Exploring The Use of Symbolism in Literature: A Guide

By Reed Smith •  Updated: 02/21/24 •  15 min read

Peeling back the layers of The Use of Symbolism in Literature opens up a world where objects, characters, and settings do double duty. Through their narrative, they simultaneously narrate a tale and gesture towards grander notions. Diving into this study isn’t merely a scholarly endeavor; it’s vital for those aiming to enrich their grasp on storytelling mechanics.

You’ll learn how symbols serve as shortcuts to complex ideas, making themes more digestible and resonant. From the haunting green light in Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” representing unattainable dreams, to the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s novel symbolizing innocence destroyed by senseless cruelty, we cover ground that showcases symbolism’s power.

We’re not stopping at identification; you’ll also get tips on crafting meaningful symbols within your own storytelling ventures. Ready? How about we plunge into those mysteries side by side?

Table of Contents:

Understanding Symbolism in Literature

Imagine literature without symbolism. That’s like Harry Potter without magic, a world painted in grey. But don’t worry; we’re here to add color back. Symbolism is the secret sauce that gives narrative literature its depth and emotional resonance.

The Role of Symbolism in Narrative Literature

Symbolism isn’t just a fancy literary device for English majors to decode; it’s the heartbeat of storytelling techniques. Through the art of employing one element to stand for something more elusive, writers can captivate their audience in a way that goes far beyond what mere words on a page could express. Ponder over “The Great Gatsby” by Scott Fitzgerald, where the luminescent green beacon at Daisy’s quay not only echoes Gatsby’s elusive affection but also delves into the expansive motif of seeking the American dream.

By weaving symbols into their stories, writers don’t merely concoct intriguing questions for academic tests; they infuse their tales with depth that lingers in our minds well beyond the final page turn.

To see how this plays out across different genres, let’s not forget William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Here, an island setting goes beyond being merely a backdrop for preteen drama—it becomes a stark symbol for societal breakdown and senseless cruelty among seemingly unrelated boys.

Symbolism Definition and Significance in Literature

A common misunderstanding might lead some to think symbolism works solely through visual symbols or obvious symbolism like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scarlet letter ‘A’ worn by Hester Prynne which stands as a direct comparison between sin and social ostracization. But true mastery lies in subtlety—like Harper Lee’s mockingbird representing innocence under threat—in crafting complex ideas into digestible imagery that enhances thematic depth and stirs emotional significance within us all.

Types of Symbols Commonly Used in Literature

Symbols serve as the hidden ingredients that infuse stories with complexity, transforming basic tales into intricate mosaics filled with underlying significance. But what types of symbols do authors frequently use to achieve this magic? Why don’t we sneak a glance at what’s hidden backstage?

Visual Symbols and Their Impact

In literature, objects often carry weight far beyond their physical presence. Take Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the green light on Daisy’s dock isn’t just an illumination but symbolizes Gatsby’s unattainable dreams and desires related to the elusive American Dream. This shows how objects as symbols in literature can encapsulate complex ideas within something seemingly mundane.

Characters too can serve as powerful vessels for symbolism. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, adorned with her scarlet ‘A’, transforms from an individual character into a universal representation of shame, sin, and eventually resilience and strength against societal norms.

Moving onto settings – these aren’t always just backdrops for action but integral symbolic elements themselves. William Golding uses his island setting in Lord of the Flies not just as a playground for stranded boys but as a microcosm for society at large, exploring themes of civilization versus savagery through its lush yet unforgiving landscape.

To wrap your head around these concepts further or dive deep into other iconic examples like Harry Potter or Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird which dissect racial injustice using symbolic elements, explore more about visual symbols here.

Crafting Meaningful Symbols Within Your Story

Have you ever pondered the art of imbuing your narrative with elements that deeply connect with your audience? Creating cohesive symbols aligned with narrative themes might just be the secret sauce you’re looking for. Let’s break it down, no fluff included.

Symbolism in Creative Writing

Digging into symbolism can feel like opening a treasure chest; suddenly, everything has deeper meaning. But don’t get lost at sea—start simple. Think of Scott Fitzgerald and that elusive green light in “The Great Gatsby.” It wasn’t just a fancy lamp; it was hope, desire, the American dream itself dangling out of reach. Aim to weave understated yet impactful symbolism into your narrative, ensuring it enhances rather than eclipses the reader’s experience.

To craft meaningful symbols within your story, focus on aligning them with the heartbeats of your narrative—the themes. A symbol becomes powerful when it not only stands for something on its own but also weaves seamlessly into the larger tapestry of your tale.

Symbols aren’t one-size-fits-all either. They can range from objects (think Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar) to characters (like Harper Lee’s Mockingbird), or even settings (William Golding’s island). Each serves as a visual cue pulling double duty: enhancing storytelling while nudging readers towards underlying messages.

The beauty—and challenge—of using symbols lies in their versatility and ability to convey complex ideas through seemingly unrelated elements. Remember Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter? Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t pick red randomly—it represents love, shame, passion—all wrapped up in one character’s journey. Embark on a journey to unravel and dissect the layers of symbolism in literature right here.

Deciphering the Layers of Symbolic Meaning

The Conveyance of Complex Ideas Through Symbolism

Symbolism, by definition, dresses up simple narratives in complex attire. It’s like a ninja; it sneaks deep ideas into readers’ minds without them noticing. But how exactly does this literary device manage to represent abstract and often convoluted concepts so succinctly? Take Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the green light at Daisy’s dock is not just a beacon but a symbol for Gatsby’s unreachable American Dream.

In science fiction or fantasy realms, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, symbolism weaves through the narrative fabric with subtlety. A seemingly innocent character named Harry could actually stand for heroism and resilience against senseless cruelty.

This kind of storytelling technique isn’t just about throwing random objects or colors into the mix and calling it a day. For instance, while Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the color red in The Scarlet Letter to symbolize both sin (Hester Prynne) and passion, William Golding employs conch shells in Lord of the Flies to signify civilization amidst chaos.

Reader’s Interpretation and Engagement With Symbolism

Delving into a narrative filled with symbols transforms it into an enthralling enigma that captivates the audience. Each person brings their own experiences when they dive into these tales—making interpretation somewhat subjective but infinitely richer.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, offers layers upon layers that one can peel back—the mockingbird itself representing innocence lost too soon due to racial injustice is interpreted differently based on each reader’s viewpoint.

Beyond adding depth, imbuing symbols with multiple meanings invites audiences into an interactive reading experience—they’re no longer passive consumers but active participants unraveling hidden threads woven by authors who masterfully engage us beyond mere words on paper.

The Gist:

Symbolism transforms simple stories into rich, complex experiences. It invites readers to become detectives, unraveling meanings and connecting deeply with the narrative. From Gatsby’s green light to Harry Potter’s resilience, symbols enrich tales and engage us in a unique, interactive reading experience.

Iconic Examples of Symbolism Across Literary Works

“To Kill a Mockingbird” – A Study on Racial Injustice

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the mockingbird symbolizes innocence and purity, which is brutally crushed by senseless cruelty. The essence of racial discrimination is sharply highlighted through the poignant symbolism woven into the narrative’s fabric. Lee masterfully weaves vivid symbolism into her narrative, not just painting a picture of life in a quaint town but also delving deep into the expansive realms of ethics and the essence of human conduct.

The importance of understanding this literary device becomes clear when we see how it allows readers to connect with complex ideas on an emotional level. Gazing through Scout’s perspective, we’re drawn into a vivid portrayal where symbols transform notions of fairness and honor from vague ideas to crystal-clear realities.

“Lord of the Flies” – The Breakdown of Society

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies employs its island setting as more than just backdrop; it serves as a potent symbol for societal breakdown amidst chaos. The conch shell represents order and civilization—a fragile authority that crumbles away among savagery. The narrative illustrates the rapid decline into savagery that ensues when the threads binding society unravel, spotlighting humanity’s fragile grip on civilization.

This stark imagery helps us grasp Golding’s commentary on human nature: even in children, there exists potential for both good and evil. Symbolism here acts not merely as decoration but as essential threads weaving through the narrative fabric, highlighting our precarious balance between civility and primal instincts.

Delving into the realm of literature or penning tales, grasping symbolism is crucial for imbuing your narrative with layers that echo profoundly with readers, reaching depths unseen at first glance.

Techniques for Identifying and Analyzing Literary Symbols

Finding symbols in literature is like being a detective at a masquerade ball. You’re looking for the guest who isn’t just wearing a mask but also has an entire backstory hidden beneath their costume.

The Conveyance of Complex Ideas Through Symbolism

Symbols are sneaky. Lurking right before our eyes, they murmur the hidden narratives and profound truths ensconced within the tale. Take Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” where the green light on Daisy’s dock isn’t just a pretty fixture; it symbolizes Gatsby’s unattainable dreams and the elusive American Dream itself. But how do you spot these cleverly disguised elements? First, note any recurring objects or themes that seem to carry more weight than their surface level suggests.

To dive even deeper, consider what these symbols could represent within your story’s context—like how Harper Lee uses the mockingbird in “To Kill A Mockingbird” not just as a bird singing its heart out but as an emblem of innocence destroyed by senseless cruelty.

Reader’s Interpretation and Engagement With Symbolism

Your readers are smarter than you think—they love unraveling mysteries by themselves. By placing subtle clues without spelling everything out, you invite them into your creative process. For instance, William Golding doesn’t outright say his island represents society falling apart in “Lord of The Flies.” Instead, he lets us figure it out through his characters’ descent into savagery.

This technique enriches reader interpretation because they’re actively piecing together abstract ideas from seemingly unrelated events or descriptions—a satisfying puzzle solved.

Dive deeper into the realm of literary symbolism, where narratives unfold in complex layers, revealing their richness through this transformative technique.

The Distinction Between Allegory and Pure Symbolism

When it comes to literary devices, understanding the difference between allegory and pure symbolism is like distinguishing wine from whiskey—they both pack a punch but in very different ways. Not all symbolic writing is allegorical, after all. Let’s cut through the haze.

What Makes an Allegory?

An allegory is a narrative freight train, loaded with symbols that collectively point towards a broader moral or political statement. It’s storytelling with a mission, where every character and event works overtime representing bigger ideas. Think of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”—it’s not just about grumpy barnyard animals; it’s reflecting on the complexities of Soviet socialism.

Pure symbolism, on the other hand, plays it cool. It uses specific objects or figures to suggest more than their literal meaning without necessarily building towards any grand thesis. The green light in Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” isn’t staging a coup; it quietly symbolizes Gatsby’s unreachable dreams and desires—end of story.

Decoding Symbols vs Decoding Allegories

Diving into an allegorical work demands your detective hat—you’re piecing together clues that reveal what those sly characters really stand for. But when you bump into pure symbolism? You’re more so appreciating art at an exhibition: contemplating what each brushstroke (or symbol) stirs within you individually. Not convinced? Peek beneath the surface by delving into “Symbol vs Metaphor,” illuminating how metaphors straightforwardly juxtapose, whereas symbols maintain a captivating ambiguity.

In essence: While both literary tools enrich narratives beyond their surface stories—one builds complex structures hiding in plain sight; the other leaves breadcrumbs leading to personal revelations. Allegories commandeer your reading experience with purposeful directionality. Pure symbols invite introspection. Depending on their strategy, authors have the power to elevate simple text into channels for deep understanding. And isn’t that just magical?

The Gist:

Understanding allegory and pure symbolism is key: Allegories are loaded with symbols to make a broad statement, like in “Animal Farm”. Pure symbolism, seen in “The Great Gatsby”, suggests deeper meanings without aiming for a grand thesis. Each enriches narratives but engages readers differently.

The Evolutionary Path Of Symbolic Representation In Modern Media

Traditionally, symbols in literature served as a bridge to deeper meanings, enriching stories beyond their surface narrative. Nowadays, the art of weaving intricate layers of meaning into symbols has smoothly evolved to permeate contemporary media like movies and oratory.

Symbolism’s Transition from Literature to Film

Film directors often use visual symbols to convey complex ideas without the need for words. For instance, Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” masterfully employs the motif of ‘rosebud’—a seemingly simple object that ultimately represents lost innocence and unattainable dreams. Explore how symbolism in “Citizen Kane” elevates the storytelling experience by adding depth that resonates with viewers on an emotional level.

In another realm entirely, colors play pivotal roles in films; take Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” where the color green symbolizes both hope and envy—themes critical to understanding Gatsby’s character. Translating these iconic symbols to film doesn’t just honor their roots but also reveals the creativity of directors in reimagining classic motifs.

Symbolism’s Presence in Modern Speeches

Moving from screenplays to oratories, symbolic language can profoundly impact public discourse. Barack Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches serves as a prime example—a testament filled with references acting as bridges connecting past struggles with present challenges. Delve into symbolism used by Barack Obama during his Selma speech.

This evolution underscores a fundamental truth: while mediums may change, our reliance on symbolic representation remains constant—an evergreen method of communication capable of transcending time and technology alike.

FAQs in Relation to The Use of Symbolism in Literature

What is the purpose of symbolism in literature?

Symbolism adds layers, connecting readers to deeper meanings. It’s like a secret code between the author and reader.

How is symbolism used effectively?

To hit home, symbols must resonate with readers, subtly weaving into narratives without overshadowing the story itself.

What is the power of symbolism?

Symbols pack a punch. They can convey complex ideas through simple imagery, enriching stories beyond their surface level.

How do you analyze symbolism in literature?

Dig beneath the surface. Look for patterns or repeated images that tie back to larger themes within the work.


Plunging into the realm of symbolism in texts, it’s like you’ve discovered a hidden trove. Symbols are not just embellishments; they’re the heartbeats of deeper meanings.

Remember, symbols transform simple narratives into rich tapestries. The green light and the mockingbird? They serve as your lanterns, illuminating the depths beneath the facade.

Creating symbols in your stories isn’t about complexity; it’s about connection. Make them resonate, make them speak louder than words.

The journey through symbolism doesn’t end here. It’s an invitation to look closer, think deeper. Every book, every story holds this promise.

To master The Use of Symbolism in Literature is to weave magic into prose and poetry alike—making readers feel more deeply connected with each turn of the page.

Reed Smith

Reed is the founder and builder of Habit Writing and enjoys all things writing. He loves learning about the craft of storytelling, writing messy drafts, and playing board games with his wife, friends, and family.