Examples of Symbolism in Literature (2023)

What is the meaning behind the green light in The Great Gatsby or the One Ring of The Lord of the Rings fame? Besides just sounding cool, these things symbolize the characters’ internal struggles and central themes of the texts. Symbolism is one of the things that elevates writing to an art form. It allows the writer to paint a portrait with their words and helps readers visualize what is happening on the page to uncover hidden meanings.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature (1) Interior rustic rooms with curtains and flowers on the windowsil

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What Is a Symbol in Literature?

The literary definition of symbolism is “the use of symbols that represent other concepts or ideas in order to convey a deeper meaning.” Symbolism can use an object, person, situation, event, or action with a deeper meaning in the overall context of literary work that goes beyond surface understanding. When used properly, symbolism can enhance a piece of writing and bridge the gap between the reader and writer.

Symbolism in Literature: Novels and Plays

No doubt, you’ve come across symbolism in some of your favorite books, poems and other works of art. From the great classic novelists to contemporary artists, symbolism enriches the text and paints a picture for the reader.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This classic novel is full of symbolism. So much so that Emily Brontë uses symbolism in the title itself. Both the name and location “Wuthering Heights” are symbolic of the wild nature of the people involved in the story.

In this excerpt, the foliage in the woods is symbolic of the ever-changing nature of love. Additionally, the rocks below the surface represent the necessary pain that comes from loving someone.

(Video) Symbolism in Literature

"My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it; I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary."

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The epic novel Aurora Leigh is rife with symbolism. In it, Elizabeth Barrett Browning explores many ideals throughout the course of her work, but the role of women is a focal point. Instead of simply saying “Women are undervalued,” she compares them to a pair of slippers one mindlessly slips into at night.

"The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary"

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

As You Like It is one of William Shakespeare’s many great plays. In this scene, he uses symbolism to liken the big picture — the world — to a stage. The “players” are a symbol for the people of the world. We’re all a part of the great performance on the “world stage” and we each have a part, or several, to play in the production of life.

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
they have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts."

Night by Elie Wiesel

The autobiography Night by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel recounts the horrific, firsthand experiences of surviving a Nazi concentration camp. The concept of night is used throughout the book to symbolize death, darkness and loss of faith.

"The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our souls."

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Symbolism isn't hard to miss in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In fact, the main character, Hester, wears it on her chest. The letter "A" symbolizes "adultery." However, that meaning shifts throughout the story as Hester becomes "able."

(Video) Symbols in Literature

"But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth,—for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to little other than a rag,—on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A."

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A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

In Lorraine Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun, a plant on the windowsill symbolizes need and hope. Like a plant needs the sun to grow, we have needs that require nourishment in order to flourish.

"Lord, if this little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again"

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss

In Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the Grinch takes all the symbols associated with Christmas from Whos of Who-ville in hopes of preventing Christmas from coming at all. In the end, he discovers those material things symbolize something greater: the spirit of Christmas. The true symbolism here is the Whos’ singing, which represents the spirit of Christmas that “doesn’t come from a store” but from the heart.

"Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!"

Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

Entire theses have been written about Rowling’s use of symbolism in her Harry Potter series. Take a look at some of the more poignant examples.

  • Harry's scar is symbolic of his bravery and survival. However, it also symbolizes his connection to Lord Voldemort and how he must continuously choose the good, brave path.

  • Albus Dumbledore’s name is a symbol of his personality. For example, Dumbledore means “bumblebee” in Old English and he liked to hum. Also, Albus means "white," which may symbolize a white wizard or good wizard.

    (Video) "What is Symbolism?": A Literary Guide for English Teachers and Students

  • The Golden Snitch symbolizes the spiritual enlightenment every “seeker” aims for.

  • Knockturn Alley is a symbol of darkness and evil. Doesn’t the name alone sound like nocturnal? To no surprise, the Dark Arts are practiced in this alley at night.

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Symbolism in Poems

In poetry, beautiful images are painted in the space of a few stanzas. So it should come as no surprise that poets are huge fans of symbolism. It allows them to take in-depth concepts and paint them in interesting terms that will, hopefully, spark the reader’s imagination.

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

This famous poem is known for its rich symbolism. Ravens have been viewed for centuries in Western culture as bad omens. Edgar Allan Poe uses the raven to symbolize death and loss as the narrator descends into madness.

"Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more."

She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways by William Wordsworth

Famous poet William Wordsworth sure knew how to make a lady feel special. In the lines below, he uses romantic imagery and symbolism to convey his adoration for a quiet, unknown woman whom he loved very much.

(Video) Symbolism in Literature

"She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky."

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This legendary poem describes an albatross, or large bird, that’s about to be hung around the neck of the protagonist. However, it’s not merely some strange form of punishment. Rather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses the albatross, which was traditionally viewed by sailors as a sign of good luck, as a symbol of the terrible crime the narrator committed when he killed the bird. He likens the bird to a cross, which can be interpreted that the bird is his cross to bear for his sin.

"Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung."

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He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven by W.B. Yeats

Here, William Butler Yeats uses “the heavens” to symbolize great wealth and plenty. Even if Yeats had all the money in the world, he still could not have afforded to buy the treasures of heaven for the woman he loved. In this poem, his poverty is taken as a symbol of his (self-perceived) lack of talent, status or imagination.

"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

Symbolism Is Never Going Out of Style

Symbolism is one of the strongest tools in a writer’s arsenal. Sharpen your proverbial sword (i.e. your pen) with these literary devices.

Jennifer Betts

Staff Writer

FAQs

What are 2 examples of symbolism? ›

Symbolism Examples:

An owl can be a symbol meaning wisdom. A rose can be a symbol meaning romance. Green can be a symbol meaning jealousy or greed.

What is a good example of symbolism? ›

Symbolism is the idea that things represent other things.

What we mean by that is that we can look at something — let's say, the color red — and conclude that it represents not the color red itself but something beyond it: for example, passion, or love, or devotion. Or maybe the opposite: infidelity.

What is an example of symbolism in a sentence? ›

I offered her an olive branch after our big fight as I did not want to be at odds with her. Black is the symbol of death. The funeral was full of people wearing black suits. The dove is used to symbolise peace.

What are examples of symbolism in poem? ›

Examples of Common Symbols

The color white as a symbol for purity, new life, or peace. The color black as a symbol of death, danger, or mystery. The color red as a symbol for love, passion, or even death. The color green as symbol for rebirth, new life, and nature.

What is a symbolism in literature? ›

A literary symbol is an object, a person, a situation, or an action that has a literal meaning in a story but suggests or represents other meanings.

What is a symbolism of a story? ›

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—like an object, idea, or color—to represent another. Writers of all kinds use symbolism, and you can find examples of symbols in fiction, poetry, theater, creative nonfiction, graphic novels, and even journalism.

What is the most common form of symbolism? ›

Language is the most often used form of symbolism. There are 6,912 known living languages, and the diversity is caused by isolation. Most languages have a different “symbol” for each letter, word, or phrase.

What are these symbols called in English * {} [] \? ›

One is called a parenthesis. `, ? accent? The are called tilde, apostrophe, numbersign, caret, asterisk, hyphen, curly brackets, square brackets, apostrophe, quotation mark, forward slash, back slash respectively.

What does :> mean in texting? ›

means "Angry."

What are the 4 types of symbols? ›

7 TYPES OF SYMBOLS
  • pictogram.
  • ideogram.
  • icon.
  • rebus.
  • phonogram.
  • typogram.
  • logo (trade mark)

What is an example of symbolism for kids? ›

Symbolism is when one object or thing stands in the place of something else, such as an idea, another object, a person, or a place. For instance, all countries have flags for their own country. The flag symbolizes the country. The flag stands in place of the country.

What are the most common literary symbols? ›

Colours are often used as common symbols in literature. Black can represent death, green can represent jealousy or nature, white can represent innocence and purity, and red can represent passion, fury and desire. Birds are also common symbols. They can mean freedom and desire for change.

What is an example symbolic imagery? ›

An example of symbolic imagery could be the description of cold weather or an ice cube, to represent the “frozen” emotions of a character in a story. This is typically done to “show” action and meaning rather than “tell” readers or an audience what they are meant to see.

What is an example of symbolism in figurative language? ›

Symbolism is a practice of using symbols, or anything that represents something larger than itself. Common examples of symbols are a country's flag and a heart symbol, which represent the country, and love. Each has suggestive meanings--for example, the flag brings up thoughts of patriotism, a unified country.

How do you explain symbolism in an essay? ›

To write an essay about symbolism in a poem or a story, you must first identify what has symbolic meaning. The symbol will be one of three types: archetype, universal or contextual. Once you've done that, support your idea with evidence from the text; use outside sources only when appropriate.

Why is symbolism important to a story? ›

Symbolism allows writers to express complex ideas while giving the reader a visual, sensory experience.

What are two of the most common symbols that show up in literature? ›

Common symbols used in literature include colors, animals, seasons, and weather.

What symbolizes everyday life? ›

Signs and symbols are an essential component of our daily life. Signs like Zebra crossing are used on roads to help pedestrians; the thumbs-up sign indicates okay or best of luck, and the radioactivity sign indicates radioactive danger.

What are the types of symbol? ›

Types of Symbols
  • Iconograms are illustrative representations. They are iconic signs which, ...
  • Pictograms are pictorial representations, such as ISOTYPE. ...
  • Cartograms are topographical representations with complex functions (statistics, ...
  • Diagrams are functional representations. ...
  • Phonograms are phonic representations. ...
  • a.
  • b.
  • c.

What is the 8 symbol called? ›

A SHORT HISTORY OF INFINITY. The symbol for infinity that one sees most often is the lazy eight curve, technically called the lemniscate. This symbol was first used in a seventeenth century treatise on conic sections. It caught on quickly and was soon used to symbolize infinity or eternity in a variety of contexts.

How many symbols are there in English? ›

Currently, the IPA consists of 107 sound symbols, 52 diacritics (accents) and 4 prosodic marks (intonations) encompassing virtually every phoneme used in every language on the earth. So for any written word, you can identify the associated phoneme symbols, and with a bit of practice, pronounce the word!

What does 👍 mean from a girl? ›

The thumbs up emoji usually just means “OK.”

The person you're texting is giving you their approval, so take it and leave it! Their 👍 is most likely a good sign and they are just agreeing with what you're saying. Say you asked a friend if they wanted to meet for lunch. Your friend may say “yes” by sending you a 👍 .

What does P mean in texting? ›

What does :p. mean in chat or text? Originally Answered: What does :p. mean in chat? :p means the person is joking.

What does 3 mean from a girl? ›

means she loves you. For many girls, sending a <3 is a way of saying, “I like you as more than a friend.” Maybe she's crushing on you and finally has the courage to say how she feels, or she's your girlfriend sending a quick “I love you” text.

How do you identify symbolism in literature? ›

You can recognize symbolism when an image in a piece of text seems to indicate something other than its literal meaning. It might be repeated or seem somewhat jarring, as if the author is intentionally pointing it out (and they might be—though authors don't always do this).

What is symbolism in literature? ›

A literary symbol is an object, a person, a situation, or an action that has a literal meaning in a story but suggests or represents other meanings.

What is symbolism in a story? ›

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—like an object, idea, or color—to represent another. Writers of all kinds use symbolism, and you can find examples of symbols in fiction, poetry, theater, creative nonfiction, graphic novels, and even journalism.

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