Symbolism: A Deeper Meaning Awaits You

What is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a complex literary device often used in conjunction with other literary devices such as metaphor and allegory. Symbolism uses a word, color, image, object, figure, character, or even an action to represent an idea or quality.  The effective use of symbolism conveys the intended idea or concept in a way that is far more meaningful and memorable than literal language. Symbolism offers a way for the writer to give an  idea or concept a deeper meaning. An effective symbol will resonate with the reader and elicit a strong response, either positive or negative. Symbols are often tricky because unless expressly explained, they are typically left open to interpretation, particularly in poetry. 

How to pronounce Symbolism?

sim– buh– li– zm

When do writers use Symbolism?

Writers use symbolism to convey a deeper meaning or emotion in their writing. Symbols can be used to represent emotions, complex ideas, create atmosphere, or provide meaning among other things. Symbolism helps a writer to “show” without telling while making the idea s/he/they are trying to express more memorable. 

Use Symbolism When You Want:

  • To convey a complex idea without a lot of words
  •  To add depth and complexity to your writing.
  • To connect themes
  •  To convey a deeper, underlying meaning
  • To add imagery
  • To create a sense of foreboding, mystery, or intrigue

Types  of Symbolism

  • Religious – Most commonly defined as the use of religious symbols such as religious texts, works of art, and rituals as well as archetypes, events, or natural phenomena to express ideas, concepts, or meaning. This is the most commonly accepted form of symbolism and oddly enough, it is typically sanctioned by religious authorities.
  • Romantic – Second only to religious symbolism, Shakespearean sonnets are famous for the symbolism within. Religious Symbols: These symbols are derived from religious beliefs and are used to represent a certain idea or concept. Examples include the Cross, the Star of David, and the Crescent Moon.
  • Emotional – Used to describe metaphysical emotions. Popular among French symbologists and English language writers such as William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney.
  • Allegory – Refers to an entire symbolic work. Example: George Orwell’s, Animal Farm  is a symbol for the Russian Revolution

Symbolism in Literature 📚

  • The eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg  in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby – Above a valley of ashes, the eyes appear faded and bespeckled, painted onto an old, dilapidated billboard in a desolate wasteland. The eyes been argued to represent many things,  most seem to agree that tare symbols for one or both of the following:
  • Society’s loss of morality and spiritual values
  • : The green light symbolizes hope, renewal, and the pursuit of the American Dream.God’s ever-watchful gaze watching in displeasure as American society deteriorates into a moral wasteland.
  • The bright red “A” sewn onto the front of Hester Prynne’s dress in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter –  The scarlet-colored  “A” symbolizes the shame, guilt, and  consequence of Hester’s sin and the judgment placed upon her by society.
  • The raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Raven” –  The most commonly agreed upon interpretation of this symbol is that the raven represents the speaker’s constant grief over the loss of his love, Lenore. Other interpretations argue it symbolizes death, despair, and the inevitability of fate.

Symbolism in Children Books 🧸

  •  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, by Wanda Gág, uses color to symbolize good and evil – White = good while Red = Bad/Evil
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum  – Oh! Where to begin … A wonderful example of a political allegory, each character represents a relevant concept for the particular moment in time.

Dorothy represents the average American girl.

The Tin Man is a symbol for mistreated factory workers.

The Cowardly Lion was intended to represent the Democratic presidential candidate at the time, William Jennings Bryan.While not really a character, The Emerald City, was meant to symbolize Washington, DC and the hopes and dreams of the American people.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia,by C.S. Lewis, is generally viewed as a retelling of Christian theology in which the Lion, Aslan, serves as a  symbol for Christ and the idea that Jesus is the ultimate savior and protector.

Symbolism in Songs 🎧

“Mirror,” Lil Wayne:

“Mirror on the wall, here we are again

Through my rise and fall

You’ve been only friend

You told me that they can understand the man I am

So why are we here talkin’ to each other again”

The mirror represents the light and dark inside each of us and the reflection we see when we look into the mirror is meant to guide us.

“Pocketful of Sunshine,” Natasha Beningfield:

“I got a pocket, got a pocketful of sunshine

I got a love and I know that it’s all mine

Oh, oh, oh oh

Do what you want but you’re never gonna

Break me

Sticks and stones are never gonna shake

Me, oh, oh ohoh”

Here, the pocketful of sunshine is a symbol for the singer’s happiness and joy that no one can take away from her.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” The Beatles:

“Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

Towering over your head

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes

And she’s gone

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds”

In these lyrics, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes represents a tube with many mirrors in which to see the many reflections of yourself in others eyes.

Examples of Symbolism in Poetry ✍🏽

1. “A Light Exists in Spring,” Emily Dickinson:

“A light exists in spring

Not present on the year

At any other period.

When March is scarcely here”

In this poem, Dickinson uses the light to symbolize the hope and happiness present in springtime.

2. “Ah Sunflower,” William Blake,

“A light exists in spring

Not present on the year

At any other period.

When March is scarcely here”

In these brief lines, Blakes uses sunflowers to represent people and the sun to symbolize life.

3. “The Spring is Passing,” Matsuo Basho,

“The passing spring

Birds mourn,

Fishes weep

With tearful eyes.”

Since haiku’s are by their very nature brief, writers rely heavily on symbolism to convey a lot of information, in this poem Basho uses spring as a symbol for the passing of life.

Symbolism in Film and Pop Culture 🎥

  • V for Vendetta (2006) – The Guy Fawkes mask is generally accepted by society as a symbol for anarchy, revolution, and civil disobedience. In the film, the mask is a transformative symbol, turning V into the living representation of the mask and human embodiment of what it represents…
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) –  The ring represents many things over the course of the series. At first it is a symbol of the evil power of its maker. Then it comes to represent the greed and corruption of society as well as the personal weakness and the consequences of unchecked ambition. At times, the ring represents all of these things simultaneously.
  • The Dark Knight (2008) – This film is host to a bevy of symbolism. For brevity, only two instances will be addressed here: 1.) Batman is a symbol of hope represented by the archetypal hero. Batman always places the needs of society above his own needs and desires. 2.) The Joker’s face paint symbolizes the madness and unpredictability within. On the surface, it appears to be simple clown makeup, albeit,sloppily applied. However, when he speaks, it becomes apparent that the makeup’s smeared, messy application represents the Joker’s mania and invocation of fear.

Examples of Symbolism in Advertising 📺

Symbolism in advertising is a bit more difficult to identify because it is subtle, depending on the power of subliminal messaging. The examples below offer some insight into what this means.

  • Apple’s Bite –  The iconic logo of Apple’s  bitten apple symbolizes the power of knowledge and rebellion by subliminally referencing a story as old as time itself: the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruit, and the idea that knowledge is forbidden.
  • The Marlboro from  the old 1960s ads – Advertisements play on people’s weakness and need to be socially accepted. The Marlboro fit nicely into these categories. As he gazed out into the distance, with his cigarette in his mouth, he represented the full scope of rugged, free, male masculinity. This perception was appealing to the consumer because the Marlboro man represented freedom, autonomy, and an escape from the responsibilities of everyday life. 
  • The shape of the camel’s nose and face in Camel tobacco ads – Since advertising relies so heavily on the subliminal aspects of symbolism, it tends to rely on the taboos of sex and sexuality. When reviewing the images of Camel’s Smooth Character campaign, pay special attention to the shape of the Joe Camel’s nose and face.

Often Confused With👥

Metaphor – A figure of speech applied to two unrelated things or ideas. A metaphor states that one thing is actually another. The comparison is often maintained over the course of several lines, and in some cases, an entire work.

Allegory – A long-form metaphor. An allegory is represented in an entire work of writing where the metaphor continues from beginning to end. Examples of allegory include John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Edmond Spenser’s The Faerie Queene