I. What is a Symbol?
A symbol (pronounced SIM-bull) is any image or thing that stands for something else. It could be as simple as a letter, which is a symbol for a given sound (or set of sounds). Similarly, every word is a symbol for the idea it represents. Flags are symbols for nations. And of course, we have all sorts of visual symbols that we use every day: $ @ & =
However, symbols don’t have to be the kind of things you only find on keyboards. A tree might symbolize nature. Einstein symbolizes genius in our culture. Anything can be a symbol, if we make it one. In literature, symbols are often characters, settings, images, or other motifs that stand in for bigger ideas. Authors often use symbols (or “symbolism”) to give their work with more meaning and to make a story be about more than the events it describes. This is one of the most basic and widespread of all literary techniques.
However, authors don’t usually give us a roadmap to their symbolism, so it can take a lot of thought to figure out exactly what the symbols in a work of literature stand for —to interpret them.
II. Examples and Explanation
In Greek mythology, the Gods are all symbols for forces of nature – for example, Poseidon is a symbol for the sea. He is extremely powerful, but also wrathful and unpredictable. By telling stories of Poseidon’s vengeful fury, the Greeks (who were not great shipbuilders) symbolically delivered a message about how dangerous the sea can be.
In our culture, Albert Einstein is the ultimate symbol of intelligence and scientific genius. When we simply see Einstein’s iconic face on a T-shirt, book cover, or advertisement, we immediately know that whoever put that image there was trying to say something related to extreme intelligence.
III. The Importance of Symbol
Symbols add layers of meaning to a story, poem, or other creative work. They enable an author to deliver an idea or message within a narrative, a message on multiple levels. For example, an author might deliver a message about God by writing a story about a large family, in which one or both parents are symbols for God, while the children are symbols for humanity (and perhaps there are pets or a garden to represent the natural world). The story could be simultaneously about family dynamics and about religion. In other words, symbols add depth.
In addition to using symbols in their writing, authors may also critique symbols that already exist in their culture (or someone else’s). For example, apes in Western culture stereotypically symbolize humanity’s natural origins and the primitive traits that we normally attribute to animals. If a person is acting rudely, stupidly, or violently, we might call him an ‘ape’ or a ‘gorilla’ which expresses a negative view of wild nature, and human nature, in our culture. But in the Planet of the Apes movies, this symbol is reversed – the apes are often more sympathetic, sophisticated, and intelligent than the people, so they come to symbolize some of the best qualities of humanity as well as the worst. This makes the movie a critique of popular ideas about humanity and nature: ‘human nature isn’t all bad and the badness in people isn’t necessarily natural.’ At the same time, human beings normally symbolize civilization and humanitarian values, however the cruelty of some of the people in movies makes humanity the symbol of brutishness instead of the apes.
IV. Examples of Symbol in Literature
In The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous poem, the huge black bird is a symbol for the narrator’s deep feelings of loss, regret, mourning, and loneliness. Every time the narrator’s thoughts stray to his late wife, the raven croaks “nevermore.” This is a symbol for the way the narrator’s mind constantly reminds him of his loss, causing him to sink further and further into despair and sorrow.
Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins uses a symbol of rosebuds in its first stanza. Since rosebuds only last a short time, they are a perfect symbol for youth and all the pleasures that come with it. In the poem, Herrick exhorts the young virgins to enjoy themselves and their youth before it goes away just like the rosebuds in summer.
V. Examples of Symbol in Pop Culture
In the Lord of the Rings movies and books, the One Ring is a symbol for power, selfishness, and greed. Everyone wants it and many characters are willing to kill for it. Some begin with good intentions, but ultimately the Ring corrupts them and bends them to its will. The symbolism of the story implies that power seduces, corrupts, controls, and destroys people who are attached to it, just as the Ring does to its owners.
The band Led Zeppelin’s song Stairway to Heaven uses symbolism throughout its lyrics. The song itself is an allegory for the disappointment that ultimately comes to those who seek wealth for its own sake; eventually, they realize that money cannot buy happiness, and all the sacrifices they’ve made in order to increase their wealth suddenly become meaningless. The symbols of “gold” and “buying a stairway to heaven” stand for wealth and, more broadly, for all the material comforts that people lust after, but which ultimately cannot bring true fulfillment.
VI. Related Terms
An allegory is a complex form of symbolism in which the entire story is a symbol for something else.
For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. Each of the characters is symbolic – Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, for example, while the cart-horse Boxer represents the Russian working class. The novel as a whole describes Orwell’s interpretation of the events in Russia, and warns of the dangers of Communism while simultaneously making a case that it was individual evil, not Communism as an ideology, that caused the injustices of the Soviet Union. So an allegory is a big symbol that contains many symbols within it.
Allegories have been used since ancient times to deliver stories about cultural values, heritage, and history. Ancient mythologies often take the form of allegories for deep psychological and spiritual truths, while several stories in the New Testament are allegories for Christian moral truths.
A metaphor is kind of like a symbol, but it’s usually used briefly (over the span of just a sentence or two), whereas a symbol is usually extended throughout a story or poem. For example, take the common expression “bottled-up emotion.” In this expression, the bottle is a metaphor for holding in feelings. However, if we had an entire work in which bottles kept appearing at key psychological moments in the story, we might begin to suspect that the bottles were a symbol for this emotional problem.
This is a grey area – what if a metaphor is extended across a whole stanza, or a chapter, but is absent in the rest of the work? Is it still a metaphor, or is it a symbol? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much at that point. If something is in the grey area between metaphor and symbol, you can call it either.