What is Symbolism in Literature? - Definition, Types & Examples

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Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Symbolism is a literary element used in literature to help readers understand a literary work. Learn more about the definition of symbolism and the different types of symbolism used in literature, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

We also recommend watching Symbolism & Imagery in Literature: Definitions & Examples and Narrators in Literature: Types and Definitions

Definition

Symbolism is everywhere; symbolism exists whenever something is meant to represent something else. Symbolism is a figure of speech than is used when an author wants to create a certain mood or emotion in a work of literature. Symbolism is the use of an object, person, situation, or word to represent something else (an idea) in literature.

Examples of Symbolism

  • Metaphor - a figure of speech used when a comparison between two unlike things without using the words 'like' or 'as.' For example, the phrase 'time is money' is an example of a metaphor comparing time to money. Money and time are two different things; this is an example of symbolism because these words show the importance of using your money and time wisely.
  • Allegory - an extended metaphor; an allegory can be an entire story, poem, or book with symbolism that continues throughout the literary piece. In the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell, animals on a farm are used to represent the events leading up to the Russian revolution. The animals on the farm represent how unconcern for others and greed impact revolution.

Types of Symbolism in Literature

In literature, authors often use different symbols to represent a particular concept. Throughout various forms of literature, the following symbols might be used to create meaning in a story.

Colors:

  • Black is often used to represent something bad, such as death or evil. For example, in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'the black man' is used to represent Satan
  • White often represents something that is good and pure
  • Red can symbolize passion, blood, or danger
  • Green can symbolize hope and immaturity. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'a green light' is used to symbolize Gatsby's hope for a future with his love interest Daisy

Objects:

  • Chains can represent two things coming together
  • Ladders can represent the relationship between heaven and earth or ascension
  • A rose often represents romance or beauty
  • Letters can represent a word. For example, in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the letter 'A' represents adultery
  • Light can be used to symbolize truth and safety
  • Darkness can be used to symbolize evil and danger
  • Water can be used to symbolize rebirth

Seasons:

  • Spring: a new beginning
  • Summer: warmth, knowledge
  • Fall: growing old
  • Winter: death

Lesson Summary

Symbolism is used in literature when one thing is meant to represent something else. Symbolism helps create meaning and emotion in a story. Metaphors and allegory are literary elements that help writers create symbolism in their literary pieces. Colors, objects, seasons, people, situations, and words are all types of symbolism that might be used in a literary work.

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