What Is Symbolism?

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Symbolism is the use of something concrete to represent an abstract concept. The easiest example is the American flag. Literally, the flag is a piece of cloth. However, the flag’s true importance is symbolic. In this country, it is a symbol of freedom and independence. To other cultures around the world, it may symbolize other things, such as opportunity or even moral depravity.

That our flag can mean different things to different people around the world illustrates an important concept about symbolism. One object can symbolize different things; it is not tied to a single meaning. To one person, Christmas symbolizes faith. To another, it symbolizes capitalism and greed.

In literature, writers use recurring and isolated symbolism to highlight themes in their work. Strengthened by other forms of figurative language, such as metaphors and imagery, symbolism can deepen the meaning an object already has. For instance, black cats have an association with bad luck and the occult. Poe taps into this in his story “The Black Cat.” But symbolism can also be “free-floating,” taking on any meaning an author wishes to give it. In Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the wallpaper becomes a symbol of women’s oppression even though wallpaper had no such prior association.

How Do You Identify Symbolism in Writing?

Sometimes it’s relatively easy to identify symbolism. It is a recurring object of some importance. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” for instance, the white heron plays a pivotal role both as a plot device and a symbol. A hunter offers to pay a young girl to locate this rare bird so that he can add it to his collection, and she has to decide whether or not to betray the natural world she herself represents. The bird is a symbol both of female independence and of nature.

Other times, a work contains symbolism where items are related in theme but not otherwise alike. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a purple hat and an old family home both symbolize the modern transformation of the South, which is a central theme in the story.

Examples of Symbolism

Symbolism Example 1. The white whale in Moby Dick symbolizes the futility of Ahab’s quest.

Symbolism Example 2. The decaying house in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” symbolizes the Old South.

Symbolism Example 3. The scarlet letter Hester Prynne wears in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter represents adultery but symbolizes artistry, alienation, and (according to critics over the years) a good deal more.

Symbolism Example 4. To Christians, the cross symbolizes human sin.

Symbolism Example 5. The woods in Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” symbolize death.

Symbolism Example 6. In the North, robins symbolize the arrival of spring.

Symbolism Example 7. Pumpkins symbolize Halloween.

Symbolism Example 8. Wedding bands symbolize the lifelong union between two people.