Symbols in Literature: Definition and Examples

What comes to your mind when you see a white dove? Is it just a bird, or maybe a sign of peace and freedom? Some objects, words, or concepts evoke particular associations. They have an additional meaning that we can grasp.

Such things are called symbols, and this article by our custom writing experts is dedicated to a stylistic device called symbolism. Ready to become an expert in literary symbolism? Then, let’s start!

🔣 What Can Be Symbolic: Definition

A symbol is anything that represents something else, either directly or indirectly. In art and literature, a symbol is often an abstract idea conveyed through an object. It can be a plant, a building, an animal, or even a person. For example, a red rose symbolizes love, while a raven is a symbol of death and doom.

The picture shows the reasons why people use symbols in various spheres.

Anything that serves as a representation of the bigger idea is called symbolic. For example, colors can be symbolic: white usually represents purity, while red symbolizes passion.

Symbolism in Everyday Life

Symbols are always around us. There are common symbols that all people understand and private ones known only to a few. Traffic lights are a perfect example of everyday life symbolism. Don’t you think about the urgency to stop when you see the red light? Similarly, you’re ready to go when the green light appears.

You might be wondering: What is the role of symbols in life? Here are the reasons why we need them:

  1. They help us communicate meaning. A symbol used in the right context is worth a thousand words.
  2. Symbols make our life safer and more organized. For example, icons on your computer screen neatly represent various programs, and traffic lights ensure road safety.
  3. The use of similar symbols unites peoples and cultures. They can even motivate us to become more tradition-oriented. For example, the tree roots can symbolize our family, moral principles, or religious beliefs that give us strength.

Did you know that there is a field of study that deals with symbols? It’s called semiotics. It studies how people understand the meaning a particular symbol represents. It’s widely used in marketing because companies want to be sure that people will get the brands’ meaning.

Symbols in Literature: Definition

A symbol in literature is a thing with both a literal and figurative meaning that helps the readers to comprehend the story better. This literary device can refer to a word, an object, or a setting the author uses in the text to focus readers’ attention on the message.

For example, in his poem Rain, W. H. Davies uses rain as a poetic symbol of social stratification. Rain falls on the upper leaves first, and then the drops roll down to the lower ones. It means that the upper class gets more benefits while the lower class gets less.

Do you know that symbolism is closely connected with some other concepts? To learn the difference between them, read the following sections.

Imagery vs Symbolism

Imagery is the use of literary devices to create a mental image or a specific feeling. In contrast, symbolism is more about additional meanings a word or object may have. It doesn’t necessarily presuppose a focus on a visual aspect.

Iconography and Symbolism

Symbolism deals with specific images or signs meaningful to the members of a particular group. Iconography is associated with the use of visual symbols to reveal complex themes or ideas that are significant to different cultures.

Symbolism vs Metaphor

Metaphor is a type of analogy that is used to demonstrate similarity to something. That’s why if you want to compare two unrelated things, you might want to use this literary device. If you wish to represent a thing as something else, you can resort to symbolism.

Allegory vs Symbolism

Allegory is characterized by a profound analysis of the object, idea, or story. It often conveys the moral of the story. In contrast, when the author uses symbolism, they intend to convey a specific emotion or mood.

Why Is Symbolism Important in Literature?

You might be asking yourself: Why do authors use symbolism? What does it help to convey? The matter is that one of the main purposes of fiction is to draw an invisible line between literature and reality. It’s crucial to allow complete immersion into the story.

Some writers and poets can even make the readers forget that it’s fiction and not real life. Symbols are like bottomless containers in which you can put thousands of different meanings to utilize them in your narrative. Let’s find out why authors use symbolism:

🌀 To make the audience immerse into the story. The use of this literary device helps connect reality and fiction. In such a way, readers have a feeling as if they are inside the story.
📜 To present things in a poetic way. Surely, an author can state the message of their stories directly. Will it be compelling and exciting, though? Literary devices such as symbols make our reading experience pleasurable.
😃 To speak to people’s unconscious and evoke emotions. Have you ever read the story and cried because you felt sorry for the main character? It’s often because of the effective use of various symbols.
🎨 To create complexity, depth, and nuance. The implementation of symbolism makes readers think about profound themes and issues. Often, symbols allow us to grasp a meaning that we can’t put into words.

How to Find Out What a Symbol Means

Don’t know how to find symbols in a literary text? Have a look at this step-by-step guide on how to detect and interpret them.

  1. Carefully read the passage. Single out everything that stands out for you. These can be both objects and concepts. Be careful as newbies tend to consider almost everything as a symbol. Real symbols are repeated or emphasized throughout the whole text all the time.
  2. Identify all the possible ideas and themes connected to this object. Think about universal topics and meanings that come into mind. You can also create logical connections between the chosen symbol and your ideas. To do it:
    • Analyze the object;
    • Define its main characteristics;
    • Think about the importance of these aspects;
    • Identify themes in the text;
    • Link them to the text message and the discussed themes.
  3. Present your findings. You can do it using the T.E.E.L structure:
T Technique used by the author.
E Example from the text.
E Effect this technique produces on your comprehension of the story.
L Link to the text and how it supports your arguments.

🕊️ Types of Symbolism

As soon as you’ve identified symbols in the passage, you can try to define their types. And we are going to do it in the following section. Here you will find out about abstract, contextual, universal symbolism, and symbolic characters.

The picture shows the main types of symbolism: abstract, contextual, universal, character.

Abstract Symbolism

An abstract symbol in literature doesn’t have an obvious connection between its actual and figurative meanings. It’s only a representation of a thing without any physical basis. For example, the color purple may be associated with nobility, though it doesn’t refer to a nobleman directly. It’s only an indirect way to hint that a person belongs to nobility.

Contextual Symbol

A contextual symbol (also called a private symbol) exists only within the context of a particular story. To be more precise, it can be a word, an object, or a setting that conveys a different meaning significant for the comprehension of the story’s message.

The portrait of Dorian Gray in the novel of the same name is a perfect example of a contextual symbol. It symbolizes the soul or the inner self of the protagonist. This symbol makes sense only in this novel because it doesn’t mean that any portrait represents a person’s soul.

Universal Symbol

A universal (or a conventional) symbol has a meaning that is well-known to the whole society. People all around the world can identify and interpret such symbols. For example, most of us know what the Christian cross or the white dove with an olive branch means. The first one is associated with the Christian religion. The second one stands for peace and hope.

Symbolic Character

A symbolic character is any character of the story used to reveal its profound theme. Usually, authors use it sparingly. That’s why the readers can comprehend this character’s true essence and symbolic meaning only at the end of the story. Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia is an example of a symbolic character. He is a representation of God or Jesus.

📚 Common Symbols in Literature & Symbolism Examples

It’s time to put theory into practice and deal with symbolism directly. We’ve collected examples of the most common symbols in literature for you. Want to learn about their functions? Check out the following section.

Color Symbols in Literature

Colors have always been popular in storytelling. Writers and poets use them to:

  • reveal emotions and feelings;
  • set a tone of the situation;
  • show a character’s mood;
  • help the audience visualize complex issues.

For example, the color green in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby stands for the protagonist’s persistence and dreams (you can learn more from our guide on The Great Gatsby.) In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this color symbolizes magic, supernatural powers, nature, and youth. For more information, check out the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight study guide.

Fire Symbolism

Fire as a symbol has various functions. It can have both positive and negative meanings. Authors use fire symbolism in literature to:

  • evoke feelings of anger and fear in the readers;
  • create associations with death or destruction;
  • make an allusion to phoenix and the issue of rebirth and renewal.

A perfect example of the fire symbol can be found in Faulkner’s short story Barn Burning. There, fire represents duality: it can be used to warm a family or to bring destruction (see our Barn Burning study guide for more information.)

In Frankenstein, fire symbolizes the power of nature. The aspect of duality is also present here. Fire is connected with life creation, and, simultaneously, it becomes a punishment. Feel free to check out our Frankenstein study guide to learn more.

Nature Symbolism

Hope for a new life and the power of the natural world’s forces are rendered through the symbolism of nature in literature. In both prose and poetry, nature is associated with the physical world, and it can take various forms:

  • as a separate entity that contrasts with human essence;
  • a reflection of a characters’ inner state;
  • something to be protected;
  • a threat that characters struggle against.

There are numerous examples of nature symbolism in literature. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, it is the sky. The matter is that the protagonist can’t differentiate between right and wrong anymore. The sky (devoid of clouds and sun) represents his inner state: confusion and emptiness. For more info on the short story, see our study guide.

One more example can be found in Wuthering Heights. Here, moors denote danger as well as a place of love. You can learn more if you visit our Wuthering Heights study guide.

Symbols of Death

Almost everyone knows universal symbols of death, such as the color black, a skull, and a raven. However, many less obvious things such as clocks, cypress trees, and vultures also represent death symbolism in literature. Usually, they denote:

  • negative emotions and feelings;
  • a warning or a prophecy, suggesting being more careful and attentive.

Sometimes, this imagery may have a more profound meaning. For example, in Hamlet, a skull stands not only for death but also for attachment. Obviously, that person is already dead; that’s why the skull personifies the end of life. But in this very case, it’s also a symbol of Hamlet’s appreciation and gratitude to Yorick. You can find more information about the play in our Hamlet study guide.

In Elie Wiesel’s novel Night, the title is symbolic. It denotes not only death but also helplessness, evil, dismay, and despair. When it gets dark, the Jews are afraid; they feel vulnerable and weak. Feel free to read our Night study guide for more information.

Room & Furnishing Symbolism

There is a significant connection between the concepts of a home and a house. Symbolically, both represent a person’s inner self. However, there is an important distinction:

  • A home is associated with abstract notions, such as nostalgia, family, or one’s childhood.
  • A house, in turn, is related to material matters, such as protection and social interactions.

Consequently, elements related to a house, such as furnishing, may allude to a person’s dreams, fears, and feelings.

For example, the room in The Yellow Wallpaper symbolizes the loneliness and despair of the narrator (check out our The Yellow Wallpaper guide to learn more.) In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a woman’s portrait reflects the protagonist’s desires, such as financial stability, romantic relationships, and social status. For more information, you’re welcome to check out The Metamorphosis study guide.

Weapon Symbolism

Writers often attract readers’ attention to the dual nature of weapons:

  • they symbolize power, but they may also represent violence and vengeance;
  • a weapon is something that can not only protect but also hurt you.

In The Odyssey, the bow embodies not only Odysseus’ power and leadership but also his desire for having revenge on the suitors. Moreover, if we view this imagery from the perspective of his wife, Penelope, the bow will become the symbol of feminine cunning and intelligence. (Want to know more? Feel free to read our The Odyssey study guide.)

In contrast, the stones in The Lottery denote cruelty. It symbolizes people’s potential for committing acts of violence. You’ll find more information about the short story in our The Lottery study guide.

Accessories & Clothes Symbolism

People choose clothes and accessories to reveal their personalities. Writers and poets alike use these personal attributes to show characters’ true nature. However, they can also symbolize other things:

  • a person’s culture, especially if it’s traditional clothing;
  • an uncomfortable dress can represent oppression by society;
  • characters can use clothes and accessories to appear as someone they aren’t.

For example, in Othello, the handkerchief is an ambiguous symbol. It represents love, purity, and family ties. At the same time, it symbolizes jealousy and faithlessness. If you want to learn more, you can check out our Othello study guide.

In Maupassant’s short story The Necklace, the titular object reflects the protagonist’s desire to be wealthy. Madame Loisel wanted to pretend that she was a rich lady with high social status. Therefore, the necklace is a symbol of wealth and deception. More information can be found in our The Necklace study guide.

Read till the end? We are very happy that our article was interesting and useful for you. Consider sharing it with your friends; they should also know that symbols are everywhere: in literature, art, and everyday life. Just be attentive, and you’ll find out what each symbol means. We wish you good luck with your imagery investigation!

🔗 Symbols in Literature: Articles

A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Analysis

Flannery O’Connor’s short story is stuffed with symbols and literary devices hidden from first-time readers. The analysis of A Good Man Is Hard to Find aims to shed some light on these details.

Barn Burning: Symbols

In William Faulkner’s Barn Burning, symbolism helps the reader to understand certain emotions and relations in the story. In this article, we will focus on two significant symbols: fire and blood.

Death of a Salesman: Analysis

Like any other piece of writing, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman contains various literary devices to discuss, symbols to interpret, and motifs to find. That is what this article is all about!

Symbols in Frankenstein

This article explains the symbolism in Frankenstein. The key symbols used by Shelley are fire and light.

Hamlet: Symbols

There are several symbols in Hamlet that are crucial for understanding the underlying message of the play. They provide a more in-depth look into the characters’ minds, illustrating their emotions and sufferings.

Night by Elie Wiesel: Symbols

Symbolism in Night plays a crucial role. It helps the reader reveal the author’s hidden ideas and dive deep into the book’s theme. Elie Wiesel discovers two symbols in Night— the fire and the night itself.

Othello: Symbols & Imagery

Do you want to understand all the aspects of Othello? The symbols can help you with that! In his play, Shakespeare includes various symbols that help him to deliver his message to the reader.

Pride & Prejudice: Themes & Ideas

In the first section, the main themes of the novel are described. The other sections aim to analyze Pride & Prejudice symbolism, imagery, metaphors, and satire.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Symbols

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight symbolism penetrates the entire poem. Nevertheless, there are two symbols that require further analysis. In this article, they will be discussed.

Symbols in The Canterbury Tales: Clothes & Language

Do you know what helps to investigate the piece of literature deeper? What reveals the hidden context and highlights the author’s key ideas? These are the symbols! And The Canterbury Tales include a lot of them.

Symbols in The Great Gatsby

This article explains the symbols in The Great Gatsby. In the first section, you’ll find the information on the color symbolism of The Great Gatsby. Then follows the information on the story’s setting symbolism.

The Lottery: Analysis

What is the main theme in The Lottery? What do stones and the black box symbolize? There are so many questions to attend to about this story, so this article is here to help you out!

The Metamorphosis: Symbols

There are a lot of hidden symbols in The Metamorphosis. They allow readers to discern the novella’s actual meaning and the writer’s intent. This article addresses some of the most dominant symbols in the novella.

The Necklace: Symbols

The Necklace is one of the most famous short stories that talks about a woman whose dreams of wealth got shattered. The author uses several literary devices, such as metaphors or symbolism, to enhance the reader’s perception.

The Odyssey: Symbols

Being an incredibly talented writer, Homer employed numerous symbols in The Odyssey. They are essential for the readers because they represent the hidden context of the poem.

The Yellow Wallpaper: Analysis

This article contains comprehensive analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper: symbolism of the story, and other literary devices used by Gilman.

Wuthering Heights: Analysis

This article discusses the main themes and meaningful symbols of the novel. You can also find a few words about motifs in Wuthering Heights, as well as an explanation of the setting and genre.

🔍 References

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