Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Symbolism
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. What is Symbolism?
  2. How to identify symbols
  3. Why symbolism matters in literature
  4. Common symbols in literature
  5. Symbolism in Poetry
  6. Symbolism in Film
  7. How to interpret symbols
  8. Symbolism in different cultures
  9. How to use symbolism in writing
  10. Examples of powerful use of symbolism

Imagine you're reading a book, and the main character keeps seeing a red bird. You might just think, "Wow, there sure are a lot of red birds around here!" But what if that red bird is more than just a bird? What if it's a symbol? If you've ever asked yourself, "What is the definition of symbolism?", you're in the right place. Let's explore the world of symbolism together.

What is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a tool used by writers, artists, and filmmakers to give a deeper meaning to their work. It's like a secret language that you have to decipher. The "definition of symbolism" is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities. These symbols can be objects, characters, or even colors.

Let's break down the definition of symbolism a bit more:

  • Symbol: A symbol can be anything that stands for something else. For example, a red bird might symbolize freedom, love, or danger.
  • Idea: This is what the symbol represents. It could be a theme like "love conquers all" or a concept like "the fleeting nature of time".
  • Quality: Sometimes, symbols represent certain qualities or characteristics. For instance, a lion might symbolize courage or strength.

Symbolism can make a story more interesting and layered. It's like a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. It can be a fun challenge to try to figure out what the symbols in a story mean. Plus, understanding symbolism can give you a deeper appreciation for the work and the mind of the creator.

Think of it like a puzzle: once you start to see the pieces fit together, the whole picture becomes clearer—and a lot more exciting! So, next time you see that red bird in the story, you'll know to look a little closer. It might just be a symbol waiting to be understood.

How to identify symbols

Now that we know the definition of symbolism, let's see how to spot these hidden gems in a piece of work. Identifying symbols can feel a bit like a game of hide and seek — but don't worry, I've got some tips and tricks to help you out.

Firstly, pay attention to repetition. If an object or character keeps showing up, take note. Remember our red bird from before? If it shows up several times, it might be more than just a bird.

Next, consider the context. What's happening in the story when the possible symbol appears? If our red bird flies in during a romantic scene, it might symbolize love. If it shows up when the hero is in danger, it might symbolize a warning.

Lastly, consider the object or character itself. What qualities or ideas does it naturally bring to mind? A lion might make you think of bravery, while a clock might make you think of time. These natural associations can help guide you to the symbol's meaning.

Remember, identifying symbols is a bit like solving a mystery. You have to gather clues, think about the evidence, and come to your own conclusions. It might take a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, you'll start seeing symbols everywhere!

So, the next time you're reading a book or watching a movie, keep an eye out for potential symbols. You might be surprised at what you find!

Why symbolism matters in literature

Now that we've got the hang of identifying symbols, let's talk about why they matter. You see, symbolism is more than just a fancy literary trick. It's a tool that writers use to give their stories depth and meaning. But how, you ask?

Well, for starters, symbolism can add layers to a story. A book about a man's journey might seem simple on the surface. But if the man's backpack is a symbol for the weight of his past, suddenly that journey takes on a whole new meaning, doesn't it?

Symbolism can also help us connect with a story on a deeper level. When we can relate to the symbols a writer uses, we can better understand and empathize with the characters and their struggles. It's like decoding a secret message that the writer left just for us.

But perhaps most importantly, symbolism helps us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. It reminds us that a rose can be more than a rose, a road can be more than a road, and a bird can be more than a bird. And that's pretty awesome, don't you think?

So the next time you come across a symbol in a book, take a moment to think about what it means and how it contributes to the story. You might just find that it adds a whole new layer of richness and depth to your reading experience.

Common symbols in literature

So, you've now got a pretty good grip on the definition of symbolism and why it's important in literature. Now, let's take a look at some common symbols you might come across in your reading.

First, let's talk about seasons. Spring often symbolizes new beginnings or rebirth, while winter can symbolize death or the end of something. Summer, with its bright sun and warm weather, can symbolize happiness or freedom. Autumn, as leaves fall from the trees, can symbolize change or transition.

Next up, we have colors. Red often symbolizes passion or danger. Blue can symbolize calm or sadness. Black often represents death or evil, while white can symbolize purity or innocence.

Finally, let's talk about animals. Did you know that a bird often symbolizes freedom? Or that a snake might symbolize temptation or deceit? And let's not forget the lion, a powerful symbol of courage and strength.

These are just a few examples of the many symbols you might encounter in literature. Remember, the key to understanding these symbols is context. A snake in one story might be a symbol of deceit, but in another, it might represent transformation or healing. So keep your eyes open, and use the clues the author gives you to figure out what each symbol means.

Symbolism in Poetry

Now that we've got a grasp on common symbols in literature, let's wade into the beautiful world of poetry. Symbolism in poetry is a bit like the secret sauce that can take a poem from ordinary to extraordinary.

When we look at poetry, symbols often take center stage. They work to create depth and layers of meaning that can turn a simple poem into a rich tapestry of thought and emotion. Let's consider the example of a rose. In a poem, a rose might not just be a pretty flower. It could represent love, beauty, or even the fleeting nature of life.

Now, how about a river in a poem? It might symbolize the flow of time or life's journey. A stormy sea might represent turmoil or conflict, while a calm sea could symbolize peace or tranquility. And don't forget the moon—it's a popular one! It could symbolize anything from mystery and the unknown to change and transformation.

Here's a little tip: When you're reading poetry, don't be afraid to take your time. Symbols can often be subtle, and it might take a few reads to fully grasp their meaning. But that's the beauty of poetry—it unfolds itself slowly, rewarding patient readers with deeper understanding and appreciation.

Symbolism in Film

Alright, we've ventured into the realm of poetry and explored how symbolism adds depth and nuance. Now, let's switch gears and dive into another captivating realm—film. Yep, you heard it right. Film, like literature and poetry, is chock-full of symbolism, and understanding this can completely change the way you watch movies.

Ever noticed how directors love to use color? That's not just to make scenes look pretty. Colors in film are often symbolic. For instance, red might symbolize danger or passion, while blue can represent tranquility or sadness. Remember the film "The Matrix" with its iconic green tint? That wasn't just a design choice—it was symbolic of the digital, artificial world of the Matrix.

Objects, too, carry symbolic weight in film. Take, for example, the sled in "Citizen Kane". It wasn't just a child's toy, but a symbol of lost innocence and nostalgia. Or think about the spinning top in "Inception". It was more than a cool trick—it symbolized the protagonist's struggle to distinguish reality from dreams.

So next time you're watching a film, keep an eye out for these hidden symbols. They can add a whole new layer of meaning and make your film-watching experience even more enriching. Remember, just like poetry, film is an art form that rewards those who take the time to look a little deeper.

How to Interpret Symbols

Now that we've dipped our toes into the world of symbolism in literature, poetry, and film, let's talk about how to interpret these symbols. After all, understanding the definition of symbolism isn't just about spotting symbols—it's about understanding what they mean.

First things first: don't panic if a symbol isn't immediately clear. Symbols are meant to be thought-provoking, not straightforward. They're like puzzles, waiting to be figured out. So, take your time, and don't be afraid to ponder a little.

One practical tip is to consider the context. Symbols don't exist in a vacuum—they're part of the story, scene, or poem. Think about what's happening around the symbol. How does it relate to the characters or the theme? For instance, if a character keeps seeing ravens before something bad happens, the ravens could symbolize impending doom.

Another tip is to look at how the symbol changes or evolves. In "The Great Gatsby", the green light at the end of Daisy's dock starts as a symbol of Gatsby's hopes and dreams. But as the story progresses, it becomes a symbol of unattainable desires and illusions.

Remember, interpreting symbols isn't an exact science. It's more like detective work, piecing together clues to uncover hidden meanings. It might seem challenging at first, but trust me, it's worth the effort. Because once you start seeing and understanding symbols, you'll discover a whole new layer of richness in your favorite stories, poems, and films.

Symbolism in Different Cultures

Let's journey around the world for a bit, shall we? Symbols are not just a part of literature, poetry, or film. They're an integral part of cultures too. And that's what makes the definition of symbolism so fascinating—it's universal, yet unique to each culture.

Take colors, for instance. In many Western cultures, white is a symbol of purity and innocence, often seen in wedding dresses. But in some Eastern cultures like China and Korea, white is associated with death and mourning, and is customary attire at funerals.

Or consider animals. In Native American cultures, the eagle is a sacred symbol of courage and strength. But in ancient Egyptian culture, it was the scarab beetle that held a high symbolic value, seen as a symbol of the sun, resurrection, and eternal life.

Even everyday objects can hold symbolic meanings. In Japanese culture, the cherry blossom, or sakura, is deeply symbolic. It signifies the transient nature of life, due to its short blooming times. On the other hand, in Russian culture, the samovar (a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water) is a symbol of hospitality and comfort.

Isn't it amazing how the same thing can mean so different in different cultures? That's the beauty of symbolism—it gives us a window into the values, beliefs, and stories that shape different cultures.

How to Use Symbolism in Writing

If you've ever tried to write a story, you'll know that it's not as easy as it seems. But guess what? Using symbolism can make your writing richer and more engaging. Here's how.

First, you have to decide what you want to symbolize. It could be a character's emotions, a theme in your story, or a moral lesson. This is where you get to be creative—don't be afraid to think outside the box!

Once you've chosen what you want to symbolize, you need to pick a symbol that represents it. Remember, a symbol is something that stands for something else. For example, if you want to symbolize hope, you could use a symbol like a sunrise or a bird taking flight.

Next, you need to weave your symbol into your story. Don't just drop it in there—make it a part of the narrative. Let's say you're using a sunrise to symbolize hope. You could have your character wake up to a beautiful sunrise after a night of despair, signaling a new beginning.

Finally, don't overdo it. Symbolism is like a spice—it can enhance your story, but too much can overpower it. Use symbols subtly, and let your readers discover them on their own.

So, there you have it—the basics of using symbolism in your writing. Now it's time for you to give it a shot. Who knows? You might just add a whole new layer of depth to your story.

Examples of Powerful Use of Symbolism

Now that you've got the basic idea, let's look at some real-life examples where authors have used symbolism to create memorable and meaningful stories.

First up, let's talk about J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. The 'Scar' on Harry Potter's forehead isn't just a mark; it's a symbol of his past, his connection to Voldemort, and his destiny. It's a constant reminder of the struggle between good and evil, making Harry's journey even more poignant.

Moving on to "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. The mockingbird in the book symbolizes innocence. The phrase "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird" means that it's wrong to harm those who do no harm—just like the innocent characters in the story who are unfairly treated.

Finally, the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" represents Gatsby's hopes and dreams for the future—specifically, his love for Daisy. This unreachable green light, visible from Gatsby's mansion, symbolizes the unattainable nature of the American dream.

These examples show just how powerful symbolism can be in storytelling. It adds depth, creates intrigue, and can even make readers see the world in a new light. So why not try adding some symbolism to your own writing? You might be surprised at the impact it can have.

If you enjoyed exploring the world of symbolism in this comprehensive guide, you might be interested in learning how to incorporate symbolism into your own artwork. Check out the workshop 'Composing Complex Illustrations using Basic Shapes' by Juliet Schreckinger. In this workshop, you'll learn how to create intricate illustrations by combining basic shapes, which can be an excellent way to incorporate symbolism into your art. Don't miss this opportunity to expand your skillset and enhance your creative expression.