10 Minute Guide to Symbolism
By Madhumita R on July 12, 2023
Symbols are one of the most well-known literary devices out there—and, occasionally, one of the most intimidating. Sure, symbols indicate some sort of deeper meaning, but what is that meaning? And how do we even know if something is a symbol? Here’s a quick overview of symbols—what they are, where they tend to be found, and tips on how to interpret them.
What are symbols?
In a literary work, a symbol is something (often an object, event, character, or action) that is used to represent something else—usually a more abstract concept.
Are symbols always objects?
Nope! Many well-known symbols are objects (when I think of the word “symbol”, for example, the first thing I picture is a red rose: an object popularly used to represent love and passion). However, as stated above, a symbol can be an event, character, action, etc. as well, depending on the context it is placed within. A famous example of symbolic action occurs in “Birches” by Robert Frost, in which the speaker wistfully recalls swinging from birch trees. Here, the action of climbing and swinging from birch trees represents the ability to feel wonder and joy at the most ordinary of things—a quality that (as the speaker suggests) diminishes as one grows older.
Do symbols always mean the same things? For example, does a rose always symbolize love?
No — some symbol-concept associations (like the rose-love association) are more famous than others, but there are no hard-and-fast rules for symbolism. A single action, object, or event can, and often does, represent different things in different literary works.
If almost anything can be a symbol, how do you identify them?
The main thing that distinguishes a symbol from anything else is context. If certain images, events, or actions in a text appear in association with a character’s growth and development, major plot points, scenes of great emotional significance, or any other important parts of a literary work, they are likely to symbolize something deeper. Some things—such as weather and the seasons—are often used as symbols, and it can help to be on the lookout for them while reading (you’ll find a list of common symbols and their possible meanings towards the end of this article). If possible, you could also do some research about the writer’s background and the history that underpins their work—this can often yield valuable insight into the text and guide you if you’re unsure where to look.
For example, take Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In the novel, the main character (Pip) undergoes several life-changing experiences in the mist surrounding his village. As a young boy, Pip stumbles upon a convict (Magwitch) in the marshes near his home. Magwitch threatens Pip into bringing him food and a file to remove the cuffs around his legs. Pip sneaks out of his house and through the mist in order to carry these items to Magwitch—an event that ultimately changes the course of Pip’s life. Later, as an adult, Pip is accosted and almost killed in this very mist. From the nature of these experiences and the recurring image of the mist as a common thread between them, we can infer that the mist in Great Expectations symbolizes uncertainty.
What are some common symbols to look out for?
- Fog/mist can represent confusion, uncertainty, or danger (an example of this in Great Expectations is described above).
- Rain can represent the act of being emotionally or spiritually cleansed, or of gaining clarity into one’s own flaws and virtues. However, depending on the context, it can also represent mental or emotional chaos.
Example: In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear—a former king—is caught out in a storm. Lear’s mental state deteriorates over the course of the play, and the chaos of the storm reflects his inner lack of clarity. At the mercy of the storm, Lear is forced to endure it as a man, not as a king—an experience that strips him of his arrogance and opens his eyes to the plight of his less wealthy subjects (who must similarly endure the storm, but without the comforts that he had long enjoyed). Thus, the storm represents an emotional cleansing: one that causes Lear to recognize his faults and molds him into a more humble and empathetic man.
- Summer can represent youth, passion, or freedom.
- Spring can represent renewal or rebirth.
- Fall/autumn can represent decay (of youth or life, for example).
- Winter can represent loss, sadness, or despair.
Example: In “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost, the speaker describes the increasing weariness they experience after apple-picking in an orchard (itself evocative of a deeper, more spiritual weariness caused by the labors of life). The speaker mentions autumn transitioning to winter—a change that represents the speaker’s own advancing age and underscores this sense of tiredness and declining vitality.
- Rivers can represent change, a passage from one way of life to another, connection, or freedom.
- Caves can represent a discovery of the self—a connection (or confrontation) with inner thoughts and fears.
- Flowers can represent vitality. They can also, as they wither, represent the fleeting nature of youth and innocence.
- Trees can represent shelter (an isolated place away from the rest of humanity) or can be a symbolic source of connection between the mundane (the earth) and the supernatural or divine (the sky). Depending on the circumstances in which they grow, trees — and plants — can also be associated with perseverance, hope, or vitality.
- Forests can represent the unknown or the subconscious—a place, like caves, to come to terms with long-hidden thoughts, fears, or emotional wounds.
- Mountains can represent permanency, and the act of climbing a mountain can represent a journey toward higher consciousness. However, they can also block the horizon, representing social, emotional, or mental obstacles that limit opportunities and freedom.
Example: In A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which is centered on the life of the Younger family—an African-American family that lives in Chicago — the family’s matriarch (Mama) owns a houseplant. Mama carefully tends to the plant, and despite being in an environment without much sunshine, the plant continues to defy the odds and grow. The plant symbolizes Mama and her family’s perseverance against the financial difficulties and racial prejudices that curtail their dreams.
How do you know if you’ve got the meaning of a symbol right?
The (occasionally) frustrating) news: there’s no way to know, beyond all doubt, what a symbol means. The good news: this is because there’s no such thing as a definitive interpretation of a symbol. Each reader has a unique background, perspective, and method of analyzing and interacting with the text, and their ideas will reflect that. Use the evidence and context provided by the text (and, if possible, your own research), any prior knowledge of symbols, and your intuition as a reader to form your interpretation — it’s absolutely a valid one.
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“After Apple-Picking Poem Summary and Analysis.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/poetry/robert-frost/after-apple-picking.
“Birches Poem Summary and Analysis.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/poetry/robert-frost/birches.
Conventional Symbols in Literature. www.dvusd.org/cms/lib/AZ01901092/Centricity/Domain/2891/Gawain%20Symbols.pdf.
Foster, Thomas. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Harper Perennial, 2014.
“Great Expectations Symbols.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/lit/great-expectations/symbols.
“How Are the Four Seasons Significant in Literature?” Twinkl, www.twinkl.co.in/teaching-wiki/the-seasons-significant-in-literature#:~:text=Birth%20and%20fertility%20%E2%80%93%20In%20spring,new%20characters%20for%20the%20reader.
“King Lear: Symbols.” SparkNotes, www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/lear/symbols.
Meirow, Eden. “How to Identify and Write About Literary Symbols With Confidence.” Kibin Blog, 2 Aug. 2020, www.kibin.com/essay-writing-blog/identify-write-about-literary-symbols.
Online Symbolism Dictionary. websites.umich.edu/%7Eumfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html.
“A Raisin in the Sun Symbols.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/lit/a-raisin-in-the-sun/symbols.
“Symbolism - Definition and Examples.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/literary-devices-and-terms/symbolism.
“What Is Symbolism? | Definition and Examples.” College of Liberal Arts, 1 Oct. 2022, liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-symbolism.
Thank you to Hafsah M for editing this article!