Power of Symbolism in Literature: A Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. What is symbolism in literature?
  2. Why does symbolism matter in literature?
  3. How to identify symbolism
  4. Common symbols in literature
  5. Symbolism in modern literature
  6. How to analyze symbolism in a text
  7. Symbolism in character development
  8. Symbolism in setting
  9. How to use symbolism in your own writing

Ever wondered why an author chose to describe a character's eyes as 'ocean deep' or why the setting sun often signifies an end of some sort? These are examples of symbolism at play—a powerful tool authors use to give deeper meaning to their works. This blog aims to guide you in understanding symbolism in literary works.

What is symbolism in literature?

Symbolism in literature is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. Symbols can be objects, characters, settings, or colors that hold an abstract idea or concept, providing a deeper layer of meaning to the narrative. This concept is key in understanding symbolism in literary works.

For instance, consider the classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. The mockingbird symbolizes innocence, purity, and harmlessness, and killing it would mean destroying these qualities. So, when you read about a 'mockingbird' in the novel, you know it's not just about the bird, but about the loss of innocence.

Why use symbolism? Well, it's a subtle way for writers to communicate complex ideas without spelling them out. It also invites readers to engage more deeply with the text, encouraging them to interpret and derive their own understanding of the underlying themes. If you've ever read a book and found yourself thinking about it days after finishing it, chances are, it had some powerful symbols.

Now that we're on the same page about what symbolism is, let's dig a bit deeper and explore why it matters in literature, how to identify it, and how to analyze it in a text—because truly understanding symbolism in literary works can turn a good reader into a great one.

Why does symbolism matter in literature?

Symbolism is like the secret sauce that adds depth to a story, making it more interesting and impactful. It allows writers to convey big ideas in subtle, creative ways. But beyond that, symbolism can turn a simple story into a profound exploration of human nature, society, or life itself.

Take, for example, George Orwell's "Animal Farm". On the surface, it's a story about farm animals revolting against their human master. But look a little deeper, and you'll see it's filled with symbols representing elements of the Russian Revolution. The animals represent different social groups, and the farm itself symbolizes a nation. This use of symbolism transforms the story into a powerful critique of totalitarianism.

Understanding symbolism in literary works can also enhance your reading experience. It's like having a decoder ring that lets you uncover hidden meanings, making the story richer and more layered. You might even find yourself rereading a book to catch any symbols you might have missed the first time!

Moreover, symbolism often conveys universal themes that resonate with readers across different cultures and time periods. It's one reason why books like "Moby Dick" or "The Great Gatsby", filled with symbolic elements, are considered timeless classics.

So, while a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, in literature, a rose could symbolize love, beauty, or even the fleeting nature of life—making the humble flower a powerful symbol, and the story a memorable one.

How to identify symbolism

Now that we know why symbolism matters, let's learn how to spot it. Understanding symbolism in literary works is like being a detective—you need to pay attention to details, look for patterns, and trust your instincts.

First, look for objects, characters, or events that keep popping up in the story. If the writer keeps mentioning a red scarf, for example, it's likely not just because they like the color. That scarf could symbolize danger, passion, or a deep secret.

Next, pay attention to the context. If a character always wears that red scarf in tense situations, it might symbolize danger. If they wear it during romantic scenes, it could symbolize passion. Remember, symbolism is all about conveying deeper meanings, so context is key!

Also, remember that symbols can be more than just objects. Characters, settings, and even events can be symbolic. A storm brewing on the horizon could symbolize impending trouble. A character always being associated with light could symbolize hope or goodness.

Finally, trust your instincts. If something in the story feels significant, it probably is. Don't be afraid to make educated guesses about what something symbolizes. The beauty of literature is that it's open to interpretation, so your understanding of symbolism in a work is unique to you.

So, put on your detective hat, grab your magnifying glass, and happy hunting!

Common symbols in literature

Just like every language has common words, understanding symbolism in literary works often involves recognizing common symbols. These are items or ideas that pop up again and again in different stories, and they usually have a shared meaning. Let's take a look at a few of these.

Light and Darkness: These are probably some of the most common symbols in literature. Light typically represents hope, knowledge, and purity. On the other hand, darkness often symbolizes fear, ignorance, or evil. Remember the moment when the hero finds a glowing gem in a dark cave? That's symbolism at work!

Water: Water can symbolize many things, depending on the context. It can represent life, change, or cleansing. Think about a character standing in the rain after a significant event—that's not just about getting wet.

Colors: Colors are packed with symbolic potential. Red can symbolize passion, danger, or love. Green can represent growth, envy, or freshness. Blue might symbolize calm, sadness, or truth. The next time you read about a character with piercing blue eyes, think about what that color might mean.

Seasons: Seasons often symbolize different stages of life. Spring usually represents birth or new beginnings, while winter can symbolize death or the end of a period. So, a story that begins in spring and ends in winter is likely not just talking about the weather.

These are just a few examples of common symbols. Remember, the key to understanding symbolism in literary works is to keep your eyes open and your mind sharp. You never know where a symbol might be hiding!

Symbolism in modern literature

Now that we've journeyed through the world of common symbols, let's shift our focus to understanding symbolism in literary works of the modern era. Unlike traditional literature, modern literature often uses symbolism in more subtle and complex ways. In fact, the entire story can sometimes act as a symbol!

Take for instance, George Orwell's "Animal Farm". This modern classic uses a group of farm animals to symbolize the corruption of socialist ideals in the Soviet Union. Each animal character represents a specific political figure or group, making the whole story a symbol of a historical event.

Or consider the "Hunger Games" series by Suzanne Collins. The mockingjay pin, a small golden bird, becomes a symbol of rebellion against the oppressive government. Its image is simple, yet powerful enough to unite an entire nation.

What about "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald? The green light at the end of Daisy's dock is a recurring symbol throughout the novel. It represents Gatsby's hope and dreams for the future, illuminating his unattainable love for Daisy.

These examples illustrate how understanding symbolism in literary works can transform our reading experience. Symbols can add depth to the narrative, revealing layers of meaning that extend beyond the literal storyline. So next time you pick up a modern novel, remember to stay alert. You might just find a symbol lurking in the most unlikely places!

How to analyze symbolism in a text

Unraveling the symbols in a story can feel like a treasure hunt, with each symbol leading to a deeper understanding of the work. So, how do you analyze symbolism in a text? Let's break it down into manageable steps.

  1. Read carefully: The first step in understanding symbolism in literary works is to read the text attentively. Symbols can often hide in plain sight, so keep your eyes open!
  2. Take note of recurring elements: If an object or element keeps popping up, chances are it's not just a coincidence. For example, in "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, the mockingbird symbolizes innocence and the loss of it.
  3. Consider the context: Symbols derive their meanings from the situations in which they appear. So, take into account the surrounding circumstances, the characters involved, and the overall themes of the work.
  4. Research: If you're reading a work from a different culture or time period, do a bit of research. Understanding the cultural or historical context can shed light on the intended symbolism. For instance, the white whale in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" could symbolize a vast number of things, from the divine to the unknowable.
  5. Reflect on the overall message: Finally, ask yourself how the symbol contributes to the broader message or theme of the work. In "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding, the conch shell symbolizes law, order, and civilization amidst chaos.

Remember, the magic of symbolism is that it can have multiple interpretations. What matters most is your personal understanding and how it enhances your appreciation of the work. Happy symbol hunting!

Symbolism in character development

Symbols aren't just confined to objects or settings—they can also be found in the characters themselves. Let's explore how symbolism is utilized in character development.

  1. Names as symbols: Characters' names can often act as symbols. Charles Dickens, for example, was a master of this. His character Thomas Gradgrind from "Hard Times" symbolizes the grinding down of imaginative spirit in the name of hard facts and figures.
  2. Physical characteristics: A character's physical features can be symbolic too. Take Harry Potter's lightning bolt scar—it's not just a remnant of a failed curse, but a symbol of his survival, the burden he carries, and his connection to Voldemort.
  3. Actions and decisions: The choices a character makes can symbolize their inner struggles and values. In "Pride and Prejudice", Elizabeth Bennet's decision to reject Mr. Collins's marriage proposal symbolizes her desire for genuine love over financial security.
  4. Speech and dialogue: The way a character speaks, the words they use, and their tone can all serve as symbols of their personality, social status, or inner thoughts. In "The Catcher in the Rye", Holden Caulfield's casual and oftentimes crude language symbolizes his rebellion and disdain for adult hypocrisy.

So next time you read a book, pay attention to the characters. You might be surprised by the layers of symbolism they carry. Remember, understanding symbolism in literary works can enrich your reading experience and deepen your connection to the characters and their journeys.

Symbolism in setting

While characters often hold the spotlight in a story, the setting can quietly carry a lot of symbolic weight. The places and environments around the characters can reflect their emotions, hint at deeper meanings, and even foreshadow events. Let's take a look at how settings can be symbolic.

  1. Location: The actual place where a story is set can be symbolic. In "The Great Gatsby", the East Egg and West Egg symbolize the old money class and the new money class, respectively. The valley of ashes in the same novel stands for moral and social decay.
  2. Time and epoch: The time period in which a story takes place can carry symbolic meaning. In "To Kill a Mockingbird", the setting in the 1930s Deep South symbolizes a time and place rife with racial tension and injustice.
  3. Weather: Weather in a story can symbolize a character's mood or foreshadow events. A storm might symbolize conflict, while sunshine might symbolize happiness and peace. In "Wuthering Heights", the harsh weather symbolizes the tumultuous relationship between the characters.
  4. Structures and houses: Buildings, houses, and rooms can all be symbolic. In "Jane Eyre", Thornfield Hall symbolizes the hidden secrets and the confinement Jane feels.

The next time you're reading a book or story, don't just skim over the descriptions of the setting. Take a moment to think about what they might symbolize. Understanding symbolism in literary works doesn't just apply to objects or characters—it's also about the world they inhabit.

How to use symbolism in your own writing

Having explored the depths of understanding symbolism in literary works, you might be wondering—how can I use this powerful tool in my own writing? Well, let's dive into that.

  1. Start with the basics: If you're new to using symbolism, start simple. Consider using colors, weather, or seasons as symbols. For example, winter could symbolize death or an end, while spring might symbolize new beginnings.
  2. Ensure it aligns with your theme: Symbols should enhance the themes of your story, not confuse the reader. If your story is about freedom, a bird might be a suitable symbol. But if your story is about confinement, a cage might be more appropriate.
  3. Keep it consistent: Once you've chosen a symbol, stick with it. Changing what a symbol represents partway through your story can confuse readers.
  4. Subtlety is key: While it can be tempting to make your symbols very obvious, subtlety often works best. You want your readers to think and engage with your text, not feel like they're being hit over the head with a symbol.

Remember, the most powerful symbols are often the ones that resonate personally with the reader. Don't be afraid to get creative and experiment with different types of symbolism in your writing—there's no right or wrong way to do it!

By mastering the art of symbolism, you'll be able to add depth and complexity to your writing, making it more engaging and thought-provoking. So, get out there and start weaving some symbolic magic into your stories!

If you enjoyed exploring the power of symbolism in literature and would like to delve further into the world of creative expression, we recommend checking out Juliet Schreckinger's workshop 'Composing Complex Illustrations using Basic Shapes.' Although focused on visual art, this workshop offers valuable insights into how symbols and shapes can be combined to create intricate and meaningful compositions, applicable to both literature and visual arts.