Symbolism is a profound and intricate literary device, a method of representing abstract or higher ideas or concepts with concrete objects, characters, or actions. It is a mechanism by which writers, poets, and artists convey complex, multifaceted ideas, emotions, and concepts through more tangible or visible means. This exploration of symbolism will draw upon various reputable sources such as Merriam-Webster, Masterclass, and Oregon State University to provide a comprehensive understanding of this literary device, its applications, and its significance in literature and art.

So what is symbolism?

According to Merriam-Webster, symbolism is defined as the art or practice of using symbols to convey specific meanings or represent abstract thoughts. It is especially significant when investing things with a symbolic meaning or expressing the invisible or intangible by means of visible or sensuous representations. Symbolism can manifest through artistic imitation or invention and can also involve the use of conventional or traditional signs in the representation of divine beings and spirits. It is a way to imbue objects, characters, or colors with meanings that are different from their literal sense, allowing for richer, more profound expressions in literature and art.

The Multifaceted Nature of Symbols

Oregon State University elucidates the multifaceted nature of symbols, explaining that symbolism is the idea that things, such as objects or colors, can represent other things. A single symbol can have multiple interpretations and meanings, depending on the context it is placed in. For instance, the color red can symbolize a spectrum of concepts ranging from passion, love, and devotion to entirely opposite ideas such as infidelity. It can also symbolize blood, a command to stop, as seen in traffic lights, or even political ideologies like communism. This implies that symbols are not confined to single, fixed meanings; they can represent a plethora of ideas, emotions, and concepts, allowing for diverse interpretations and understandings.

Contextual Symbolism

Symbols derive their meanings from the contexts they are situated in, and sometimes, they may not symbolize anything at all. It is crucial to approach symbolism with a nuanced perspective, understanding that not every element in literature necessarily serves as a symbol. For instance, a rose in a literary work can sometimes just be a rose, without symbolizing love, passion, desire, or any other abstract concept. Similarly, a storm in a story might simply represent a change in weather, without necessarily symbolizing impending conflict or emotional turmoil. Recognizing the importance of context in interpreting symbols is crucial for a more accurate and nuanced understanding of literary works.

What is Symbolism in Literature

In literature, symbolism is a pivotal device that enables writers to convey intricate and abstract ideas without explicitly stating them. It allows for the exploration of complex themes and emotions, adding depth and layers to literary works. For example, in Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel “Under the Shadow,” the moon is not just a celestial body but a symbol representing hidden layers in a character’s psychological makeup. It serves as a gateway to exploring repressed memories and personal histories of the characters, allowing readers to delve deeper into their psyches and understand their complexities. This use of symbolism enriches the narrative, providing readers with a more immersive and profound reading experience.

Examples of What is Symbolism

  1. Colors:
    • Red: Often symbolizes passion, love, anger, or danger.
    • White: Typically represents purity, innocence, and peace.
    • Black: Commonly symbolizes death, evil, or mystery.
  2. Animals:
    • Dove: Represents peace and purity.
    • Lion: Symbolizes courage, strength, and royalty.
    • Snake: Often represents temptation, sin, and transformation.
  3. Objects:
    • Chain: Can symbolize restriction, bondage, or connection.
    • Mirror: Represents reflection, truth, and self-perception.
    • Ladder: Symbolizes ascent, descent, or progress.
  4. Natural Elements:
    • Water: Represents life, purification, and renewal.
    • Fire: Symbolizes destruction, passion, and transformation.
    • Tree: Represents growth, stability, and life.
  5. Numbers:
    • Three: Often symbolizes balance, unity, and spirituality.
    • Seven: Represents perfection, completion, and abundance.
    • Thirteen: Commonly symbolizes bad luck and misfortune.
  6. Shapes:
    • Circle: Represents eternity, unity, and completeness.
    • Triangle: Symbolizes change, tension, and conflict.
    • Square: Represents stability, equality, and solidity.
  7. Weather and Celestial Bodies:
    • Sun: Symbolizes life, energy, and enlightenment.
    • Moon: Represents femininity, cycles, and transformation.
    • Rain: Can symbolize renewal, sadness, or cleansing.
  8. Traffic and Road Signs:
    • Stop Sign: Represents a command to halt movement or action.
    • Green Light: Symbolizes permission to proceed or go ahead.
    • Curved Road Sign: Represents an upcoming change or deviation in direction.
  9. Cultural and Political Symbols:
    • Heart: Represents love, affection, and life.
    • Flag: Represents a country, its values, and its people.
    • Scales: Symbolizes justice, balance, and fairness.
  10. Religious Symbols:
    • Cross: Represents faith, sacrifice, and redemption in Christianity.
    • Star of David: Symbolizes divine protection and Judaism.
    • Lotus Flower: Represents purity, enlightenment, and rebirth in various Eastern religions.


Symbolism is a profound literary and artistic device, allowing for the representation of intangible or abstract ideas through tangible means. It is multifaceted, context-dependent, and versatile, enabling the exploration of a myriad of concepts and emotions in literature. Understanding symbolism involves recognizing its nuanced nature, where symbols can have multiple, varied meanings, and not every element in a piece of literature necessarily serves as a symbol. By exploring and understanding what is symbolism in this comprehensive manner, readers and viewers can gain deeper insights into the works they engage with, appreciating the complex ideas and emotions conveyed through symbolic representation.


What is the symbolism in literature?

In literature, symbolism is used to convey abstract ideas and concepts without having to explicitly state them. It allows writers to express complex and multifaceted ideas through more tangible or visible means, adding depth and richness to their works.

What is symbolism English dictionary?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, symbolism is the art or practice of using symbols, especially by investing things with a symbolic meaning or by expressing the invisible or intangible by means of visible or sensuous representations.

What is symbolism in one word?

Symbolism can be succinctly described as “representation,” where various elements represent or stand for something else, usually abstract ideas or concepts.


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.

View Articles