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The Basics of Symbolism

Symbolism is a relatively straightforward concept on its surface. An object or objects represents an Idea or a concept. For example, the United States Flag is an object (a flag). It is simply fabric with stripes and stars. In itself, the flag is meaningless. However, the flag represents or stands for a variety of ideas and concepts. As a symbol, the flag can represent freedom, unity, justice, or patriotism to certain people. It can also represent evil, hatred, world domination, and injustice to certain people. One object, in this case the flag, can represent a multitude of ideas. It is ultimately up to the audience to decide what the symbol represents to them. In symbolic representations we often are given an ordinary object and challenged to attach meaning to the object beyond its concrete use or intended meaning.

Another concrete example of non-literary symbolism would be cross which is perhaps the most common of all visual symbols. Like the flag, a cross can be seen to represent a number of different ideas: redemption, crucifixion, or sacrifice. Engineering feats can be seen as symbolic as well. As the great bridges began to connect Manhattan to the rest of New York, for example, New Yorkers either saw it as a symbol of man’s great progress or as a symbol of the degeneration of the city center.


Symbolism in Literature

When we read, we may feel that certain characters and certain items in the story stand for more than themselves, or hint at larger meanings. It may be clear to us, for example, that the author has mentioned certain items or ideas in order to get us to think more deeply about something.

One question students often ask about symbolism in literature is this: why do authors have to suggest meaning, why can’t they just tell us about it directly?

The answer may be best arrived at by thinking about the object mentioned above, the American flag. How many words would it take to concretely, exactly, and meaningfully communicate the feelings evoked upon seeing the flag flying at half-mast? It would be a very difficult thing to do, and in doing so the writer might lose the reader’s interest or worse, alienate them from the moment because the feeling is not one they shared., but by allowing the flag to stand as a symbol, the writer forces the reader to apply his or her own knowledge to the situation, and the feelings evoked are the sole domain of the reader, not the author.

Literary symbols are of two broad types: One includes those embodying universal suggestions of meaning, as flowing water suggests time and eternity, a voyage suggests life. Such symbols are used widely (and sometimes unconsciously) in literature. The other type of symbol acquires its suggestiveness not from qualities inherent in itself but from the way in which it is used in a given work. An example would be the apple in the story of Adam and Eve.

There are no concrete right and wrong answers when it comes to symbols, though some are more evident than others. Because we all have different levels of understanding of certain subjects, we come to literature with different abilities to decipher symbols. I urge you to not try to assign absolute meaning to every symbol you encounter. The multiplicity of interpretation is what makes literature (especially modern literature) so rich and interesting to read.

Similarly, not every item or object is meant to be symbol. Sometimes a picture can just be decoration. Sometimes a character carries a gun because he carries a gun. So while I encourage you to be critical and thoughtful, I do not want you to work too hard to assign symbolic meaning to everything you see in a story or poem. Symbolism is not mathematics and cannot be explained in simple formulas. There are seldom concrete answers to questions of symbolic significance, and you are not supposed to be experts in literary symbolism.




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