What Is Symbolism? Reviewing Examples in Literature

symbolism in literature
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Have you ever wondered how to make your essay entertaining and interesting by changing only a few lines? Symbolism is a great tool to improve your paper in a sophisticated way. In this article, we will introduce you to symbolism and ways to use it in your own writing effectively. Let's go deeper with our professional essay writers.

What Is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a tool used to give objects a deeper meaning and a different quality with the use of a symbol. Symbols are deeply rooted in our speech without us noticing because they enhance our conversation, make sentences elaborate and exemplify things we talk about more vividly.

For example: A dove is a symbol of peace, a black cat signifies bad luck, and a white flag means a peace offering.

Most symbols in custom essay writing services are universal and can be understood by people from different countries and backgrounds. However, some of them are culturally specific and one should be careful in order not to offend anyone or be misunderstood.

How Symbolism Is Used in Literature

Certain objects and terms signify things which are different from their literal sense. Usually, symbolism is used in order to give deeper and more significant meaning to events, objects and characters throughout the text, unify them, and give certain connotations. Authors incorporate symbolism to express complicated concepts visually and show a thread of certain ongoing themes in their writing. Since, in most cases, symbols that are used are hidden in the text, they force the reader to engage in critical thinking. It makes the reader wonder about the metaphorical use of one or the other object as a symbol. If the theme of a book or an essay might be sensitive to certain people, symbolism also comes in handy. It can help express ideas that an author wants to address through the prism of a symbol, as opposed to talking about controversial things openly.

Another reason a writer might choose to use symbolism in his work is to create different levels of meaning in his story. This meaning is not only literal, but also deeper. It connects the reader with his story on a different, an emotional level, besides just telling the story. Readers, on the other hand, like to discover these hidden symbolic ties and meanings, because it gives them a chance to peek into the writer’s mind and get a sense of what intentions he had in creating them.

The bottom line is that symbolism lets a writer introduce his audience to a concept in an interesting poetic way that does not give away the idea right away, luring the reader into his world full of beautiful implications and complicated ties.

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How to Analyse Symbolism Step-by-Step

Analyzing symbolism in literature can be a rewarding but complex endeavor. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process:

STEP 1 – Identify Potential Symbols

Begin by identifying objects, characters, settings, or events within the text that seem to carry deeper meaning beyond their literal interpretation. Look for recurring motifs, imagery, or patterns that are potentially symbolic to you.

STEP 2 – Consider Context

Examine the context surrounding the potential symbols. Consider the historical, cultural, and literary context in which the work was written and the author's background and intentions. Understanding the context can provide valuable insights into the symbolic significance of certain elements.

STEP 3 – Analyze Patterns and Associations

Look for patterns or associations between the potential symbols and other elements within the text. Consider how the symbols interact with characters, themes, and plot developments. Pay attention to any recurring themes or motifs to which the symbols may connect.

STEP 4 – Examine Character Perspectives

Consider how different characters within the text perceive and interact with the symbols. Analyze the symbolism from various character perspectives to understand its significance better. Note any differences or contradictions in how characters interpret the symbols.

STEP 5 – Explore Themes and Motifs

Reflect on the broader themes and themes of the text and consider how the symbols contribute to their development. Analyze how the symbols reinforce or challenge key themes, motifs, or messages the author conveys. Look for thematic connections between the symbols and the larger narrative structure.

STEP 6 – Research Symbolic Interpretations

Research to explore potential symbolic interpretations of the elements you've identified. Consult literary analyses, critical essays, and scholarly interpretations to gain additional perspectives on the symbolism within the text. Consider how different scholars and critics have interpreted the symbols and evaluate the validity of their arguments.

STEP 7 – Draw Conclusions and Make Connections

Synthesize your findings and conclude the symbolic significance of the elements you've analyzed. Consider how the symbols contribute to the overall meaning and interpretation of the text. Make connections between the symbols and the broader thematic concerns of the work, and articulate your insights coherently and persuasively.

STEP 8 – Support Your Analysis with Evidence

Provide evidence from the text to support your analysis of the symbolism. Quote relevant passages, descriptions, or dialogue that illustrate the symbolic significance of the elements you're discussing. Analyze the language, imagery, and narrative techniques employed by the author to convey the symbolic meaning of the elements.

STEP 9 – Consider Alternative Interpretations

Acknowledge and consider alternative interpretations of the symbolism within the text. Be open to different perspectives and interpretations, even if they diverge from your own. Engage with counterarguments and alternative readings to deepen your understanding of the symbolic complexity of the text.

STEP 10 – Reflect and Revise

Reflect on your analysis and consider how your interpretation of the symbolism enhances your understanding of the text. Revise your analysis as needed to clarify your arguments and refine your insights. Continuously revisit and reassess your analysis to uncover new layers of meaning and deepen your appreciation of the text's symbolic richness.

Essay Sample on Symbolism

Our sample essay sheds light on the historical and cultural context of the Symbolism, offering insights that enrich your appreciation and critical analysis of the text.

The Power of Symbolism in Narratives:How Symbols Shape Understanding and Theme in Literature
The Power of Symbolism in Narratives:How Symbols Shape Understanding and Theme in Literature

Major Representators of Symbolism in Literature

Here are some major representatives of symbolism in literature:

  • Edgar Allan Poe

Known for his Gothic tales and poems, Poe often employed symbols to evoke themes of death, madness, and the macabre. Examples include the raven in "The Raven" as a symbol of grief and the pendulum in "The Pit and the Pendulum" as a symbol of impending doom.

  • William Faulkner

Faulkner's works are rich in symbolism, particularly in his exploration of the American South and its complex social dynamics. In novels such as "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I Lay Dying," he uses symbols such as the dilapidated plantation house and the coffin to convey deeper themes of decay, loss, and the passage of time.

  • Herman Melville

In "Moby-Dick," Melville employs symbols such as the white whale, the sea, and the ship to explore themes of obsession, destiny, and the human condition. These symbols serve as potent metaphors for the complexities of life and the pursuit of the unknown.

  • James Joyce

Joyce's modernist masterpiece "Ulysses" is replete with symbols that reflect its characters' inner thoughts and experiences. The recurring motifs of water, mirrors, and music illuminate the themes of identity, memory, and the passage of time.

  • Franz Kafka

Kafka's works, such as "The Metamorphosis" and "The Trial," are characterized by their surreal and symbolic nature, with symbols often representing themes of alienation, bureaucracy, and existential dread. The transformation of Gregor Samsa into a giant insect in "The Metamorphosis," for instance, is a powerful symbol of alienation and societal oppression.

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne's works, such as "The Scarlet Letter" and "Young Goodman Brown," are known for exploring Puritanical themes and symbolism to convey moral and psychological depth. The scarlet letter "A" in "The Scarlet Letter" is a potent symbol of sin, guilt, and redemption. At the same time, the forest in "Young Goodman Brown" represents the dark and mysterious forces of temptation and evil.

  • Gabriel García Márquez

García Márquez, a pioneer of magical realism, often employs symbols and allegory to explore themes of love, power, and the supernatural. In "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the Buendía family's house symbolizes the cyclical nature of history and the passage of time. The yellow butterflies symbolize the fleeting beauty and fragility of life.

Types of Symbolism in Literature

Types of Symbolism in Literature

There are many different literary devices that help writers to use symbolism in their texts:


Metaphor is a type of figurative language that shows characteristics of a subject through comparison with something else, their likeness or contrast between them.
A great example of a metaphor can be found at the opening words of “As You Like It”, a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare:

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances ...”

Here, he compares human life to a theatre stage. Same as anything can happen in life, a stage can have all kinds of different plays portrayed. The play will also be over sooner or later, the same as life. By making this simple comparison, he explains the complicated and difficult laws of nature, such as human mortality. The last phrase refers to people’s ties and their meaning in each other’s lives as “exits” and “entrances”.


It is a figure of speech used when one thing gets assigned some qualities of the other and is compared to it. The two usually are compared to one another with the use of the word “as” or “like”. It might sound similar to a metaphor, but the latter gives only a slight implication that something is like something else, whereas a simile directly states it. A great example of a simile can be found in “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov:

“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa.”

Here Nabokov says that ladies’ canes remind him directly of the tower of Pisa — a building in Pisa, Italy, that is tilted to the side. This beautiful simile showcases artist’s elaborate way of expressing his thoughts, how educated and developed he is, but most importantly, gives the reader another visual of how these canes made him feel and how they might look like.


Another literary device that helps to use symbolism is an allegory. It is also similar to a metaphor, but expresses the meaning of the object, its significance, rather than an external characteristic of likeness. Through the association that allegory creates with the characters in writing, the reader gets a sense of how a situation or a problem at stake fits in the history of the world, art history, or a certain culture.

A good example of allegory in literature is “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. There he compares society around him to a group of children who are stuck on a deserted island due to a plane crash, and are trying to survive there. The island in the book represents the world itself, the conch is a symbol of law and order, the fire represents destruction. Each child, with his role and character, represents a certain societal imperfection, depicting people’s flaws in the institutions of religion, politics, morality, and many others.


An archetype is another literary device used to represent a human behavioral pattern that is usually universal throughout the world and can be applied and understood in many cultures. The archetype can also be a place in space and time, a certain theme that is shared collectively by citizens of the world. Many archetypes came into literature from folk art and fairy tales.

One of the most common and famous archetypes is the hero. Some of the characteristics defining a hero include mysterious circumstances of their birth, struggle and proving everyone who lost faith in them wrong, tragic events throughout their lives, and complicated and dangerous adventures. A great example of an archetype is Harry Potter, the main character of the series by J.K. Rowling. He was orphaned by the cruel dark wizard Lord Voldemort and fought him throughout the book series.


An allusion is used to imply something or refer to another mythological, religious, or historical character without directly mentioning them. The use of allusion allows an author to deliver his text using elaborate language. Different rhetorical figures force readers to incorporate their background knowledge and associate the character or problem in question with external references.

In his book “Fahrenheit 451”, Ray Bradbury uses a reference to a historical tragedy that happened in 79 A.D. near the city of Pompeii, Italy, where a volcano called Vesuvius erupted and killed the entire population, leaving the city covered in ashes.

"Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius."

By using this explicit allusion, Bradbury explains that Mildred was running away from something terrible, as fast as she could, because it would otherwise have killed her — just like every inhabitant of Pompeii.


Hyperbole is used in text in order to exaggerate somebody’s trait or characteristic, such as power, beauty, wealth, influence, strength, and many others. Hyperbole usually has an amusing effect used to help readers visualize the strong points of the text. An example of hyperbole would be a line from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”:

“I had to wait in the station for ten days — an eternity.”

In order to indicate how painful, worrisome, and exhausting it was for the character to wait in the station for ten days, he compares to an eternity. It was only 10 days but felt much longer given the circumstances.

Conventional Symbols in Literature

Some of the symbols in literature are incorporated in culture so deeply that they became conventional — clear to almost anyone, because they create images and moods instantly after being mentioned.

Colors usually suggest certain emotions and characteristics with powerful meanings: red — anger, blood, love, or passion; blue — calmness and peace of mind; green — wealth, jealousy, nature; white — purity, innocence, spiritualism; purple — royalty and many others.

Seasons in most cases pertain to age: spring — youth and freshness, start of something new; winter — elderly people or even death, the zenith of one’s life; summer — the peak of development, prime of life; fall — decay, negative change, middle life, growing older.

There are many other everyday life things that involve symbolism: light — good, hope, and freedom; darkness — bad luck, tragedy, evil, the unknown; wind — change in life, speed, transition, inability to change things, destruction; rainbow — hope for the better.

Some objects and animals can also carry symbolic meaning: dove — peace; snake – evil; horse — phallic sexuality; a ring — fidelity, happiness; a broken mirror — bad luck and misfortune; a chain — unity or imprisonment.

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Ways to Use Symbolism in Writing

As we saw earlier, there are many different literary tools that can help use symbolism in your own writing. Understanding of their function and examples helps you embed them in your essay. Symbolism has numerous functions in writing.

Use Symbolism

Some of the things you can create in your essays with symbolism are adding emotion. In “Night” by Ellie Wiesel, the concept of night, its darkness and mystery is used as a symbol of negative emotions, tragedy, despair, and death suffered by incarcerated Jews in the concentration camp.

Another role it might play in your paper is connecting themes. In “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the color green is used throughout the whole book to suggest wealth and lust for money, a desire of getting rich in spite of any moral issues, a luxury lifestyle, and grandeur.


Defining a character is another thing a person might achieve while using symbolism. In Harper Lee’s 'To Kill a Mockingbird' the character of Tom is suggested to be innocent, because he was hurt, but he, like a mockingbird, is harmless.

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

The best way to include symbols in your essay is to do so once you are done writing and can look for places where it can be incorporated best out of the whole body of text. By no means should symbolism be your main focus of writing. Instead, you should focus on the strong points of the story and its characters. Symbolism is only a beautification of a piece that is already strong. It only helps you to enhance the story, make it alive and vivid, and showcase its complexity to the reader.


It is not extremely difficult to use symbolism in your own writing. Metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, allusion, archetype, and all the other literary devices discussed in this article are great aids to make your essay a beautiful piece of literature. A simple comparison of one thing to another can enhance the text tremendously, show off your semantic skills, and make the text beautiful overall, like a flower. See what I did there? Not that hard, I presume.

We also recommend that you read the article on how to write an essay introduction.

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Adam Jason

Adam Jason

is an expert in nursing and healthcare, with a strong background in history, law, and literature. Holding advanced degrees in nursing and public health, his analytical approach and comprehensive knowledge help students navigate complex topics. On EssayPro blog, Adam provides insightful articles on everything from historical analysis to the intricacies of healthcare policies. In his downtime, he enjoys historical documentaries and volunteering at local clinics.

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