Definition of Symbolism

Symbolism is a literary device that refers to the use of symbols in a literary work. A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else; it represents something beyond literal meaning. In literature, a symbol can be a word, object, action, character, or concept that embodies and evokes a range of additional meaning and significance.

For example, in his poemFire and Ice,” Robert Frost utilizes symbolism to indicate to readers how the world may be destroyed:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

In the poem, fire symbolizes destructive and consuming emotions such as jealousy, desire for power, anger, and impulsivity. Ice, in the poem, symbolizes destructive and withholding emotions such as hate, indifference, loneliness, and isolation. Of course, the poet indicates to the reader that the literal meanings of fire and ice make them capable of destroying and ending the world. However, it’s the symbolism of fire and ice that enhances the meaning and significance of the poem.

Common Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life

Everyday words, objects, and even concepts often have more than a single meaning. Across time, certain aspects of everyday life and experience evolve in meaning and associated significance, making them symbols of something besides what they actually are. Here are some common examples of symbolism in everyday life:

  • rainbow–symbolizes hope and promise
  • red rose–symbolizes love and romance
  • four-leaf clover–symbolizes good luck or fortune
  • wedding ring–symbolizes commitment and matrimony
  • red, white, blue–symbolizes American patriotism
  • green traffic light–symbolizes “go” or proceed
  • tree blossoms–symbolize spring season
  • Pilgrim hat–symbolizes Thanksgiving holiday
  • dollar sign–symbolizes money, earnings, wealth
  • image of shopping cart–symbolizes online purchases

Examples of Types of Symbolism and Their Effects

Writers utilize many types of symbolism, both as a way to convey meaning to their overall readership and as a method of allowing individual readers to make their own interpretations and discover meaning. In addition, different types of symbols create different effects for readers, though the overall goal of symbolism as a literary device is to enhance the reader’s experience with literature.

Here are some examples of types of symbolism and their effects:

  • emotion: symbols often evoke emotional responses in readers, allowing them to invest in the plot and characters. This emotional effect of symbolism also creates a lasting impression for the reader of the literary work.
  • Imagery: symbols can create imagery and provide visual elements that allow readers to understand complex literary themes. This also has a beneficial effect for writers so that they don’t feel an overreliance on language to explain their intended meaning.
  • thematic connection: symbols can connect themes for readers within a single literary work and across literature itself. This allows for greater understanding of literature as an art form.
  • Character attributes: symbols can represent different attributes of characters, both in a literal and figurative sense. This has an effect for readers in that they can identify character traits and understand their actions based on symbolism in the literary work.
  • deeper meaning: symbolism also allows writers to convey deeper meaning in their work for the reader. This creates a layered effect of understanding so that different readers can find their own individual significance in a literary work, and individual readers can find different levels of significance with each exposure to the literary work.

Famous Examples of Symbolism in Movies

Symbolism is a device utilized by many film artists as well. Symbolism in cinema allows the audience to make connections and understand meaning, adding to both the entertainment and thematic value of a film.

Here are some famous examples of symbolism in well-known movies:

  • white cowboy hat = hero in classic Westerns
  • mockingbird = innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Balloons = hopes and dreams in Disney’s Up
  • feathers = beginnings and endings in Forrest Gump
  • Yellow Brick Road = street paved with gold in The Wizard of Oz
  • coin toss = fate, chance, free will in No Country for Old Men
  • Fog = confusion and the unknown in Apocalypse Now
  • cat = home and belonging in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • doors = separation and transition in The Godfather
  • deer = prey and vulnerability in Get Out

Difference Between Symbolism and Motif

Symbolism and motif are both effective literary devices that can appear to be synonymous or interchangeable. However, these devices serve different purposes in literature. Symbolism, as a device, utilizes symbols such that the concept of a word or object represents something beyond its literal meaning. Symbols can be featured singularly or several times in literature. A motif is a recurring element, in the form of an image, phrase, situation, or concept, that is integral to the plot and appears several times throughout a literary work and emphasizes or draws attention to the overall theme.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism is an effective literary device utilized by writers to connect with readers and allow them to actively participate in understanding the deeper meaning of a literary work. Writers use symbolism to evoke emotion, create a sensory experience, and to demonstrate artistic use of language so that words have both literal and figurative meanings. Here are some examples of symbolism in literature:

Example 1: The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams)

Yes, movies! Look at them — All of those glamorous people — having adventures — hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone’s dish, not only Gable’s! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves — Goody, goody! — It’s our turn now, to go to the south Sea Island — to make a safari — to be exotic, far-off!

In Williams’s play, Tom’s character frequently goes to the movies to escape the monotony and pressure of his life at home with his mother and sister. Therefore, movies offer Tom both a literal and figurative escape from his home, though it is a passive escape in darkness with no true experience of adventure. The movies symbolize Tom’s dreams and fantasies as well as their unattainability and manufactured reality. In this passage, Williams also makes artistic and ironic use of the word “movies” in that the act of going to the movies actually makes Tom feel more stagnant, stuck, and unmoving.

Example 2: The Lesson (Toni Cade Bambara)

Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and
I got a headache for thinkin so hard. And we lean all over each other so we can hold up under the
draggy ass lecture she always finishes us off with at the end before we thank her for borin us to tears.
But she just looks at us like she readin tea leaves. Finally she say, “Well, what did you think of F.A.0.

Rosie Giraffe mumbles, “White folks crazy.”

In Bambara’s short story, the famous New York City toy store F.A.O. Schwarz is a symbol for economic wealth and frivolous spending. Miss Moore’s character, by bringing a group of underprivileged black kids to the toy store, also wants F.A.O. Schwarz to be viewed as a symbol of systemic racial and social division in America as well as monetary separation. By exposing this group of kids to such an outrageously expensive toy store, Miss Moore intends to teach them a lesson and instill a deeper concept of failed American opportunity and equality through the symbolism of F.A.O. Schwarz.

Example 3: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The color green is a strong motif in Fitzgerald’s novel, used frequently to reinforce the theme of money, wealth, and materialism. The green light across the water from Gatsby’s home does play a role in this color motif; however, Fitzgerald uses the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock as symbolism in the novel. In fact, as the narrator Nick Carraway mentions in the above passage, Gatsby “believes” in the green light because of what he feels it symbolizes.

The light not only represents Gatsby’s future hopes and dreams, especially in terms of his love for Daisy, but the green color of the light symbolizes, to Gatsby, permission to follow and pursue these hopes and dreams. Despite the knowledge that Daisy is a married woman, Gatsby views the green light as guidance and a signal to proceed with his futile quest to win Daisy.

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