Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Symbolism

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
English Literature

When exploring the literary device of symbolism, think about how an object can be used to convey a meaning or intent beyond itself. You can get creative, or simply use common understandings of a symbol. One popular example of symbolism is Harry Potter's scar in the J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997-2007), a symbol of his bravery and the survival of a childhood attack at the hands of Voldemort.

What is symbolism in literature?

Symbolism is when an object, occurrence, or action represents something beyond itself. In literature, conventional symbols which are widely understood in a society - such as a monarch’s crown as a stand-in for royalty - are often used. Writers can alter conventional symbols so that they convey a particular meaning.

The use of symbolism in literature

A writer can use symbolism to express a broader meaning or idea not explicitly stated in a text. The idea and its development cn be shown in this way to the reader. Symbolism adds depth and makes a piece more interesting to read, as the reader may have to decipher the meaning for themselves.

Makeup is used as a symbol in The Handmaid's Tale (1985). It is symbolic of the past, and of choice and control, as Handmaids are not allowed to wear makeup in the Republic of Gilead. In contrast, when Offred goes to Jezebel's (an underground soliciting establishment to entertain Commanders and foreign dignitaries) the women there wear makeup to improve their chances of getting approached. What is considered shameful and inappropriate in the Republic of Gilead is in other circumstances used as a tool to better a woman's situation.

Symbolism Makeup tools StudysmarterMakeup tools and products, pixabay.com

How to identify symbolism

To identify symbolism, see if there is an object in a text that later disappears or reappears in a different form. For example in Superman (1978), Clark Kent's glasses are a symbol of his secret identity. His identity on Earth is represented by his glasses, which conceal his true identity as a superhero.

Kent is not human, but glasses are a very human thing. They symbolise optical weakness and therefore human frailty. As a superhero, Clark is not human and does not share in the experience of human frailty.

Symbolism, Eye Glasses, StudysmarterEyeglasses, pixabay.com

A symbol often occurs repeatedly, and this emphasises the author’s intent, making it readily identifiable as a symbol versus a mere description.

Types of symbolism in literature

These types of symbolism are respective to different genres of literature. Common types of symbolism include:

Romantic symbolism, e.g. using an object to represent the course of a romantic relationship.

Roses are symbolic of romance. A man presenting his lover with roses is symbolic of his love for her (or him). These roses may be preserved for an abnormally long time in his lover's possession, somehow lasting for months and months. This oddity could show that his affection is everlasting.

Symbolism red roses StudySmarterRed roses, pixabay.com

Emotional symbolism, e.g. using an object to represent the development of emotion in a text.Using the example of flowers again, when siblings are having a disagreement in a florist's shop, the flowers may seem to suddenly droop as the energy in the room becomes negative.

symbolism, flowershop, studysmarterFlower shop, pixabay.com

Religious symbolism, e.g. using well-known symbols to represent something in a godly context. Snakes are viewed as full of deceit in the Bible, as the devil tricks Adam and Eve in the form of a serpent.

The mention of snakes in the Bible implies that something deceitful is happening. The devil wanted to trick Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, which they had been told to refrain from doing. In order to do this, the devil assumed the form of a snake.

Symbolism snake studysmarterSnake, pixabay.com

Symbolic colours, e.g. red, typically symbolize anger, passion, and danger.

In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), the Handmaids' habits are red. Red is symbolic of the blood of the menstrual cycle and childbirth. Red is also traditionally the attribute to sexual sin, which hints at danger. A handmaid's role is to reproduce with Commanders, who are married men, and this is permitted under the Republic of Gilead. They use their interpretation of the Bible to justify this. However, this is in fact adultery, which is a sin.

Symbolism colour theory studysmarterPainted wood - red, orange and yellow, pixabay.com

Symbolic objects e.g. wedding rings typically symbolise commitment.

Brides have traditionally worn white to symbolise purity.

Symbolism bride studysmarterBride, pixabay.com

Animals, e.g. owls, typically symbolise wisdom.

Sheep are symbolic of intelligence and an inability to think independently. In George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), the sheep blindly follow the pig dictators on the farm. This symbol is part of the greater allegory of people who blindly followed Stalin's propaganda during the Russian Revolution.

Symbolism sheep StudySmarterSheep, pixabay,com

Weather conditions, e.g. storms, typically symbolise turmoil.

In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847), a storm rages during the most emotionally heightened moments of the novel, in which Cathy tries to decide how she feels about Heathcliff and Linton.

Symbolism, storm, StudySmarterStorm, pixabay,com

Common symbols in literature

Common symbols in literature include colours, seasons, weather, and animals. Landscapes are also common symbols in literature. For example, nature can symbolise growth and prosperity. Here are some examples of the conventional meanings of symbols in these categories:

Colour:

  • Black: death, evil

  • Blue: calm, peace

  • Green: nature, growth

Seasons:

  • Spring: fertility, rejuvenation

  • Summer: freedom, joy

  • Autumn: aging, nearing death

  • Winter: death, hardship

Weather:

  • Fog: uncertainty, mystery

  • Rain: sadness, transformation

  • Storms and storm clouds: violent emotions, danger

Animals:

  • Owl: wisdom

  • Peacock: pride, vanity

  • Vulture: death

  • Snakes: evil

Examples of symbolism in literature

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925): The green light visible from Gatsby’s West Egg lawn is a representation of the wealth he believes will help him win back his love, Daisy. Green is symbolic of money and wealth, and the green light symbolises this hope and dream.

  • William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606): Lady Macbeth has delusions of her clean hands being stained with blood after she assists in Duncan’s murder. The blood represents her inner conscience as she slowly descends into madness.

  • The Bible: The devil tricks Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, coming to them in the form of a serpent. Serpents represent evil, destruction, poison. Adam and Eve fall for this trick, leading to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

How is a symbol different from an allegory?

The key difference between a symbol and an allegory is that a symbol is more complex and less specific, allowing for a variety of interpretations. An allegory features extensive use of a symbol sustained through a text and compares a subject to something else. Allegory can be understood as a type of symbolism, but it usually makes a greater point about a society. An allegory can also communicate something about morals or have a more complex meaning.

For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) uses animals and the occurrences in the book as an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917. The animals’ interactions and the society they build are representative of the author’s view of communism during the Russian Revolution.

A clear example of symbolism is the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello (1604). This object is first given to Othello’s bride, Desdemona, who later loses it after applying it to Othello’s forehead to help with his migraine. Othello’s migraine had resulted from rumours of cuckoldry by Desdemona, and he casts the handkerchief away in frustration. The symbolic meaning of the handkerchief shifts depending on which character possesses it - Desdemona sees it as a precious gift, yet Othello is reminded of Desdemona’s supposed cuckoldry.

Symbolism lace StudySmarterHandkerchief, pixabay.com

Symbolism - Key takeaways

    • Symbolism in literature means that an object, occurrence or action represents something beyond itself.

    • The types of symbolism in literature are romantic symbolism, emotional symbolism, religious symbolism, animals, weather, objects, and colours.

    • To identify symbolism in literature, look for a description that involves a change in a potential symbol, which may disappear later. The repeated mention of an object could indicate it is a symbol.

    • Common symbols in literature include colours, seasons, weather, animals and landscapes.

Symbolism

Symbolism is when an object, occurrence or action represents something beyond itself.

Nature can symbolise growth and prosperity in literature.

The types of symbolism in literature are romantic symbolism, emotional symbolism, religious symbolism, animals, weather, objects, and colours.

The green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Green is symbolic of money and wealth, and the green light overall symbolises his hope and dream to win his lover, Daisy, back. Another example of symbolism is that snakes are used to symbolise evil and deceit. 

A description that involves a change or disappearance of an object. The reappearance of an object could also indicate symbolism.

Final Symbolism Quiz

Question

What is symbolism in literature?

Show answer

Answer

Symbolism is when an object, occurrence or action represents something beyond itself.

Show question

Question

What does nature symbolise in literature?

Show answer

Answer

Nature can symbolise growth and prosperity in literature.

Show question

Question

What are the types of symbolism in literature?


Show answer

Answer

The types of symbolism in literature are romantic symbolism, emotional symbolism, religious symbolism, animals, weather, objects and colours.

Show question

Question

What are the types of symbolism in literature?


Show answer

Answer

The types of symbolism in literature are romantic symbolism, emotional symbolism, religious symbolism, animals, weather, objects and colours.

Show question

Question

Give an example of symbolism in literature.

Show answer

Answer

The green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Green is symbolic of money and wealth, and the green light overall symbolises his hope and dream to win his lover, Daisy, back. 

Show question

Question

How do you identify symbolism in literature?


Show answer

Answer

 A description that involves a change in a potential symbol and the symbol may disappear. Repetition of the mention of an object could indicate it is a symbol.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between a symbol and an allegory?


Show answer

Answer

A symbol is more complex and less specific, allowing for a variety of interpretations. An allegory features extensive use of a symbol sustained through a text which compares a subject to something else.

Show question

Question

What are some common symbols used in literature?


Show answer

Answer

Common symbols in literature include colours, seasons, weather, animals and landscapes.

Show question

Question

When do you use symbolism in literature?


Show answer

Answer

You can use symbolism to express a broader meaning or idea you do not want to explicitly say in a text. You can show this idea and show its development through the text. 

Show question

Question

What was the symbolism of the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello (1604)?


Show answer

Answer

The symbolic meaning of the handkerchief shifts depending on which character possesses it- with Desdemona it is a precious gift, yet with Othella, it reminds him of Desdemona’s supposed cuckoldry. 

Show question

Question

Do symbols always convey conventional meanings in literature?


Show answer

Answer

No, symbols do not always convey conventional meanings in literature. Writers may alter the conventional meaning of a symbol to suit the point they want to make.

Show question

More about Literary Devices
60%

of the users don't pass the Symbolism quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.