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