The Basics of Symbolism
Symbolism is a
relatively straightforward concept on its surface. An object or objects
represents an Idea or a concept. For example, the United States Flag is
an object (a flag). It is simply fabric with stripes and stars. In
itself, the flag is meaningless. However, the flag represents or stands
for a variety of ideas and concepts. As a symbol, the flag can
represent freedom, unity, justice, or patriotism to certain people. It
can also represent evil, hatred, world domination, and injustice to
certain people. One object, in this case the flag, can represent a
multitude of ideas. It is ultimately up to the audience to decide what
the symbol represents to them. In symbolic representations we often are
given an ordinary object and challenged to attach meaning to the object
beyond its concrete use or intended meaning.
Another concrete example of non-literary symbolism would be cross which
is perhaps the most common of all visual symbols. Like the flag, a
cross can be seen to represent a number of different ideas: redemption,
crucifixion, or sacrifice. Engineering feats can be seen as symbolic as
well. As the great bridges began to connect Manhattan to the rest of
New York, for example, New Yorkers either saw it as a symbol of man’s
great progress or as a symbol of the degeneration of the city center.
Symbolism in Literature
When we read, we may feel that certain characters and certain items in
the story stand for more than themselves, or hint at larger meanings.
It may be clear to us, for example, that the author has mentioned
certain items or ideas in order to get us to think more deeply about
One question students often ask about symbolism in literature is this:
why do authors have to suggest meaning, why can’t they just tell us
about it directly?
The answer may be best arrived at by thinking about the object
mentioned above, the American flag. How many words would it take to
concretely, exactly, and meaningfully communicate the feelings evoked
upon seeing the flag flying at half-mast? It would be a very difficult
thing to do, and in doing so the writer might lose the reader’s
interest or worse, alienate them from the moment because the feeling is
not one they shared., but by allowing the flag to stand as a symbol,
the writer forces the reader to apply his or her own knowledge to the
situation, and the feelings evoked are the sole domain of the reader,
not the author.
Literary symbols are of two broad types: One includes those embodying universal suggestions
of meaning, as flowing water suggests time and eternity, a voyage
suggests life. Such symbols are used widely (and sometimes
unconsciously) in literature. The other type of symbol acquires its
suggestiveness not from qualities inherent in itself but from the way
in which it is used in a given work. An example would be the apple in
the story of Adam and Eve.
There are no concrete right and wrong answers when it comes to symbols,
though some are more evident than others. Because we all have different
levels of understanding of certain subjects, we come to literature with
different abilities to decipher symbols. I urge you to not try to
assign absolute meaning to every symbol you encounter. The multiplicity
of interpretation is what makes literature (especially modern
literature) so rich and interesting to read.
Similarly, not every item or object is meant to be symbol. Sometimes a
picture can just be decoration. Sometimes a character carries a gun
because he carries a gun. So while I encourage you to be critical and
thoughtful, I do not want you to work too hard to assign symbolic
meaning to everything you see in a story or poem. Symbolism is not
mathematics and cannot be explained in simple formulas. There are
seldom concrete answers to questions of symbolic significance, and you
are not supposed to be experts in literary symbolism.