Symbolism in Literature and Writing

What Is Symbolism in Literature?

Symbolism in literature is a powerful technique that goes beyond the literal meaning of objects, people, or places. Symbolism is not just confined to literature; it’s a part of everyday communication. Students might draw on common symbols that are widely recognized to ensure their message is understood. However, they may also create unique symbols within their writing to represent specific ideas or themes relevant to their essay’s argument or narrative.

Let’s delve into its definition and explore symbolism purpose:

Symbolism Definition:

Symbolism occurs when an object, person, or place represents an abstract idea beyond its surface or literal meaning.
It allows writers to infuse their work with double levels of meanings:

  • The literal meaning, which is evident.
  • The symbolic meaning, which is often more profound and universal.

Symbolism Examples:


  • Colors are rich in symbolism. For instance:
  • White symbolizes purity.
  • Red represents love.
  • Green is associated with envy.
  • Yellow signifies joy and friendship.
  • In everyday life, we encounter color symbolism—for instance, red in stop signs and traffic lights.


  • Animals can be symbolic based on their characteristics or associations:
  • Lions symbolize courage and majesty due to their rank in the animal kingdom.
  • Black cats are associated with bad luck or spookiness (think Halloween).


  • Everyday objects can carry symbolic weight:
  • Balloons symbolize celebration.
  • A rose often represents romance.
  • Context matters: pine trees symbolize nature, but with lights and a star, they become a symbol of Christmas.

How Writers Express Symbolism


  • Symbolism often manifests through objects within the plot.
  • Example: In The Hunger Games, the mockingjay pin starts as a symbol of home for Katniss but evolves into a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.


  • Characters can embody symbolism:
  • Their actions reveal deeper meanings.
  • Often part of an allegory.
  • Example: In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan symbolizes Jesus, sacrificing himself and rising again—paralleling Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.


  • Sometimes, an occurrence in the plot serves as symbolism.
  • Example: In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the pants symbolize the girls’ childhood bond; their loss in the final book signifies the transition to adulthood.
  • Symbolism enriches literature by adding layers of significance, making characters and themes resonate universally.

Symbolism in Poetry

Symbolism in poetry is a literary device that poets use to imbue their words with a richness that stretches beyond the literal. It’s like a secret language, where objects, characters, or events are used to represent something else, giving deeper meaning to the poetry. Let’s explore this concept further:

Symbolism Definition in Poetry

  • Symbolism refers to the use of representational imagery. In poetry, it involves employing a concrete image to represent an abstract idea.
  • For example, when a poet uses the heart as a symbol, it often represents love. However, love itself is more complex and multifaceted—it doesn’t merely reside in the chest. Yet, we commonly say someone has a “big heart” to describe a loving person or that someone is “heartbroken” after losing love.
  • A symbol can serve as a stepping stone for an extended metaphor, allowing poets to play with ideas that abstract language might restrict.

Distinguishing Symbolism from Metaphor

A symbol is not the same as a metaphor.


  • Uses a relevant image to convey a relevant idea.
  • Repeatedly employs the symbolic image throughout the text.
  • Intends for it to be a central image and idea.


  • Compare two seemingly unrelated items.
  • Creates a direct comparison (e.g., “Life is a journey”).

Examples of Symbolism in Poetry:

  • Fire: Represents destruction and evil, but also regrowth and the cycles of life.
  • Iced-over heart: Symbolizes emotional coldness or detachment.
  • Two hearts beating in one chest: Suggests intense connection or shared emotions.
  • Heart of a deer: Evokes gentleness, innocence, or vulnerability.

Universal Symbolism:

  • Some symbols have universal meanings across cultures and time periods.
  • For instance, water often symbolizes purification, rebirth, or emotional depth.

When crafting poetry, consider:

  • Context: How does the symbol fit within the poem’s theme?
  • Layered Meanings: Explore multiple facets of the symbol.
  • Emotional Impact: Symbols evoke emotions and resonate with readers.

Symbolism adds layers of poetic meaning, inviting readers to delve beyond the surface and discover hidden truths.Incorporating symbolism into writing requires thought and creativity. It’s about finding the right balance between being subtle enough to be intriguing, but clear enough to be understood.

Symbolism in Books

Here are some common symbols found in literature:

  • Rivers: Rivers often symbolize life. The starting point of rivers, usually small mountain streams, can be seen as the beginning of life. Their merging point with the ocean represents life’s end. Additionally, rivers can symbolize freedom. For example, in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi River represents both Jim and Huck’s freedom as it offers them an escape and carries them through the story.
  • Rain: Rain symbolizes rebirth or a turning point. Like a baptism, it signifies a new start for characters caught in it. An ancient example comes from the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, where a violent storm brings destruction but ultimately marks the start of new life on Earth.
  • Winter: Winter most often symbolizes death or stagnation. In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the winter season reflects the hopelessness of life under the rule of the White Witch.

Books on Symbols and Their Meanings

If you’re intrigued by symbolism, consider exploring these books:

  • The Book of Celtic Symbols by Joules Taylor: Dive into the rich symbolism of Celtic heritage, including the Celtic Wheel of the Year, significance of trees, mistletoe, ogham (the Celtic alphabet), and animal guides.
  • A Dictionary of Literary Symbols by Michael Ferber: Unlike most symbolism dictionaries, this one focuses solely on symbols in literature. It contains close to 200 entries, discussing symbols like swans, goats, roses, leaves, dust, the moon, and gold. Explore famous books with rich symbolism.
  • A Dictionary of Symbols: Revised and Expanded Edition by Juan Eduardo Cirlot: This authoritative guide covers symbols across cultures, art, religion, and mythology. It’s a book to be read at leisure, offering insights into the deeper meanings behind symbols.

As you read, pay attention to these hidden layers—they reveal much more than meets the eye!

Types of Symbolism in Literature

In literature, symbols can be categorized into two main types: universal symbols and contextual (or personal) symbols. Let’s explore each type:

Universal Symbols (Archetypal Symbols):

  • These symbols carry a common, universal meaning across various cultures and historical periods.
  • Examples of universal symbols include:
    Water: Symbolizes life, rebirth, and emotional depth.
    Fire: Represents both destruction and regrowth.
    The Tree: Often symbolizes growth, connection, and knowledge.
    The Circle: Signifies wholeness, eternity, and unity.
  • Universal symbols tap into shared human experiences and resonate universally.

Contextual (Personal) Symbols:

  • These symbols derive their meaning from the specific context of a literary work or an individual’s experience.
  • They may not have universal significance but hold personal relevance within a story.
  • Examples of contextual symbols include:
    A Red Rose: In one context, it may symbolize passionate love, while in another, it could represent loss or betrayal.
    A Broken Mirror: Depending on the story, it might symbolize bad luck, fragmented identity, or self-reflection.
    A Key: It can symbolize access, secrets, or opportunity, but its meaning varies based on the narrative.
  • Contextual symbols allow writers to infuse their work with unique layers of meaning.
    Symbols enrich literature by adding depth and inviting readers to explore hidden connections and ideas.

Using Symbolism in Writing

When used effectively, symbolism can be a powerful way to enhance the quality of writing. Symbolism in essay writing is a tool that students use for several reasons. It allows them to convey complex ideas and emotions in a nuanced way, without stating them outright. Here are some key reasons why students might use symbolism in their essays:

  • To Add Depth: Symbolism can add layers of meaning to an essay, making it more interesting and profound.
  • To Engage Readers: Using symbols can captivate readers’ attention and encourage them to think more deeply about the topic.
  • To Evoke Emotion: Symbols often carry emotional weight, which can help to evoke specific feelings in the reader.
  • To Communicate Universally: Some symbols have universal meanings, which can make the essay’s message more accessible to a broader audience.

How does symbolism affect the reader

Symbolism has a profound impact on readers, affecting them in various ways:

  • Engagement: Symbolism can draw readers into the narrative, making them more engaged and invested in the story.
  • Depth of Understanding: It encourages readers to think beyond the surface level, promoting deeper contemplation of the themes and emotions presented.
  • Emotional Response: Symbols can evoke strong emotional reactions, connecting readers to the characters and events on a more intimate level.
  • Universal Communication: Symbolism can transcend cultural and language barriers, allowing authors to communicate complex ideas universally.
  • Narrative Richness: The use of symbols can enrich the narrative, providing a layered reading experience that resonates with readers long after they’ve finished the story.

By incorporating symbolism, writers can say more with less, giving their words a dual meaning—both literal and figurative—which can be a sort of secret language between the writer and the reader. This technique can elevate the writing, creating a memorable and impactful experience for the reader.

How to use symbolism effectively in my own writing?

Using symbolism effectively in your writing can greatly enhance the depth and emotional impact of your work. Here are some tips to help you use symbolism effectively:

  1. Understand Your Story: Before you can use symbolism, you need a strong understanding of your characters, plot, and themes. Symbols should be relevant and enhance the story, not distract from it.
  2. Start Small: Begin with simple symbols and see how they fit into your narrative. For example, a character’s red clothing might symbolize their fiery personality or passion.
  3. Use Metaphors and Similes: Physical objects can serve as metaphors for intangible concepts. Similes can make direct comparisons, using “like” or “as,” to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind.
  4. Evoke Emotion: Choose symbols that resonate emotionally with readers. Instead of telling the reader what to feel, use symbols to show emotions and let readers experience them.
  5. Recurring Themes: Connect symbols to the larger themes of your story. If freedom is a theme, birds or open skies could be used as symbols throughout the narrative.
  6. Universal Symbols: Some symbols have widely recognized meanings. Using these can quickly signal important information or themes to your readers.
  7. Subtlety is Key: Avoid overusing symbols or making them too obvious. Subtle symbolism triggers thought and reflection, allowing readers to discover deeper meanings on their own.
  8. Let Symbols Emerge Naturally: Don’t force symbolism into your story. Let it develop naturally as you write, and only use it when it adds significance to your narrative.

The goal of symbolism is not to confuse the reader but to add a layer of richness to your writing that can be interpreted in multiple ways. It’s a delicate balance between being clear and being intriguing. With practice, you’ll find the right symbols that speak to the essence of your story and resonate with your audience.

How to avoid clichéd symbols in my writing?

Avoiding clichéd symbols in your writing is essential for creating original and engaging content. Here are some strategies to help you steer clear of clichés:

  • Be Aware: Recognize common clichés so you can avoid them. Familiarize yourself with clichéd symbols in your genre and be cautious of using them.
  • Originality: Strive for originality in your descriptions and metaphors. Instead of relying on overused symbols, create your own unique ones that are specific to your story’s context.
  • Specificity: Use specific and precise descriptions. General symbols are often clichéd, so the more detailed you can be, the better.
  • Subvert Expectations: Take a common symbol and give it a twist. This can refresh a tired cliché and give it new life.
  • Reflect Your Theme: Choose symbols that are closely tied to the themes of your work. This ensures that your symbols are not just decorative but serve a purpose in the narrative.
  • Avoid Stereotypes: Steer clear of characters or situations that feel stereotypical. This extends to the symbols you use to represent them.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Be mindful of cultural symbols and their meanings. Some symbols may be clichéd in one culture but not in another.
    Feedback: Get feedback from others. Sometimes it’s hard to see clichés in your own writing, so another set of
  • eyes can be invaluable.

By being mindful of these tips, you can create symbols that resonate with your readers and elevate your writing.

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