Comprehensive Guide: Symbolism & Theme in Literature
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. What is symbolism in literature?
  2. Why use symbolism in literature?
  3. How to identify symbolism in literature
  4. Examples of symbolism in literature
  5. What is theme in literature?
  6. Why theme matters in literature
  7. How to identify theme in literature
  8. Examples of theme in literature
  9. Symbolism vs. Theme in literature

If you've ever read a story that left you pondering about a certain object, character, or event, chances are you've encountered the art of symbolism. This blog post will guide you through an exciting journey of understanding symbolism and theme in literature.

What is symbolism in literature?

Symbolism in literature is a technique where a writer uses objects, characters, or actions to represent a deeper, more complex meaning. Think of it as a secret language within the story—only those who know how to decode it can truly understand the story's depth.

Let's break it down:

  • Objects: An object used as a symbol carries a deeper meaning. For example, in the Harry Potter series, the 'scar' on Harry's forehead is not merely a mark but symbolizes his unique connection with the villain, Voldemort. It's much more than just a wound; it's a constant reminder of his past and his destiny.
  • Characters: Sometimes, characters themselves can be symbols. Take for instance, the Mockingbird in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". The Mockingbird symbolizes innocence and goodness, creating a powerful message about the harm of innocence destroyed by evil.
  • Actions: Actions can also be symbolic in literature. In George Orwell's "Animal Farm", the rebellion of the animals symbolizes the Russian Revolution. Each action the animals undertake represents a historical event or political stance.

So, when you next pick up a book, remember to keep an eye out for these symbols. They are the hidden gems that bring richness to a story—adding depth, creating intrigue, and helping us connect more deeply with the themes and concepts the author wants us to explore.

Why use symbolism in literature?

Symbolism adds a layer of depth to storytelling. It's like a secret handshake between the author and the reader—those who recognize the symbols gain a richer understanding of the story. But why else do authors use symbolism in literature?

  1. Engages the Reader: Symbolism encourages readers to think beyond the literal text. It's like a puzzle waiting to be solved, keeping readers hooked and engaged as they try to decipher the hidden meanings.
  2. Creates Emotional Depth: By associating emotions or ideas with specific symbols, authors can evoke these feelings whenever the symbol appears. This can create a powerful emotional resonance within the reader. For example, the green light in "The Great Gatsby" symbolizes Gatsby's longing for Daisy, making his yearning palpable every time the symbol is mentioned.
  3. Helps Convey Themes: Symbolism can be a powerful tool in communicating the theme of a story. By associating a theme with a symbol, authors can subtly reinforce the theme throughout the narrative without explicitly stating it.
  4. Builds Memorable Imagery: Symbols can create strong and memorable images in readers' minds, making the story more vivid and unforgettable. Who can forget the image of the white whale in "Moby Dick" or the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"?

Symbolism is a powerful tool in a writer's toolbox, and understanding it can greatly enhance your experience as a reader. So next time you dive into a book, don't just skim the surface. Look for the symbols, and see what extra layers of meaning they might reveal.

How to identify symbolism in literature

Now that we know why authors use symbolism in literature, the next question is—how do you spot it? Don't worry, it's not as tricky as it may seem. Here are some steps you can follow to identify symbolism in literature:

  1. Look for Repeated Elements: A symbol often appears multiple times throughout the story. If an object, character, or scenario keeps popping up, it's likely that it's more than just a coincidence—it could be a symbol.
  2. Consider the Context: The meaning of a symbol often depends on its context. For instance, a river could symbolize a journey, the passage of time, or even the boundary between two worlds. So when you're trying to identify a symbol, think about how it fits into the overall story.
  3. Think About Emotional Impact: Symbols often carry an emotional weight. They're used to represent feelings or ideas that are central to the story. If a certain element in the story triggers a strong emotional response, it might be a symbol.
  4. Reflect on Cultural Significance: Some symbols are universal and are common across different cultures and literature. For example, a dove often symbolizes peace, while a rose often symbolizes love. Knowing these common symbols can help you spot symbolism in literature.

Identifying symbolism in literature can feel like a treasure hunt—you never know what hidden meanings you'll uncover. So the next time you're reading a book, keep an eye out for these clues. You might be surprised by what you find!

Examples of symbolism in literature

Now that we've talked about how to spot symbolism, let's look at some examples of how it's used in literature. Understanding these examples will make it easier for you to identify symbolism in the books you read.

  1. The Green Light in "The Great Gatsby": F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel is a great example of symbolism in literature. The green light at the end of Daisy's dock represents Gatsby's dreams and hopes for the future. It stands for his desire for Daisy and for the American Dream of success and prosperity.
  2. The Whale in "Moby Dick": In Herman Melville's epic tale, the white whale—Moby Dick— is not just a big fish. It's a symbol of the unknowable and uncontrollable nature of life. For Captain Ahab, the whale also represents his obsession and desire for revenge.
  3. The Red A in "The Scarlet Letter": Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the letter 'A'—which stands for 'Adultery'—as a powerful symbol in this novel. The letter, which Hester Prynne is forced to wear, represents sin, guilt, and social outcast. But over time, it also comes to symbolize Hester's strength and resilience.
  4. The Mockingbird in "To Kill a Mockingbird": Harper Lee uses the mockingbird to symbolize innocence in her acclaimed novel. The birds do no harm and only make music for others to enjoy, so it's considered a sin to kill them. This symbol ties in with the novel's theme of the loss of innocence.

These are just a few examples of how authors use symbolism to add depth to their stories. Each symbol helps to convey a deeper meaning or message, making the story more rich and engaging. So the next time you're reading, keep an eye out for symbols—you'll find that they add a whole new layer to your understanding of the story.

What is theme in literature?

Let's switch gears and talk about another key element of literature: theme. Just like symbolism, theme is one of those terms that people toss around a lot, but what exactly does it mean?

In simple terms, the theme of a literary work is its main idea or underlying message. It's not the plot—that's what happens in the story. Instead, the theme is what the story is really about on a deeper level. It's the big idea that the author wants to convey to the reader.

For example, if a book is about a boy who learns to overcome his fears by facing a fire-breathing dragon, the plot is the boy's fight with the dragon. But the theme might be 'courage' or 'overcoming fear'. It's the lesson or insight that the story offers.

Understanding the theme can help you make sense of the story and its significance. It can also help you connect with the characters and their experiences. So the next time you're reading a book, take a moment to think about its theme. You might find that it opens up a new way of looking at the story.

Why theme matters in literature

So, why is theme such a big deal in literature? Why can't a story just be about a girl and her dog or a man and his car? Well, it can. But by including a theme, the author gives the story depth and meaning. It's like the difference between a black and white photo and a color one — the color adds richness and detail.

Let's say you're reading a story about a girl and her dog. On the surface, it's a cute tale of friendship. But dig a little deeper, and you might find themes of loyalty, unconditional love, or the bond between humans and animals. Suddenly, the story isn't just about a girl and her dog — it's about the human experience.

Themes also help us to connect with the story and its characters. Even if we've never been in the same situation as the characters, we can still relate to the themes. We've all felt love, fear, joy, and sorrow. That's why theme is so important in literature — it's what makes the story universal.

How to identify theme in literature

Identifying theme in literature can feel like a real-life treasure hunt. It's not always obvious, and sometimes, it's buried deep within the text. But don't worry, I've got some tips to help you uncover it.

First, think about the main characters and their journey. What challenges do they face? How do they change over time? Often, the theme is linked to these elements. If a character learns to trust others, for instance, the theme could be 'the power of trust'.

Next, pay attention to symbols and motifs. Remember our girl and her dog? If the dog is always there when the girl is sad, the dog could symbolize comfort or companionship. This could hint at a theme of 'finding comfort in unlikely places'.

Finally, think about the overall message or lesson of the story. If you had to sum up what the story is trying to say in one sentence, what would it be? This could lead you straight to the theme. Remember, there can be more than one theme in a piece of literature, so don't stop at the first one you find!

Now, let's put on our detective hats and start identifying symbolism and theme in literature!

Examples of theme in literature

Literature is a vast world, teeming with varied themes. Let's look at some examples to help us understand how to identify the theme in different works.

1. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee: One of the central themes in this classic novel is the moral nature of human beings—that is, whether people are essentially good or essentially evil. This theme is explored through the characters' experiences with justice and racial prejudice in a small Southern town.

2. "1984" by George Orwell: This dystopian novel presents a chilling theme of the dangers of totalitarianism. It examines the terrifying possibilities of a society where individual freedom is crushed under the weight of an all-powerful state.

3. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald's novel delves into the theme of the American Dream and its corruption by material wealth. The pursuit of happiness and love turns into a pursuit of money, leading to disastrous consequences.

4. "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling: There are numerous themes running through this beloved series, including the power of love, the importance of choices, and the struggle against prejudice. These themes are woven into the fabric of Harry's journey from a young wizard to the savior of the magical world.

So, the next time you dive into a book, see if you can spot the theme. It's like a hidden gem, waiting to be discovered and appreciated. Remember, understanding the theme is a crucial part of enjoying and interpreting symbolism and theme in literature!

Symbolism vs. Theme in literature

When you're reading a book, watching a movie, or even listening to a song, you're likely to encounter both symbolism and theme. But what's the difference between the two? Let's break it down in simple terms.

Symbolism is like the secret language of literature. It's when an author uses an object, person, or even a situation to represent a deeper meaning. For example, in the "Harry Potter" series, the 'scar' on Harry's head is not just a mark, but a symbol of his struggle and destiny. So, when you see a symbol, think of it as a sign that points to a bigger idea or theme.

On the other hand, theme is the underlying message or main idea that a piece of literature is trying to convey. It's like the heartbeat of the story. It's what the story is really about, beyond just the plot. For instance, in "To Kill a Mockingbird", the theme is not just about a court case, but about the fight against racial injustice.

In essence, the theme is like the destination, and symbolism is one of the vehicles that can get you there. They work together, hand in hand, to give depth and richness to a story. But they are not the same thing. So next time when you read, try to identify the symbolism and theme in literature. It's like playing detective—except, in this case, you're uncovering the hidden meanings and messages in a story!

If you're passionate about exploring symbolism and theme in literature and would like to delve further into the world of creativity, check out Daisie's classes. Discover a wealth of knowledge from some of the most talented artists in various fields who are eager to share their insights and help you grow as a creative individual.