Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

What is Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas, qualities, or concepts beyond their literal sense. A symbol is typically a tangible object, character, or event that signifies something more abstract and broader in meaning. This device enables writers to convey deeper messages without explicitly stating them, encouraging readers to uncover and interpret the underlying significance.

Types of Symbolism

There are a few types of symbols in literature.

1. Conventional Symbols

Conventional symbols are widely recognized and accepted within a culture or society. These symbols carry specific, often universally understood meanings.

Example: The dove is a conventional symbol of peace.

2. Literary Symbols

Literary symbols are created by authors within the context of a particular work. Their meanings are specific to the narrative and can vary depending on the story and its themes.

Example: In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolizes Gatsby’s unattainable dreams and the illusion of the American Dream.

3. Personal Symbols

Personal symbols hold specific meanings for the individual characters or the author. These symbols may not be universally recognized but are significant within the context of the story.

Example: In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the watch symbolizes the Compson family’s obsession with time and inability to escape their past.

The Purpose and Impact of Symbolism

1. Enhancing Themes

Symbolism can deepen the thematic resonance of a story. By embedding symbols throughout the narrative, authors can subtly reinforce the central themes and motifs, making them more impactful.

Example: In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the scarlet letter “A” symbolizes various themes such as sin, guilt, and redemption.

2. Creating Emotional Depth

Symbols can evoke emotions and moods, adding layers of emotional depth to the narrative. They can convey complex feelings and ideas in a way that straightforward descriptions cannot.

Example: In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the marlin symbolizes the protagonist’s ultimate challenge and his enduring spirit.

3. Encouraging Reader Engagement

Symbols invite readers to engage more deeply with the text by interpreting and uncovering hidden meanings. This active participation can make the reading experience more immersive and rewarding.

Example: In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the mockingbird symbolizes innocence and the unjust consequences of harming the innocent, prompting readers to reflect on the moral implications.

Different Perspectives on Symbolism

1. Reader’s Perspective

For readers, symbolism adds a layer of richness to the narrative. Recognizing and interpreting symbols can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the story’s themes and messages.

2. Writer’s Perspective

From the writer’s viewpoint, symbolism is a powerful tool for conveying complex ideas succinctly. It allows for more nuanced storytelling and can imbue a narrative with multiple layers of meaning.

3. Literary Critic’s Perspective

Literary critics often explore the use of symbolism to uncover deeper meanings and analyze how symbols contribute to the overall narrative structure and thematic development.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson highlighted the power of symbols in expressing complex ideas:

Symbolism in Classic Literature

Here are a few examples of symbolism from classic literature that are:

  • Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
    The white whale, Moby Dick, serves as a complex symbol representing the mysterious and indifferent forces of nature, the protagonist’s obsession, and the broader human struggle against fate.
  • William Golding’s Lord of the Flies
    The conch shell symbolizes order, civilization, and authority. As the boys descend into savagery, the conch’s power wanes, symbolizing the disintegration of societal norms.
  • Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
    The red room in which young Jane is locked symbolizes her suffering, oppression, and the emotional trauma she endures throughout her life.

Also Read: The Twisted Series by Ana Huang

Symbolism in Modern Literature

  • J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series
    The scar on Harry’s forehead symbolizes his connection to Voldemort and his role as the “chosen one.” It also represents the lasting impact of his past and his resilience.
  • Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
    The kite symbolizes the complex relationship between the protagonist and his friend Hassan, encompassing themes of betrayal, redemption, and the pursuit of forgiveness.
  • Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
    The lifeboat and the animals on it symbolize the protagonist’s struggle for survival, faith, and the coexistence of reality and imagination.

Also Read: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man


Symbolism in literature enriches narratives by adding layers of meaning and complexity. Using symbols, authors can convey profound ideas, evoke emotional responses, and engage readers in a deeper exploration of the text. Whether through conventional, literary, or personal symbols, this device enhances the thematic depth and emotional resonance of a story, making it more compelling and thought-provoking.

By Anna313

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