Definition of Symbolism

When used as a literary device, symbolism means to imbue objects with a certain meaning that is different from their original meaning or function. Other literary devices, such as metaphor, allegory, and allusion, aid in the development of symbolism. Authors use symbolism to tie certain things that may initially seem unimportant to more universal themes. The symbols then represent these grander ideas or qualities. For instance, an author may use a particular color that on its own is nothing more than a color, but hints at a deeper meaning. One notable example is in Joseph Conrad’s aptly titled Heart of Darkness, where the “darkness” of the African continent in his work is supposed to symbolize its backwardness and the possibility of evil there.

Common Examples of Symbolism

We use symbols all the time in everyday life. Many people own things that have special meaning for them, such as a gift from a loved one that represents that bond. Companies use symbols as shorthand to represent their brand, and sports teams name themselves after fearsome animals and people to invoke power (for example, the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings, respectively). There are also cultural symbols, such as a dove representing peace. Here are more examples of symbolism from common life:

  • Wedding rings and engagement rings: Wedding and engagement rings are worn to symbolize a lasting union that a couple has entered into.
  • The American flag: The thirteen red and white stripes on the American flag symbolize the original thirteen colonies, while the fifty stars are a symbol for the fifty states.
  • The five Olympic rings: The primary symbol of the Olympics is the image of five interlocking rings. This symbol was created in 1912, and the six colors—the blue, green, black, yellow, and red rings on a white background—were meant to be a combination of all of the colors on the flags of the participating countries at the time. The rings now are sometimes thought to represent the five participating regions of the world—Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Oceania, and the Americas—though no color represents any specific region.
  • McDonald’s Golden Arches: McDonald’s is one of the largest companies in the world, with over 35,000 fast-food restaurants in 119 countries. The “golden arches”, which look like the letter “M”, are a symbol for the company. This symbol is recognizable across the world.

Significance of Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism has played a large role in the history of literature. Symbols have been used in cultures all around the world, evident in ancient legends, fables, and religious texts. One famous example of symbolism is the story of the Garden of Eden, in which the serpent persuades Eve to eat an apple from the tree of knowledge. The serpent in this story represents wickedness and the apple is a symbol for knowledge. Symbolism is equally important in poetry, prose, and plays, as well as in all genres of literature, from science fiction to fantasy to fiction for young adults (just think of Harry Potter’s scar—a symbol of his being the “chosen one”, as well as his ability to overcome evil). When analyzing a piece of literature, examining the primary symbols often leads to a greater understanding of the work itself.

Though the definition of symbolism most often relates to a literary device, there was also a nineteenth-century literary movement called “Symbolism.” The movement was chiefly based in France, Russia, and Belgium, and was greatly influenced by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Symbolists rejected realism, and instead thought that truth could only be represented in an indirect manner, i.e., through symbols. Famous symbolists were Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Ezra Pound.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Example #1

LADY MACBETH: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

In Shakespeare’s famous drama, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspire to kill King Duncan. After they do so, both are stricken by their guilty consciences. At first, Lady Macbeth chastises her husband for feeling guilty, but later she is shown sleepwalking through the castle while muttering about the murder. The literal “spot” she is trying to rid herself of is King Duncan’s blood, though the spot is a symbol for the mark on her conscience. Several times over in Macbeth there are references to the difficulty of getting out bloodstains, and in this famous line Lady Macbeth has found that the bloodstain has seeped even into her brain.

Example #2

Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.

(The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Nathaniel Hawthorne named his novel The Scarlet Letter after the central symbol of the book. The scarlet letter is a very real thing—a red letter “A” that stands for adulteress, which main character Hester Prynne is forced to wear around her small town. In this excerpt, the meaning of the symbol is explicitly stated. The scarlet letter is a symbol of sin. But, in fact, Hester Prynne’s entire body becomes a symbol for sin by wearing the letter, as her body represents the destruction of innocence.

Example #3

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

(The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings, is a hero’s quest in which the hobbit Frodo Baggins must destroy an all-powerful ring. This object is imbued with magic through its creation, and is a symbol for ultimate power. The ultimate power also becomes equated with evil. The ring simply being in Frodo’s presence begins to turn Frodo toward desire of power, and thus evil. However, Frodo’s ability to combat the power of the ring shows that he possesses a great inner source of goodness.

Example #4

LAURA: Little articles of [glass], they’re ornaments mostly! Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here’s an example of one, if you’d like to see it! . . . Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks! . . . You see how the light shines through him?
JIM: It sure does shine!
LAURA: I shouldn’t be partial, but he is my favorite one.
JIM: What kind of a thing is this one supposed to be?
LAURA: Haven’t you noticed the single horn on his forehead?
JIM: A unicorn, huh? —aren’t they extinct in the modern world?

(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)

As in the previous two examples of symbolism, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams takes its name from the most prevalent symbol in the play. The character of Laura is a very fragile and unique girl. Her older brother Tom fears for her safety, just as she fears for the safety of her beloved glass animals. As she explains in this dialogue with a gentleman caller named Jim, her favorite of the animals is the unicorn. The unicorn is a symbol for Laura—unique, a bit strange, and out of place. Jim later breaks the unicorn so that the horn falls off. As Laura notes while Jim is apologizing, this makes the unicorn into a normal horse—“less freakish.” However, the breaking of the unicorn’s horn also symbolizes the breaking of Laura’s heart when she finds out that Jim is actually engaged to another woman.

Test Your Knowledge of Symbolism

1. Choose the correct symbolism definition when used as a literary device:
A. To use different kinds of notation, like musical notes or mathematical symbols.
B. To give objects a new meaning that is different from their original meaning.
C. To write in a language that uses symbols, like hieroglyphics.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following lines from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12:

When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,

What do the images of a violet past its prime, sable-colored hair that is now white, and trees that are barren of leaves symbolize?
A. Old age and the passage of time
B. Springtime and new life
C. These images symbolize nothing
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following excerpts from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a symbolism example?
A. I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence
B. I doubted if I should ever come back.
C. Then took the other [road], as just as fair, / And having perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: The excerpt in C talks about a road which is “grassy and wanted wear.” This road symbolizes the poet’s choice to go down a less common path in life, and not just the literal path in the forest. The other two excerpts are simply his reflections on the choice, rather than the symbol itself.[/spoiler]