In the literary world, many authors use symbolism to give their stories greater complexity, depth, and lasting impact. Understanding what symbolism is and the various types of symbolism that authors use can help you better appreciate this literary technique.
In this article, we define symbolism, list the various types of symbolism that authors use, explain why symbolism is important and provide you with several examples of symbolism.
What is symbolism?
Symbolism refers to the use of an action, object or name to represent an idea or quality. It’s essentially the act of taking something that’s usually concrete and associating it with a symbol to give it a new or greater significance. Writers use symbolism to explain an idea or concept to their readers in a poetic manner without saying it outright. The use of symbolism allows writers to make their stories more complex.
Many people also use symbolism in everyday life. For example, the color white stands for purity, black represents evil, roses stand for romance, a butterfly symbolizes transformation and a dog can represent loyalty.
Types of symbolism
Symbolism takes on many forms, whether in the literary world or in everyday speech. Knowing the differences between various types of symbolism can help you better understand symbolism at its core. Here are some of the various types of symbolism:
A metaphor refers to one thing by directly mentioning another. It essentially compares two dissimilar things while showing that they have something in common. Therefore, while a metaphor can provide clarity, it can also show the similarities between the two things or ideas despite their obvious dissimilarities.
Rather than implying a comparison like a metaphor, a simile explicitly denotes a comparison between two things. Similes often use the word “like” or “as.” The two things you compare with a simile are essentially dissimilar. Unlike metaphors, similes are much more direct comparisons.
An allegory refers to a narrative wherein a character, event or place delivers a larger message about a real-world concern or occurrence. In other words, it’s a story in which most characters and plot developments are symbols for something else or in which the story in its entirety symbolizes a larger phenomenon in the real world or society. Rather than coming right out and saying it, allegories use characters and events to reveal a hidden meaning or message. An allegory is essentially an extended use of a metaphor and symbolism in general.
An archetype refers to a story element such as an idea or character type that reoccurs in stories and symbolizes something universal. For example, you can create a character based on certain qualities or traits that make them identifiable to readers. In the literary world, archetypes refer to characters, images or themes that symbolically embody a universal meaning or human experience.
This type of symbolism applies human attributes to something that isn’t alive or human. For example, personification gives human form and sensibilities to various objects such as a chair, nature, a book or an abstract concept like love or hate. Writers use personification to help their readers better relate to non-human things or objects.
Hyperbole uses exaggeration to make a specific point or to add emphasis, whether for a comedic or serious purpose. When used as a figure of speech, you’re not meant to take hyperbole literally. Like the opposite of an understatement, hyperbole is often extravagant and ridiculous. Not only can hyperbole catch your attention, but it can also show a contrast between two things. While many authors use hyperbole in works of fiction, many people also use hyperbole in everyday speech.
A metonymy substitutes a word with a close association to an entity for the name of the entity itself. In other words, you refer to a thing by the name of something closely associated with it. Writers use metonymy to address something more poetically or uniquely. Metonymy also helps them give a more complex meaning to an otherwise general or ordinary word.
Irony refers to a figure of speech wherein the intended meaning opposes the literal meaning of the words expressed. There are various types of irony including dramatic and verbal irony. Irony helps engage readers and adds another layer to a fictional tale.
Why is symbolism important?
Many works of literature include the use of some form of symbolism to create an impact. Typically, it’s done by adding another meaning to something like an action, name or object. Authors like to use symbolism for many reasons. Here are some reasons that illustrate symbolism’s importance in literature:
It acts as a visual aid for readers to better understand complex ideas of concepts.
It helps readers follow a book’s central theme more easily.
It allows writers to write their ideas more creatively and artfully.
It allows readers to think about and interpret the author’s words independently.
It adds emotional weight to a work of literature.
It helps address a potentially controversial theme discreetly rather than approaching it openly.
Examples of symbolism
To better understand symbolism, it helps to consider various examples. Whether it’s a metaphor or a simile, knowing these types of symbolism can help you better understand them and better apply them in works of fiction or everyday use. Here are some examples of symbolism:
Life is a rollercoaster. While life and a rollercoaster have many differences, this metaphor uses symbolism to indicate the highs and lows or ups and downs that life brings, similar to the ups and downs of a rollercoaster.
You’re as brave as a lion. This simile compares your bravery to that of a lion, as lions often represent courage and bravery.
You’re a hero. This refers to one of the most common archetypes. In a work of fiction, a hero typically starts in an ordinary situation before getting called to adventure. At the end of the story, they confront their biggest fear in some sort of conflict that transforms them.
I’ve told you that story a million times. This hyperbole exaggerates the number of times a person has told a story. While it’s highly unlikely that they’ve told that story exactly a million times, the speaker uses this hyperbole to let someone know that they feel they’ve recounted the story far too many times.
Our loyalty is to the crown. In this example of metonymy, the word “crown” replaces the name of a royal person.
Frequently asked questions
What’s the difference between a private symbol and a conventional symbol?
A private symbol is a symbol that exists only in a specific text. For example, if an author uses a rusty fork to represent guilt in a book about family secrets, the fork is a private symbol because it’s exclusive to the context of the story. Conversely, a conventional symbol is a symbol widely accepted to represent a specific idea, culture or message. For example, an author might use a dove to represent peace.
What’s the difference between symbolism and an allusion?
Like symbolism, allusions are figurative devices that imply meaning without explicitly stating it, but they do so differently. An allusion is a subtle reference to another text, fact or story. Allusions often reference famous literary works or historical events. For example, a contemporary poem may mention a “gold rush,” referring to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. A symbol represents a wider idea or theme within a story or work.
How do you identify symbolism?
You can identify symbolism in a text by analyzing it. Re-read a work or section of a work and note any objects that could have a secondary meaning. Examples might include animals, possessions, or activities that recur or seem important to a character.
If you feel an item or event might be symbolic, consider what its meaning could be. Reflect on themes that occur throughout the book, story or poem and consider what preconceived notions you may have about the symbol that suggest what its meaning could be. Once you’ve determined what you think the item represents, brainstorm evidence that supports your claim.
I hope you find this article helpful.