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What is Symbolism in Literature? - Definition, Types & Examples

What is Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism is the practice of the art of using words, phrases, sentences, images, and other content to signify, tokenize or represent some idea, entity or event. Symbolism in literature plays a significant role in literary writing and writers to compare & draw parallels between distinct events and other aspects. It has been a powerful literary instrument for ages, utilized by writers worldwide to add layers, deliver strong metaphors and showcase their artistic fervor & wit.

Literary symbolism is a powerful technique that helps the audience visualize something vividly and clearly. Depicted by the Oxford dictionary as a major movement in world literature, symbolism originated in late 19th century France & Belgium literature. It exists until this date and finds widespread usage as a highly influential literary device by writers worldwide. Symbolic literature adds depth and meaning to prose and serves as the fabric that weaves the story & the prose together.

This article takes a closer and more in-depth look into the concept of symbolism in literature.

Defining The Uses Of Symbolism

Symbolism is a powerful literary instrument and helps writers supersede & transform a bland content into something deep & engaging.  

If you are wondering why is symbolism important in literature, then know that, over the years, writers have utilized this technique to

  1. establish relationships,
  2. unearth similarities
  3. highlight inner meanings
  4. depict complex scenarios
  5. help readers visualize some abstract idea
  6. deal with sensitive issues in a sensible way

Symbolist literature is synonymous with layered stories and finds a place in write-ups that deal with complex & sensitive themes. Literary symbolism is one of the best ways to “show” something to the audience through one’s words. This is one of the most straightforward definitions of symbolism in literature.

Symbolism offers writers to play around words and construct content unique content that mesmerizes the audience.

  • Just a few words or a short phrase can depict a range of emotions, reveal underlying plot elements, allow readers to visualize clearly and perform several other things.
  • Symbolism often goes hand-in-hand with abstraction.
  • It is a subtle way to showcase one's writing and creative skills.
  • Writers get to relay a greater meaning and a deeper context to their content.

 For example, one of the biggest classics of American Literature, Harper Lee’s “To Killing A Mockingbird”, the title itself depicts the whole essence of the story through apt symbolism. The act of killing a harmless & innocent mockingbird is the epitome of senseless cruelty, and the title symbolizes just that.

Different writers all over have used literary symbols to inform and engage the audience in a myriad of ways.

Types and Techniques Of Symbolism With Some Examples

As mentioned, symbolic figure of speeches and words help writers weave layered & engaging text. Symbolism in a text can represent & depict numerous things and different types of symbolism exist for such purposes. Whether to evoke emotions, highlight inner meanings and or create a mood & atmosphere, symbolism is an excellent way to instill double meaning in a text.

There are different ways to employ symbolism in literary content. And, though similes, metaphors and analogies are somewhat similar to symbolism, symbolism is slightly different.

Following are the different types of symbolism in poetry and literature types.

  1. Symbolism using Color

Colors have been one of the most common ways of symbolizing something, either emotions or some abstractions.

Black= The color black is often connected with something ominous and foreboding. Across works of literature, the color depicted death, mourning, sadness and something sinister.

Blue= Blue has been used to represent numerous things from the magnanimous blue skies & vast oceans to the melancholy & even asphyxiation.

Red= The red color has been used as a symbol of passion and also embarrassment. The color also depicts danger, blood, anger, fire and even communism.

Green= Green represents nature, fertility, forestry, youth and is also often used to signify amateurishness.

Various primary and secondary colors have been used to depict emotions, entities, events, or the environment over the years. Chromatic symbolism is one of the most commonly used powerful literary devices in use.

  1. Symbolic Seasons

Every season has certain features & characteristics, brings about changes, and ushers in new feelings in everyone's hearts & minds.

For example,

  • Spring represents fertility, youth, vigor, birth, renewal and a new beginning.
  • Summer indicates knowledge and maturity.
  • Autumn symbolizes near-death or passing of something or someone.
  • And, winter has often been used to depict harsh conditions and sometimes death.
  1. Symbolic words and objects

Numerous objects and words have been used across world literature for both implicit and explicit symbolism. For example, flowers such as the lily signify purity while the rose signifies beauty.

Objects and words find usage as uncommon symbols and story-specific symbols in literature. But, while story and uncommon symbols can be hard to discern, they are one of the most potent forms of symbolism. Symbolic story elements and words can be found rooted in climactic events and depicting notable story information & features.

Consider the following example from William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.

”All the world’s a stage.

And all the men and women merely players

They have their exits and their entrances

And one man in his time plays many parts”-

These renowned lines are a fantastic example of symbolism, which showcase a strikingly accurate analogy of human life. The world is a 'stage', and we play so many 'roles' throughout our lives.

Symbolism can be very subtle and can be difficult for an audience to discern. But, therein lies the art of the matter. Though it might sometimes be challenging to understand symbolic references in some cases, symbolism is one of the best ways to craft nuanced and complex content.

Here’s an example of poetic symbolism from William Wordsworth “Daffodils”.

"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.”

The clouds depict a sense of loneliness in the poet’s minds while the crowd of daffodils symbolize a flash of cheerfulness & hope that we often feel.

From the time of writing of the First Testament of the Bible, where the apple symbolized temptation and sin, to these times, symbolism allowed writers to communicate messages to their audience artistically and effectively.

Thus, symbolism in literature is how to embed a more profound meaning into a text's literal meaning.

And that wraps up this article. Let's hope it helps you to understand symbolism in literature better than ever.

But, if the abstract & intricate nature of literary symbolism seems a bit too hard to grasp, do not worry as we are to help you out. has the right bunch of experts to help you out of your troubles.

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