The word “emblematic” is an important literary term that has been used throughout the ages to represent ideas, feelings, and even personalities.

E.g. The apple from the story of Adam and Eve is an emblem because it represents an idea that's conveyed through its presence in the story (and in other stories since).

This term has been used in various forms of literature, such as poetry, prose, and plays, and its definition is often interpreted differently depending on the context in which it is used. An example of an emblematic image might be a single rose, which could represent love, passion, beauty, and hope all at the same time. In literature, authors often use emblematic images to convey complex ideas without having to explain them in depth. 

Emblematic Definition and Examples

Emblematic Definition

An emblematic image is a type of symbol that represents an abstract concept or an idea. This type of image is often used in literature as a way to convey a message or an emotion in a powerful and meaningful way. The image can be anything from a representation of an individual, an object, an animal, or even a natural element. An emblematic image is one that is universal and has multiple meanings and interpretations. 

This helps to keep the readers engaged and provides deeper meaning to the story. It also allows the reader to make connections between the emblematic image and their own life experiences.

Common Emblems

In literature, common emblems are often used to represent ideas or concepts. One of the most recognizable is a heart to represent love, which dates back to the Middle Ages and can be seen in many literary works. 

Other symbols include:  

  • A dove for peace
  • A skull for death
  • A crown for royalty
  • A snake for evil
  • An anchor for stability 

Additionally, certain colors are often associated with certain meanings. For example, red is commonly used to symbolize passion and courage, while white typically represents purity and innocence. 

Emblems can also represent physical objects, like:

  • A rose that stands for beauty and harmony
  • A book representing knowledge and wisdom

In some cases, authors use images of mythical creatures, such as dragons or unicorns, to represent good or evil. Animals such as birds or wolves can also be used as symbols for a variety of concepts, depending on the context in which they are used.

How are Emblems Used in Literature?

An emblematic image is often used in literature to represent a larger idea or concept. An emblem is an object, character, scene, or symbol that stands for something else. For example, a crown may be used to signify power or authority, while a dove could signify peace and harmony. Emblems are often used as visual shorthand for these bigger ideas, allowing authors to quickly convey a complex thought without the need for lengthy descriptions.

Emblems can also be used to emphasize a particular point of view or to add depth to a character. For example, a character who is associated with a particular emblematic image could be seen as embodying its meaning—a powerful monarch may be associated with a crown or a knight with a lion. By using emblems in this way, authors can emphasize certain aspects of their characters and illustrate how they interact with their environments.

Examples of Emblematic Images in Literature

The Odyssey by Homer

This famous epic poem is filled with symbolic images. One of the most important can also be found in Greek mythology more broadly. The poet depicts Athena wearing an owl as a symbol of her intelligence and wisdom. 

This emblematic representation has been used throughout literature and art to represent wisdom and knowledge. The Odyssey is far from the only poem or literary work to use an owl as an emblem in this same way. 

Hamlet by William Shakespeare 

In this commonly studied play, Shakespeare uses a skull as an emblematic image. It represents death and is a constant reminder of mortality. Here is a quote from the famous play in which Hamlet is talking to the Gravedigger: 

Gravedigger: Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body. Here’s a skull now hath lien you i’ th’ earth three-and-twenty years.

Hamlet: Whose was it?

Gravedigger: A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?

Hamlet: Nay, I know not.

Gravedigger: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.

Hamlet: This?

Gravedigger: E’en that.

Hamlet: [Taking the skull] Let me see. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him,Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!

The skull is a common trope in literature that is often used to evoke feelings of fear and expectations about death. 

Read William Shakespeare’s poems

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

In this well-loved novel by Charlotte Brontë, the author uses the red room as an emblematic reminder of repression and imprisonment. Here are a few lines from the novel: 

The red-room was a spare chamber, very seldom slept in; I might say never, indeed unless when a chance influx of visitors at Gateshead Hall rendered it necessary to turn to account all accommodation it contained: yet it was one of the largest and stateliest chambers in the mansion.

The room has an oppressive atmosphere and dark color palette that serve as a metaphor for the protagonist’s struggles with autonomy. 

Discover Charlotte Brontë poetry

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 

In this novel, Hemingway uses a bullfight as an emblematic representation of courage, resilience, and death. The fight serves as a reflection of the character’s own personal struggles and their desire to survive in a cruel world. 

Read Ernest Hemingway’s poetry.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is another very good example of a story that features emblematic images. The ring is likely the most obvious. It serves as an emblematic representation of power and corruption. The story follows Frodo’s journey as he attempts to destroy the one ring and restore peace to Middle Earth, all while struggling against the power of the ring and avoiding those who want to take it from him. 

Explore J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems

Why Do Authors Use Emblems?

Writers use emblems in literature for a variety of reasons. Emblems are a powerful way to visually represent complex ideas and emotions in a direct, vivid manner. They can help create a sense of unity between a text and its readers by providing a recognizable image that they can connect with on a personal level. 

They can also be used to impart deeper meanings to a story, allowing readers to explore the themes and messages at play in a given narrative. For example, a common symbol of grief is a single tear rolling down the cheek, which allows writers to convey the pain and suffering of characters without having to write out detailed descriptions.

Emblems can also be used to create an atmosphere within a text or to support certain plot elements. For example, the presence of doves in a story could suggest peace and tranquility, while a flock of ravens could suggest darkness and despair. By using emblems, writers are able to establish a particular mood within a story that shapes how readers interpret the events of the narrative.


What are emblems for? 

Emblems can also be used to represent values, beliefs, and ideals that are important to the characters within the story. This is especially true in allegorical works, where symbols are often used to convey a certain message or moral lesson.

What is an example of an emblem? 

The infamous apple from the Garden of Eden is a perfect example of an emblem. It has come to represent temptation and the fall from grace in literature.

Why are emblems important? 

Emblems are an excellent tool for authors to set the tone of a story and draw readers in. By creating a sense of anticipation, authors can effectively hook their readers and keep them invested in the story’s plot.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Archetype: a universal symbol. They are characters, themes, and settings that appear throughout literary works.
  • Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities that are often only interpretable through context.
  • Canon: a collection of materials that are considered to represent a specific period or genre.
  • Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.

Other Resources 

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