If you’re a reader, you’ve encountered symbolism. Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—like an object, idea, or color—to represent another.
Writers of all kinds use symbolism, and you can find examples of symbols in fiction, poetry, theater, creative nonfiction, graphic novels, and even journalism. It’s a way to deepen the meaning of a story, help the reader make associations, and nod to a shared culture.
In this article, we’ll address what symbolism is, how to identify a symbol, and how to use it in your writing to create stronger, more vivid, and more meaningful stories.
What is symbolism?
In literature, a symbol is a thing that stands for or represents something else. A symbol might be an object, a mark, an image, a character, a name, or a place—pretty much anything can serve as a symbol.
Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols to imbue meaning in a story.
For example, in Sylvia Plath’s famous poem, “The Colossus,” the colossal statue the speaker constructs (the colossus) is a symbol of the poet’s relationship with her father, who died when she was a child, and her husband, from whom she had recently separated when the poem was written.
You encounter symbolism in every art form, including painting, film and TV, sculpture, music, photography, and drama. You also see and recognize symbols in everyday life. A heart can be a symbol of love or devotion, flowers can symbolize an apology, the letter x might symbolize danger, a dog might symbolize companionship, or a scar might symbolize someone’s painful past.
Why use symbolism in your writing
Symbolism is like a shortcut to deeper meaning, and symbols can make a story more interesting to readers. Symbols can be very small elements of a story, like a wedding ring that symbolizes commitment (or a lost wedding ring that symbolizes infidelity), or they can even be the primary plot driver, like a natural disaster that symbolizes the global threat of climate change.
Symbols can also help your readers make associations. For example, if you want your reader to identify the villains in your story before they reveal their evil sides through their behavior, you could mark each with a symbol, like a scar, a specific article of clothing, an accent, or a name.
Symbols can be used to foreshadow events. Let’s say you want to signal to the reader that danger is on the way. You might symbolize that approaching danger with a storm, an argument, or an illness.
When repeated, symbols can become motifs. For example, if your characters fight with each other just before a tragedy strikes, every time tragedy strikes, then an argument becomes shorthand for something bad is on the way. In this case, the symbol of the argument is a motif that foreshadows tragedy.
How to identify a symbol in literature
Symbolism relies on shared cultural understanding, and context is often important because symbols vary by culture, religion, time period, tradition, location, and even writing form. For example:
- In Irish culture, the harp is a symbol of national identity and pride. Within ancient Greek art, however, the harp is used as a symbol of wisdom.
- In the United States and many western European countries, purity is commonly symbolized by the color white. But in India, red is the color of purity.
- In some contexts, the letter x can symbolize incorrectness or an error, in other contexts it can stand for an unknown quantity.
- In western literary tradition, the color green can symbolize envy, but it can also symbolize luck, or it can symbolize wealth, or it can symbolize fertility and new growth.
When interpreting symbols, consider the context in which the author is writing, their time period, and their artistic tradition. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:
- Who is the writer and what might their point of view be? When and where did they live? What kind of things did they write about?
- What is the point of view of the narrator? Does that differ from the author’s point of view or cultural context?
- Does the symbol reappear? In what context? Does it change?
- Is the symbol used by or associated with the protagonist or the antagonist?
- Who is the character that uses or interacts with the symbol? What is their point of view? Do you know what their goals are? What effect does the symbol have? How do they react?
- Following the appearance of the symbol, does the reader learn something new about the story or its characters?
What’s the difference between a symbol and a motif?
In literature, symbols and motifs are closely related. A motif is an idea or element that is repeated in a story for meaning.
Therefore, a symbol can become a motif if it reappears throughout a text.
For example, one character might give another a bouquet of flowers to symbolize contrition for some wrong committed. Those flowers might become a motif if the character encounters flowers every time they realize they have done something wrong.
If a symbol appears only once or twice in a story, then it’s not a motif.
10 examples of symbols in literature
Every type of art uses symbolism in some way, and you can find symbols in every form of writing too. Here are some examples you might have encountered in literature.
- Edgar Allen Poe’s raven
One of the most famous examples of symbolism in western poetry is the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven.” The raven’s persistent tapping at the speaker’s door represents his constant and long-lasting grief over the death of the beloved Lenore.
- The act of sewing in The Color Purple
In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, sewing is a symbol of the collective power of women and what they can accomplish when they work together toward a common and beautiful goal—the creative freedom and economic independence.
- The black box in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”
In Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, the black box represents the villagers’ sinister adherence to the lottery itself. Villagers aren’t entirely sure of the origins or purpose of the black box, just like they aren’t sure of the origins or purpose of the murderous lottery, yet it continues.
- Cigarettes in Persepolis
In Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, the cigarettes that the teenage Marjane smokes are a symbol of her rebellion against her mother and against the expectations of culture on young women.
- The plant in A Raisin in the Sun
In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, Mama’s plant is a symbol of her persistent love and affection for her family, specifically her children. She continues to care for the plant, just as she does for her children, despite the fact that she feels that she doesn’t always have enough to give.
- Bound feet in The Warrior Woman
In The Warrior Woman by Maxine Hong Kingston, bound feet are a symbol of the restrictions placed on Chinese women and the cultural control over their bodies.
- Fences in August Wilson’s Fences
Fences play a central role in August Wilson’s play Fences, of course. This is a symbol that serves many purposes. To Rose, a fence around the backyard represents her desire to keep her family close, but to Bono, a fence is a tool to keep people away.
- The color blue in Joan Didion’s Blue Nights
In Joan Didion’s memoir Blue Nights, which chronicles the death of her daughter Quintana, the writer describes the blue light in the evening hours of summer, a symbol of her daughter’s departure.
- The scarlet letter
Perhaps one of the most famous symbols in the western literary canon is the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eponymous novel. Hester Prynne is marked with the red letter A, a symbol that represents the way the community sees her, as an adulterer. By the end of the story, however, the letter becomes a symbol of Hester’s independence and freedom, even her virtue.
- Trees in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
In Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, trees and their ability to grow in harsh conditions, through city concrete, without sunlight, in terrible heat, represents the tenacity and resilience of the book’s main character Francie as well as her family and neighbors who live in the Brooklyn tenements.
How to use symbolism in writing
If you’re new to using symbolism in your writing, objects and items are good places to start.
Because symbolism requires some level of shared cultural understanding, consider your audience and choose something you believe they might recognize or associate with the idea you want to convey, but it’s OK if not everyone recognizes the symbol(s) you choose to employ in your writing.
Let’s explore how symbolism might operate in a short story.
Imagine you’re writing about a character who is grieving the death of a family member. Instead of writing, “Rahim decided that he while he grieved the loss of his father, he would spend time thinking about their relationship, and so he planted a beautiful garden,” you could write, “When Rahim learned that his father had died, he could think of only one thing to do: plant a garden.”
The garden is a symbol of Rahim’s desire to express his grief in a physical way, and rather than telling the reader what he desires, as a writer you can deepen your story by showing that desire in the form of an abundant garden. When we learn that Rahim’s father was a gardener too, the garden also comes to symbolize the relationship between father and son.
Symbols can also evolve and drive the plot. For example, perhaps during the grieving process, Rahim finally acknowledges and comes to terms with how difficult it was to relate to his father when he was alive, and maybe their relationship was even hostile at times. Because the garden is a symbol of their relationship, the plants might fail to thrive and Rahim must struggle to keep the garden alive and continue grieving his father.
As a writer, you have a lot of power to manipulate your symbols. In the case of Rahim and his garden, consider how you might end the story: Does Rahim become a lifelong gardener or does he abandon the work after a summer of abundant growth? What is the significance of the central character’s relationship with the symbol, and how does it affect the meaning of the story?
The power of this symbol is that readers will enjoy the freedom to interpret the meaning of the garden rather than being told what it means.
Paying attention to context
Even if there is a shared cultural context, symbols can have multiple interpretations. When writing, keep in mind the different ways your audience might interpret the symbol.
Because the color green might symbolize envy or it might symbolize new growth, the way you employ green in the story will affect its significance.
Using symbols to establish irony
When using symbols in your writing, you don’t have to go with the obvious.
You can use symbolism to create irony or establish new worlds and paradigms. For example, because the color red is often a symbol of danger, you might choose to create a world in which a deep red sky signifies a peaceful land instead of one in peril.
You can also use symbols for contrast. In one scene flowers may represent blossoming love, when one character gives flowers to another. In another scene, they may represent death or grief as one character lays flowers on a grave.