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Video: What is Symbolism in Literature? – Definition, Types & Examples



Symbolism is a literary element used in literature to help readers understand a literary work. Learn more about the definition of symbolism and the different types of symbolism used in literature, then test your knowledge with a quiz.


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What is Symbolism in Literature? – Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 1:14 Types of Symbolism

  • 2:33 Lesson Summary


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Lesson Transcript

Instructor:
Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Symbolism is a literary element used in literature to help readers understand a literary work. Learn more about the definition of symbolism and the different types of symbolism used in literature, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Symbolism Defined

Symbolism is everywhere; symbolism exists whenever something is meant to represent something else. 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 something else, like an idea, in literature. Some common types of symbolism include:

Metaphor – a comparison between two unlike things without using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. For example, the phrase ‘time is money’ is an example of a metaphor comparing time to money. Money and time are two different things; this is an example of symbolism because these words show the importance of using your money and time wisely.

Allegory – an extended metaphor. An allegory can be an entire story, poem or book with symbolism that continues throughout the literary piece. In the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell, animals on a farm are used to represent the events leading up to the Russian revolution. The animals on the farm represent how greed and not having concern for others impact revolution.

Types of Symbolism in Literature

In literature, authors often use different symbols to represent a particular concept. Throughout various forms of literature, the following symbols might be used to create meaning in a story.

Colors

  • Black is often used to represent something bad, such as death or evil. For example, in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘the black man’ is used to represent Satan.
  • White often represents something that is good and pure.
  • Red can symbolize passion, blood or danger.
  • Green can symbolize hope and immaturity. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘a green light’ is used to symbolize Gatsby’s hope for a future with his love interest, Daisy.

Objects

  • Chains can represent two things coming together.
  • Ladders can represent the relationship between heaven and earth or ascension.
  • A rose often represents romance or beauty.
  • Letters can represent a word. For example, in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the letter ‘A’ represents adultery.
  • Light can be used to symbolize truth and safety.
  • Dark can be used to symbolize evil and danger.
  • Water can be used to symbolize rebirth.

Seasons

  • Spring: a new beginning
  • Summer: warmth, knowledge
  • Fall: growing old
  • Winter: death

Lesson Summary

Symbolism is used in literature when one thing is meant to represent something else. Symbolism helps create meaning and emotion in a story. Metaphors and allegory are literary elements that help writers create symbolism in their literary pieces. Colors, objects, seasons, people, situations and words are all types of symbolism that might be used in a literary work.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished with this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the purpose of symbolism in literature
  • Describe metaphors and allegory
  • Recall examples of colors, objects and seasons that are used as symbolism in literature


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Symbolism: Examples in Literature That Convey More Than Just Words

Symbolism Examples
If you have ever wondered about the use of images and words to represent completely unrelated ideas, then symbology is a subject that you will definitely find fascinating. There are many examples of symbolism that can help you understand this device of communication better.
Penlighten Staff

Last Updated: Mar 9, 2018
Traffic Light With Speed Cameras

Hong Kong Flag Patch

A symbol means more than itself, but first it means itself. Like a developing image in a photographer’s tray, a symbol reveals itself slowly. It’s been there all along, waiting to emerge from the story, the poem, the essay – and from the writer herself.” – Rebecca McClanahan

Symbolism or the use of images to represent other distinct thoughts and ideas has always held a very mysterious appeal for most of us. Symbols are intriguing and they hold a certain gravitational pull forcing us to at least try to figure out the hidden meaning behind these representations. To a certain extent, that is probably the reason why The Da Vinci Code became the worldwide phenomenon that it did. Dan Brown knew how to capture the attention of his target audience. But literary references apart, symbolism has come a long way from the 18th century use of the literary device to put forward mystical ideas. Today symbols are used for both practical purposes and to express abstract thoughts. This is evident from the many examples across many different spheres, for example mathematics, arts, politics, literature, philosophy, etc. The list of the same can be endless.

Use of Symbolism

Symbols are an integral part of our daily life and a single image or word at times is enough to give us an entire picture. Anything can be used as a symbol; a sign, an image, a picture, a character, or even a word. Any of these can be representative of an idea or a thought. For example, the moment you see the image of a skull and crossbones, you know there is danger ahead. If you notice that the traffic signal is amber, you slow down the vehicle because you know that the stop signal is next. If someone shows you the picture of Eiffel tower, you will immediately associate the same with Paris, which in itself is associated with romance, good food, and culture. If someone makes a comparison between an acquaintance of yours and Hamlet, then you would automatically assume that the person is troubled. You do so without second guessing yourself because it is one of the best examples in literature that can be used to associate with a troubled individual. That is the power of symbology. Without saying much, a lot can be communicated and expressed.

Symbolism is also used for more practical purposes. Roman numerals, musical notations, religious icons are all examples of symbology that are used by us everyday. We use them in artwork, in writing, music, movies, and a lot of other things. For example, every color is associated with an emotion, like red with anger and green with envy. Symbols can be used to identify a concept, it can be used to express facts that cannot have physical representations. They can represent unknown facts and be used to convey hidden and deeper meanings.

Examples of Symbolism

Derived from the Greek word, sumballein, symbol literally means ‘thrown together’, with an association with the theory of contrast or comparison. Today, symbols do not necessarily have to denote contrast. They can be straightforward representations that have come to be associated with a certain idea.

  • Mathematics is filled with many symbols, from the commonly used addition, subtraction (±), multiplication (×), division (÷) to the lesser used π or Pi which is a symbol for the value 3.14159…., which is an indefinite value. Most operations in mathematics have different symbols to represent them. This is one of the easiest examples for kids to understand as they use it more often.
  • There are also many religious symbols that are commonly used. The cross is a symbol of Christianity and the Star of David is associated with Judaism. The swastika, which is a symbol associated with Hinduism and is used to denote good luck, has more recently acquired sinister affiliations, thanks to its use by Hitler and the Nazi party.
  • The flags of most nations are good examples of symbology. The U.S. flag has thirteen stripes to represent the thirteen colonies that came together to form the nation and fifty stars to represent the fifty states. The Indian flag is a tricolor, where each color symbolizes a different meaning, saffron standing for courage and sacrifice, white for peace and truth, and green for faith and chivalry. The Ashoka Chakra represents the wheel of law.
  • Arts and literature is one field which is bursting at the seams with examples. One of the most notable examples is the use of the alphabet A, pinned to Hester Prynne, to symbolize adultery, in The Scarlet Letter. Another masterpiece that is replete with symbols and references is the Animal Farm, an allegorical novel by George Orwell, which uses farm animals with human qualities to represent communism and its ills. One of the most commonly cited examples in poetry is the use of the literary device in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. Addressed to his father, the poem uses night as a representation of death and light or day to symbolize life.
  • There are many cultural symbols also that are synonymous with specific countries. The Bald Eagle is a symbol of courage in America, the Yin Yang, a symbol of balance that originated in China. These symbols are often patriotic or evidence of moral standards and beliefs.

It helps to enhance the quality of literature in a way that no other literary device quite manages. Similarly, if used in daily life it can help us in reducing the effort that sometimes needs to be put into explaining an idea. The examples that have been elucidated in this article are just some of the signs used to represent different ideas and thoughts.

Mustard Seeds

Eagle War Memorial

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