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Symbolism in Literature Definition and Examples


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 Symbolism in Literature and Examples in Literature

A word, concept, or object cannot always be limited to one meaning. For instance, when one sees red roses thriving in a garden, they can have different ideas about the flowers in the mind. Perhaps, they could think of the roses literally, including their stems, thorns, petals, or other aspects, in the same way a botanist would do. However, albeit, they may be drawn into thinking about the roses in terms of romance or any other event in which the flowers were present. A question arises then about why someone may have different interpretations of the same thing. A perfect response lies in understanding symbolism, which this essay highlights in deeper detail.

The Meaning of Symbolism

When taken philosophically, the topic of symbolism becomes rather too vague or too broad of a concept. While people always associate the concept with simple graphical representations of messages or value whenever they hear it, symbolism actually has a wider scope. Even the conceptualized simple graphical representations, including drawings and writings, depending on the culture, medium, or common knowledge of the particular regions, every symbol itself may have different interpretations and meanings.

Definitively, the Oxford Dictionary indicates two meanings of symbolism. The first one is obvious, where it is defined as the “use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.” The same definition can better still be understood as a representation having “symbolic meanings attributed natural objects or facts.” The second definition gives a more general meaning to symbolism, explaining it as “a poetic and artistic style or movement using symbolic images and indirect suggestions to express mystical states of mind, emotions, and ideas.” Therefore, if when considers the concept in its extended and derivation from, the term “symbolic” may be described appropriately as something representing value, a message, an idea, or even common sense.

Symbolism plays a critical role across cultures and societies worldwide. Going by the definitive framework described, symbolism can cover wider areas, such as drawings and letters; parts of communities’ lifestyles; as actions conveying messages; as political gestures; as the means conveying emotions and feelings; as ways of respecting ideologies; as mathematical and algebraic representations; or as educational instruments. Considering that symbolism is in an extensive use by every global community, symbolism is perceived to be among the most effective ways of conveying expressions or messages.

It is important to consider real-life applications of symbols to strengthen the understanding of the concept. In its most simple and apparent form, symbols may be perceived as graphic depictions, writings, and drawings. In the contemporary world, symbolism can easily be understood through pictures and words drawn or written on books, papers, or computer screens. In antiquity, people drew and wrote on papyrus, cave walls, and any other medium. Even algebraic and mathematical expressions are just an additional form of the written symbols representing particular values. Judging by the elaboration given, one understands that symbolism has a wide scope, avoiding simplistic and narrowed definitions.

In democratic nations, political gestures, such as the simple acts of public voting themselves can be perceived to have symbolic meanings. In this case, voting is not only symbolic of the electorate’s opinion about and determination to involve in public policies but it is also an expression of the public’s discontent or approval of the masses towards government. This symbolism may also be visually perceived in buildings, such as the Buckingham Palace, the White House, the US Capitol, and other landmarks signifying government and political power. Similarly, some societies, such as the Boe or Bororo natives of central Brazil have different perspectives of symbolism. The community has held on to its traditions, including ceremonial regalia made using feathers. The tradition is a strong reflection of the community’s identity and its determination to preserve their beliefs and traditions despite undergoing slow cultural adjustment.

Some Examples of the Use of Symbolism in History

As it has been discussed that symbolism is not limited to the works of literature. However, in literature, authors have favored the use of symbolism for a long time alongside a broad spectrum of literary devices. Precisely, the most ancient types of storytelling—hieroglyphics and cave paintings—are among the literary symbols used to represent more complex beliefs and narratives. Additionally, in Ancient Greece, the foundation of most of the present-day narratives of art forms, props, such as phallic objects representing the god of fertility, Dionysus, were commonly used to indicate their symbolic meanings. It is also understood that symbolism continued to be used during the Middle Ages, mostly having religious connotations. However, since the Renaissance, symbolism has been widely utilized to represent human desire in different aspects. William Shakespeare also utilized symbols in his representation of human’s inner conscience, such as the use of blood in his “Macbeth.” In addition, Edgar Allen Poe, in his “The Raven” used the eponymous bird to represent mortality and dread while William Blake utilized religious symbolism (he even used Jesus) as a representation of human desire and emotion, particularly in his “The Everlasting Gospel.”

Types of Symbolism

Much as the subject matter keeps varying with generations, symbolism has had a constant definition. All symbolism has a unifying factor of an object or a word representing another beyond what is implied literary. Lyricists, playwrights, poets, and authors have favored some types of symbolism over others throughout history, taking the forms described subsequently.

  • Religious Symbolism

Religious symbolism has been albeit the most steadily “acceptable” type of symbolism used in literary history. The reason stems from the fact that religious authorities have sanctioned this type of symbolism, considering that they have held sway over societies for a greater length of human history. Notably, religious symbolism dates back to early human civilizations, but some of its highlights include John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (a retelling of the creation story in Genesis) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” (the physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit is one of its subtle symbolism).

  • Romantic Symbolism

Second in popularity globally only second to religious symbolism, it must be noted that romantic symbolism is abundantly used in wide swaths of world literature. For example, poetry, such as the modernist stanzas composed by Edna St. Vincent Millay and the sonnets of William Shakespeare, has been among the most significant media for the use of romantic symbolism. This type of symbolism has also been widely used by other contemporary authors, playwrights, and artists in the works, suggesting its pervasiveness, just like religious symbolism.

  • Emotional Symbolism

This type of symbolism is one in which physical objects are used in literary works to represent the emotional perspectives of characters in their different settings. Most poets, authors, and other composers of literary works utilize symbolism in describing metaphysical emotions. For instance, symbolists in the French language, such as Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarme are rooted for emotional symbolism, as their English counterparts, such as Seamus Heaney and William Butler.

Examples of Symbolism, as Used in Literature

  • “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a short story that is rife with symbolism, a stylistic device the author uses to the best effect to narrate the story of one Miss Emily who leads a lonely life till her death.

  • The Symbolism of Emily’s House

Like herself, Emily’s house monumental, a residual emblem of a waning world of the South’s aristocracy. The exterior of the enormous square-framed house is lavishly designed. The scrolled balconies, spires, and cupolas are the hallmarks of the architecture of the 1870s. Readers find that much has changed at the story’s time. The neighborhood and the street, at one time privileged, pristine, and affluent, have lost the significance as an identity of the elite. In many ways, the house is an extension of the main character, Emily Grierson. Precisely, the house bares its “coquettish and stubborn decay” to the townspeople. Furthermore, the Grierson mansion is a testament to the preservation and endurance to Southern conventions but it now appears out of place among the gasoline pumps, cotton wagons, and other industrial developments surrounding it—in the same way the old values of the South are no longer suitable in the changing society.

Additionally, Emily Grierson’s house symbolizes death, mental illness and alienation. The house enshrines the living past, where a sealed room upstairs acts as Emily’s macabre trophy room in which she keeps Barron, a man she never wanted to lose in her life. The town dwellers and Emily’s neighbors skulk at the periphery of her property and life when they sprinkle life along the foundations of Emily’s house to, as they attempt to counteract the odor of rotting flesh. The townspeople find the house, as Emily Grierson, a fascination. For this reason, Emily’s neighbors formulate their own lurid interpretations and fantasies of the crumbling edifice in addition to its mysterious occupant. Miss. Emily’s death presents the best opportunity to the townspeople to confirm their speculations concerning the events that have been happening behind the secure walls and tightly closed doors.

  • The Symbolism of Emily’s Strand of Hair

Readers learn that the townspeople, at least through the narrator’s voice, discover a strand of grey hair on a pillow beside Homer Barron’s body once they break open the upstairs bedroom in Emily’s house that had been kept shut for forty years. The strand of hair symbolizes the lost love and the mostly perverse activities in which people engage as they pursue happiness. Furthermore, the hair is symbolic of Emily’s inner life, where, despite all the eccentricities, was devoted to leading her life according to her terms and refusing to submit her conduct, no matter how shocking it turns out to be, to others’ approval. Miss Emily Grierson ascribes to her own code of morals and occupies the world that she invents for herself, the bounds of which even murder is allowed to some degree—think of Homer Barron. Readers learn that Faulkner’s in the narrator’s voice, foreshadows the finding of the strand of hair, as he describes the changes his main character, Emily, undergoes with the passage of time. For this case, the find out that her hair becomes grizzled to the extent that it is “vigorous iron-grey” by the time she dies aged seventy-four years.”

  • The Epic Poem, “Beowulf,” written anonymously

Written anonymously, “Beowulf” is an epic poem in Old English. The story is a tale of one Beowulf and his encounter’s with three beasts; first Grendel; then his mother; and later; the Dragon. Beowulf, the story’s protagonist, succeeds in all but the last battle, showcasing his heroic character to save his people from constant attacks by the monsters. Like Faulkner’s short story, “Beowulf” uses symbolism to an effective effect.

  • The Symbolism of the Golden Torque

The necklace or collar that Beowulf receives from Wealhtheow is symbolic of the existing loyalty between Beowulf and Wealhtheow’s people, and by significant extension, the community of the Geats. The symbolic importance of the torque is revived when readers discover that Hygelac dies in war while wearing it, extending their notions of kinship and continuity. Furthermore, the golden torque is symbolic of loyalty so much to the effect that it helps readers understand the special relationship between King Hrothgar and Beowulf. Readers understand that loyalty drives the protagonist to fight for the Danes—he does so to honor his father’s friendship with the king much as he does for his loyalty to the throne.

  • The Symbolism of the Banquet

            Grendel, the first monster that Beowulf confronts, destroys a great part of the mead-hall at Heorot. Readers find that the banquet at Heorot following the beastly attack by Grendel is a representation of the restoration of harmony and order to the people of Denmark. The people prepare by reconstructing the destroyed mead-hall that, alongside the banquet, is symbolic of the community’s rebirth, a sign of hope that the people would overcome their challenges anyway. Readers also note that the speeches and gifts given at this event and venue are additional critical components of the interactions in the society represented in the poem, contributing to the sense of renewed wholeness.

  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a tale of life in America’s south during the Depression Era. Jeremy Flinch and his sister, Jean Louise Flinch live with their father in Maycomb, a fictional town in Alabama. The children discover the hatred and discrimination of their community, much to their disillusionment, particularly when their father, Atticus Finch, chooses to represent Tom Robinson, a Black man, in a rape case. However, they become of age, understanding gradually the institutional racism and prejudice enshrined in their community values. Lee’s use of symbols is expertly articulated, as described subsequently.

  • The Symbolism of the Mockingbirds

The novel’s title, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is not with much literal connection to its plot. Yet, the title has significant symbolic weight to the novel. Readers discover that in Lee’s tale of innocents destroyed by the evil existing in their society, the mockingbird is symbolic of innocence. Many characters, including Mr. Raymond, Boo Radley, Dill, Tom Robinson, and Jem, can be referred to as mockingbirds because they are innocent people who have been hurt in some way by their interactions with society’s evils. The author explicitly connects the novel’s title with its major theme several times. For example, Mr. Underwood compares Tom Robinson’s murder to the slaughter of songbirds. Furthermore, Scout understands that to hurt Boo Radley would compare to shooting a mockingbird in the closing stages of the novel. Most importantly, readers find the connection in the scene when Miss Maudie tells Scout that it is sinful to kill a mockingbird because the animals do nothing but sing their hearts out to people. That Finch (another species of small birds) is Jem and Scout’s last name, suggests their particular vulnerability in Maycomb’s racist world, an environment that often harshly treats childhood innocence.

  • The Symbolism of Boo Radley

The children’s transforming perspective of Boo Radley, as the novel progresses is symbolic of their development from naivety towards a more mature worldview. Boo is a source of naïve childhood superstition at the beginning of the novel. However, the character starts to become real and increasingly intriguing to the children as he leaves them small gifts and mends Jem’s pants. Boo becomes fully human in Scout’s perspective at the end of the novel, suggesting her development into an understanding and sympathetic person. Radley, once an intelligent child but ruined by his father’s cruelty, is among the most significant mockingbirds in Lee’s work, symbolic of the good that lies in everyone. Much has Boo is subjected to much pain, both as a child and an adult—the children do not initially want to associate with him—he is pure at hear, an aspects that guides his interactions with the children. The character is a proof of the ultimate symbol of goodness when he intervenes to save Scout and Jem when Bob Ewell attacks them at one time.


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