Best 10 Examples of Symbolism in Literature (with Definition)

The examples of symbolism we are looking at today come from world-renowned novels like The Road, The Lord of the Rings, Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird. But before I give you the examples that illustrate the use of symbols, I would like us to first know the definition and characteristics of symbolism as a literary device.

Then quickly, you will have some classic examples of symbolism as a literary device.

Definition of Symbolism

Symbolism in literature is a literary device in which certain objects, characters, settings, or events are used to represent abstract ideas, themes, or concepts beyond their literal meaning.

The said objects, characters, settings or events are what we refer to as ‘symbols’.

These symbols carry deeper meanings and often add layers of complexity to the text, Typically, a symbol enables writers to convey their ideas and themes in a more profound manner.

Symbolism can be found in various forms of literature, including novels, short stories, poems, and plays.

Importance of Symbols to Writers and Readers

The use of symbolism allows writers to communicate complex emotions, societal issues, or universal truths in a more subtle and indirect way.

A symbol in a novel, play or poem requires the reader to do a deeper interpretation and analysis of the text in question. This way, the reader can discover the hidden meanings behind the symbols.

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Characteristics of Symbolism

The following characteristics of symbolism as a literary device will further your understanding of the concept.

Representation of Abstract Concepts

Writers use symbols to represent ideas, emotions, or concepts that go beyond their literal meanings. Thus, symbols can add depth and complexity to the story by conveying themes and messages indirectly.

Different Interpretations

Symbols often have multiple interpretations. Different readers may interpret the same symbol in various ways, based on their own experiences and perspectives. This ambiguity encourages discussion and exploration of different meanings.

Cultural and Historical Context

Some symbols are associated with specific cultural and historical contexts. Understanding the specific context can deepen the reader’s understanding of the symbolic meaning and its relevance to the story.

Repetition and Recurrence

Writers often use symbols as motifs to enhance their development of themes, characters and settings.

When such symbols appear repeatedly throughout a work, they tend to emphasize their significance in terms of characterization and thematic development.

Different Forms

Symbols can take various forms. A symbol can be any of the following.

  • object
  • animal
  • colour
  • setting
  • actions
  • character

Portrayal of Universal Themes

Some symbols possess universal meanings that transcend cultural boundaries. These symbols can resonate with readers from different backgrounds and cultures.

Functions of Symbolism

Here are the major functions of symbolism.

Development of Themes

Symbols help in the development and enhancement of the themes of a literary work. They can make themes more relatable by providing concrete representations of abstract ideas.

Imagery and Evocation

Symbols create vivid imagery that appeals to the reader’s senses and emotions. They evoke strong feelings and associations, making the text more engaging and memorable.

Unity and Coherence

Another key function of symbolism is that it can contribute to the unity and coherence of a literary work. It does so by tying together different elements of the story.

Symbolism, therefore, helps us to create a cohesive narrative by connecting seemingly unrelated parts.

Character Development

Symbols can be associated with characters, reflecting their traits, emotions, or journeys. They provide insights into a character’s worldview, among others.

A Tool for Subtle Communication

Symbols allow authors to communicate complex ideas and emotions without directly stating them. This adds an element of intrigue to the narrative.

Promotion of Critical Thinking

Symbols encourage readers to actively engage with the text and think critically about its deeper layers of meaning. They stimulate discussions and analysis among readers, scholars, and critics.

Examples of Symbolism

You can now have a look at some common examples of symbolism in literature.

1. The Green Light in “The Great Gatsby”

The green light across the water in The Great Gatsby is a symbol that represents Gatsby’s hopes and dreams. It stands for his longing for Daisy and his pursuit of the American Dream.

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2. The Mockingbird in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”

The mockingbird in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a symbol of innocence and purity. It represents characters like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, who are harmed despite their innocence.

3. The Scarlet Letter in “The Scarlet Letter”

The scarlet letter ‘A’ that Hester Prynne wears in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter symbolizes her sin of adultery. But it also becomes a symbol of her strength, resilience, and ability to transcend society’s judgment.

4. The Conch Shell in “Lord of the Flies”

In the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the conch shell is a symbol of order, civilization, and democratic authority on the island. But as it loses its power, chaos and savagery take over.

5. The Road in “The Road”

The road in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road represents the journey of survival and hope for a better future in the post-apocalyptic world of the novel.

6. The White Whale in”Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville

The White Whale (Moby Dick) symbolizes nature’s indifference to human desires and the uncontrollable forces of the universe.

Additionally, the colour white represents various interpretations, including purity, the unknown, and the mystical.

7. “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

The Ducks in Central Park in The Catcher in the Rye, symbolize Holden Caulfield’s fear of change and his desire for a stable and comforting world.

Also, the Red Hunting Hat represents Holden’s uniqueness and alienation from the rest of society.

8. “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings is a symbol for the corrupting influence of evil and the allure of power and greed.

Mount Doom represents the ultimate test of the characters’ will and the destruction of evil.

9. “1984” by George Orwell

In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, Big Brother symbolizes the totalitarian government’s control and surveillance over its citizens.

The Glass Paperweight represents Winston Smith’s desire for beauty and individuality in a repressive society.

10. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison:

The Ghost of Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved symbolizes the haunting and unresolved trauma of slavery on the characters and their community.

The Chokecherry Tree, on the other hand, symbolizes the memories and burden of Sethe’s past and the consequences of her actions.

Final Thoughts

The above instances of symbolism underscore the fact that symbolism adds depth and complexity to the themes and characters in a literary work. In most literary works, symbols have always invited readers to engage in a more profound exploration of the settings, ideas and individual characters.

These examples of symbolism also illustrate how this literary device allows writers to convey powerful messages and emotions indirectly.

Indeed, symbolism is a tool that writers use to make their novels, plays and poems truly timeless and thought-provoking.

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