Comprehensive Guide to Unlocking Symbolism
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. What is Symbolism?
  2. How to Identify Symbolism
  3. Symbolism in Literature
  4. Symbolism in Art and Visual Media
  5. Symbolism in Dreams
  6. Color Symbolism
  7. Animal Symbolism
  8. Plant and Flower Symbolism
  9. Cultural and Historical Symbolism
  10. How to Use Symbolism in Your Own Works

Imagine you're taking a leisurely walk in the park when you spot a lone rose blooming amidst thorns. The sight stirs something in you, you feel a connection—an understanding of some deep truth about life. You've just experienced symbolism first-hand. This blog is your friendly guide to unlocking the world of symbolism, helping you decipher its hidden meanings, and even sprinkle some in your own creative works. So, let's dive into the fascinating world of symbolism.

What is Symbolism?

When we say "symbolism", we're not talking about random doodles on a bathroom stall. The definition of symbolism is more profound and intriguing. It is the use of symbols—objects, figures, or colors—to represent larger ideas or qualities. These symbols aren't just pretty decorations; they carry weight and meaning, often revealing insights about the human experience.

For instance, a dark and stormy night in a story doesn't just set a gloomy mood—it could symbolize a character's internal turmoil. Likewise, a sunrise doesn't just make for a beautiful painting—it could represent hope, a fresh start, or rebirth.

But how do you recognize symbolism when you see it? And how can you use symbols to pack more punch in your creative work? Don't worry, we'll guide you through it all. But first, let's get a solid grasp on the definition of symbolism. Here are three key points:

  • The use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities: Think of the heart symbol. It doesn't look like an actual heart, but we all understand it symbolizes love and affection.
  • Symbolic meaning attributed to natural objects or facts: For example, a tree often symbolizes growth and strength.
  • An artistic and poetic movement: Symbolism was also a late 19th-century movement in France and Belgium, where artists and poets like Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Redon used symbolic images to express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind.

There you have it—the definition of symbolism, in a nutshell. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Symbolism can pop up in literature, art, dreams, colors, animals, plants—you name it. So, let's keep exploring!

How to Identify Symbolism

Now that we've established the definition of symbolism, let's tackle how to identify it. Spotting symbolism is a bit like playing detective—you're looking for clues that hint at a deeper meaning. Here's how you can get started:

  • Pay attention to repetition: If an object or phrase keeps popping up, chances are, it's not just a coincidence. For example, if a book keeps mentioning a broken clock, it could symbolize the end of an era or the inevitability of time.
  • Look for the unexpected: If something stands out or feels out of place, it might be symbolic. A character wearing a bright red dress in a drab setting might symbolize rebellion or passion.
  • Consider the context: The setting, time period, and cultural background can offer clues about symbolism. A dove can symbolize peace in one context, while in others it may represent the Holy Spirit.

Remember, the beauty of symbolism lies in its subjectivity. What one person interprets as symbolic might differ from someone else's perspective—and that's okay! The important thing is to keep an open mind, and consider all possibilities. You could discover layers of meaning you've never considered before.

Symbolism in Literature

Let's move on to explore symbolism in literature, where it often takes center stage. Authors frequently use symbols to add depth to their writing and convey complex ideas in a simple, digestible manner. So, how does symbolism work in literature? Let's break it down:

  • Characterization: Authors often use symbols to reveal more about a character's personality. Take for instance, Harry Potter's lightning scar—it's not just a mark from a failed curse, but a symbol of his struggle and destiny.
  • Themes: Symbols can also reflect the broader themes of a work. The green light in "The Great Gatsby," for instance, represents Gatsby's unattainable dreams and the allure of the future.
  • Mood and Atmosphere: Symbolism can also help create a certain mood or atmosphere. A storm brewing on the horizon often symbolizes impending conflict or turmoil.

So, next time you pick up a novel, keep an eye out for these subtle signs. Decoding symbolism in literature can deepen your understanding and appreciation of the story. It's a bit like uncovering hidden treasure—you never know what you might find!

Symbolism in Art and Visual Media

Now let's dabble in the world of art and visual media. Just like in literature, artists often use symbolism to convey deeper meanings and messages. Here's how:

  • Representing Ideas: Artists frequently use visual symbols to present abstract concepts. For example, a dove often represents peace, while chains can symbolize oppression or restriction.
  • Creating Emotion: Through symbolism, artists can evoke specific emotional responses. A dark, stormy sky can create a sense of foreboding, while a sunrise might evoke feelings of hope and renewal.
  • Provoking Thought: Symbols can also challenge viewers to think more deeply about a piece of art. For instance, the melting clocks in Salvador Dali’s "The Persistence of Memory" can be seen as a symbol of the fluidity and subjective nature of time.

So, next time you're at a museum or watching a film, take a moment to contemplate the potential symbolism. You might discover a whole new layer of meaning that makes your experience even more enriching. Remember, understanding the definition of symbolism can turn a simple painting into a rich narrative or a casual movie into a profound commentary!

Symbolism in Dreams

Ever wondered why you dreamt about flying, or why an elephant was chasing you? Well, it might not be as random as you think. Dreams are often filled with symbols that can tell us a lot about our subconscious thoughts and feelings.

  • Flying: Dreams of flying often symbolize a desire for freedom. If you've dreamt of soaring through the sky, it might be your subconscious telling you that you're yearning for more independence in your life.
  • Being Chased: If you're being chased in a dream, it could symbolize that you're running away from a problem or issue in your life. It might be a good idea to face whatever it is head-on when you wake up.
  • Elephants: Elephants in dreams are interesting. They usually symbolize wisdom, strength, and steadfastness. If an elephant is chasing you in your dream, maybe it's time to embrace these qualities in your waking life.

So, next time you wake up from a vivid dream, instead of dismissing it as just another weird brain movie, take a moment to consider its symbolism. You might just learn something about yourself! Remember, understanding the definition of symbolism is like being handed the keys to the secrets of your subconscious mind.

Color Symbolism

Colors are more than just visual elements. They carry symbolic meanings that can influence our emotions and perceptions. Let's decode these colorful symbols, shall we?

  • Red: Red is a powerful color that often symbolizes love, passion, and courage. Think of a red heart or a red rose — both are symbols of love, aren't they?
  • Blue: Blue is viewed as a calming color, symbolizing peace and tranquility. It's also associated with loyalty and trust. That's why so many companies use blue in their logos.
  • Yellow: Yellow is the color of sunshine and happiness. It's bright, cheerful, and uplifting. But, it can also symbolize caution, like yellow traffic lights telling us to slow down.
  • Green: Green is the color of nature, symbolizing growth, harmony, and freshness. It's also associated with money and prosperity. Think about the phrase "green with envy" — it's all about desire for what someone else has.

So, the next time you pick a color for your room, or choose what to wear, remember the symbolic meanings behind these colors. Understanding color symbolism can help you make more informed decisions and add another layer of depth to your everyday life. The definition of symbolism is not just about literature or art, it's in everything around us, even in the colors we see and use every day!

Animal Symbolism

Animals are rich sources of symbolism, each carrying their own unique meanings. Let's take a walk through this 'symbolic zoo', shall we?

  • Elephants: Known for their impressive memory and strong family bonds, elephants are symbols of wisdom and loyalty. Why do you think Dumbo the Elephant was so loved?
  • Lions: Lions signify strength, courage, and leadership. They're the 'King of the Jungle' for a reason, right?
  • Owls: Owls represent wisdom and knowledge. Ever noticed how often owls show up in old fairy tales and fables?
  • Butterflies: Butterflies symbolize transformation and change. Think about the butterfly's journey from a tiny caterpillar to a beautiful, fluttering creature.

From fairy tales to modern logos, animal symbolism is everywhere. So, the next time you see an animal in a story, a logo, or even a dream, remember what it symbolizes. By truly understanding the definition of symbolism, you can unlock a deeper layer of meaning in the world around you. It's like having a secret decoder ring!

Plant and Flower Symbolism

Plants and flowers aren't just pretty to look at—they're also packed with symbolism. Let's take a stroll through an imaginary 'symbolic garden' to learn more.

  • Roses: Seen as the universal symbol of love, red roses often convey deep emotions. Remember, it's no coincidence that roses are a popular choice on Valentine's Day!
  • Daisies: These bright and cheerful flowers symbolize innocence and purity. You might find daisies appearing in works that want to emphasize these themes.
  • Oak Trees: Known for their durability and strength, oaks symbolize wisdom, endurance, and longevity. Think about the old saying, "mighty oaks from little acorns grow."
  • Ivy: Ivy, with its ability to thrive in challenging conditions, symbolizes survival and determination. Did you know that ivy is often found in depictions of weddings and friendships due to its symbolism?

So, the next time you receive a bouquet or walk in a garden, take a moment to think about the symbolism hiding in each petal and leaf. Understanding the definition of symbolism can help you perceive not just the beauty, but also the deeper meanings plants and flowers carry. It's like having a secret pair of glasses that reveal a whole new layer of the world!

Cultural and Historical Symbolism

Now, let's time travel and globe-trot to explore how symbolism comes to life in different cultures and historical periods.

  • Phoenix: This mythological bird is a universal symbol of rebirth and renewal. The story of this fiery bird rising from its ashes has inspired countless tales across different cultures.
  • Swastika: Before its infamous association with Nazi Germany, the swastika was a symbol of good fortune, prosperity, and eternity in many cultures, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
  • The Forbidden Fruit: Stemming from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruit—often depicted as an apple—symbolizes knowledge, temptation, and the loss of innocence.
  • Dragons: In Western folklore, dragons often symbolize chaos and destruction. However, in Chinese culture, dragons are revered as symbols of power, good fortune, and wisdom.

Isn't it fascinating how the same symbol can have drastically different meanings in different cultures? That's the power and versatility of symbolism. By gaining a solid grasp of the definition of symbolism, you can raise your understanding of humanity's rich tapestry of beliefs and traditions. It's like having a passport to journey into the minds and hearts of people from the past and across the world!

How to Use Symbolism in Your Own Works

You're probably thinking, "Great, I understand the definition of symbolism, but how do I use it in my own work?" Well, you're in luck because we're about to cover just that.

  1. Start with the Basics: Before you start weaving complex symbols into your work, make sure you have a clear understanding of what you want to convey. What emotions, ideas, or themes are you trying to express? This will guide your choice of symbols.
  2. Draw from Your Experiences: The best symbols often come from personal experiences or observations. Think about what certain objects, colors, or animals mean to you. Can these personal symbols communicate your intended message?
  3. Consider Your Audience: Remember, symbols only work if your audience can understand them. A symbol that's clear to you might be completely lost on someone from a different culture or age group. So, keep your audience in mind when selecting symbols.
  4. Subtlety is Key: Symbolism is most effective when it's subtle. Avoid hitting your audience over the head with obvious symbols. Instead, weave them seamlessly into your narrative, art, or design.

Incorporating symbolism into your work can add depth and richness that resonates with your audience. It's like a secret language that you and your audience share—a wink, a nod, a knowing smile. And who knows? With practice, your work might one day be used as an example in a comprehensive guide to symbolism!

If you enjoyed our Comprehensive Guide to Unlocking Symbolism and want to further develop your skills in creating meaningful art, we highly recommend the workshop 'Composing Complex Illustrations using Basic Shapes' by Juliet Schreckinger. This workshop will teach you how to use basic shapes to create intricate illustrations that convey deep symbolism and meaning. Don't miss this opportunity to enhance your artistic abilities and unlock the full potential of your creativity.