Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. It’s a powerful literary device that can add depth and insight to a work of literature. Let’s explore this concept further, including its definition and examples, how symbolism is used, and how you can use it in your writing.

Historical Background

Symbolism has been a part of human expression for thousands of years, but it became a prominent movement in literature in the late 19th century. The Symbolist movement originated in France and quickly spread to other parts of Europe and beyond. Writers like Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé were instrumental in its development.

Types of symbolism: Definition and Examples

Universal Symbols

Universal symbols are those that carry the same meaning across various cultures and societies. These symbols transcend cultural boundaries and tap into shared human experiences and emotions. For example, the color red often symbolizes love, passion, or danger, while the color green may represent growth, envy, or renewal. Other examples include the dove, which universally symbolizes peace, and the heart, symbolizing love and emotion. Universal symbols are powerful because they can be understood by readers from diverse backgrounds, creating a connection that goes beyond the specific context of the story.

Contextual Symbols

Contextual symbols are those that are attributed with symbolic significance within the particular literary context. Unlike universal symbols, their meanings may not be immediately apparent outside the story. For example, the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” symbolizes Gatsby’s hope and dreams for the future, particularly his desire to be reunited with Daisy. This symbol becomes a driving force throughout the novel, reflecting Gatsby’s obsession and unattainable desires. Contextual symbols allow authors to create unique and tailored symbolism that resonates with the particular themes and characters of their work.


An allegory is a kind of symbolism where an entire story, poem, or novel is used to represent something else. It’s a metaphor in which characters or events represent ideas and concepts. Allegories often convey moral, political, or philosophical messages. A famous example is George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” where the farm and its animal inhabitants represent the Russian Revolution and subsequent Soviet regime. Through the use of allegory, authors can create multi-layered narratives that engage readers on both a literal and symbolic level, encouraging them to explore deeper meanings and connections.


A motif is a recurring symbol or theme in a literary work. It can be an object, a phrase, a sentence, or a concept that adds to the overall symbolism of the work. It often reinforce or illuminate the central themes of a story, creating patterns and connections that enhance the reader’s understanding. For example, in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the motif of blood recurs throughout the play, symbolizing guilt and the inescapable consequences of violent actions. Similarly, in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” the motif of water represents both life and death, connecting different parts of the story. Motifs provide cohesion and depth, allowing readers to see connections and patterns that might otherwise be overlooked.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

  1. “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne: The letter ‘A’ is a multifaceted symbol in this novel. Initially, it is used to symbolize adultery, marking Hester Prynne as an adulteress. As the story progresses, the meaning of the letter shifts and evolves. It comes to also represent ‘able,’ reflecting Hester’s strength and independence. Towards the end of the novel, some even interpret it as ‘angel,’ symbolizing Hester’s transformation and redemption. The changing symbolism of the letter ‘A’ mirrors the complex themes of sin, guilt, and identity in the novel.
  2. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville: The white whale, Moby Dick, is a symbol laden with multiple meanings. On one level, it represents the unknown and the terrifying power of nature, representing the sublime and uncontrollable forces that humans cannot tame. On another level, it becomes a personal symbol for Captain Ahab, representing his obsession and desire for vengeance. The whale’s elusiveness and power become a metaphor for the human struggle against the incomprehensible and indifferent universe.
  3. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding: In this novel, the conch shell symbolizes law and order, representing the boys’ initial attempts to establish rules and maintain civilization on the island. As the shell’s physical state deteriorates, so does the social structure, reflecting the breakdown of order. The pig’s head, on the other hand, symbolizes the evil inherent in humanity. Known as the “Lord of the Flies,” it becomes a terrifying image of the savagery that lurks beneath the surface of human nature, revealing the dark side of humanity when societal norms are stripped away.
  4. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee: The mockingbird is a poignant symbol of innocence and goodness in this novel. It represents the idea that it is a sin to harm something that does no harm itself. The symbol is linked to characters like Tom Robinson and Arthur “Boo” Radley, who are innocent and good but suffer due to the prejudices and injustices of society. The mockingbird becomes a metaphor for the loss of innocence and the moral conscience of the community.
  5. Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s use of symbolism often carries a single, focused meaning, adding depth and complexity to his dark and mysterious tales. For example, in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the beating heart symbolizes guilt and conscience, relentlessly tormenting the protagonist. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” the color red symbolizes death and the inevitability of mortality, a theme that permeates the entire story. Poe’s symbolism is often linked to the psychological states of his characters, reflecting their fears, obsessions, and inner turmoil.
  6. “Tender is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: In this novel, the French Riviera is used to symbolize the allure and glamour of the high society that the characters inhabit. However, as the story unfolds, this beautiful setting also represents the superficiality and moral decay lurking beneath the surface of the characters’ lives. The contrast between the idyllic landscape and the complex, often troubled relationships of the characters adds a layer of complexity to the novel, showcasing Fitzgerald’s masterful use of symbolism.

Symbolism in Character Development

Characters in literature might be used symbolically to represent broader themes or ideas. An example of something like this can be found in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” where different animals represent various social and political figures. Throughout the novel, the use of images like the pig Napoleon symbolically representing Joseph Stalin provides a clear example of how characters can be imbued with symbolic meaning. This adds depth to the characters and allows the author to comment on society and politics in a subtle yet powerful way.

Symbolism in Setting

The setting of a story can also represent something else, adding layers of meaning to the narrative. In Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” the two houses, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, symbolize the wild nature of love and the calmness of civilization, respectively. The contrast between these two settings runs throughout the novel, reflecting the inner turmoil and passions of the characters.

Single Meaning vs. Multiple Meanings

Symbolism in writing can carry a single meaning or multiple meanings. The obvious symbolism of a symbol like the American flag representing patriotism is a clear example of a single meaning. However, symbols can also be more complex, carrying multiple meanings that evolve or change over time. In “Moby Dick,” the white whale represents something different to each character, from obsession to fear, showing how symbols can have multifaceted interpretations.

Implementing Symbolism in Your Writing

For writers looking to enhance their work with symbolism, understanding how it can be used to represent something else is crucial. Whether it’s a character, an object, or a setting, carefully choosing symbols that resonate with the themes of the story can add depth and complexity. Consider what you want to convey and how symbolism might be used to achieve that. The use of images and symbols that align with the story’s themes can create a richer reading experience, allowing readers to connect with the narrative on multiple levels.

Why Use Symbolism?

Symbolism exists in literature to convey complex ideas and emotions without stating them outright. It allows authors to connect characters or events to broader themes, making the text more cohesive and resonant. Whether it’s a simple object representing a complex idea or a character embodying a philosophical concept, symbolism enriches the literary landscape.

How to Use It in Your Writing

Let’s say you’re writing a novel or a short story; the use of symbolism can add layers of meaning to your text. By recognizing and interpreting symbols, you can uncover deeper meanings, making the reading experience more thoughtful and rewarding.


Symbolism as a literary device is versatile and powerful. It connects the reader to universal truths and human experiences, transcending cultural and societal boundaries. From Fitzgerald’s green light to the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s novel, symbolism is used to provide readers with a more profound understanding of the human condition. By understanding the definition of symbolism and exploring examples, writers can effectively incorporate this device into their work, creating rich and engaging stories that resonate with readers. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, understanding the use of symbolism will undoubtedly enhance your appreciation and creation of literary art.


What is Symbolism in Literature?

Symbolism in literature is the use of symbols or objects to represent larger ideas or concepts. It is a literary device that allows writers to convey deeper meanings and create layers of meaning within their work.

How do writers use symbolism?

A: Writers use symbolism to enhance their storytelling and convey complex ideas in a more concise and meaningful way. They use symbols to add depth and richness to their work, allowing readers to interpret and analyze the text on multiple levels.

What is the definition of symbolism?

Symbolism is a literary device where an object, person, or situation is used to represent a larger idea or concept. It is a form of figurative language that goes beyond its literal meaning to convey deeper meanings and emotions.

How does symbolism work in literature?

A: Symbolism works by associating an object, character, or situation with abstract ideas or themes. It allows the writer to convey meaning beyond the literal events of the story, creating a deeper and more profound reading experience for the audience.

Can a symbol have more than one meaning?

Yes, symbols in literature can have multiple meanings. They can represent different ideas or emotions depending on the context of the story or the interpretation of the reader. This adds layers of complexity and depth to the work.

What is an example of a symbol in literature?

An example of a symbol in literature is the white whale in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” The whale represents both the power and beauty of nature, as well as the destructive force of obsession.

Does symbolism always have to be obvious?

No, symbolism in literature can be both obvious and subtle. Sometimes, symbols are intentionally hidden or disguised, requiring readers to analyze the text and uncover their meanings. This adds a sense of mystery and engagement to the reading experience.

Olex Lys

Reviewed by Alexander Lys, M.L., a specialist in the field of symbolism research and dream psychology. A certified participant in numerous psychological seminars and courses, the author of hundreds of articles on psychology, including studies on symbolism in dreams and myths from a scientific perspective.


Encyclopedia of Symbols

About the Author

Symbolopedia is a comprehensive guide to the meanings of symbols. Our content is crafted by professionals in psychology and symbolism, striving to maintain a balance between scientifically proven data and insights derived from myths, legends, and folklore. While our approach leans towards scientific interpretations of symbols, we acknowledge the significant role of the subconscious in their understanding, allowing for a blend of rationality and creativity.

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