Symbolism in Literature: Deciphering Hidden Meanings

symbolism in literature The first time I was introduced to the concept of symbolism in literature, I was in high school.  We were reading William Golding’s young adult novel “Lord of the Flies”, and discussing one object in particular – a pair of glasses.  In the story, a group of school aged boys are marooned on an uninhabited island, and left to fend for themselves.  One of the objects they make use of is a pair of glasses owned by a character called “Piggy”.  Piggy’s specs, as they are referred to, are the only object they have which can make fire.  By directing sunlight through the lens, the boys are able to set some kindling alight, and therefore survive.

“What do you think those specs symbolize?” we were asked.  Nobody raised their hands at first, so the teacher went on to explain.  “Think about what those glasses mean to the boys.  What would happen if they broke?  What would happen if someone took them, and refused to let anyone else have them?”  Suddenly, the concept of symbolism became a little more clear.  Hands began going up with suggestions: “Hope?”, “Survival?”, “A willingness to share?”, etc.  In the case of Piggy’s specs, there was a lot being said, without the author having to say it directly.  That is what makes symbolism in literature so important.

To put symbolism into a definition, it is when an object or an action has many layers of meaning in a story.  These meanings may not be apparent at first glance, but will become more clear as they are considered throughout the story.  The object or action’s meaning will be something other than simply it’s literal meaning.

Why is symbolism important?

It gives nuance to a story.  If you were to write a screenplay, it would not be very fun for either you or your audience if you had to flatly explain the significance of every single thing.  Let’s look at some movies like the Star Wars franchise.  It is not necessary for the characters onscreen to continually point who the good guys and bad guys are.  There is plenty of symbolism around for the audience to pick up on.  The Jedi are dressed in light colors, while the menacing Darth Vader looms large in all black.  It is a thematic representation of light vs. darkness, only nobody is required to say it in order for audiences to understand it.

Symbolism also reinforces the ideas you want your audience to remember in your story.  In the Harry Potter series, the main character was given a scar on his forehead when an evil wizard harmed him as a baby.  As a young adult, whenever Harry’s scar begins to hurt, the audience understands that to mean that the villain must be nearby.  The evil wizard’s ability to harm the main character without even being physically present is an action which symbolizes how dangerous he is.

Get inspired to write your own novel with Udemy’s novel workshop.

What Are Some Examples of Obvious Symbolism in Literature?

One of the best known symbols in literature might be the red letter “A” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.  In that story, the character Hester Prynne is force to wear a literal scarlet letter on her clothing, because she has been found guilty of adultery.  The “A” is meant to symbolize her shame, the town’s puritanical ways, and repentance.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven”, the narrator is tormented by the sudden appearance of a black bird in his room.  No matter how he shouts, questions, or threatens the bird, it will not leave him alone.  The raven then can be interpreted as a symbol for the inevitability of death, the darkness in the world, or indeed the darkness in the narrator’s own mind.  The narrator can neither understand it, nor make it leave, because it is not simply a raven.  Rather, it is a symbol of something much more universal.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story “The Little Prince”, there is a rose who lives on the Prince’s small planet.  She is petulant, and bossy, but the prince loves her because she is his rose.  He has invested time and patience in caring for her, and in those ways, he grew to love her.  The rose symbolizes something that is beautiful, but also very delicate, requiring great care.  Something that can both bring you joy, and hurt you – in other words, the rose symbolizes love itself.

Learn how to write symbolism into your stories by looking into some advanced writing techniques.

What Are Some Examples of More Subtle Symbolism in Literature?

symbolism in literatureSometimes, symbols are far more subtle, and not as immediately obvious.  These examples of symbolism are just as important to the plot of the story, but require a little more thought before they are identified.

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, there is a scene where the character Atticus Finch is called upon to put down a rabid dog.  The Sheriff of the town does not step in to do this, even though it is his job.  This leaves Atticus, a lawyer, to stare down an angry animal himself.  This scene is actually symbolic of the racial tension in the story.  Atticus is also responsible for defending the innocence of a black man against a tide of angry townspeople.  The two are similarly dangerous situations for Atticus, and in both cases, he alone is tasked with doing the right thing.

Another more subtle symbol is the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining”.  While there are frightening things happening all around in that novel, the aspect tying them all together is the setting itself.  It represents isolation, and becomes a physical manifestation of everything happening inside the mind of the now-crazed caretaker.

Understanding literature does not have to be intimidating.  It just takes some basic familiarity, and some good guidance to get you started.  Check out some of these courses at Udemy, for more help interpreting the classics:
“Write a Killer Literature Review”
“Classics of American Literature – T. S. Eliot”