Elements of Fiction: Symbolism

About | Categories | Types

About Symbols
A literary symbol is something that means more than what it is; an object, person, situation, or action that in addition to its literal meaning suggests other meanings as well. Often, the thing or idea represented is more abstract, general, non- or super-rational; the symbol is more concrete and particular.

In literary usage, symbol is a manner of representation in which what is shown (normally a reference to something material) means, by virtue of association, something more or something else.  Symbolism is often found in names, objects, and/or actions.

Most stories operate almost wholly at the literal level, and, even in highly symbolical stories, most details are purely literal. Readers should be alert for symbolical meanings but should observe the following cautions:

  • The story itself must furnish a clue—via repetition, emphasis, or position—that a detail is to be taken symbolically.
  • The meaning of a literary symbol must be established and supported by the entire context of the story.
  • To be called a symbol, an item must suggest a meaning different in kind from its literal meaning: a symbol is something more than the representative of a class or type. We ought not to use the phrase is a symbol of when we can as easily use is or is an example of or is an evidence of.
  • A symbol may have more than one meaning; it may suggest a cluster of meanings. Remember that, at its most effective, a symbol is like a many faceted-jewel: it flashes different colors when turned in the light.

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Symbol Categories

  • universal or cultural symbols embody ideas and emotions that writers and readers share: snake as temptation and evil, water as life and sexuality, egg as rebirth, night as death, etc.
  • contextual symbols are those made by the author within individual works; there is no carry-over to other works: chrysanthemums in Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," the furpiece in Mansfield's "Miss Brill," etc.

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Symbol Types

  • metaphor: an implicit comparison or identification of one thing with another unlike itself without the use of a verbal sign, just seeming to say "a is b" (Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The pen is mightier than the sword," Marlowe's "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?").  Personification, a category of metaphor, involves giving the attributes of a human being to an animal, object, or concept. An implied comparison in which the figurative term is always a human being (from T.S. Eliot's "Preludes": "The winter evening settles down").
  • simile: a figure that explicitly expresses a comparison, often signaled by like or as (ex: "my love is like a red, red rose," "as strong as an ox," etc).
  • allegory: similar to a metaphor in that one thing (usually nonrational, abstract, religious) is implicitly spoken of in terms of something concrete, usually sensuous, but in an allegory the comparison is extended to include an entire work or large portion of a work (ex: Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Pilgrim's Progress").
  • archetype: a plot or character element that recurs in cultural or cross-cultural myths (ex: images of the devil as a cloven-hoofed, horned humanoid).
  • myth: like allegory, myth usually is symbolic and extensive, including an entire work or story; though it no longer is necessarily specific to or pervasive in a single culture—individual authors may now be said to create myths—there is still a sense that myth is communal or cultural, while the symbolic can often be private or personal (ex: the myth of Icarus).

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Dr. Robert Burroughs, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA.

Perrine, Laurence.  Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense.  4th ed.  NY: Harcourt, 1983.

Roberts, Edgar V. and Henry E. Jacobs. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.


Updated: 08.18.07