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Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities often only interpretable through context.

In turn, this helps to get a writer’s point across. In most cases, an object, color, or event is used to represent something else, something entirely different but in some crucial way connected. Other examples of symbolism might be words, people, animals, dates, places, or even emotions that are connected to abstract ideas.

Symbolism pronunciation: sim-bow-liz-uhm


Definition of Symbolism

When considering the possible range of symbols, and what their symbolic use is, consider the things that are meaningful in your everyday life. What can you look at in your room or house that means something to you? Is the bracelet a symbol of love? The scar a symbol of experience? The picture a symbol of the past? There are also fewer physical symbols, such as a smile, hug, or threat. These could be connected to things like romance, innocence, America, virtue, or many other possible deeper meanings.

One of the most important things to remember about symbols is that their meaning usually hinges on the context. If your bracelet is in someone else’s possession the symbol changes entirely. It might symbolize nothing, or, if it was stolen, gifted, or found, something else entirely. It is up to the writer to make sure that the setting, characters, and circumstances all match up with what they want their symbol to convey. One aspect that a writer will not be able to control, and which may throw one’s well-crafted written ideas out the window, is the perspective a reader brings to a poem or prose work. 

Examples of Common Symbols 

Although many symbols are subjective, there are also some common symbols. These are if not universal, close to it. Consider these examples: 

  • The color white as a symbol for purity, new life, or peace.
  • The color black as a symbol of death, danger, or mystery. 
  • The color red as a symbol for love, passion, or even death. 
  • The color green as symbol for rebirth, new life, and nature. 
  • A cross as a symbol of death, Christianity, heaven, or sacrifice. 
  • A home as a symbol of safety and peace. 
  • A mother as a symbol of comfort and care. 
  • A gun as a symbol of violence and fear. 


Examples of Symbolism in Poetry 

Example #1 Daffodils by William Wordsworth 

The daffodils in ‘Daffodils’ are a great example of how an object like a flower, living and growing, can become an important symbol. It is through the context of the poem that a reader comes to regard the flowers as a symbol of freedom, peace, and happiness. They also speak to a very human connection to the natural world, one of the themes of Wordsworth’s poems that have made them so popular. (Just as it made other poems from the Romanticism movement well-loved by a variety of readers.) Take a look at this first stanza of the poem: 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Throughout the poem, Wordsworth uses several poetic techniques that benefit its overarching intent. The personification of the daffodils as “dancing in the breeze” is only one of them. The next stanza of the poem continues to describe the flowers: 

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

In the second stanza, the daffodils become even more important. They stretch as far as he can see, “in never-ending line”. This poem is remembered for the image of the daffodils and since its composition and its growing popularity, the flower’s symbolism has changed as well. now, whether one is familiar with the poem or not, the flowers are tied to feelings of freedom and peace. This is a testament to the power of Wordsworth’s verse.

Explore William Wordsworth’s poetry.

Example #2 An Apple Gathering by Christina Rossetti 

In this poem the speaker describes the plight of a woman who had a relationship before marriage, effectively ending her chance at a good life. Her strife and the unfair nature of Rossetti’s contemporary society is seen through an extended metaphor. It uses an apple tree as a symbol of a woman’s virginity and the lack of flowers, and then apples, as a loss of that virginity. 

The speaker describes how the main character of this piece chose to pick the pink flowers from her apple tree. This choice changed the course of her life. Rather than wait for marriage and gather her apples when they are ripe, she engaged in a sexual relationship with a man who did not love her. Take a look at these lines from the poem: 

I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree

    And wore them all that evening in my hair:

Then in due season when I went to see

        I found no apples there.

Although it is not stated explicitly, it is clear through the context of the poem (as expanded in the later stanzas) that the symbolic significance of apples/flowers connects to the woman’s sexual purity. 

Explore Christina Rossetti’s poetry.

FAQs

What are the types of symbolism?

Some of the many types of symbolism include metaphors, allegory, hyperbole, and metonymy. These literary devices are used to create examples of symbols through comparisons, exaggerations, and imagery.

What is a simple definition of symbolism?

Although symbols can be complex, a simple definition is: a symbol is a thing that stands in for something else. For example, an object is used to represent something abstract, like love or romance.

What is the main point of symbolism?

The point is to allude to an emotion, situation, or other through the presence of an object. Symbols are powerful objects within stories that can elevate a reader’s understanding and improve the plot.

How do you identify symbolism in literature?

You identify a symbol by paying attention to how characters treat objects, situations, and one another. If one is repetitively used in the same way or feels important to one of the characters, it’s like a symbol for something.


Related Literary Terms

  • Imagery:  refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Hyperbole: defined as an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison, or exclamation meant to make a specific impact on a reader.
  • Archetype: universal symbols. They are characters, themes, and settings that appear throughout literary works.
  • Semantics: the study of the meanings of words, symbols, and various other signs.
  • Overstatement: a type of figurative language. They are descriptions of events, people, situations, and objects that are over exaggerated.
  • Motif: an action, image, idea, or sensory perception, that repeats in a work of literature.


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