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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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.