What Is Symbolism? | Definition & Examples

Symbolism involves using a word or object to represent something beyond its literal meaning. For example, a light bulb is an electric device that can also stand for sudden insight or innovation.

Symbolism example
Some symbols are easy to interpret because they have been associated with specific meanings for a long time. For example, a heart symbolizes love and affection, a dove is a symbol of peace, and a globe with Wi-Fi waves signifies an available wireless internet connection.

We encounter symbolism in various aspects of life, including literature, art, and everyday experiences.

What is symbolism?

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing to represent another (usually a more abstract concept). In prose and poetry, symbolism can help provide a deeper meaning to a text.

Symbols can be universal and easy to identify (like Yorick’s skull, which symbolizes death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) or more subtle, without any predetermined meaning. In this case, they get their meaning only as parts of a specific story. For example, in the movie Citizen Kane, the protagonist’s childhood sled (named “Rosebud”), is a symbol of the happiness and innocence he lost along the way. However, in contrast to a skull, this meaning is particular to the context.

Symbolism is not only found in art and literature. Symbolism helps us navigate our environments (e.g., a red light means “stop”) or convey complex ideas (e.g., a flag represents a specific country).

Symbolism example
It’s important to remember that symbols are often culture-specific. For example, the color white is associated with purity in many Western cultures, whereas in Japan it is associated with mourning.

How is symbolism used in writing

Symbolism is a versatile tool that adds complexity to literary works. It allows authors to communicate abstract ideas, paint vivid images, and engage with readers on a deeper level.

Symbolism can be used to:

Build themes

Symbols often tend to recur in stories, becoming motifs and reinforcing the central themes of a literary work.

Symbolism in literature example
In the novella Animal Farm, the windmill is initially built to benefit all animals. In the end, it only benefits the ruling class (the pigs), symbolizing the pigs’ exploitation of the other animals and, thus, echoing the main theme of the story.

Create imagery

Because symbolism relies on images, it makes descriptions more memorable and evocative.

Symbolism in literature example
In the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, the mockingbird symbolizes innocence. After an innocent man is shot, one of the characters compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds.” The recurring reference to mockingbirds/songbirds in the story creates a mental picture of harmlessness and purity.

Define characters

Symbols can represent the development of a character or mirror their traits.

Symbolism in literature example
In the novel 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith, buys a glass paperweight in an antique store, symbolizing his desire to know the past and what has really happened to society. When Winston is arrested by the Thought Police, the globe is crushed, just like his attempt at resistance in the dystopian world of the story.

Convey abstract ideas

Writers use symbolism to provoke thought and express ideas that may be too complicated to express through words.

Symbolism in literature example
In the novel The Lord of the Flies, the conch shell represents the boys’ initial commitment to democratic principles and civilization. This ideal ultimately contrasts with their descent into primal behavior.

Symbolism examples

Flowers, animals, and colors carry various symbolic meanings depending on cultural, religious, and literary contexts. Interpretations may also vary based on personal experiences or preferences.

Flower symbolism

Below is a table listing the symbolic meanings associated with various flowers.

Flower Symbolic meaning
rose love, passion, beauty
sunflower longevity, happiness, good fortune
daisy innocence, loyalty, simplicity
lily affection, purity, fertility, renewal, rebirth

Animal symbolism

Below is a table listing the symbolic meanings associated with various animals.

Animal Symbolic meaning
dragonfly change, self-realization
hummingbird joy, good luck
owl wisdom, intelligence
snake transformation/rebirth, health, death, destruction, evil
crow/raven magic, mystery, transformation, death/the afterlife
moth vulnerability, transformation, the soul
hawk clarity, intuition, freedom/independence, power

Color symbolism

Below is a table listing the symbolic meanings associated with various colors.

Color Symbolic meaning
red passion/love and anger, good luck and prosperity, danger/warning
yellow energy, warmth, optimism, cowardice, envy, royalty
green nature, freshness, paradise, envy, prosperity, and goodness
blue serenity, stability, spirituality, and melancholy
white hope, purity, cleanliness, innocence, simplicity, optimism

Frequently asked questions about symbolism

What is the difference between symbolism and metaphor?

Symbolism and metaphor are easy to confuse. However, they are distinct literary devices.

  • Symbolism relies on symbols (objects, persons, or situations) to represent abstract ideas or concepts. A strong symbol is usually related to whatever it is meant to symbolize and often recurs throughout a literary work as a major part of the theme. For example, the raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous poem symbolizes the narrator’s grief.
  • A metaphor, on the other hand, compares two seemingly unrelated things, stating that one thing is another. Metaphors are often brief, like the phrase “Time is a thief.” The purpose is to create vivid imagery, exaggerate a trait, or express a complex idea.
    In short, while both symbolism and metaphor involve using one thing to represent another, symbolism relies on recurring symbols to convey deeper meanings, whereas metaphors make a direct comparison to highlight a specific idea.
What is the difference between allegory and symbolism?

Allegory and symbolism are related literary devices, but they should not be confused.

  • An allegory is a narrative that can be understood both literally and figuratively. It is a complete story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. An allegory employs symbols and metaphors to convey a deeper moral or philosophical concept.
  • Symbolism, on the other hand, is the use of words, images, or objects in a text to represent a concept or idea. Symbols are often more open to interpretation and may have multiple meanings.

For example, Plato’s allegory “The Cave” illustrates the philosopher’s journey from ignorance to wisdom. To convey this abstract idea, Plato uses symbols like the cave (the world of illusion), the light (knowledge), and the chains (the senses).

In other words, an allegory encompasses an entire text, whereas symbolism uses symbols that contribute to the overall meaning of a text.

What is an example of symbolism in literature?

An example of symbolism in literature is the recurrence of the blood image in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, symbolizing guilt and violence.

For example, in Act 2 Scene 2, Macbeth, shocked by the murder he committed, believes his hand has been irreversibly bloodstained. Similarly, in Act 5, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth becomes delusional from guilt and sees a bloodstain on her hand.

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou, MSc

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.