to me, Lizzy,” said her father, “to send for the horses?”
“No, indeed. I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing, when one has a motive; only three miles.

Elizabeth is known for her love of walking, and as such, nature is a subtle symbol of the freedom her character requires and enjoys. She is grounded and a free spirit, unlike the characters around her, so this symbol helps the reader get a sense for her personality without Austen having to explain it.

Further Resources on Symbolism

Writers Helping Writers provides  five ways to use symbolism  in your writing.

Here is a  list of conventional symbols  found in literature and their meanings.

Michael Ferber’s book  A Dictionary of Literary Symbols  explains and illustrates classic symbols found in literature.

Related Terms

literary definition for symbolism

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What is Symbolism? | Definition & Examples

"what is symbolism": a guide for english teachers and students.

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

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"What is Symbolism?" Transcript (Spanish and English Subtitles Available in Video. Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Gilad Elbom , Oregon State University Senior Instructor of Literature

Symbolism is the idea that things represent other things . What we mean by that is that we can look at something — let’s say, the color red — and conclude that it represents not the color red itself but something beyond it: for example, passion, or love, or devotion. Or maybe the opposite: infidelity. The color red can also represent blood. It can also mean stop ­— when you approach a traffic light. It can symbolize communism. In other words, it can mean anything you want it to mean. In other words, it means everything. Or: it means nothing, because if you can assign any kind of symbolic interpretation to it, it has no internal value, no fixed or unchanging or universal meaning. It has no special quality that designates it as a symbol of one particular thing.

So the questions is: are there universal symbols that communicate agreed-upon concepts? We could talk, for example, about white a symbol of purity or innocence or life. But again, that would be a very superficial reading of literature, because white could also signify paleness, bloodlessness, lifelessness — and death. So once again, if white can signify one thing and its opposite — life and death — what kind of symbol is it?

A more sophisticated way of approaching symbolism would be to say that things have symbolic qualities only in certain contexts — and sometimes they do not symbolize anything at all. If we want to quote Gertrude Stein: sometimes a rose is a rose is a rose. Sometimes a rose doesn’t mean love or courtship or passion or desire or devotion — or anything beyond itself. Some flowers happen to be red, others are white or blue, and they have no symbolic meaning, neither in real life nor in literature .


Symbolism Stein

I think it’s very tempting to treat every element in literature as a symbol of something. For example, a storm brewing on the horizon must be a symbol of the emotional turmoil that the main character is going through; or, the black car that the main character drives is a foreshadowing of his death; and so on. It’s important to remember that sometimes a storm on the horizon simply represents bad weather. Some cats are white, some are black, some are ginger. That doesn’t mean that white cats are more innocent or pure, or that the owners of black cats are morbid characters who are going to die. We’re all going to die, and sooner than we think, unfortunately.

So where do we see symbols that are smarter, symbols that are more sophisticated, more complex? I think it all depends on the context, and I think that smart works of literature can establish certain textual elements as symbols that are not necessarily invested with any kind of predetermined meaning: elements that we don’t tend to think of automatically as symbols of anything.

Here’s an example. If we take this very interesting novel by Gilbert Sorrentino, Under the Shadow , what it does is it shows us a series of images — or textural elements, or textual components — and we have no idea what they mean or why they are repeated throughout the novel, again and again, in different configurations. But then when we look at one of these elements — let’s say, the moon ­— every time we see it, every time characters look at the moon, we realize, gradually, that they are actually looking back into their past, into their personal history, or childhood memories.

More specifically, at some point in the book, an amateur astronomer, who is a physician by profession, points a telescope at the moon, and when he looks through the lens, what he sees is a young couple, a man and a woman — or sometimes a young woman and an older woman — bathing in a lake. It’s very strange. He’s startled by this image. How it is possible that this is what he sees when the telescope is pointed at the moon? What we find out, later in the novel, is that he’s looking at his own parents, and all of a sudden he gains access to a repressed childhood memory. So the next time the moon appears, we know that it probably symbolizes — or somehow represents — a particular hidden layer in the psychological makeup of the character looking at the moon.


Symbolism Sorrentino

What it means is that the concept of identifying symbols in literature is not necessarily based on the idea of decoding — or replacing a familiar symbol with a designated meaning. The point is to examine textual elements in new contexts and attribute to them symbolic meanings that may have never existed before.

Further Resources for Teachers

Students often interpret F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby symbolically, but they should also ask why the narrator (and, more importantly, Gatsby) wish to imbue their world with symbolic value. Gatsby's goal in the narrative is to bring the world into a symbolic order of his liking. In this respect, he is like some eager "symbol hunter" readers mentioned in this video. But the symbolic worldviews of the novel's characters often conflict both with each other and the material world, most notably (and ironically ) when the minor character Wilson confuses an advertisement for Doctor T. J. Eckleburg's business with God. Along similar lines, understanding the symbolic worldviews of narrators--how they ascribe certain particular and idiosyncratic rather than "universal" values to certain objects and people--can also help us to understand them as unreliable narrators .

For a simple example of this idea, consider H.D.'s short poem "Oread."

Writing Prompt: Who is the speaker of H.D.'s poem?  What does Oread mean? How might the Oread's worldview lead her to symbolically represent sea waves as "pines"?

Or consider Judith Ortiz Cofer's short story/memoir "Volar."

Writing Prompt: How might we understand the narrator's dreams and fantasies of having x-ray vision and the ability to fly symbolically? What does Supergirl stand in for here, and what message might Cofer's story be delivering through this symbolic attribution?

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

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Symbolism describes the use of concrete images to convey abstract ideas. Because this literary device is widely open to interpretation, and because many readers form different relationships to concrete objects, this is one of the more slippery elements of literature to both understand and convey to an audience. Nonetheless, understanding symbolism, and knowing what is a symbol, are crucial to mastering both poetry and prose.

What makes symbolism particularly tricky is understanding how an image is being employed in the text. For example, fire can represent destruction and evil, but it can also represent regrowth and the cycles of life. So, this article demystifies the complexities of symbolism in literature. Along the way, we’ll look at symbolism examples in both fiction and poetry, before moving towards representing abstract ideas in your own work.

What is symbolism in literature, and how do you wield it? Let’s define this slippery concept.

Symbolism Definition: What is Symbolism in Literature?

Symbolism refers to the use of representational imagery : the writer employs an image with a deeper, non-literal meaning, for the purpose of conveying complex ideas.

In literature, symbolism is the use of a concrete image to represent an abstract idea.

For example, the heart is often employed as a symbol of love. Obviously, love is more complex and full-body—it doesn’t just sit in the chest—but we constantly refer to a loving person as “having a big heart,” or a person who lost their love as “heartbroken.”

Sometimes, a symbol is the stepping stone for an extended metaphor . If the heart represents love, what does it mean when a heart is iced over, or two hearts beat in the same chest, or someone has the heart of a deer? While a good symbol can certainly stand on its own, it also creates opportunities to play with ideas in a way that abstract language prevents us from doing.

That said, a symbol is not a metaphor. Symbolism uses a relevant image to convey a relevant idea, whereas a metaphor compares two seemingly unrelated items. Unlike metaphors and similes, symbolism employs a symbolic image repeatedly through the text, with the intent of being a central image and idea of the text.

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What is a Symbol?

The trickiest part of understanding symbolism in literature is knowing which images are symbols, and why. To answer this, we must first dive deeper into the images themselves. What is a symbol?

A symbol is an image whose figurative meaning is much deeper than its literal one. It is an object, often ordinary and commonplace, that has been imbued with extraordinary significance.

What is a symbol: an image whose figurative meaning is much deeper than its literal one.

Some symbols are culturally specific. An example of a symbol that varies by culture is that of a marriage proposal. While many countries use engagement rings as a symbol of being betrothed, Wales often uses “ lovespoons ” to signify one’s partnership. In Thailand, a marriage proposal might be signified by a thong mun —gifts made out of gold.

Other symbols are either universal, or easily inferred from the text. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a green light represents all that is unreachable to Jay Gatsby. He sees a green light on the other side of the sound, where his love interest, Daisy, lives. Not only is Daisy unreachable, but so is everything she and the green light represents: the (perceived) stability and decadence of the American Dream.

Perhaps there is also symbolism in the color green itself: it is the color of money, and the “go” color of stoplights. This last interpretation is certainly laden with irony , because chasing his dreams is exactly what kills Jay Gatsby.

Because the green light is so far away from Jay, and because he’s never able to touch it (or Daisy, for that matter), it obviously represents some sort of unreachability. Because this image recurs throughout the novel, it is a clear example of symbolism—so much so, that the green light has become nearly universally understood, to the point that Lorde has a song inspired by the symbol.

Symbolism Examples

Symbolism operates slightly differently in poetry than in prose, primarily because of the differences in word choice and length in poetry vs prose . A symbol tends to recur in prose, in such a way that it becomes a motif or builds towards a broader theme . Each recurrence of the symbol complicates the idea that the image represents.

Because poetry tends to be shorter, it also tends to employ symbols more economically. Symbolism in poetry may be harder to interpret or understand, as the poem does not provide as much context for the reader, and thus requires the reader to make more inferences and interpretations.

As such, we’ll look at symbolism examples differently from prose and poetry. The below symbolism examples come from published works of literature.

Symbolism in Literature

“big mother” by anya ow.

Read this short story here, in Strange Horizons .

Central symbol: Big Mother, a mythical snakehead fish.

What it represents: The loss of childhood innocence.

Symbolism examples in the text: Catching snakehead fish seems to be a rite of passage into adulthood: the oldest boy is obsessed with catching them. What’s more, when an uncle finds out that the children have caught snakeheads, he trusts them with his favorite rod. When the oldest boy misses out on catching Big Mother, he becomes obsessed with capturing this symbol of adulthood. Then, when he does catch Big Mother, she ensnares him. The only way to ensure the oldest boy’s safety is to bargain their current lives for their future ones.

Analysis: Big Mother represents the complicated relationship people have to adulthood. The children all glorify her at first, but the eldest children realize the sacrifice they must make to save themselves from her wrath. This darkens the moods of the eldest children, as they come to understand the permanence of adulthood, the fragility of innocence. What at first seems mystical and fantastic about the real world is actually laden with terror.

The fact that the river is paved over further complicates this theme. While the characters are saved from the fate they sealed, they also catapult further into a world that replaces magic and mystery with the practical and mundane.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

You can read the full play here, from Project Gutenberg.

HAMLET: Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.

HAMLET: No, faith, not a jot. But to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. O, that that earth which kept the world in awe Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw. But soft! but soft! aside! Here comes the King. The Queen, the courtiers. Who is that they follow? And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken The corse they follow did with desperate hand Fordo it own life. ’Twas of some estate. Couch we awhile and mark.

Symbol: Yorick’s skull.

What it represents: The inherent meaninglessness of life.

Symbolism examples in the text: Although many symbols recur through their texts, this symbol occurs exactly once. In Act V Scene I, Prince Hamlet comes across the skull of Yorick, his former jester. This encounter occurs towards the end of the play, after Hamlet’s depression, nihilism, and helplessness have radically altered his perspective of the world.

Analysis: Hamlet’s contemplation of Yorick’s skull reveals his belief that our lives are inherently meaningless. That Yorick used to make people laugh matters little, because now he can make people laugh no more. He is fated to the same end that the likes of Alexander and Caesar were fated towards, too. Hamlet’s contemplation here is especially meaningful, given that he is trying to avenge his father’s murder. Because he is visited by his father’s ghost, Hamlet tries to believe that a person’s life can have meaning after death; but, his father cannot avenge himself, so what meaning is there left to have, unless we, the living, remind ourselves of it?

It is strange to have an important symbol occupy such a small space in as long a text as Hamlet. The importance of this symbol stems partially from its endurance in pop culture: Yorick’s skull has inspired many novels, poems, songs, and works of art. Additionally, it is a memento mori , or reminder of death, which is a prominent theme in European artwork in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The full text of Jane Eyre can be retrieved here, from Project Gutenberg.

Symbol: The Red Room.

What it represents: The childhood obstacles Jane must overcome to achieve a life of happiness and freedom.

Symbolism examples in the text: We encounter the Red Room in Chapter 2. Jane is locked inside the Red Room by her unfair aunt after Jane stands up for herself against John Reed, her cousin. The Red Room is also where Jane’s uncle died. Jane and her cousins believe that the room is haunted by this uncle, so when Jane is locked inside, she first focuses on the injustice of it all, but then becomes so consumed by fear, and by her belief that her uncle might rise up from the dead, that she blacks out. Jane references this episode several times later in the novel, often to reflect on her journey.

Analysis: The color red is no accident: it represents anger, passion, fear, and intensity. Jane experiences all of this when her aunt imprisons her at only ten years old. The obvious symbolism here is that pure, righteous Jane is imprisoned inside the angry, intense wrath of her unloving family, but the novel encourages us to explore this further. The Red Room represents Jane’s ambivalent relationships to adults: they are always authoritarian, always ready to punish, and always ready to trap Jane inside their own worst impulses.

One possible interpretation of the color red is that it represents period blood, and thus the transition from childhood to adulthood. Jane is forced to be an adult before she’s ready, maturely handling the emotions of other adults when she’s still an innocent child.

Madeleine Wood argues that the Red Room continues to affect Jane, because her relationships to adults as a child manifests itself in her relationships to men as an adult. Remember, the society Jane grew up in was heavily patriarchal: grown women had to always defer to men as authorities. Yet, Jane desires freedom more than anything else, both as a child and as an adult, so the institutions of marriage and the patriarchy fundamentally challenge her freedoms. When she reflects on the Red Room as an adult, it is always juxtaposed to her relationship with a man. She even thinks about the Red Room after walking out on Rochester, an important suitor of hers in the novel.

Only when Jane is comfortable with herself and confident in her freedom is she able to find love and happiness, thus overcoming the burden symbolized by the Red Room.

Symbolism in Poetry

“my heart leaps up” by william wordsworth.

Retrieved here, from Academy of American Poets . 

My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is father of the Man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.

Here’s an example of poetry with symbolism in which the symbol is employed only once, but very effectively. The rainbow represents the kind of natural beauty that children are best at admiring. If you remember observing nature as a child, you might remember being moved by a rainbow, or by a forest, or a desert, or by any number of beautiful things that abound on this Earth. Wordsworth asserts that “The Child is father of the Man” precisely because children are inspired by natural beauty in a way that adults are not. We have much to learn from kids and their relationship to our planet, and as an adult, this poem’s speaker hope to worship this beauty—”bound each [day] to each [day] by natural piety.”

“City Lake” by Chelsea DesAutels

Retrieved here, from The Slowdown.

Almost dusk. Fishermen packing up their bait, a small girl singing there’s nothing in here nothing in here casting a yellow pole, glancing at her father. What is it they say about mercy? Five summers ago this lake took a child’s life. Four summers ago it saved mine, the way the willows stretch toward the water but never kiss it, how people laugh as they walk the concrete path or really have it out with someone they love. One spring the path teemed with baby frogs, so many flattened, so many jumping. I didn’t know a damn thing then. I thought I was waiting for something to happen. I stepped carefully over the dead frogs and around the live ones. What was I waiting for? Frogs to rain from the sky? A great love? The little girl spies a perch just outside her rod’s reach. She wants to wade in. She won’t catch the fish and even if she does it might be full of mercury. Still, I want her to roll up her jeans and step into the water, tell her it’s mercy, not mud, filling each impression her feet make. I’m not saying she should be grateful to be alive. I’m saying mercy is a big dark lake we’re all swimming in.

This poem tells you precisely what the central symbol represents: the lake symbolizes mercy. Yet, the two have no easy relationship, and the poem constantly complicates the concept of mercy itself. Rather than highlight the grace of mercy—how wonderful it is to be saved—this poem reminds us that mercy is just a form of chance: random with whom it saves and with whom it doesn’t. No matter how well the narrator “steps carefully” through the lake, she can never predict how and why anyone receives mercy.

“Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson

Retrieved here, from Poetry .

Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us – The Dews drew quivering and Chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads Were toward Eternity –

This poem employs a lot of symbols, most notably in the third stanza. The images used each signify a different stage of life. The school represents childhood. The fields of gazing grain represent adulthood—grain is fertile, in its prime, and it “gazes” upwards towards the sky. The setting sun represents old age. Though each of these symbols are employed only once, they are certainly evocative in the context of Death personified, as the poem suggests each of us are on a horse drawn carriage towards the afterlife.

Universal Symbolism: Does it Exist?

The theorist Erich Fromm divides symbolism into three categories: conventional, accidental, and universal symbolism.

Conventional S ymbolism is closely related to concrete imagery. Essentially, it is the use of images which everyone in a particular language can understand. When I say “light bulb,” you imagine some sort of glass bulb with a filament inside. We might have different mental images, but we agree on the same meaning. This is a non-interpretive form of symbolism, and in semiotics, we’re essentially referring to the sign, signifier, and signified.

Accidental S ymbolism might be best described as specific to a certain person. We form relationships to objects all the time: some positive, some negative. A character might form a specific relationship to an object, and that relationship will continue to affect this character throughout the story. For example, let’s say your character won the lottery using a $5 bill they found on the street. They might assume that every time they find a $5, something lucky is about to happen, making that $5 bill a symbol of luck.

Finally, Universal Symbolism refers to images which, over time, have developed a symbolic meaning that we all instantly recognize. These symbols are understood across time and culture: a heart represents love, the sky represents limitlessness, and a fire represents power—or destruction, or rebirth, depending on how it’s employed.

However, don’t be misled by the word “universal”—it is better to see these categories as postmarks along a spectrum, as few, if any, symbols would actually be understood by every person in the world.

Additionally, don’t assume that “universal” is automatically better. Because these symbols are well understood, they are also often cliché . It is important to employ imagery in fresh, interesting ways, using the context of your work to discover new and surprising relationships between images and ideas. Often, using a poem or story to expand upon the accidental symbols (of your life or the lives of your characters) will result in more impactful imagery.

Lastly, you may be interested in the idea of the “objective correlative.” An objective correlative is a device that makes an abstract idea concrete in the context of a piece of literature. An obvious example of this is the mirror in The Picture of Dorian Gray , which represents Dorian’s soul as it becomes corrupted by vanity. T. S. Eliot, who popularized the term, argues that a work of literature should arrange images and symbols precisely so that they evoke a certain meaning without telling us the meaning itself. It is, in essence, a way to exercise show, don’t tell .

Wielding Symbolism in Your Writing

Here’s some advice for employing symbolism in literature:

  • Be concrete. Use images that are easy to visualize and grounded in everyday reality.
  • Be specific. Show the reader exactly what the symbol looks like. The more physical detail you provide, the easier it is to explore the complexities of what your symbol represents.
  • Prefer the accidental to the universal. There’s no problem with employing universal symbolism, but you should have at least one accidental symbol in your work, as it will often reveal the most about the story or poem you write.
  • Be spontaneous. Don’t write with symbolism in mind, just employ imagery tactfully. Writers often don’t realize what their work means until after they’ve written and revised it; trying to muscle meaning into your work might limit the work’s possibilities.
  • Don’t overthink it. There’s no “perfect image” to represent any particular idea. We all forge our own relationships to different objects. Sure, the heart can represent love. So can the dining table, a lightning strike, the stomach, the ocean, or a pair of shoes.

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Last updated on Jan 24, 2022

What Is Symbolism? Definition and Examples

Answer: Symbolism is the use of real-world objects to represent abstract ideas. It takes easy-to-understand ideas and objects and uses them to communicate deeper concepts beyond their literal meaning.

As one of the most popular literary devices , we encounter symbolism constantly. But it’s not always easy to identify — or to implement into one's own writing.

In this post, we’ll dive into symbolism and the effects it can create in a story — along with some classic symbolism examples you’re bound to recognize.

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Symbolism is the expression of ideas through imagery

Symbolism tends to work best with striking imagery. This is why symbolism often involves bold colors, eye-catching items, dramatic events, and so on; the stronger the image, the clearer the idea behind it.

Filmmakers frequently take advantage of this, crafting colorful, compelling visuals that audiences instantly clock as symbolism. While writers must take a subtler approach, that doesn’t mean textual symbolism is weaker than visual symbolism — indeed, when gifted with masterful description, a reader’s imagination can yield the most powerful imagery of all.

literary definition for symbolism


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Strong imagery doesn’t always equal symbolism. Sometimes a vivid scene is just a plot point that moves the story along without representing anything deeper. That said, strong imagery usually means you’ve got a symbol on your hands — as in the example below.

Example: Water and rebirth in Beloved

Symbolism in literature | Water symbolizes rebirth in Beloved

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim in her straw hat. Everything hurt but her lungs most of all.

The fifth chapter of Beloved begins with Beloved's rebirth after her mother, Sethe, was forced to kill her as a baby. While the water itself is the symbol, it’s the image of Beloved that hits hardest: this portrait of a young woman whose lungs sting with every breath, who can't move for an entire day.

Beloved is full of striking imagery like this, but this scene is a particularly nuanced example. With the realization that she is Sethe’s lost daughter, the scene takes on even greater meaning — the water symbolizes not just Beloved’s rebirth, but the pain of it, invoking the trauma of her past.

It's a way to underline important themes

To work meaningfully in a story, a symbol can’t just represent any idea. It also needs to relate to the story’s motifs and themes!

Take the age-old symbols of light and darkness. If you were writing an epic battle between two sides, you might connect one side to light and the other to darkness to show who’s good and who’s bad — or you could swap them to subvert the trope. What you wouldn’t want to do is insert imagery of darkness and light in a story that has nothing to do with good and evil.

Luckily for writers, once you know which theme(s) you want to tackle , suitable symbols should follow. And luckily for readers, writers almost never include random symbols that don’t relate to their work’s themes!

If you recognize a symbol, even if you’re not sure how to decipher it, you can trust that it’s important — as in the example below.

Example: Mockingbirds and innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird

Symbolism in literature | Mockingbirds symbolize innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Though Atticus first brings it up in the passage above, the mockingbird symbolizes more than Jem's childhood innocence. It’s a symbol for all innocence, and clearly connects to the character of Tom Robinson: a Black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.

By extension, the phrase “to kill a mockingbird” relates to the immorality of hurting an innocent creature. In the book, the Ewells symbolically kill the mockingbird of Tom Robinson with their lies, as does the racist jury that convicts him.

Of course, when Tom is shot and killed by a prison guard, we see that for a Black man in America, murder is rarely just metaphorical. It’s a wrenching yet undeniably powerful sequence of events — and an excellent case study in how such symbols can connect to overarching themes.

A poetic way to “show, don’t tell”

Symbolism can also be used to show rather than tell . For those unfamiliar with this principle, it encourages subtle yet revealing descriptions, rather than laying out information more plainly.

For example: “Allie was nervous during the test” is a telling statement. It gets the point across clearly and immediately, and even demonstrates how telling is useful when the author has to knock out some exposition . But telling sentences don’t really engage the reader, and can come across as dry.

“Showing” the same information is much more interesting: “Allie fiddled with her pencil, tapping it against the tabletop. Her eyes darted up to the clock and back down again. She felt her palms sweating and gripped the pencil harder.” This lets us know what Allie is experiencing without quite labeling it, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

Symbolism adds yet another, more intriguing layer to this tactic. While all symbols help writers “show don’t tell” their ideas, some symbols are especially incisive, as in the following example.

Example: Blood and guilt in Macbeth

Symbolism in literature | Blood symbolizes guilt in Macbeth

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! — One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky! — Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? — Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

One of the most memorable scenes in Macbeth is Lady Macbeth’s bout of sleepwalking in Act 5, accompanied by her frenzied speech. “Out, damned spot!” she cries, scrubbing at her hands as if they were stained with blood — despite the fact that she has not killed anyone herself.

If anything, though, this makes the “blood” into an even more powerful symbol; Lady Macbeth's guilt is so extreme that this vision still haunts her. Of course, she doesn’t say “I feel guilty.” Shakespeare makes a much more compelling case by showing her descent into blood-fueled paranoia… ironically, the same force that drove her and Macbeth to murder.

It can enhance a story's emotional resonance

As you’ve probably gathered, the best symbols evoke both an intellectual and an emotional response. We feel sorrow over Beloved’s painful rebirth; desperately angry at the destruction of Tom Robinson; a mixture of satisfaction, pity, and fear for Lady Macbeth’s guilt.

These responses tend to arise naturally, but storytellers can also intentionally make their symbols more resonant. For instance, say you wanted to symbolize childhood in a scene. You could have your main character walk by a park and hear children playing… or you could have them stumble upon an old, worn teddy bear with its stuffing falling out.

The more innate emotional pull an image has, the more strongly readers will feel about what it represents. Whether you’re trying to elicit sublime happiness or devastating sadness, a well-placed symbol could be the key.

Example: Food and passion in Like Water for Chocolate

Symbolism in literature | Food symbolizes passion in Like Water for Chocolate

Tita's blood and the roses from Pedro proved quite an explosive combination. [...] Gertrudis began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs. An itch in the center of her body kept her from sitting properly in her chair.   She began to sweat, imagining herself on horseback with her arms clasped around one of Poncho Villa's men: the one she had seen in the village plaza the week before, smelling of sweat and mud, of dawns that brought uncertainty and danger, smelling of life and of death.

What better way to show emotional resonance than with a story about baking feelings into food? The symbolism in Like Water for Chocolate is admittedly quite evident; its magical realist approach means that we can see clearly which emotion each dish represents.

But sometimes the most obvious symbols have the greatest emotional impact. This is certainly true of the scene in which Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, is consumed by lust after eating quail with rose petal sauce — a meal infused with Tita’s erotic thoughts of her other sister’s husband, Pedro. 

This symbol is particularly potent given that Pedro brought Tita the roses in the first place. Tita effectively pours all her sexual frustration into the meal, and in the next breathless scene, we feel her love and lust for Pedro almost as powerfully as Gertrudis does.

And it can make the most obscure story relateable.

Finally, keep in mind that most symbols in literature are universal. Indeed, reviewing our examples, each author uses an intuitive association (water with rebirth, blood with guilt, etc.) to coax readers in the right direction.

Sure, some of the more generic symbols — like the color red rather than the specific image of blood — may represent multiple, sometimes conflicting ideas in different works. And as noted in the light vs. darkness example, there’s always the possibility of subversion.

But most of the time, what you intuit is what you get! At the end of the day, interpreting and even implementing symbols isn’t all that complicated. Go with your gut, and when in doubt, remember you can always return to the classics for confirmation.

Example: Nature and wildness in Wuthering Heights (and others)

Symbolism in literature | Nature symbolizes wildness in Wuthering Heights

My landlord halloed for me to stop ere I reached the bottom of the garden, and offered to accompany me across the moor. It was well he did, for the whole hill-back was one billowy, white ocean; the swells and falls not indicating corresponding rises and depressions in the ground: many pits, at least, were filled to a level; and entire ranges of mounds, the refuse of the quarries, blotted from the chart which my yesterday's walk left pictured in my mind.

Speaking of the classics, let’s look at our last example: nature and wildness in Wuthering Heights . This one is so well-known that it even features in an episode of Friends — Phoebe noting that the story is set “on these really creepy moors,” which symbolize “the wildness of Heathcliff’s character.”

But Wuthering Heights isn’t the only story to relate natural wilderness to human turmoil and ferality. The Scarlet Letter, published a few years later, implies a similar connection with Hester’s daughter Pearl — forced to live near the woods on the edge of town, Pearl becomes increasingly unruly. A better-known example might be Lord of the Flies : the longer the boys remain on the island, the more primitive they become.

This is one of symbolism’s best qualities: creators can build upon earlier works to develop symbols and make them even more powerful. Which is exactly why the greatest symbols only become richer over time!

On that note, we hope this guide has helped you better understand symbolism in literature — to both identify symbols in future reading and use them more effectively in your own work. No matter what the symbols in question are, you’ll have all the tools you need to work with them. (Then again, just to be safe, steer clear of those creepy moors.)

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Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, definition of symbolism.

When used as a literary device, symbolism means to imbue objects with a certain meaning that is different from their original meaning or function. Other literary devices , such as metaphor , allegory , and allusion , aid in the development of symbolism. Authors use symbolism to tie certain things that may initially seem unimportant to more universal themes. The symbols then represent these grander ideas or qualities. For instance, an author may use a particular color that on its own is nothing more than a color, but hints at a deeper meaning. One notable example is in Joseph Conrad’s aptly titled Heart of Darkness , where the “darkness” of the African continent in his work is supposed to symbolize its backwardness and the possibility of evil there.

Common Examples of Symbolism

We use symbols all the time in everyday life. Many people own things that have special meaning for them, such as a gift from a loved one that represents that bond. Companies use symbols as shorthand to represent their brand, and sports teams name themselves after fearsome animals and people to invoke power (for example, the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings, respectively). There are also cultural symbols, such as a dove representing peace. Here are more examples of symbolism from common life:

  • Wedding rings and engagement rings : Wedding and engagement rings are worn to symbolize a lasting union that a couple has entered into.
  • The American flag : The thirteen red and white stripes on the American flag symbolize the original thirteen colonies, while the fifty stars are a symbol for the fifty states.
  • The five Olympic rings : The primary symbol of the Olympics is the image of five interlocking rings. This symbol was created in 1912, and the six colors—the blue, green, black, yellow, and red rings on a white background—were meant to be a combination of all of the colors on the flags of the participating countries at the time. The rings now are sometimes thought to represent the five participating regions of the world—Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Oceania, and the Americas—though no color represents any specific region.
  • McDonald’s Golden Arches : McDonald’s is one of the largest companies in the world, with over 35,000 fast-food restaurants in 119 countries. The “golden arches”, which look like the letter “M”, are a symbol for the company. This symbol is recognizable across the world.

Significance of Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism has played a large role in the history of literature. Symbols have been used in cultures all around the world, evident in ancient legends, fables, and religious texts. One famous example of symbolism is the story of the Garden of Eden, in which the serpent persuades Eve to eat an apple from the tree of knowledge. The serpent in this story represents wickedness and the apple is a symbol for knowledge. Symbolism is equally important in poetry, prose , and plays, as well as in all genres of literature, from science fiction to fantasy to fiction for young adults (just think of Harry Potter’s scar—a symbol of his being the “chosen one”, as well as his ability to overcome evil). When analyzing a piece of literature, examining the primary symbols often leads to a greater understanding of the work itself.

Though the definition of symbolism most often relates to a literary device, there was also a nineteenth-century literary movement called “Symbolism.” The movement was chiefly based in France, Russia, and Belgium, and was greatly influenced by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Symbolists rejected realism, and instead thought that truth could only be represented in an indirect manner, i.e., through symbols. Famous symbolists were Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Ezra Pound.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

LADY MACBETH: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!

( Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

In Shakespeare’s famous drama , Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspire to kill King Duncan. After they do so, both are stricken by their guilty consciences. At first, Lady Macbeth chastises her husband for feeling guilty, but later she is shown sleepwalking through the castle while muttering about the murder. The literal “spot” she is trying to rid herself of is King Duncan’s blood, though the spot is a symbol for the mark on her conscience. Several times over in Macbeth there are references to the difficulty of getting out bloodstains, and in this famous line Lady Macbeth has found that the bloodstain has seeped even into her brain.

Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.

( The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Nathaniel Hawthorne named his novel The Scarlet Letter after the central symbol of the book. The scarlet letter is a very real thing—a red letter “A” that stands for adulteress, which main character Hester Prynne is forced to wear around her small town. In this excerpt, the meaning of the symbol is explicitly stated. The scarlet letter is a symbol of sin. But, in fact, Hester Prynne’s entire body becomes a symbol for sin by wearing the letter, as her body represents the destruction of innocence.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

( The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings , is a hero’s quest in which the hobbit Frodo Baggins must destroy an all-powerful ring. This object is imbued with magic through its creation, and is a symbol for ultimate power. The ultimate power also becomes equated with evil. The ring simply being in Frodo’s presence begins to turn Frodo toward desire of power, and thus evil. However, Frodo’s ability to combat the power of the ring shows that he possesses a great inner source of goodness.

LAURA: Little articles of [glass], they’re ornaments mostly! Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here’s an example of one, if you’d like to see it! . . . Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks! . . . You see how the light shines through him? JIM: It sure does shine! LAURA: I shouldn’t be partial, but he is my favorite one. JIM: What kind of a thing is this one supposed to be? LAURA: Haven’t you noticed the single horn on his forehead? JIM: A unicorn, huh? —aren’t they extinct in the modern world?

( The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)

As in the previous two examples of symbolism, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams takes its name from the most prevalent symbol in the play. The character of Laura is a very fragile and unique girl. Her older brother Tom fears for her safety, just as she fears for the safety of her beloved glass animals. As she explains in this dialogue with a gentleman caller named Jim, her favorite of the animals is the unicorn. The unicorn is a symbol for Laura—unique, a bit strange, and out of place. Jim later breaks the unicorn so that the horn falls off. As Laura notes while Jim is apologizing, this makes the unicorn into a normal horse—“less freakish.” However, the breaking of the unicorn’s horn also symbolizes the breaking of Laura’s heart when she finds out that Jim is actually engaged to another woman.

Test Your Knowledge of Symbolism

1. Choose the correct symbolism definition when used as a literary device: A. To use different kinds of notation, like musical notes or mathematical symbols. B. To give objects a new meaning that is different from their original meaning. C. To write in a language that uses symbols, like hieroglyphics.

2. Consider the following lines from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12:

When I behold the violet past prime, And sable curls all silvered o’er with white; When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,

What do the images of a violet past its prime, sable-colored hair that is now white, and trees that are barren of leaves symbolize? A. Old age and the passage of time B. Springtime and new life C. These images symbolize nothing

3. Which of the following excerpts from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a symbolism example? A. I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence B. I doubted if I should ever come back. C.  Then took the other [road], as just as fair, / And having perhaps the better claim , / Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

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Related overviews.


Stéphane Mallarmé (1842—1898) French poet

Odilon Redon (1840—1916) French painter and graphic artist

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An artistic and poetic movement or style using symbolic images and indirect suggestion to express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind. It originated in late 19th century France and Belgium, with important figures including Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Redon.

From:   Symbolism   in  The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable »

Subjects: Literature

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Literary Terms

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This handout gives a rundown of some important terms and concepts used when talking and writing about literature.

Included below is a list of literary terms that can help you interpret, critique, and respond to a variety of different written works. This list is by no means comprehensive, but instead offers a primer to the language frequently used by scholars and students researching literary works. This list and the terms included in it can help you begin to identify central concerns or elements in a work that might help facilitate your interpretation, argumentation, and analysis. We encourage you to read this list alongside the other guides to literary interpretation included on the OWL Website. Please use the links on the left-hand side of this page to access other helpful resources.

  • Characterization : The ways individual characters are represented by the narrator or author of a text. This includes descriptions of the characters’ physical appearances, personalities, actions, interactions, and dialogue.
  • Dialogue : Spoken exchanges between characters in a dramatic or literary work, usually between two or more speakers.
  • Genre : A kind of literature. For instance, comedy, mystery, tragedy, satire, elegy, romance, and epic are all genres. Texts frequently draw elements from multiple genres to create dynamic narratives. Alastair Fowler uses the following elements to define genres: organizational features (chapters, acts, scenes, stanzas); length; mood (the Gothic novel tends to be moody and dark); style (a text can be high, low, or in-between depending on its audience); the reader’s role (readers of a mystery are expected to interpret evidence); and the author’s reason for writing (an epithalamion is a poem composed for marriage) (Mickics 132-3).
  • Imagery : A term used to describe an author’s use of vivid descriptions “that evoke sense-impressions by literal or figurative reference to perceptible or ‘concrete’ objects, scenes, actions, or states” (Baldick 121). Imagery can refer to the literal landscape or characters described in a narrative or the theoretical concepts an author employs.
  • Plot : The sequence of events that occur through a work to produce a coherent narrative or story.
  • Point of View: The perspective (visual, interpretive, bias, etc.) a text takes when presenting its plot and narrative. For instance, an author might write a narrative from a specific character’s point of view, which means that that character is our narrative and readers experience events through his or her eyes.
  • Style : Comprising an author’s diction, syntax, tone, characters, and other narrative techniques, “style” is used to describe the way an author uses language to convey his or her ideas and purpose in writing. An author’s style can also be associated to the genre or mode of writing the author adopts, such as in the case of a satire or elegy with would adopt a satirical or elegiac style of writing.
  • Symbol(ism): An object or element incorporated into a narrative to represent another concept or concern. Broadly, representing one thing with another. Symbols typically recur throughout a narrative and offer critical, though often overlooked, information about events, characters, and the author’s primary concerns in telling the story.
  • Theme : According to Baldick, a theme may be defined as “a salient abstract idea that emerges from a literary work’s treatment of its subject-matter; or a topic recurring in a number or literary works” (Baldick 258). Themes in literature tend to differ depending on author, time period, genre, style, purpose, etc.
  • Tone : A way of communicating information (in writing, images, or sound) that conveys an attitude. Authors convey tone through a combination of word-choice, imagery, perspective, style, and subject matter. By adopting a specific tone, authors can help readers accurately interpret meaning in a text.
  • First person : A story told from the perspective of one or several characters, each of whom typically uses the word “I.” This means that readers “see” or experience events in the story through the narrator’s eyes.
  • Second person : A narrative perspective that typically addresses that audience using “you.” This mode can help authors address readers and invest them in the story.
  • Third person : Describes a narrative told from the perspective of an outside figure who does not participate directly in the events of a story. This mode uses “he,” “she,” and “it” to describe events and characters.

Types of Prose Texts

  • Bildungsroman : This is typically a type of novel that depicts an individual’s coming-of-age through self-discovery and personal knowledge. Such stories often explore the protagonists’ psychological and moral development. Examples include Dickens’ Great Expectations and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man .
  • Epistolary : A novel composed primarily of letters sent and received by its principal characters. This type of novel was particularly popular during the eighteenth century.
  • Essay : According to Baldick, “a short written composition in prose that discusses a subject or proposes an argument without claiming to be a complete or thorough exposition” (Baldick 87). A notable example of the essay form is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which uses satire to discuss eighteenth-century economic and social concerns in Ireland.
  • Novella : An intermediate-length (between a novel and a short story) fictional narrative.

Terms for Interpreting Authorial Voice

  • Apology : Often at the beginning or conclusion of a text, the term “apology” refers to an instance in which the author or narrator justifies his or her goals in producing the text.
  • Irony : Typically refers to saying one thing and meaning the opposite, often to shock audiences and emphasize the importance of the truth.
  • Satire : A style of writing that mocks, ridicules, or pokes fun at a person, belief, or group of people in order to challenge them. Often, texts employing satire use sarcasm, irony, or exaggeration to assert their perspective.
  • Stream of consciousness : A mode of writing in which the author traces his or her thoughts verbatim into the text. Typically, this style offers a representation of the author’s exact thoughts throughout the writing process and can be used to convey a variety of different emotions or as a form of pre-writing.

Terms for Interpreting Characters

  • Antagonist : A character in a text who the protagonist opposes. The antagonist is often (though not always) the villain of a story.
  • Anti-hero : A protagonist of a story who embodies none of the qualities typically assigned to traditional heroes and heroines. Not to be confused with the antagonist of a story, the anti-hero is a protagonist whose failings are typically used to humanize him or her and convey a message about the reality of human existence.
  • Archetype : “a resonant figure of mythic importance, whether a personality, place, or situation, found in diverse cultures and different historical periods” (Mickics 24). Archetypes differ from allegories because they tend to reference broader or commonplace (often termed “stock”) character types, plot points, and literary conventions. Paying attention to archetypes can help readers identify what an author may posit as “universal truths” about life, society, human interaction, etc. based on what other authors or participants in a culture may have said about them.
  • Epithet : According to Taafe, “An adjective, noun, or phase expressing some characteristic quality of a thing or person or a descriptive name applied to a person, as Richard the Lion-Hearted” (Taafe 58). An epithet usually indicates some notable quality about the individual with whom it addresses, but it can also be used ironically to emphasize qualities that individual might actually lack.
  • Personification : The artistic representation of a concept, quality, or idea in the form of a person. Personification can also refer to “a person who is considered a representative type of a particular quality or concept” (Taafe 120). Many classical deities are good examples of personifications. For instance, the Greek god Ares is a personification of war.
  • Protagonist : The primary character in a text, often positioned as “good” or the character with whom readers are expected to identify. Protagonists usually oppose an antagonist.

Terms for Interpreting Word Choice, Dialogue, and Speech

  • Alliteration : According to Baldick, “The repetition of the same sounds—usually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllabus—in any sequence of neighboring words” (Baldick 6). Alliteration is typically used to convey a specific tone or message.
  • Apostrophe : This figure of speech refers to an address to “a dead or absent person, or an abstraction or inanimate object” and is “usually employed for emotional emphasis, can become ridiculous [or humorous] when misapplied” (Baldick 17).
  • Diction : Word choice, or the specific language an author, narrator, or speaker uses to describe events and interact with other characters.

Terms for Interpreting Plot

  • Climax : The height of conflict and intrigue in a narrative. This is when events in the narrative and characters’ destinies are most unclear; the climax often appears as a decision the protagonist must make or a challenge he or she must overcome in order for the narrative to obtain resolution.
  • Denouement : The “falling action” of a narrative, when the climax and central conflicts are resolved and a resolution is found. In a play, this is typically the last act and in a novel it might include the final chapters.
  • Deus Ex Machina : According to Taafe, “Literally, in Latin, the ‘god from the machine’; a deity in Greek and Roman drama who was brought in by stage machinery to intervene in the action; hence, any character, event, or device suddenly introduced to resolve the conflict” (43).
  • Exposition : Usually located at the beginning of a text, this is a detailed discussion introducing characters, setting, background information, etc. readers might need to know in order to understand the text that follows. This section is particularly rich for analysis because it contains a lot of important information in a relatively small space.
  • Frame Narrative : a story that an author encloses around the central narrative in order to provide background information and context. This is typically referred to as a “story within a story” or a “tale within a tale.” Frame stories are usually located in a distinct place and time from the narratives they surround. Examples of stories with frame narratives include Canterbury Tales, Frankenstein , and Wuthering Heights .
  • In media res : Beginning in “the middle of things,” or when an author begins a text in the midst of action. This often functions as a way to both incorporate the reader directly into the narrative and secure his or her interest in the narrative that follows.

Terms for Interpreting Layers of Meaning

  • Allegory : A literary mode that attempts to convert abstract concepts, values, beliefs, or historical events into characters or other tangible elements in a narrative. Examples include, Gulliver’s Travels, The Faerie Queene, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Paradise Lost .
  • Allusion : When a text references, incorporates, or responds to an earlier piece (including literature, art, music, film, event, etc). T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) offers an extensive example of allusion in literature. According to Baldick, “The technique of allusion is an economical means of calling upon the history or the literary tradition that author and reader are assumed to share” (7).
  • Hyperbole : exaggerated language, description, or speech that is not meant to be taken literally, but is used for emphasis. For instance, “I’ve been waiting here for ages” or “This bag weighs a ton.”
  • Metaphor : a figure of speech that refers to one thing by another in order to identify similarities between the two (and therefore define each in relation to one another).
  • Note that metonymy differs subtly from synecdoche, which substitutes a part of something for the whole. For example, the phrase "all hands on deck" can substitute for the more awkward "all people on deck."
  • Parody : a narrative work or writing style that mocks or mimics another genre or work. Typically, parodies exaggerate and emphasize elements from the original work in order to ridicule, comment on, or criticize their message.
  • Simile : a figure of speech that compares two people, objects, elements, or concepts using “like” or “as.”

Works Cited

For more information or to read about other literary terms, please see the following texts:

Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms . Oxford University Press, 2001.

Mikics, David. A New Handbook of Literary Terms . Yale University Press, 2007.

Taafe, James G. A Student’s Guide to Literary Term s. The World Publishing Company, 1967.

Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › Symbolism

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on December 12, 2020 • ( 0 )

Symbolism, an aesthetic movement devoted primarily to discovering the true nature of poetry, originated in France in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, the central figures in the theory and practice of symbolism in France, developed Edgar Allan Poe ‘s major premise about the poetic principle—that poetry is an evocation of eternal states through the discrete image or symbol— into a program for purifying poetry of the nonpoetic. The artists we classify as Symbolists aimed at purifying their art of all that was nonessential (some, such as Villiers de Lisle Adam, were dramatists; a few, such as J. K. Huysmans, were novelists). Symbolist poets such as Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, for example, rejected both the superficial rhetoric of argument and discussion and the dense notation of description and narration, all things that had obscured the true nature of poetry, in favor of the severe purity of a symbolic lyricism. The Symbolist poem was necessarily short, evocative, and mysterious.

Symbolism was introduced into the English-speaking world by Verlaine’s friend Arthur Symons (1865-1945). In The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) Symons argues that symbolism is the essence of language and literature: our first words were symbolic, and all truly imaginative writers have been symbolists. Symbolism became a conscious movement in the late nineteenth century as a necessary reaction against the dense, descriptive method of the naturalistic school of Émile Zola and others. The Symbolists restored purity to the arts, Symons maintains, by suggesting rather than saying, by evoking through symbols rather than submitting to the “old bondage of rhetoric, the old bondage of exteriority” (5) and describing through the logic of argument or the record of details. Symbols both reveal and conceal: they blend the visible and the invisible, the particular and the universal, the finite and the infinite. Symbols communicate indirectly: concrete images, such as the rose or the cross, summon up emotional and intellectual associations that cannot be precisely numbered or named.

The Symbolist method focuses on these internal associations and frees poetic language from the restraints of logical sequence or referential accuracy. This “liberty,” as Symons calls it, from the governing principles of common discourse restores the “authentic speech” of mystery to literature. “Start with an enigma, and then withdraw the key to the enigma” (72), Symons counsels those who would approach the Symbolist method. Often this insistence on mystery leads to a dark obscurity of language, especially with a symbol system in which the correspondences between the concrete term and its multiple associations seem private to the artist. Many of the writers Symons discusses, however, draw their symbols from traditional sources of hermetic or occult doctrine, like the Rosicrucian symbol system Villiers weaves into the fabric of his Axel. The true sources of Symbolism, Symons concludes, lie in ancient systems of mysticism, and the true purpose of the movement was to evoke the presence of the infinite and confirm the possibility of immortality through the associative network of symbols, ancient and modern.

Symons’s presentation of the method and mysteries of the French Symbolists exerted a profound influenc

literary definition for symbolism

e on the new generation of writers in English. T. S. Eliot acknowledged this influence when he said in 1930: “I myself owe Mr. Symons a great debt: but for having read his book I should not .. . have begun to read Verlaine; and but for reading Verlaine, I should not have heard of Corbière” (Symons xv). Symons himself was influenced and directed in his understanding of Symbolism by the poet he described as the “chief representative of that movement in our country” (xix) and to whom he dedicated his book, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). Although Yeats was deeply impressed by Villiers’s Axel, which he saw in 1894, he derived his Symbolist principles from his studies in magic and Irish mythology and from his pioneering study (with Edwin Ellis, 1891) of the prophetic books of William Blake, a poet he regarded as the preeminent Symbolist. Yeats made his major theoretical statements on the method of Symbolism in a series of essays written from 1896 to 1903 collected under the title Ideas of Good and Evil (a title borrowed from Blake).

In an essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley, another of his Symbolist precursors, Yeats argues that “there is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom first speaks in images” ( Essays 95). If the man or woman is a true poet, then his or her particular image (for Shelley a boat drifting down a river between towered hills and toward a distant star) blends into a universal and invisible order. “An image that has transcended particular time and place becomes,” Yeats writes, “a symbol, passes beyond death, as it were, and becomes a living soul” (80). Although he maintains that “it is only by ancient symbols … that any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of Nature” (87), he finally makes no distinction between what he calls “inherent symbols and arbitrary symbols” in his essay “Magic” (49). Both species of symbol, traditional and private, evoke the presence of the infinite, or what Yeats calls the Great Mind and Great Memory. The borders of our field of awareness, Yeats declares, are not closed, and our individual mind can become part of this larger consciousness only through the network of symbols. Neither metaphor nor allegory can fulfill this poetic principle: Symbolism alone evokes the richness of the Great Mind and Memory.

This Memory, which transcends and connects each individual mind, provided Symbolism with a theory or explanation of both the process of writing and the experience of reading. The Memory was evoked through the medium of certain conditions of consciousness, moments of trance, contemplation, or “the moment when we are both asleep and awake” ( Essays 159), moments prolonged in the rapt attention of reading. “So I think,” Yeats argued in “The Symbolism of Poetry,” a crucial essay from Ideas of Good and Evil , “that in the making and in the understanding of a work of art, and the more easily if it is full of patterns and symbols and music, we are lured to the threshold of sleep” (160). In this threshold or medial state, produced by a rapt attention to the rhythm of the work, the reader joins the artist in the work of evocative creation. “The purpose of rhythm,” Yeats maintains, “is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation” (159). In this prolonged moment, making and understanding, the production and reception of the text, are joined and created through the intersubjective Memory.

In his poetry, in his making, Yeats was, as Paul de Man has noted (153-62), a Symbolist from the beginning. Before he had any experience of the French writers, he worked in the Symbolist method, evoking in his early poetry ( The Rose , 1893) the rose and cross of the Rosicrucian symbol system he afterwards saw enacted in Villiers’s Axel. Later he sought for a more arbitrary symbolism, for a system of images available in his direct experience of contemporary Ireland that could become the symbolic vehicle of the Great Memory. The violence and meanness as well as the heroism and extravagance of Irish life provided him occasionally with symbols that balanced his lifelong interest in the esoteric symbols of the occult. With his purchase of a ruined tower in the west of Ireland, he finally found a symbol both arbitrary and inherent, both particular to his secret life and universal within the ancient occult traditions. This tower, an image of hermetic wisdom made a symbol through long usage in Milton, Shelley, and others, inspired much of Yeats’s best poetry in The Tower (1928) and later volumes. The occult disciplines, which were, in Yeats’s view, ancient systems for evoking the Great Memory through the manipulation of symbols, remained his deepest inspiration and exerted a profound influence on Per Arnica Silentia Lunae, his mystical-poetic statement of 1917 (now in Mythologies ), and on A Vision , his cosmological system completed first in 1925 and then in 1937. For Yeats, as for Symons, the true meaning of Symbolism lay in the mystical evocation of infinitude.

Although Symbolism influenced other major writers of the twentieth century in very different ways—Wallace Stevens, for example, discovered there a precursor to his secular and euphonic metapoetry—the Symbolist image of the poet pursuing the essence of poetry into mystic solitude remained dominant. This image informed the two most influential critical studies of Symbolism in English: Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1931), a study centered on the consequences of Yeats’s fascination with Villiers’s drama, and Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image (1957), an analysis of several of Yeats’s key symbols (the dancer and the tree).

Symbolism, Aestheticism and Charles Baudelaire
Symbolist Movement in Poetry
Walter Pater and Aestheticism

Bibliogaphy Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899, rev. ed., 1908,1919, intro. Richard Ellmann, 1958); Philippe Auguste Villiers de 1 ‘Isle Adam, Axel (trans. June Guicharnaud, 1970); W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (1961), Mythologies (1959), A Vision (1925, rev. ed., 1937). Paul De Man, “Image and Emblem in Yeats,” The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984); Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (1957); Giorgio Melchiori, The Whole Mystery of Art: Pattern into Poetry in the Work ofW. B. Yeats (i960); David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (1976); Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of1870-1930 (1931)· Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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Symbolism — Definition, Purpose, and Examples

Daniel Bal

What is symbolism?

Symbolism is a literary device that refers to the use of symbols that stand for something beyond their literal meaning. Words, objects, actions, characters, and abstract ideas can all be symbolic, as they embody a range of ideas that extend beyond a surface-level understanding.

literary definition for symbolism

There are two main types of symbols: universal and context-based.

Universal symbols are culturally accepted and need no explanation regarding what they represent. No single symbol is entirely universal, as an item can signify an idea in one location but not in another (e.g.., the American flag representing freedom).

Context-based symbols rely on their context and cannot be understood without the material from which they originate. Therefore, the symbol would not make sense if referenced outside the source material.

William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies contains both universal and context-based symbols:

Glasses: One of the main characters in the novel (Piggy) wears glasses, which become an important plot device. Piggy provides rational thought; however, once his glasses break, the unsupervised group of boys stranded on an island falls into chaos. Golding incorporates the universal symbol of glasses to represent clear vision and thought. Upon their destruction, the boys act solely based on instinct.

Conch: At the start of the novel, the protagonist (Ralph) comes across a conch shell. Blowing into the conch creates a loud trumpet-like noise that attracts the boys stranded on the island. Therefore, the conch comes to represent organization. Eventually, one of the boys destroys the conch, ultimately fracturing the group’s unity. Golding’s use of the conch as a symbol of unity only makes sense in the context of the novel.

Example of a universal symbol

The symbolist movement began with a group of French poets in the late 19th century, but artists have used visual religious symbols in works of art for centuries.

What is the purpose of symbolism?

Whether in movies, songs, literature, or poetry, symbols can add emotion and imagery, define characters, and connect themes.

Add emotion: Symbols can help elicit an emotional response and create a lasting impression on a reader.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe : In the short story, Poe incorporates the symbol of a beating heart to illustrate the protagonist's guilt.

Add imagery: Symbols enhance imagery as a means of illustrating complex themes.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Through the use of the ring, Tolkien provides a better understanding of the corrupting nature of power.

Symbolism adds imagery

Define characters: Symbols help describe the intangible attributes characters possess.

Greek Mythology's Tiresias: In Greek mythology, Tiresias plays the role of a blind prophet. His blindness symbolizes his ability to see beyond the physical world, allowing him to envision the "truth. "

Connect themes: Repeating symbols can help connect themes throughout a novel or poem.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolizes the American dream and connects to the money and materialism needed to achieve it.

Symbolism examples

The use of universal symbols occurs in books, movies, songs, poems, and everyday life:

Examples of symbolism are also in pop culture, with a variety of popular symbols incorporated into various popular movies:

Symbolism in literature

The following works of literature incorporate the use of symbols and symbolic meaning:

Symbolism in poetry

The following poems incorporate the use of symbols:

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What is Symbolism? Definition, Examples & Types of Symbolism

literary definition for symbolism

by Fija Callaghan

We see symbols around us all the time—our seasonal celebrations are made out of them. We use symbols like bells, Santa hats, and reindeer to symbolize Christmas; jack o’lanterns, bedsheet ghosts, and spiderwebs to symbolize Halloween; and eggs, rabbits, and newborn chicks to symbolize Easter.

We use symbolism to convey meaning to each other through road signs when driving down the road or logos when shopping in the supermarket, too.

It’s the same for symbolism in writing. Generations of storytellers have created a collective archive of symbolic meanings that are recognized the world over. Let’s explore what symbolism is, how to use symbols that already exist in our culture, and how they can help you create a more engaging story.

What is symbolism?

Symbolism is a literary device that uses objects, places, people, or ideas to represent something beyond their literal meaning. Writers use symbolism as a way to draw connections between their characters, their story’s environment, and the events of the plot. Symbols can be things that are universally recognized, or things that are given meaning through the world of the story.

Symbols resonate with us on a deep instinctual level because we’re used to searching for meaning in everyday life around us all the time.

To convey symbolism in a novel or short story, writers use settings, items, or even characters to connect themes and communicate a deeper meaning. A ferocious storm, for instance, can be a symbol for a brewing conflict between two people. An object like a rose that’s beginning to wilt might be a symbol for a couple’s waning passions.

Even a character can be a symbol—for example, the couple’s child might be a symbol for the innocence, hope, and ideals they once had.

We’ll look at other examples of symbolism later on in this article.

What is symbolism? Symbolism is a literary device that uses objects or elements to communicate something beyond their literal meaning.

Types of symbolism in writing

There are two types of symbolism used in literature. Here’s how each type of symbolism works in a narrative.

Universal symbolism

The first is universal symbolism , in which the writer uses symbols that are an inherent part of our cultural language. These concepts can be from myths, histories, religions, or even our day-to-day lives.

For example, most readers will understand that a rose symbolizes love, or that a phoenix symbolizes rebirth, or that a set of scales symbolizes balance. We might recognize figures handed down to us through ancient stories such as the owls that were sacred to Athena, Goddess of wisdom, or bodies of water as a source of spiritual cleansing and restoration. Religious symbolism also falls into this category.

Writers can use this cultural language to give their writing resonance, power, and depth.

Contextual symbolism

The second is contextual symbolism , or things that only have a symbolic meaning within the world the author has created.

For example, in William Golding’s allegory Lord of the Flies , the book’s characters use a large conch shell as a kind of talking stick during group meetings—only the person holding the shell is given a voice. In this instance the conch shell becomes a symbol of civilization, order, and balance. Later, when the shell breaks, it represents the destruction of those very morals that made them human.

We wouldn’t necessarily attribute these meanings to a seashell in our own lives, but the meaning Golding gives the shell in his world becomes clear and powerful because of the place he’s given it in his plot.

Often, contextual symbolism only becomes apparent after your first draft. You can go back and heighten these underlying concepts during your editing process.

Religious symbols are some of the most commonly recognized motifs in social culture.

Is symbolism the same as metaphor?

Symbolism and metaphor are both used to convey feelings and ideas in a creative, vivid way. The difference is that symbolism uses imagery that we recognize either from our own knowledge and experiences or from events within the plot. Metaphor, on the other hand, uses two contrasting ideas to make the reader think about something in a new light.

For example, if you show two people having an argument while the sun sets, we might say that the setting sun is a symbol for the end of a bright and glorious relationship. As a writer, you could use pretty words to dress up this moment (because you can, and because it’s fun), but in truth your readers will already understand what the setting sun is trying to tell them in this moment. They’ve already built up these associations in their mind layer by layer, because they’ve seen this moment before.

They will also understand the significance of the woman’s sweatshirt, the man’s new prescription glasses, the broken locket the woman accidentally leaves behind, because you’ve done the work in showing the contextual symbolism of these things at pivotal moments in your story. The reader will recognize that these seemingly commonplace things are important pieces of a much larger whole. That’s symbolism at work.

On the other hand, if you had one character say that their partner is a fire extinguisher, your reader might need a few minutes to catch up. How is their partner a fire extinguisher? Maybe what the character is really trying to say is that their partner was kinda shiny and cool looking at first, and then they hung out in their kitchen for so long that they sort of forget they were there, but deep down the character knows that if they were ever in real trouble their partner would be there to put out the flames. That’s a metaphor.

Symbolism in literature takes threads that already exist in our understanding of the world and uses them to create powerful, emotionally resonant moments in our stories. Metaphors use two completely unrelated things to communicate an underlying truth.

What’s the difference between symbols and motifs?

Both symbolism and motifs play a similar role in communicating symbolic value with the reader; however, they’re not used in exactly the same way.

A motif is a recurring thematic symbol within a narrative. This means that the same image or the same idea is presented numerous times throughout the plot, helping to support and build upon the themes of the work.

For example, an author writing a book set during World War II might decide to use books as a motif for hope. They could show a soldier reading a beaten up old paperback at night, a burnt and decaying book left behind in an evacuated village, a diary torn to pieces by the story’s villain, and then that same soldier reading a storybook to his children when he finally finds his way home.

On either a conscious or subconscious level, the reader will begin to recognize this pattern as it threads its way throughout the narrative.

Motifs are one specific type of symbolism, but we most often identify symbolism as broader ideas presented at one moment in the story. For example, a sea monster in a nautical adventure novel could be a symbol for the destructive force of avarice, and the unraveling of a ship could be symbolic of stripping away what is unnecessary to begin anew.

Both symbolism and motifs show the reader what is truly being communicated by your story in a subtle, elegant way.

A motif is a symbol that occurs several times in a literary work.

5 examples of symbolism in literature

Symbolism is one of the oldest literary devices in storytelling . Let’s explore some famous examples of how symbolism has been used effectively in literature.

1. Wuthering Heights , by Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights draws heavily on its setting to inform its plot, tone, and theme. It’s also filled with layer upon layer of symbolism. The wild landscape of the moors are symbolic of the tempestuous passions of the central characters—and, in fact, the changeability of people as a whole.

The central character, Catherine, expresses her love through the symbolism in the natural land around her: “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.”

Brontë expands on the symbolism of place by using the two houses where the story is set, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, as symbols. Wuthering Heights is dark, foreboding, solidly built, and set on top of a hill at the mercy of the ferocious forces of nature; Thrushcross Grange is brighter, more delicate, and more inviting. It’s set away from the tempestuous weather of the moors and it gets lots of daylight.

The two houses are symbols for Catherine’s two opposing loves, as well as the two opposing character traits within herself. It’s this internal struggle to balance her wildness with her need for stability that powers the drama of the novel.

2. The Picture of Dorian Gray , by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s debaucherous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray shows us what happens when we allow our souls to become corrupted by hedonic impulse.

The protagonist, Dorian, makes a bargain to allow a painting of him to absorb the age, deterioration, and spiritual decay that he would otherwise inflict on himself. Thus the titular portrait in the novel becomes a figurative and literal symbol for depravity and corruption, a visual symbol for the protagonist’s inner self. The worse it gets, the more we see the portrait’s influence affecting his mental state as he spirals into a place he can’t come back from.

Dorian is also given a novel to read, an unnamed yellow book believed to be J .K. Huysmans’ À Rebours (“Against Nature”), a celebration of aesthetic and hedonic sensation above societal constraints. This book makes a lasting impression and serves as something of a scripture as Dorian begins his descent into debauchery and madness.

The yellow book becomes a symbol of the poisonous influence of his friends and the society that he’s become a part of, as well as the rising influence of French culture and decadence of that time period.

Symbols don’t always have one single meaning; they need to be examined through the context of a story.

3. The Great Gatsby , by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous literary work The Great Gatsby in itself has become one of our most recognizable symbols for decadence, excess, and the Great American Dream.

The book features several symbols and motifs, including a great pair of painted eyes on a wall that are thought to symbolize the eyes of God watching over the degradation of society and the omnipresent commercialism. The novel also prominently features the title character’s enormous mansion, which symbolizes the glory and luxury of the character’s lifestyle and his isolation and loneliness.

The novel also features a bright green light that the character can see across the water, leading Gatsby to the woman he loves. The light symbolizes a goal that’s within view but constantly out of reach: the girl on the other side of the water and the “American Dream” that the protagonist has spent so long aspiring to.

Gatsby believes that by attaining a lavish, comfortable lifestyle, he can finally be worthy of her. Yet despite his leaps and bounds in the material world, his goal, just like the source of the green light, never gets any closer. The repeated use of the green color symbolism in the novel also represents new money and prosperity.

4. Winnie the Pooh , by A. A. Milne

The children’s classic Winnie the Pooh is an interesting study in the way it has come to symbolize growth and belonging for several generations of readers. Several things become prominent symbols within the books, such as the iconic red balloon—because it’s cheerful, lightweight, and can fly, it symbolizes the magic of childhood. Much like childhood, however, the balloon’s flight is also an impermanent form of magic, fragile and easy to break before you’re truly ready.

Some scholars have also made the argument of how each central character symbolizes a particular learning disability or mental illness that can appear early in life, such as ADHD, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression. While it’s unlikely that A. A. Milne intended these characters to be symbols in such a concrete way (understanding of these disabilities was still very primitive when he was alive), it’s very possible that he created the characters to symbolize certain difficulties that we go through in our childhoods in a friendly, accessible way.

5. Moby Dick , by Herman Melville

A plethora of symbolism can be found in Herman Melville’s magnum opus Moby Dick , a story of survival on the high seas. The White Whale—an impersonal symbol so central to the story that the book was named after it—is thought to symbolize the destructive force of nature and the impossibility of conquering it. This symbol also feeds into themes of fate vs. free will, as the protagonist’s search for the animal brings the characters up against forces completely beyond their control.

The novel also features the construction of a coffin, which, counterintuitively, comes to symbolize hope. The ill man whom the coffin is built for takes comfort from it before he ends up recovering from his illness, and later one of the central characters uses the wooden coffin as a flotation device to keep him alive above the waves.

This is a good example of how you can take a universal cultural concept and use it to create a new meaning within the framework of your plot.

3 ways to incorporate symbolism into your story

When you’re looking for ways to use symbols in your story, you’ll find that there’s an entire treasure trove of imagery and visual language for you to incorporate into your own work. Here are a few of the ways you can find inspiration for your own symbolism.

You can find symbols in your own life and personal history to incorporate into your writing.

1. Look to your history

The stories we grew up with, both real and imagined, are full of symbols. Think about your culture’s traditions: what sort of symbols do you and your family use for births, deaths, and marriages? You can also look to other cultures and to times gone by for inspiration.

For example, in Victorian times there was a lot of romantic symbolism attributed to different plants and flowers—it was possible to send a detailed coded message through an artfully arranged bouquet . There’s an entire language passed down through the ages that you can use to give depth and complexity to your work.

2. Look to the world around you

Think about the things, people, and places you see around you every day. What do they mean to you? Traffic lights, advertisements, and shop displays all contain symbols that have become part of our extended cultural language.

You might see a children’s library using the image of an owl to symbolize wisdom and knowledge, or a realtor using the image of a rising sun to symbolize new beginnings in a new home. See how other people are using symbols such as animals, icons, and colors to communicate something with the world.

These are all universal symbols that your readers will recognize when you use them to show them something about the world of your story.

3. Look to your own experiences

Even though these literary devices are a huge part of our collective understanding, symbolism can also be a very personal, unique experience. For example, if you have a scary memory featuring a certain animal or in a certain place, those things will come to mean something different for you than they might for other people.

You can also develop personal symbolism through positive memories; maybe one of your happiest childhood memories is carving pumpkins with your parents, and so pumpkins for you have come to symbolize family and belonging—even if that isn’t necessarily what they mean to the larger world. You can use these symbols in your writing too.

This is where we get contextual symbolism. The difference between this and universal symbolism is that you’ll have to show your reader why they’re important and why you’re using them to communicate those things. You can do this through your characters —through their memories, the experiences they have, and the way they see the world around them.

You can use your own real memories to tell a fictional story (many writers do this), or you can use your experiences as inspiration to create something new. Maybe instead of a pumpkin, your protagonist used to go looking for seashells with their family along the coast. Now suddenly you can use seashells in your story to symbolize whatever you want, and your readers will understand—because you made it real.

Symbolism brings depth and complexity to your story

We encounter symbolism through the world around us every day, whether that’s from the stories we read, the way companies communicate with us, or the way we subconsciously process our own experiences. By using universal symbols as well as writing symbolism of your own, you can give a greater richness, theme, and emotional resonance to your work.

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Home » The Writer’s Dictionary » What is Symbolism? Definition, Examples of Literary Symbolism

Symbolism definition: Symbolism is the representation of one thing for another using a person, object, or idea.

What is Symbolism in Literature?

What does symbolize mean? A symbol is something that is represented by something else. A symbol is a physical object that stands for another object, person, or idea.

Just about anything can be a symbol. However, some symbols are commonly understood.

Symbolism Examples:

  • a heart is a symbol for love
  • a dove is a symbol for peace
  • a white cross inside a red square is a symbol for first-aid or hospital

Modern Examples of Symbolism

What is the definition of symbolism and their meanings

Everyday example of symbolism: The Statue of Liberty is a symbol for freedom. The object itself does not mean freedom. However, over time, people have grown to associate this figure to mean freedom. Therefore, an image of this object could conjure images or ideas of freedom.

Everyday example of symbolism: A caduceus is a familiar symbol for medicine. The image itself does not mean medicine. However, the caduceus has become synonymous with medicine. So, seeing a caduceus on a door might mean a medical school or doctor’s office.

The Function of Symbolism

symbolic definition

In writing, an author may not want to directly state a concept. He may just want to represent that idea with something else.

For example, perhaps a writer wants to represent the idea of “a fresh start” or “a new beginning.” To do so in his writing, he might not want to actually state these words. Instead, he might use a sunrise to represent these ideas.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

famous symbols in literature

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Yorick’s skull is a symbol for both death and fate. Hamlet speaks to this skull at great length, contemplating death and the concept of mortality. The skull is a physical representation of these ideas.

In Robert Frost’s poem “The Road not Taken,” two roads represent choices in life. The roads “diverged in a yellow wood” and the speaker has the option to choose one or the other. He contemplates each and eventually chooses “the road less traveled by” which ends up “making all the difference.”

Non-Literary Uses of Symbolism

literary symbols

Yet, for J.P. Morgan, the symbolism of the move is likely larger than its financial impact. The raise is expected to cost the bank around $100 million over three years on top of employees’ regular wages, assuming an average increase of about $3 an hour. – The Wall Street Journal

Summary: What is Symbolism?

Define symbolism in literature: the definition of symbolism in literature is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities for literary effect.

In summary, a symbolism is:

  • the representation of one object, idea, or concept, with another object
  • used frequently in literature
  • often a way to communicate deeper meaning without expressing literal terms

What is Symbolism Definition and Examples for Literature and Film - Featured

  • Scriptwriting

What is Symbolism? Definition, Examples in Literature & Film

S ymbolism can create an indelible impression on an audience. Symbolism runs through literature, poetry, and especially screenwriting, where visuals are paramount. But what is symbolism? In this article, we’ll define symbolism and show how symbols change over time. We’ll explore this topic by looking at common symbolism examples in literature and film. Pertinently, we’ll explore how symbolism can enhance your screenplay by taking a look at Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival (2016).

Tools For Screenwriters

Literary devices.

Literary Elements

  • Deuteragonist
  • Foil Character
  • Point of View
  • Protagonist

Literary Techniques

  • Alliteration
  • Connotation
  • Deus ex Machina
  • Foreshadowing
  • Iambic Pentameter
  • Juxtaposition
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Personification
  • Red Herring

What is Symbolism?

Understanding symbolism.

One of the most essential literary devices out there is symbolism. Symbolic meaning, is fluid, versatile, and incredibly impactful to the audience when used skillfully.

As a screenwriter, a full grasp of symbolism is integral to writing a more visual and meaningful screenplay. So, let’s get started with a symbolism definition before we discuss how to wield this storytelling tool.


What is the symbolism.

Symbolism is the art of imbuing objects or things with meaning, making them represent something more than the sum of its parts. Symbolism in literature has a rich history, namely because it expresses the invisible or intangible through visible or sensuous representations. Although there some generally understood symbols (heart = love), symbols can evolve and vary from culture to culture. There is no definitive meaning to any symbol; symbols and meanings all depend on context.

Symbolism Examples:

  • An owl can be a symbol meaning wisdom
  • A rose can be a symbol meaning romance
  • Green can be a symbol meaning jealousy or greed

What is Symbolism?  •  Symbols and Meanings Explained

Because humans are pattern-seeking creatures, symbols are ubiquitous and serve an essential function in our life. They satisfy and reaffirm our sense of order in the universe. Any symbolism definition points to our values and norms as part of the culture.

As a thought experiment, what do you think when I mention a black cat? How about a cross? Rain on your wedding day? If you thought of anything besides "black cat," "cross," and "rain," that’s symbolism. Both common and artistically invented symbols and meanings are rooted in the culture of their creation. Let’s go deeper.

Symbolism Examples in Culture

What is symbolism in culture.

Your mind may not automatically go to culture when you think of symbolism examples, but the two are inextricably linked. To explore symbolism’s relation to culture, let’s go further into culture.

How values define symbolic meaning

As you can see, symbols are defined by the culture in which they’re created. While red may mean "anger" or "passion" or "rage" in the West, it means nearly the opposite in certain Asian cultures.

So, what are the symbols and meanings in our culture? Are there universal symbols? Can symbolic meaning change over time and circumstance? To examine this further, let’s take a look at examples of symbolism in literature and film.

Symbolism Examples in Literature and Film

Hollywood symbolism in the old west.

We all know the great American myths of the old West. Manifest Destiny, Native American slaughter, and the Gold Rush. It’s as American as apple pie with a slice of processed cheese.

Symbolism in literature was rich in the 19th century Romanticism movement . Here, the West symbolizes a place of untamed wilderness and unbridled beauty. Authors such as James Fenimore Cooper captured this Romanticism in books such as The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer . For an emerging nation discovering new land, the West was a place of wonder.

Moving forward, the 20th century, filmmakers in Hollywood gave the world its first Westerns. Directors such as  John Ford  glorified the West. In films such as  Stagecoach   and  The Searchers , Ford’s leading man, John Wayne portrayed the romantic frontier hero as a proud movie symbol of American dominance — Hollywood symbolism at its best.

John Wayne embodies the Hollywood symbolism definition of "The Old West"

However, as the century progressed and the American public became disillusioned by political scandals and unending war in Vietnam, the  New Hollywood movement  of the '60s and '70s redefined the symbolic West. Filmmaker Sam Peckinpah shot many Neo-Westerns which did little to glorify frontiersmen.

In films such as The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid , he portrayed a savage, lawless land rife with grotesque violence. The West was now a movie symbol of a nation’s history of violence with a sympathetic eye turned towards the Native Americans. The West was now Vietnam.

The Wild Bunch  •   The Evolution of Symbolic Meaning

Flash forward to the new millennia where a new generation of filmmakers took their turn at the symbolic West. With its Spaghetti Western-inspired visuals, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is an example of the modern Western.

Breaking Bad  •   An Homage to the Western

Likewise, the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and True Grit (itself a remake of a John Wayne Western) come to symbolize a new Western frontier. Gone are the days of cowboys and Indians in these interpretations. In these postmodern interpretations of the West, the "white hats" die or give in before the lawless are ever brought to justice.

Watch to this conversation from No Country For Old Men and you'll see just how far the symbolic meaning of The Old West has evolved. Download and read the No Country For Old Men script to see how the entire movie is dedicated to this idea.

“You can’t stop what’s coming”  •  Hollywood Symbolism Examples

As you can see, movie symbols have the ability to adapt and change over time. But screenwriters, in particular, can adapt symbols to fit their story. Let’s see how this is done with a close look at Arrival  (2016).

Hollywood Symbolism

Symbols and meanings in arrival.

In our symbolism definition, two factors can define a symbol: common symbols and artistic invention. In storytelling, you’re free to artistically invent symbols. As a screenwriter, this is helpful because you are empowered to define your own symbols and meanings.

Let’s take a brief look at how screenwriter Eric Heisserer used symbolism examples to define the thematic elements in Arrival . Circularity is a symbol presented throughout the film. In this still, we see the alien language of the heptapods resembled as circles. 


Circular symbolism examples play a huge role in Arrival

This visual language is present throughout the film and even referred to in Heisserer’s screenplay. For anyone familiar with the film, the events unfold non-linearly. In fact, they’re circular, a loop. Louise’s daughter is named Hannah, a palindrome , a linguistic circle.

These symbols add up throughout the film and lead to a finale which epitomizes the theme of interconnectedness. The circle also becomes one of the symbolism examples to visualize the idea of timelessness. This is one of those examples of symbolism in literature and film that provides visual, thematic and narrative meaning. 

As a screenwriter, you’re free and emboldened to design your own symbols. They’re entertaining. They engage your audience. And, for a visual medium, they are indispensable tools to enrich your narrative.

Breaking down metaphors

Ready for more literary devices? This article on metaphors helps screenwriters understand metaphor and goes even deeper. For instance, did you know there are myriad different types of metaphors? Learn more about metaphors and imbue your narrative with as much meaning as you can!

Up Next: Metaphors explained →

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Definition of Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities, by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense.

Symbolism can take different forms. Generally, it is an object representing another, to give an entirely different meaning that is much deeper and more significant. Sometimes, however, an action, an event or a word spoken by someone may have a symbolic value. For instance, “smile” is a symbol of friendship. Similarly, the action of someone smiling at you may stand as a symbol of the feeling of affection which that person has for you.

Symbols do shift their meanings depending on the context they are used in. “A chain,” for example, may stand for “union” as well as “imprisonment”. Thus, symbolic meaning of an object or an action is understood by when, where, and how it is used. It also depends on who reads the work.

Common Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life

In our daily life, we can easily identify objects that can be taken as examples of symbolism, such as the following:

  • The dove is a symbol of peace.
  • A red rose, or the color red, stands for love or romance .
  • Black is a symbol that represents evil or death.
  • A ladder may stand as a symbol for a connection between heaven and earth.
  • A broken mirror may symbolize separation.

Short Examples of Symbolism in Sentences

  • Ching Chua gave his wife a red rose. (In Chinese culture, the color red symbolizes property and happiness.)
  • David stopped his car at the red signal. (In other cultures, the color red is symbol of blood, passion, and danger.)
  • Rebels raised a white flag to negotiate. (During war, the color white symbolizes making peace with the enemy. Otherwise, it represents purity and life.)
  • The Red Cross is working around the world. (The symbol of the cross represents Christianity, and the red cross in particular represents aid in times of need.)
  • The Muslim forces raised their flag with a crescent on it. (The crescent moon represents Islam.)
  • He turned green when found a wallet. (Green color is often associated with greed, jealousy, and monetary affairs.)
  • They dressed in black to the funeral of their friend. (The color black is associated with death.)
  • The yellow boat turned into the channel, to make the tourists happy. The color yellow color is the symbol of deterioration and infidelity, as well as the symbol of freshness and happiness.)
  • He was disappointed when the mirror broke. (Broken mirror is an symbol of separation.)
  • He gave a red rose to his wife on Valentine Day. (Red rose is a symbol for love.)
  • He, after a long time, saw a silver lining in the shape of the arrival of his brother. (Silver edge/lining of clouds symbolize hope and optimism.)
  • You have a sixth sense like an owl. (Owl symbolizes wisdom.)
  • You work like an ox. (The ox symbolizes hard work and stamina.)
  • When he saw a bat in dream, he grew white with fear. (Bats are the symbol of death.)

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

To develop symbolism in his work, a writer utilizes other figures of speech, like metaphors, similes, and allegory , as tools. Some symbolism examples in literature are listed below with brief analysis:

Example #1: As you Like It (By William Shakespeare)

We find symbolic value in Shakespeare’s famous monologue in his play 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,”

These lines are symbolic of the fact that men and women, in the course of their lives, perform different roles. “A stage” here symbolizes the world, and “players” is a symbol for human beings.

Example #2: Ah Sunflower (By William Blake)

William Blake goes symbolic in his poem Ah Sunflower . He says:

“Ah Sunflower, weary of time, Who countest the steps of the sun; Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveler’s journey is done;”

Blake uses a sunflower as a symbol for human beings, and “the sun” symbolizes life. Therefore, these lines symbolically refer to their life cycle and their yearning for a never-ending life.

Example #3: Wuthering Heights (By Emily Bronte)

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights presents almost every character , house, surroundings, and events in a symbolic perspective . The word “Wuthering,” which means “stormy,” represents the wild nature of inhabitants. The following lines allow us to look into the symbolic nature of two characters:

“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.”

The phrase “foliage of leaves” for is a symbol for Linton’s fertile and civilized nature. On the contrary, Heathcliff is likened to an “eternal rock,” which symbolizes his crude and unbendable nature.

Example #4: Wild Asters (By Sara Teasdale)

Sara Teasdale in her poem Wild Asters develops a number of striking symbols:

“In the spring, I asked the daisies If his words were true, And the clever, clear-eyed daisies Always knew. Now the fields are brown and barren, Bitter autumn blows, And of all the stupid asters Not one knows.”

In the above lines, “spring” and “daisies” are symbols of youth. “Brown and barren” are symbols of transition from youth to old age. Moreover, “Bitter autumn” symbolizes death.

Example #5: The Rain (By William H. Davies)

“I hear leaves drinking rain; I hear rich leaves on top Giving the poor beneath Drop after drop; Tis a sweet noise to hear These green leaves drinking near.”

In this beautiful poem , William Davies who has used the symbol of rain to show the different classes of society. He does this by describing the way the upper leaves benefit from the rain first, and then hand down the rest to the lower leaves. The same way, rich people pass on the leftover benefits to the poor people.

Example #6: My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold (By William Wordsworth)

“My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, …”

In this poem , the poet uses rainbow as a symbol of hope and general wellbeing throughout his life.

Example #7: XXIII, Crossing Alone the Nighted Ferry (By A. E. Housman)

“Crossing alone the nighted ferry With the one coin for fee, Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting, Count you to find? Not me.”

The poet has used the symbol of a river to represent life and the past memories associated with it.

Function of Symbolism

Symbolism gives a writer freedom to add double levels of meanings to his work: a literal one that is self-evident, and the symbolic one whose meaning is far more profound than the literal. Symbolism, therefore, gives universality to the characters and the themes of a piece of literature. Symbolism in literature evokes interest in readers as they find an opportunity to get an insight into the writer’s mind on how he views the world, and how he thinks of common objects and actions, having broader implications.

Definition of Symbolism Symbolism is using symbols to indicate ideas and qualities, via giving them symbolic meanings that are exclusive from their literal sense. Symbolism can take exceptional forms. Generally, it's far an object representing another, to give an entirely exceptional meaning this is an awful lot deeper and extra significant. Sometimes, however, an movement, an event or a phrase spoken with the aid of someone may additionally have a symbolic cost. For instance, “smile” is a image of friendship. Similarly, the motion of a person smiling at you can stand as a symbol of the feeling of affection which that person has for you. Symbols do shift their meanings relying on the context they're used in. “A chain,” for example, can also stand for “union” as well as “imprisonment”. Thus, symbolic which means of an item or an motion is understood with the aid of whilst, where, and how it's miles used. It also depends on who reads the work. Common Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life In our each day life, we are able to effortlessly identify items that may be taken as examples of symbolism, such as the following: The dove is a image of peace. A purple rose, or the colour red, stands for love or romance. Black is a symbol that represents evil or death. A ladder may also stand as a symbol for a connection among heaven and earth. A broken reflect may symbolize separation. Short Examples of Symbolism in Sentences Ching Chua gave his spouse a crimson rose. (In Chinese culture, the colour pink symbolizes property and happiness.) David stopped his car at the purple signal. (In other cultures, the coloration purple is image of blood, passion, and danger.) Rebels raised a white flag to negotiate. (During war, the shade white symbolizes making peace with the enemy. Otherwise, it represents purity and existence.) The Red Cross is working around the world. (The symbol of the cross represents Christianity, and the purple pass particularly represents aid in instances of need.) The Muslim forces raised their flag with a crescent on it. (The crescent moon represents Islam.) He turned inexperienced whilst observed a wallet. (Green color is often associated with greed, jealousy, and economic affairs.) They dressed in black to the funeral in their friend. (The color black is related to death.) The yellow boat became the channel, to make the vacationers happy. The coloration yellow coloration is the image of decay and infidelity, as well as the image of freshness and happiness.) He changed into disappointed whilst the replicate broke. (Broken mirror is an symbol of separation.) He gave a purple rose to his spouse on Valentine Day. (Red rose is a image for romance.) He, after a long time, saw a silver lining inside the shape of the arrival of his brother. (Silver edge/lining of clouds signify wish and optimism.) You have a sixth experience like an owl. (Owl symbolizes wisdom.) You work like an ox. (The ox symbolizes hard paintings and stamina.) When he noticed a bat in dream, he grew white with fear. (Bats are the image of death.) Examples of Symbolism in Literature To expand symbolism in his paintings, a author makes use of other figures of speech, like metaphors, similes, and allegory, as tools. Some symbolism examples in literature are listed beneath with brief analysis: Example #1: As you Like It (By William Shakespeare) We discover symbolic cost in Shakespeare’s well-known monologue in his play As you Like It: “All the world’s a stage, And all the males and females merely players; they've their exits and their entrances; And one guy in his time plays many parts,” These lines are symbolic of the fact that women and men, inside the direction of their lives, carry out different roles. “A stage” here symbolizes the world, and “players” is a symbol for human beings. Example #2: Ah Sunflower (By William Blake) William Blake goes symbolic in his poem Ah Sunflower. He says: “Ah Sunflower, weary of time, Who countest the stairs of the sun; Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveler’s journey is done;” Blake uses a sunflower as a symbol for human beings, and “the sun” symbolizes existence. Therefore, these lines symbolically confer with their existence cycle and their craving for a unending life. Example #3: Wuthering Heights (By Emily Bronte) Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights provides almost each character, house, surroundings, and events in a symbolic perspective. The phrase “Wuthering,” which means “stormy,” represents the wild nature of inhabitants. The following lines allow us to look at the symbolic nature of two characters: “My love for Linton is just like the foliage within the woods. Time will exchange it; I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks under a source of little seen delight, however necessary.” The phrase “foliage of leaves” for is a image for Linton’s fertile and civilized nature. On the contrary, Heathcliff is likened to an “everlasting rock,” which symbolizes his crude and unbendable nature. Example #4: Wild Asters (By Sara Teasdale) Sara Teasdale in her poem Wild Asters develops a number of striking symbols: “In the spring, I asked the daisies If his words were true, And the clever, clear-eyed daisies Always knew. Now the fields are brown and barren, Bitter autumn blows, And of all of the stupid asters Not one knows.” In the above strains, “spring” and “daisies” are symbols of teenagers. “Brown and barren” are symbols of transition from teenagers to vintage age. Moreover, “Bitter autumn” symbolizes death. Example #5: The Rain (By William H. Davies) “I listen leaves ingesting rain; I listen wealthy leaves on top Giving the negative below Drop after drop; Tis a candy noise to hear These inexperienced leaves consuming near.” In this lovely poem, William Davies who has used the image of rain to expose the one of a kind classes of society. He does this by way of describing the manner the higher leaves benefit from the rain first, after which hand down the relaxation to the lower leaves. The same way, rich people skip at the leftover advantages to the negative people. Example #6: My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold (By William Wordsworth) “My coronary heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So became it whilst my existence began; So is it now I am a man; So be it after I shall grow old, …” In this poem, the poet makes use of rainbow as a symbol of desire and fashionable wellbeing for the duration of his existence. Example #7: XXIII, Crossing Alone the Nighted Ferry (By A. E. Housman) “Crossing alone the nighted ferry With the one coin for fee, Whom, at the wharf of Lethe waiting, Count you to discover? Not me.” The poet has used the image of a river to symbolize life and the past memories related to it. Function of Symbolism Symbolism gives a author freedom to add double ranges of meanings to his paintings: a literal one this is self-evident, and the symbolic one whose meaning is a long way extra profound than the literal. Symbolism, therefore, gives universality to the characters and the issues of a piece of literature. Symbolism in literature evokes hobby in readers as they find an opportunity to get an perception into the author’s mind on how he perspectives the world, and how he thinks of commonplace items and actions, having broader implications.

  • Alliteration
  • Anachronism
  • Antimetabole
  • Aposiopesis
  • Characterization
  • Colloquialism
  • Connotation
  • Deus Ex Machina
  • Didacticism
  • Doppelganger
  • Double Entendre
  • Flash Forward
  • Foreshadowing
  • Internal Rhyme
  • Juxtaposition
  • Non Sequitur
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Parallelism
  • Pathetic Fallacy
  • Personification
  • Poetic Justice
  • Point of View
  • Portmanteau
  • Protagonist
  • Red Herring
  • Superlative
  • Synesthesia
  • Tragicomedy
  • Tragic Flaw
  • Verisimilitude


  • Literary Terms
  • Definition & Examples
  • When & How to Write a Symbol

I. What is a Symbol?

A symbol (pronounced SIM-bull) is any image or thing that stands for something else. It could be as simple as a letter, which is a symbol for a given sound (or set of sounds). Similarly, every word is a symbol for the idea it represents. Flags are symbols for nations. And of course, we have all sorts of visual symbols that we use every day: $  @  & =

However, symbols don’t have to be the kind of things you only find on keyboards. A tree might symbolize nature. Einstein symbolizes genius in our culture. Anything can be a symbol, if we make it one. In literature, symbols are often characters ,  settings , images, or other motifs that stand in for bigger ideas. Authors often use symbols (or “symbolism”) to give their work with more meaning and to make a story be about more than the events it describes. This is one of the most basic and widespread of all literary techniques.

However, authors don’t usually give us a roadmap to their symbolism, so it can take a lot of thought to figure out exactly what the symbols in a work of literature stand for —to interpret them.

II. Examples and Explanation

In Greek mythology, the Gods are all symbols for forces of nature – for example, Poseidon is a symbol for the sea. He is extremely powerful, but also wrathful and unpredictable. By telling stories of Poseidon’s vengeful fury, the Greeks (who were not great shipbuilders) symbolically delivered a message about how dangerous the sea can be.

In our culture, Albert Einstein is the ultimate symbol of intelligence and scientific genius. When we simply see Einstein’s iconic face on a T-shirt, book cover, or advertisement, we immediately know that whoever put that image there was trying to say something related to extreme intelligence.

III. The Importance of Symbol

Symbols add layers of meaning to a story, poem, or other creative work. They enable an author to deliver an idea or message within a narrative, a message on multiple levels. For example, an author might deliver a message about God by writing a story about a large family, in which one or both parents are symbols for God, while the children are symbols for humanity (and perhaps there are pets or a garden to represent the natural world). The story could be simultaneously about family dynamics and about religion. In other words, symbols add depth.

In addition to using symbols in their writing, authors may also critique symbols that already exist in their culture (or someone else’s). For example, apes in Western culture stereotypically symbolize humanity’s natural origins and the primitive traits that we normally attribute to animals.  If a person is acting rudely, stupidly, or violently, we might call him an ‘ape’ or a ‘gorilla’ which expresses a negative view of wild nature, and human nature, in our culture. But in the Planet of the Apes movies, this symbol is reversed – the apes are often more sympathetic, sophisticated, and intelligent than the people, so they come to symbolize some of the best qualities of humanity as well as the worst. This makes the movie a critique of popular ideas about humanity and nature: ‘human nature isn’t all bad and the badness in people isn’t necessarily natural.’ At the same time, human beings normally symbolize civilization and humanitarian values, however the cruelty of some of the people in movies makes humanity the symbol of brutishness instead of the apes.

IV. Examples of Symbol in Literature

In The Raven , Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous poem, the huge black bird is a symbol for the narrator’s deep feelings of loss, regret, mourning, and loneliness. Every time the narrator’s thoughts stray to his late wife, the raven croaks “nevermore.” This is a symbol for the way the narrator’s mind constantly reminds him of his loss, causing him to sink further and further into despair and sorrow.

Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins uses a symbol of rosebuds in its first stanza. Since rosebuds only last a short time, they are a perfect symbol for youth and all the pleasures that come with it. In the poem, Herrick exhorts the young virgins to enjoy themselves and their youth before it goes away just like the rosebuds in summer.

V. Examples of Symbol in Pop Culture

In the Lord of the Rings movies and books, the One Ring is a symbol for power, selfishness, and greed. Everyone wants it and many characters are willing to kill for it. Some begin with good intentions, but ultimately the Ring corrupts them and bends them to its will. The symbolism of the story implies that power seduces, corrupts, controls, and destroys people who are attached to it, just as the Ring does to its owners.

The band Led Zeppelin’s song  Stairway to Heaven uses symbolism throughout its lyrics. The song itself is an allegory for the disappointment that ultimately comes to those who seek wealth for its own sake; eventually, they realize that money cannot buy happiness, and all the sacrifices they’ve made in order to increase their wealth suddenly become meaningless. The symbols of “gold” and “buying a stairway to heaven” stand for wealth and, more broadly, for all the material comforts that people lust after, but which ultimately cannot bring true fulfillment.

VI. Related Terms

An allegory is a complex form of symbolism in which the entire story is a symbol for something else.

For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. Each of the characters is symbolic – Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, for example, while the cart-horse Boxer represents the Russian working class. The novel as a whole describes Orwell’s interpretation of the events in Russia, and warns of the dangers of Communism while simultaneously making a case that it was individual evil, not Communism as an ideology, that caused the injustices of the Soviet Union. So an allegory is a big symbol that contains many symbols within it .

Allegories have been used since ancient times to deliver stories about cultural values, heritage, and history. Ancient mythologies often take the form of allegories for deep psychological and spiritual truths, while several stories in the New Testament are allegories for Christian moral truths.       

A metaphor is kind of like a symbol, but it’s usually used briefly (over the span of just a sentence or two), whereas a symbol is usually extended throughout a story or poem. For example, take the common expression “bottled-up emotion.” In this expression, the bottle is a metaphor for holding in feelings. However, if we had an entire work in which bottles kept appearing at key psychological moments in the story, we might begin to suspect that the bottles were a symbol for this emotional problem.

This is a grey area – what if a metaphor is extended across a whole stanza, or a chapter, but is absent in the rest of the work? Is it still a metaphor, or is it a symbol? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much at that point. If something is in the grey area between metaphor and symbol, you can call it either.

List of Terms

  • Alliteration
  • Amplification
  • Anachronism
  • Anthropomorphism
  • Antonomasia
  • APA Citation
  • Aposiopesis
  • Autobiography
  • Bildungsroman
  • Characterization
  • Circumlocution
  • Cliffhanger
  • Comic Relief
  • Connotation
  • Deus ex machina
  • Deuteragonist
  • Doppelganger
  • Double Entendre
  • Dramatic irony
  • Equivocation
  • Extended Metaphor
  • Figures of Speech
  • Flash-forward
  • Foreshadowing
  • Intertextuality
  • Juxtaposition
  • Literary Device
  • Malapropism
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Parallelism
  • Pathetic Fallacy
  • Personification
  • Point of View
  • Polysyndeton
  • Protagonist
  • Red Herring
  • Rhetorical Device
  • Rhetorical Question
  • Science Fiction
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Synesthesia
  • Turning Point
  • Understatement
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    literary definition for symbolism

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    literary definition for symbolism

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    literary definition for symbolism

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    literary definition for symbolism

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    literary definition for symbolism

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    literary definition for symbolism


  1. All important literary Terms in one Video!! Plz Subscribe!!

  2. Foundations of Literary Study 8 (Symbolism and Allegory)

  3. What is Symbolism?

  4. Literary Terms and Definitions

  5. Guided Reading S1 :Symbolism in Literature works ¶ الدلالة الرمزية في الأعمال الأدبية

  6. PART 7 of 7 Literary Forms from Different Cultures


  1. Symbolism

    Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—usually a physical object or phenomenon—to represent something more abstract. A strong symbol usually shares a set of key characteristics with whatever it is meant to symbolize, or is related to it in some other way. Characters and events can also be symbolic.

  2. Symbolism

    Symbolism is a literary device that refers to the use of symbols in a literary work. A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else; it represents something beyond literal meaning. In literature, a symbol can be a word, object, action, character, or concept that embodies and evokes a range of additional meaning and significance.

  3. Symbolism in Literature: Definition & Examples

    Symbolism (SIM-buh-liz-uhm) is when an object, person, or place represents an abstract idea beyond its literal meaning. Symbolism in literature can be as obvious as a storm representing a character's internal turmoil or as subtle as a character's yellow shirt foreshadowing a pending friendship.

  4. What Is Symbolism as a Literary Device?

    Symbolism is the use of words or images to symbolize specific concepts, people, objects, or events. In some cases, symbolism is broad and used to communicate a work's theme, like Aslan the lion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a symbol of Christ.

  5. What is Symbolism?

    Symbolism is the idea that things represent other things. What we mean by that is that we can look at something — let's say, the color red — and conclude that it represents not the color red itself but something beyond it: for example, passion, or love, or devotion. Or maybe the opposite: infidelity. The color red can also represent blood.

  6. Symbolism in Literature: What Symbolism Is, and How to Use It In Your

    Symbolism describes the use of concrete images to convey abstract ideas. Because this literary device is widely open to interpretation, and because many readers form different relationships to concrete objects, this is one of the more slippery elements of literature to both understand and convey to an audience. Nonetheless, understanding symbolism, and knowing what is a symbol, are crucial to ...

  7. What Is Symbolism? Definition and Examples

    Answer: Symbolism is the use of real-world objects to represent abstract ideas. It takes easy-to-understand ideas and objects and uses them to communicate deeper concepts beyond their literal meaning. As one of the most popular literary devices, we encounter symbolism constantly.

  8. Symbolism Examples and Definition

    When used as a literary device, symbolism means to imbue objects with a certain meaning that is different from their original meaning or function. Other literary devices, such as metaphor, allegory, and allusion, aid in the development of symbolism.

  9. Writing 101: What Is Symbolism? Symbolism Definition and Examples in

    Symbolism Definition and Examples in Literature Written by MasterClass Last updated: Aug 30, 2021 • 5 min read An object, concept, or word does not have to be limited to a single meaning. When you see red roses growing in a garden, what comes to mind?

  10. Symbolism

    An artistic and poetic movement or style using symbolic images and indirect suggestion to express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind. It originated in late 19th century France and Belgium, with important figures including Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Redon. From: Symbolism in The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable ».

  11. Symbolism Definition & Meaning

    symbolism 1 ENTRIES FOUND: symbolism (noun) symbolism / ˈ sɪmbəˌlɪzəm/ noun Britannica Dictionary definition of SYMBOLISM [noncount] 1 : the use of symbols to express or represent ideas or qualities in literature, art, etc. The story was filled with religious symbolism. 2 : the particular idea or quality that is expressed by a symbol

  12. Literary Terms

    Symbols typically recur throughout a narrative and offer critical, though often overlooked, information about events, characters, and the author's primary concerns in telling the story. Theme : According to Baldick, a theme may be defined as "a salient abstract idea that emerges from a literary work's treatment of its subject-matter; or a ...

  13. Symbolism

    Symbolism, an aesthetic movement devoted primarily to discovering the true nature of poetry, originated in France in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

  14. Symbolism

    Symbolism is a literary device that refers to the use of symbols that stand for something beyond their literal meaning. Words, objects, actions, characters, and abstract ideas can all be symbolic, as they embody a range of ideas that extend beyond a surface-level understanding. There are two main types of symbols: universal and context-based.

  15. What is Symbolism? Definition, Examples & Types of Symbolism

    Symbolism is a literary device that uses objects, places, people, or ideas to represent something beyond their literal meaning. Writers use symbolism as a way to draw connections between their characters, their story's environment, and the events of the plot.

  16. What is Symbolism in Literature?

    Symbolism is a figure of speech that is used when an author wants to create a certain mood or emotion in a work of literature. It is the use of an object, person, situation or word to represent...

  17. Symbolism

    Symbolism, a loosely organized literary and artistic movement that originated with a group of French poets in the late 19th century, spread to painting and the theatre, and influenced the European and American literatures of the 20th century to varying degrees. Symbolist artists sought to express

  18. What is Symbolism? Definition, Examples of Literary Symbolism

    Define symbolism in literature: the definition of symbolism in literature is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities for literary effect. In summary, a symbolism is: the representation of one object, idea, or concept, with another object. used frequently in literature. often a way to communicate deeper meaning without expressing ...

  19. Symbolism in Literature

    In literature, symbolism is the use of any person, situation, or object to represent an idea of some sort. Symbolism can come in a variety of formats: water as a symbolization of rebirth, fall ...

  20. What is Symbolism? Definition, Examples in Literature & Film

    Definition, Examples in Literature & Film By Ken Severson on September 27, 2020 Symbolism can create an indelible impression on an audience. Symbolism runs through literature, poetry, and especially screenwriting, where visuals are paramount. But what is symbolism? In this article, we'll define symbolism and show how symbols change over time.

  21. Symbolism definition and example literary device

    Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities, by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. Symbolism can take different forms. Generally, it is an object representing another, to give an entirely different meaning that is much deeper and more significant.

  22. Symbolism

    Symbolism Definition of Symbolism Symbolism is using symbols to indicate ideas and qualities, via giving them symbolic meanings that are exclusive from their literal sense. Symbolism can take exceptional forms. Generally, it's far an object representing another, to give an entirely exceptional meaning this is an awful lot deeper and extra ...

  23. Symbol: Definition and Examples

    A symbol (pronounced SIM-bull) is any image or thing that stands for something else. It could be as simple as a letter, which is a symbol for a given sound (or set of sounds). Similarly, every word is a symbol for the idea it represents. Flags are symbols for nations. And of course, we have all sorts of visual symbols that we use every day