We see symbols around us all the time—our seasonal celebrations are made out of them. We use symbols like bells, Santa hats, and reindeer to symbolize Christmas; jack o’lanterns, bedsheet ghosts, and spiderwebs to symbolize Halloween; and eggs, rabbits, and newborn chicks to symbolize Easter. We use symbolism to communicate with each other when driving down the road or shopping in the supermarket, too.
It’s the same for symbolism in literature. Generations of storytellers have created a collective archive of symbolism that’s recognized the world over. Symbolism is the technique in which we create and utilize symbols, both from the world around us and within the world of our own stories. Therefore, “symbols” are what is created and “symbolism” is the act of using them to convey a deeper meaning. Let’s explore what symbolism is, how to use symbols that already exist in our culture, and how to use symbolism in your own writing.
What is symbolism?
Symbolism is a literary device that uses objects, places, people, or ideas to represent something beyond their concrete literal meaning. Writers use symbolism as a way to draw connections between their characters, their story world, and the events of the plot. Symbols resonate with us on a deep instinctual level because we’re used to searching for meaning in the world around us all the time.
To convey symbolism in a story, writers use setting, items, or even characters to communicate a deeper meaning. A ferocious storm, for instance, can be a symbol for a brewing conflict between two people. An object like a rose that’s beginning to wilt might be a symbol for a couple’s waning passions. Even a character can be a symbol —for example, the couple’s child might be a symbol for the innocence, hope, and ideals they once had.
There are two types of symbolism used in literature: the first is universal symbolism, in which the writer uses symbols that are an inherent part of our cultural language, and that the readre will immediately recognize from other stories. These symbols can be from myths, histories, religions, or even our day to day lives. For example, most readers will understand that a rose symbolizes love, or that a phoenix symbolizes rebirth, or that a set of scales symbolizes balance. We might recognize figures handed down to us through ancient stories such as the owls that were sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom, or bodies of water as a source of spiritual cleansing and restoration. Writers can use this cultural language to give their story resonance, power, and depth.
The second is contextual symbolism, or symbols that only come to life within the world the author has created. These are objects, places, or people that take on new meaning to the characters and the reader. For example, in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the book’s characters use a large conch shell as a kind of talking stick during group meetings—only the person holding the shell is given a voice. In this instance the conch shell becomes a symbol of civilization, order, and balance. Later, when the shell breaks, it symbolizes the destruction of those very morals that made them human. We wouldn’t necessarily attribute these meanings to a seashell in our own lives, but the meaning Golding gives the shell in his world becomes clear and powerful because of the place he’s given it in his story.
Symbolism and metaphor are both used to convey feelings and ideas in a creative, vivid way. The difference is that symbolism uses imagery that we recognize either from our own knowledge and experiences or from events within the story. Metaphor, on the other hand, uses two contrasting ideas to make the reader think about something in a new light.
For example, if you show two people having an argument while the sun sets, we might say that the setting sun is a symbol for the end of a bright and glorious relationship, for one last display of startling beauty before an encroaching darkness. As a writer, you could use pretty words to dress up this moment (because you can, and because it’s fun), but in truth your readers will already understand what the setting sun is trying to tell them in this moment, because they’ve already built up these associations in their mind layer by layer and they’ve seen this moment before. They will also understand the significance of the woman’s sweatshirt, the man’s new prescription glasses, the broken locket the woman accidentally leaves behind, because you’ve done the work in showing the importance of these things at pivotal moments in your story. The reader will recognize that these seemingly commonplace things are important pieces of a much larger whole. That’s symbolism at work.
On the other hand, if you had one character say that their partner is a fire extinguisher, your reader might need a few minutes to catch up. How is their partner a fire extinguisher? Maybe what the character is really trying to say is that their partner was kinda shiny and cool looking at first, and then they hung out in their kitchen for so long that they sort of forget they were there, but deep down the character knows that if they were ever in real trouble they would be there to put out the flames. No questions asked. That’s a metaphor.
Symbolism in literature takes threads that already exist in our understanding of the world and uses them to create powerful, emotionally resonant moments in our stories, while metaphors use two completely unrelated things to communicate a surprising truth.
What’s the difference between symbols and motifs?
Both symbolism and motifs play a similar role in communicating ideas with the reader; however, they’re not used in exactly the same way.
A motif is a recurring thematic symbol within a story. This means that either the same image or the same idea is presented numerous times throughout the story, helping to support and build upon the themes of the work. For example, an author writing a story set during World War II might decide to use books as a motif for hope. They could show a soldier reading a beaten up old paperback at night, a burnt and decaying book left behind in an evacuated village, a diary torn to pieces by the story’s villain, and then that same soldier reading a storybook to his children when he finally finds his way home. On either a conscious or subconscious level, the reader will begin to recognize this pattern as it threads its way throughout the narrative.
Motifs are one specific type of symbolism, but most often symbolism in literature refers to broader ideas presented at one moment in the story. For example, a sea monster in a nautical adventure story could be a symbol for the destructive force of avarice, and the unraveling of a ship could be symbolic of stripping away what is unnecessary to begin anew. Both symbolism and motifs show the reader what is truly being communicated by your story in a subtle, elegant way.
5 examples of symbolism in literature
Symbolism is one of the oldest literary devices in storytelling. Let’s explore the ways symbolism has been used effectively in literature.
1. Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights draws heavily on its setting to inform its plot, tone, and theme. It’s also filled with layer upon layer of symbolism. The wild landscape of the moors are symbolic of the tempestuous passions of the central characters—and, in fact, the changeability of people as a whole.
The central character, Catherine, expresses her love through the symbolism in the natural land around her: “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.”
Brontë expands on the symbolism of place by using the two houses where the story is set, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, as symbols. Wuthering Heights is dark, foreboding, solidly built, and set on top of a hill at the mercy of the ferocious forces of nature, while Thrushcross Grange is brighter, more delicate, and more inviting. It’s set away from the tempestuous weather of the moors and it gets lots of daylight. The two houses are symbols for Catherine’s two opposing loves, as well as the two opposing parts of herself. It’s this internal struggle to balance her wildness with her need for stability that powers the drama of the novel.
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde’s debaucherous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray shows us what happens when we allow our souls to become corrupted by hedonic impulse. The protagonist, Dorian, makes a bargain to allow a painting of him to absorb the age, deterioration, and spiritual decay that he would otherwise inflict on himself. Thus the titular portrait in the novel becomes a figurative and literal symbol for depravity and corruption, a visual symbol for the protagonist’s inner self. The worse it gets, the more we see the portrait’s influence affecting his mental state as he spirals into a place he can’t come back from.
Dorian is also given a novel to read, an unnamed yellow book believed to be J .K. Huysmans’ À Rebours (“Against Nature”), a celebration of aesthetic and hedonic sensation above societal constraints. This book serves as something of a scripture as Dorian begins his descent into debauchery and madness. The yellow book becomes a symbol of the poisonous influence of his friends and the society that he’s become a part of, as well as the rising influence of French culture and decadence of that time period.
3. The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a story in itself has become one of our most recognizable symbols for decadence, excess, and the Great American Dream. The story features several symbols and motifs, including a great pair of painted eyes on a wall that are thought to symbolize the eyes of God watching over the degradation of society and the omnipresent commercialism. The novel also prominently features the title character’s enormous mansion, which symbolizes the glory and luxury of the character’s lifestyle and his isolation and loneliness.
The novel also features a bright green light that the character can see across the water, leading Gatsby to the woman he loves. The light symbolizes a goal that’s within view but constantly out of reach: the girl on the other side of the water and the “American Dream” that the protagonist has spent so long aspiring to. Gatsby believes that by attaining a lavish, comfortable lifestyle, he can finally be worthy of her. Yet despite his leaps and bounds in the material world, his goal, just like the source of the green light, never gets any closer. The repeated use of the colour green in the novel also symbolizes new money and prosperity.
4. Winnie the Pooh
The children’s classic Winnie the Pooh is an interesting study in the way it has come to symbolize growth and belonging for several generations of readers. Several things become prominent symbols within the story, such as the iconic red balloon—because it’s cheerful, lightweight, and can fly, it symbolizes the magic of childhood. Much like childhood, however, the balloon’s flight is also an impermanent form of magic, fragile and easy to break before you’re truly ready.
Some have also made the argument of how each central character symbolizes a particular learning disability or mental illness that can appear early in life, such as ADHD, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression. While it’s unlikely that A. A. Milne intended these characters to be symbols in such a concrete way (understanding of these disabilities was still very primitive when he was alive), it’s very possible that he created the characters to symbolize certain difficulties that we go through in our childhoods in a friendly, accessible way.
5. Moby Dick
A plethora of symbolism can be found in Herman Melville’s magnum opus Moby Dick, a story of survival on the high seas. The White Whale—an impersonal symbol so central to the story that the book was named after it—is thought to symbolize the destructive force of nature and the impossibility of conquering it. This symbol also feeds into themes of fate vs. free will, as the protagonist’s search for the animal brings the characters up against forces completely beyond their control.
The novel also features the construction of a coffin, which, perhaps surprisingly, comes to symbolize hope. The ill man whom the coffin is built for takes comfort from it before he ends up recovering from his illness, and later one of the central characters uses the wooden coffin as a floatation device to keep him alive above the waves. This is a good example of how you can take a universal cultural symbol and use it to create a new meaning within the world of your story.
Do you have to use symbolism in your writing?
All literary devices are tools that are available to you as a writer—you don’t need to use every single one on every single page (or even in every single story). However, symbolism naturally makes its way into nearly all stories because it’s already so deeply ingrained in the language that we speak, see, and experience. As writers we use symbolism to communicate with our readers, but also to communicate with ourselves.
Try looking back at a recent story or poem that you’ve written. You may be surprised to find that you’ve already included symbolism, maybe without even realizing it. This is because our own life experiences naturally come out in our writing, and symbolism is a big part of the way we tell those stories. You may find the same central motifs appearing again and again, or certain colours being featured prominently in your plot because of the relationship that you have with them in your own life. Try identifying where these symbols are beginning to emerge, and then see if you can find ways to make them even more powerful for the reader.
3 ways to incorporate symbolism into your story
Symbolism is all around us, and symbolism in literature is what makes for truly great writing. When you’re looking for ways to use symbols in your story, you’ll find that there’s an entire treasure trove of imagery and visual language for you to incorporate into your own work. Let’s look at a few of the ways you can find inspiration for your own symbolism.
1. Look to your history
The stories we grew up with, both real and imagined, are full of symbols that you can use in your own writing. Think about your culture’s traditions: what sort of symbols do you and your family use for births, deaths, and marriages? You can also look to other cultures and to times gone by for inspiration. For example, in Victorian times there was a lot of symbolism attributed to different plants and flowers—it was possible to send a detailed coded message through an artfully arranged bouquet. There’s an entire language passed down through the ages that you can use to give depth and complexity to your work.
2. Look to the world around you
Think about the things, people, and places you see around you every day. What do they mean to you? Traffic lights, advertisements, and shop displays all contain symbols that have become part of our extended cultural language. You might see a children’s library using the image of an owl to symbolize wisdom and knowledge, or a realtor using the image of a rising sun to symbolize new beginnings in a new home. See how other people are using symbols such as animals, icons, and colours to communicate something with the world. These are all universal symbols that your readers will recognize when you use them to show them something about the world of your story.
3. Look to your own experiences
Even though symbols are a huge part of our collective understanding, symbolism can also be a very personal, unique experience. For example, if you have a scary memory featuring a certain animal or in a certain place, those things will come to mean something different for you than they might for other people. You can also develop personal symbolism through positive memories; maybe one of your happiest childhood memories is carving pumpkins with your parents, and so pumpkins for you have come to symbolize family and belonging—even if that isn’t necessarily what they mean to the larger world. You can use these symbols in your writing too.
This is where we get contextual symbolism. The difference between this and universal symbolism is that you’ll have to show your reader why they’re important and why you’re using them to communicate those things. You can do this through your characters—through their memories, the experiences they have, and the way they see the world around them. You can use your own real memories to tell a fictional story (many writers do this), or you can use your experiences as inspiration to create something new. Maybe instead of a pumpkin, your main character used to go looking for seashells with their family along the coast. Now suddenly you can use seashells in your story to symbolize whatever you want, and your readers will understand—because you made it real.
Symbolism brings depth and complexity to your story
We encounter symbolism through the world around us every day, whether that’s from the stories we read, the way companies communicate with us, or the way we subconsciously process our own experiences. By using universal symbols as well as creating new symbolism of your own, you can give a greater richness, theme, and emotional resonance to your writing.