Last updated on Jan 24, 2022
What Is Symbolism? Definition and Examples
Answer: Symbolism is the use of real-world objects to represent abstract ideas. It takes easy-to-understand ideas and objects and uses them to communicate deeper concepts beyond their literal meaning.
As one of the most popular literary devices, we encounter symbolism constantly. But it’s not always easy to identify — or to implement into one's own writing.
In this post, we’ll dive into symbolism and the effects it can create in a story — along with some classic symbolism examples you’re bound to recognize.
Symbolism is the expression of ideas through imagery
Symbolism tends to work best with striking imagery. This is why symbolism often involves bold colors, eye-catching items, dramatic events, and so on; the stronger the image, the clearer the idea behind it.
Filmmakers frequently take advantage of this, crafting colorful, compelling visuals that audiences instantly clock as symbolism. While writers must take a subtler approach, that doesn’t mean textual symbolism is weaker than visual symbolism — indeed, when gifted with masterful description, a reader’s imagination can yield the most powerful imagery of all.
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Strong imagery doesn’t always equal symbolism. Sometimes a vivid scene is just a plot point that moves the story along without representing anything deeper. That said, strong imagery usually means you’ve got a symbol on your hands — as in the example below.
Example: Water and rebirth in Beloved
A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim in her straw hat. Everything hurt but her lungs most of all.
The fifth chapter of Beloved begins with Beloved's rebirth after her mother, Sethe, was forced to kill her as a baby. While the water itself is the symbol, it’s the image of Beloved that hits hardest: this portrait of a young woman whose lungs sting with every breath, who can't move for an entire day.
Beloved is full of striking imagery like this, but this scene is a particularly nuanced example. With the realization that she is Sethe’s lost daughter, the scene takes on even greater meaning — the water symbolizes not just Beloved’s rebirth, but the pain of it, invoking the trauma of her past.
It's a way to underline important themes
To work meaningfully in a story, a symbol can’t just represent any idea. It also needs to relate to the story’s motifs and themes!
Take the age-old symbols of light and darkness. If you were writing an epic battle between two sides, you might connect one side to light and the other to darkness to show who’s good and who’s bad — or you could swap them to subvert the trope. What you wouldn’t want to do is insert imagery of darkness and light in a story that has nothing to do with good and evil.
Luckily for writers, once you know which theme(s) you want to tackle, suitable symbols should follow. And luckily for readers, writers almost never include random symbols that don’t relate to their work’s themes!
If you recognize a symbol, even if you’re not sure how to decipher it, you can trust that it’s important — as in the example below.
Example: Mockingbirds and innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Though Atticus first brings it up in the passage above, the mockingbird symbolizes more than Jem's childhood innocence. It’s a symbol for all innocence, and clearly connects to the character of Tom Robinson: a Black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.
By extension, the phrase “to kill a mockingbird” relates to the immorality of hurting an innocent creature. In the book, the Ewells symbolically kill the mockingbird of Tom Robinson with their lies, as does the racist jury that convicts him.
Of course, when Tom is shot and killed by a prison guard, we see that for a Black man in America, murder is rarely just metaphorical. It’s a wrenching yet undeniably powerful sequence of events — and an excellent case study in how such symbols can connect to overarching themes.
A poetic way to “show, don’t tell”
Symbolism can also be used to show rather than tell. For those unfamiliar with this principle, it encourages subtle yet revealing descriptions, rather than laying out information more plainly.
For example: “Allie was nervous during the test” is a telling statement. It gets the point across clearly and immediately, and even demonstrates how telling is useful when the author has to knock out some exposition. But telling sentences don’t really engage the reader, and can come across as dry.
“Showing” the same information is much more interesting: “Allie fiddled with her pencil, tapping it against the tabletop. Her eyes darted up to the clock and back down again. She felt her palms sweating and gripped the pencil harder.” This lets us know what Allie is experiencing without quite labeling it, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
Symbolism adds yet another, more intriguing layer to this tactic. While all symbols help writers “show don’t tell” their ideas, some symbols are especially incisive, as in the following example.
Example: Blood and guilt in Macbeth
Out, damned spot! Out, I say! — One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky! — Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? — Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.
One of the most memorable scenes in Macbeth is Lady Macbeth’s bout of sleepwalking in Act 5, accompanied by her frenzied speech. “Out, damned spot!” she cries, scrubbing at her hands as if they were stained with blood — despite the fact that she has not killed anyone herself.
If anything, though, this makes the “blood” into an even more powerful symbol; Lady Macbeth's guilt is so extreme that this vision still haunts her. Of course, she doesn’t say “I feel guilty.” Shakespeare makes a much more compelling case by showing her descent into blood-fueled paranoia… ironically, the same force that drove her and Macbeth to murder.
It can enhance a story's emotional resonance
As you’ve probably gathered, the best symbols evoke both an intellectual and an emotional response. We feel sorrow over Beloved’s painful rebirth; desperately angry at the destruction of Tom Robinson; a mixture of satisfaction, pity, and fear for Lady Macbeth’s guilt.
These responses tend to arise naturally, but storytellers can also intentionally make their symbols more resonant. For instance, say you wanted to symbolize childhood in a scene. You could have your main character walk by a park and hear children playing… or you could have them stumble upon an old, worn teddy bear with its stuffing falling out.
The more innate emotional pull an image has, the more strongly readers will feel about what it represents. Whether you’re trying to elicit sublime happiness or devastating sadness, a well-placed symbol could be the key.
Example: Food and passion in Like Water for Chocolate
Tita's blood and the roses from Pedro proved quite an explosive combination. [...] Gertrudis began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs. An itch in the center of her body kept her from sitting properly in her chair.
She began to sweat, imagining herself on horseback with her arms clasped around one of Poncho Villa's men: the one she had seen in the village plaza the week before, smelling of sweat and mud, of dawns that brought uncertainty and danger, smelling of life and of death.
What better way to show emotional resonance than with a story about baking feelings into food? The symbolism in Like Water for Chocolate is admittedly quite evident; its magical realist approach means that we can see clearly which emotion each dish represents.
But sometimes the most obvious symbols have the greatest emotional impact. This is certainly true of the scene in which Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, is consumed by lust after eating quail with rose petal sauce — a meal infused with Tita’s erotic thoughts of her other sister’s husband, Pedro.
This symbol is particularly potent given that Pedro brought Tita the roses in the first place. Tita effectively pours all her sexual frustration into the meal, and in the next breathless scene, we feel her love and lust for Pedro almost as powerfully as Gertrudis does.
And it can make the most obscure story relateable.
Finally, keep in mind that most symbols in literature are universal. Indeed, reviewing our examples, each author uses an intuitive association (water with rebirth, blood with guilt, etc.) to coax readers in the right direction.
Sure, some of the more generic symbols — like the color red rather than the specific image of blood — may represent multiple, sometimes conflicting ideas in different works. And as noted in the light vs. darkness example, there’s always the possibility of subversion.
But most of the time, what you intuit is what you get! At the end of the day, interpreting and even implementing symbols isn’t all that complicated. Go with your gut, and when in doubt, remember you can always return to the classics for confirmation.
Example: Nature and wildness in Wuthering Heights (and others)
My landlord halloed for me to stop ere I reached the bottom of the garden, and offered to accompany me across the moor. It was well he did, for the whole hill-back was one billowy, white ocean; the swells and falls not indicating corresponding rises and depressions in the ground: many pits, at least, were filled to a level; and entire ranges of mounds, the refuse of the quarries, blotted from the chart which my yesterday's walk left pictured in my mind.
Speaking of the classics, let’s look at our last example: nature and wildness in Wuthering Heights. This one is so well-known that it even features in an episode of Friends — Phoebe noting that the story is set “on these really creepy moors,” which symbolize “the wildness of Heathcliff’s character.”
But Wuthering Heights isn’t the only story to relate natural wilderness to human turmoil and ferality. The Scarlet Letter, published a few years later, implies a similar connection with Hester’s daughter Pearl — forced to live near the woods on the edge of town, Pearl becomes increasingly unruly. A better-known example might be Lord of the Flies: the longer the boys remain on the island, the more primitive they become.
This is one of symbolism’s best qualities: creators can build upon earlier works to develop symbols and make them even more powerful. Which is exactly why the greatest symbols only become richer over time!
On that note, we hope this guide has helped you better understand symbolism in literature — to both identify symbols in future reading and use them more effectively in your own work. No matter what the symbols in question are, you’ll have all the tools you need to work with them. (Then again, just to be safe, steer clear of those creepy moors.)