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Home » » What is symbolism in literature? - Definition, Types and Examples

Symbolism in Literature

In order to signifying particular thoughts and qualities, symbolic meaning have to be given a part from their literal meaning. Such types of use in any literature work is signifies as symbolism . Symbolism can fluctuate depends on the different form of use. The moment it needs to take a different dimension of meaning which is more intense and significant than the existing meaning of an object symbolism plays its role. A word, however, can be uttered to represent the symbolic value. Likewise it can be either an action or event to signify anything symbolic in meaning. Let’s take an example like “crying” as it symbolizes the action of “sorrow”. When one of your pals cries to see your pain it symbolizes her/his feeling that she empathizes the agony you are going facing at the moment.


Depending on the situation raised symbols do change. For instance, we know platform is a particular place where train has to stay or stand, however, a platform can be meant as an opportunity  one gets in his/her life. Like getting a promotion can be a platform to flourish one’s career. So it depends on the context of a paper which implies the indication of when, where and how it is used. According to the types of readers, symbols do shift.
symbolism in literature


Some examples of symbolism:

  • An eagle has exceptionally powerful eyesight. That’s the reason when any person has kin observation and looking capability he/she is referred as an eagle eye.
  • Presenting a bouquet of flower  symbolizes a heartfelt welcome to anyone special in his/her arrival. Here flower is the symbol of warm reception.
  • When someone is called as a bookworm, it symbolizes the passion and consistency of reading loads of books of that person. Although worm is an insect that sucks blood from other animals’ body, here the same word refers the tendency of reading quite a huge amount of books. A person is compared with an insect depending on the situation.
  • A person carrying blue blood symbolizes his/her identification of being royal. Blue is the colour of owing royalty here.


Similarly, red rose presented to someone reveals the love and affection for that person. While, showing red in the traffic signal indicates the symbol of being stop immediately.

Characteristics in symbolism in Literature


Symballein is a Greek word (combination of syn=together and ballein=to throw in literary meaning) which is interestingly the origin of English word symbolism. Hence we get the sense of throwing together  which is literal, though writers create different dimensions of meaning from one word because symbol does have more than one meaning. Furthermore, symbols have different characteristics which are discussed below:


Creating depth by adding levels of meaning is one of the important characteristics of symbols. Symbols always have a profound meaning a part from the literal meaning for an object. For instance, Head Above Water is autobiographical work written by Buchi Amecheta , an African American female author, who entitles her piece of work symbolically. Here, Head Above Water indicates the situation of being helpless in one’s life. Amecheta thus illustrates her real life stories along with all those experiences which she had to struggle with and come over. The deserted condition of the journey of her life is entitled as Head Above Water which is an use of profound meaning rather than only head above water literary.


Symbols provide the universality in meaning of a character or theme of literary work.Many a time authors get the feeling of extended meaning from a word while reading which is even larger than life. For example, “knitting” in a tale of two cities by Charles Dickens enhances the meaning of “revenge” in the novel. Similarly, “eternal rock” represents the meaning of Heathcliff’s harsh reality that resembles the crude and unbendable nature in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Symbols apparently enhances the interests of reader by interacting with the text based on context. 
Readers could easily relate and formulate the meaning of literary work through the interaction with symbols. In Great Expectations, Satis House is symbolized as darkness by both Pip and readers, while the ironic meaning reveals later on through the readers understanding that is satisfaction or happiness.


Nonetheless, symbols gives the opportunity to enrich the creativity as a reader can develop his/her reading skill. Hence, the growing interest could reveal a piece of newly availed piece of paper. 

Common symbols in literature


Amongst many types of symbols in literature, few themes are highlighted here.


First of all, colour reveals as a symbol of happiness or sorrow, as well as symbol of nature, peace or patience. Red is a passionate colour which symbolizes love or anger. Yellow on the other hand, symbolizes spring as it brings new leaves and flowers. So, the colour could significantly symbolize both feeling and nature.


Second of all, water is another important tool of writers to use symbols. Water can symbolize the sense of purification, or the truth of death. It depends on the level of understanding during reading a piece of literary work.

Thirdly, fire is also a tool of applying symbol in literature. Fire can represent multiple expressions like anger, passion, love, hatred, pain and death.

Fourthly, night has the connectivity with darkness as it is used as a tool of symbolism. Apart from darkness, night can be meant to be peace or tranquility.

Fifth point of common symbol could be the opposite connotation of night, like day. Day symbolizes as the rising of sun, representing new life and light.

Facts about symbolism in literature


In order to get an insight into the writers mind is such an opportunity a reader gets through the uses of symbols in a paper. Through this opportunity a reader can reveals how a writer views the world and a common action or object can be illustrated from a broader aspect.

Symbolism thus leaves the scope of revealing dual level of meaning to the writer. One is the literal meaning which is self-apparent, while the other one is symbolic which reveals far more profound understanding than the literal one. In a way symbolism gives freedom to get out of the monotonous track of writing and evoking the universality to the characters and themes of a piece of literature.

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