What Is Symbolism? Examples in Literature of This Common Literary Device

Understanding the answer to, “What is symbolism” will help you create stronger and more interesting writing. 

In writing, a word or object does not have to be limited to its literal meaning. A red rose can be a beautiful flower, or it can have symbolic meaning. By answering, “what is symbolism?” you can become a better storyteller and make your writing something people will want to read and evaluate for years.

What Is Symbolism?

What is symbolism examples in literature of this common literary device

Symbolism is a literary device used in writing to allow an item, person or plot theme to represent something beyond its literal meaning. The symbol can be anything, a person in the story, a location, an object, a word or even an abstract idea. If the item has another meaning beyond the obvious, it is a symbol.

Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life

To better understand the definition of symbolism, consider examples in daily life. The colors of a country’s flag, like red, white and blue in America, represent patriotism, while red and green represent the holiday season. You can “feel blue” when you feel sad, even though you do not actually change colors.

Examples of Symbolism in History

Ancient hieroglyphs
In ancient cave paintings, pictures represented stories and beliefs without words

Symbolism has been part of literature since the start of writing. Here are some examples:

  • Ancient hieroglyphs: In ancient cave paintings, pictures represented stories and beliefs without words.
  • Ancient Greeks: Symbolic props in ancient Greek plays represented the gods that they were discussing.
  • Christian Bible: In the Bible, Jesus spoke in parables, which are everyday stories that represent spiritual truths.

Examples of Symbolism in Popular Literary Works

In addition to showing up in history, symbolism commonly shows up in literary works. These become the subject of study in literature classes as students dig in to find the symbolism. 

  • William Shakespeare: Shakespeare used many symbols, such as blood in his play Macbeth, to represent the inner feelings of his characters. He also used symbolism in his sonnets.
  • Edgar Allen Poe: In his poem “The Raven,” a bird was the symbol of mortality. 
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: In his most famous novel The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses symbolism throughout. The green light that is so prominent in the story is the protagonist’s hopes and dreams, while the Valley of Ashes represents the decay of modern society. The entire novel is a symbol of the emptiness of society in the 1920s.
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird has symbolism in its very title. A mockingbird represents innocents, and the title represents the death of innocents.
[To Kill a Mockingbird, 50th Anniversary Edition] [By: Harper Lee] [June, 2010]
  • book
  • author: Harper Lee
  • Harper Lee (Author)
  • Middle English (Publication Language)
  • 01/01/2010 (Publication Date) - Arrow (Publisher)

Types of Symbolism in Literature

Though symbolism can show up in many places, it is most commonly seen in works of literature. When a word or object has a deeper meaning beyond its actual meaning, the writer uses symbolism. There are three main types of symbolism that authors use which are: 

  • Religious Symbolism: Religious authorities utilize this use of symbolism to sway society to their viewpoint. In Paradise Lost, John Milton uses symbolism to retell the story of Genesis in the Bible.
  • Romantic Symbolism: Commonly used by Shakespeare in his sonnets, compares love to many common everyday things.
  • Emotional Symbolism: Another popular type of symbolism for poets, this type uses symbols to describe emotions.
Paradise Lost
  • Milton, John (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 218 Pages - 11/01/2018 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

The Effect of Symbolism

Symbolism does quite a bit to connect a story. It can:

  • Help define characters: In Harry Potter, the iconic character has a scar on his forehead that comes to symbolize the love that protected him from Voldemort.
  • Connect themes: A symbol can run through a story to connect different themes found in the work.
  • Create a darker undertone: Pearl, the daughter of Hester in The Scarlet Letter, is a symbol of sin, guilt, and secrets in the beginning part of the story, while she eventually transitions into a positive symbol as the story unfolds.
  • Include emotion: Symbols create emotional resonance, and this is what makes a story have a lasting effect on the reader. Even if the reader cannot put a finger on the reason the story connected with them, symbolism creates that connection.
The Scarlet Letter
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 175 Pages - 12/07/2020 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

How to Write Using Symbolism

If you want to write using symbolism, look for ways to write using additional meaning behind your words. However, it takes skill to add symbolism to written works.

To make this work well, first, write a short story or novel that has a compelling plot and engaging characters. Don’t worry about the symbolism in the first draft of your piece, or they will overwhelm the story.

Once you have a good draft and basic plot you love, insert symbols into the narrative. Add elements that have an additional connotation, such as a person listening to music that is a symbol of their emotions or the weather portraying the mood of the scene. Be intentional to add symbolism, but keep it subtle so the reader is left to study and dig into the story to find it.

A Final Word on What Is Symbolism

Symbolism makes writing more engaging and interesting. It uses everyday items to represent deeper concepts and gives the reader more to look for while reading.

However, it is easy to force symbolism into writing, which makes it less effective. Learning to use symbolism well can distinguish your writing from mediocre to exceptional. 

FAQs About What Is Symbolism

What is symbolism in literature?

Symbolism occurs when a writer uses an everyday object to represent a theme, emotion or additional idea. It gives the writing more meaning without detracting from the overall storytelling.

What is the purpose of symbolism?

Symbolism allows a writer to convey something to the reader in an indirect way. It allows a story to remain engaging and entertaining while still getting a more significant meaning into it. It also makes writing more artistic.

  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.