Having knowledge of common symbols can deepen your reading experience as well as enrich your own writing.
Symbols work by giving added meaning to a text and conveying larger ideas in just a few words. By learning to understand symbols in literature, you may uncover new meanings in some of your favorite stories and find connections to bigger themes.
In this post, we’ll define symbolism, identify common symbols in literature, and analyze important symbols in famous works.
What Is Symbolism?
Symbols are objects that carry meanings or represent ideas. However, symbols can also take the form of words, images, colors, or actions. (For example, the cross is a symbol of Christianity; the red stripes in the American flag represent courage and valor.)
Symbols can also be found in just about every form of art: in our favorite songs, in films, and of course, in literature.
What makes symbols so interesting is that their meanings can change depending on their context or even one’s culture. Thus, in order to catch its intended meaning, it is important to understand where, when, and how a symbol is being used.
Some symbols are so ingrained in tradition that you probably haven’t given them much thought. For example:
• Brides wear white because white symbolizes purity.
• Snakes often symbolize evil or corruption.
• Holding one’s index and middle fingers up can symbolize peace, or, alternatively, victory.
• Windows can represent opportunity or freedom. However, a closed window can also signify entrapment.
• Apples traditionally symbolize knowledge, thanks to their significance in the Bible.
While you may not think much about symbols in your everyday life, in literature it is important to take note of key symbols in order to get a deeper understanding of the work.
Symbols in Literature
Becoming familiar with the following symbols can help deepen your reading (or writing) experience. While these objects don’t always carry symbolic meaning in a text, these are some of the most common symbols employed in literature.
Rivers: In literature, rivers are typically symbols of life. The starting point of rivers, usually small mountain streams, can be seen as the starting point of life, while their merging point with the ocean can be seen as life’s end.
Rivers can also symbolize freedom. For example, in Tom Sawyer’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi River represents both Jim and Huck’s freedom because it offers them an escape and ultimately carries them through the story.
Rain: Rain usually symbolizes a rebirth or a turning point. Like a baptism, it often signifies a new start for characters who are caught in it.
One of the oldest examples comes from the Biblical story of Noah’s Arc: a violent storm brings destruction, but ultimately marks the start of new life on Earth.
Winter: Winter most often symbolizes death or stagnation.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the winter season reflects the hopelessness of life under the rule of the White Witch.
Spring: Spring is the season of youth, love, and rebirth. Spring is commonly portrayed in art, like in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Primavera.
Fall/Autumn: This season usually signifies decline or nearing death.
One example that demonstrates the symbolic contrast between spring (youth) and autumn (nearing death) is found in Sara Teasdale’s poem “Wild Asters”:
“In the spring I asked the daisies
If his words were true,
And the clever, clear-eyed daisies
Now the fields are brown and barren,
Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters,
Not one knows.”
Summer: Ever notice that most of your favorite coming-of-age books and movies take place in summer? That’s no coincidence. Summer is often symbolic for maturity or knowledge.
When you come across the symbols listed above, ask yourself how these alternative meanings might fit into the context, and consider how they could give extra meaning to the story.
Examples from Literature
The following symbols are critical to understanding the central themes of their respective stories. These are just a few examples of well-known symbols in literature:
Light and Fire in Frankenstein:
In this novel, light is symbolic of knowledge and enlightenment, while fire can proves that what brings light can also harm.
This is evident in the monster’s first encounter with fire:
“One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce opposite effects!”
Victor Frankenstein’s knowledge also led to creation, but one that ultimately harmed everyone around him—everyone he loved was killed by the monster he brought to life.
The Conch in Lord of the Flies:
A shell quickly becomes a symbol of power when a group of boys are stranded together on an island. It starts as a tool for upholding democracy and free speech: to maintain order, each boy will be given a chance to hold the conch and express his thoughts uninterrupted.
However, the conch only works as long as the boys believe in the values it symbolizes. As the rules become impossible to enforce without consequences, one of the boys, Jack, suggests a more totalitarian approach:
“We don’t need the conch anymore. We know who ought to say things… it’s time some people knew they’ve got to keep quiet and leave deciding things to the rest of us.”
From this point on, disobedience is addressed with harsh punishments, and war breaks out between the now fragmented groups on the island. The democracy that was represented by the conch is replaced by the more brutal instincts of human nature.
The Forest in The Scarlet Letter:
In The Scarlet Letter, the forest offers a stark contrast to the Puritan society in which most of the novel takes place. It is dark and secretive, where no laws are established and people confess their sins:
“…the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her.”
The forest is also part of nature, so it could be associated with human nature and the instincts that are oppressed by the Puritan society that shunned Hester Prynne.
The Green Light in The Great Gatsby:
For Jay Gatsby, the green light shining from Daisy’s dock embodies his quest for Daisy and the American dream that he has spent most of his life chasing.
While the light itself symbolizes Gatsby’s love for Daisy, its green color is symbolic of the money and greed that led Daisy to the life she is now stuck in.
The story’s narrator, Nick Carraway, characterizes the unattainable green light best in the book’s final lines:
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Although Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the context of the Roaring 20’s and all of its excess, the symbol of the green light and everything it stands for remains relevant even in today’s society.
The Importance of Symbolism
Because symbols give double meaning to a work, they also force readers to think about a text on a deeper level. If a writer spelled out the exact message they wanted us to take away from their story, reading it wouldn’t be quite as interesting.
Our interpretations of a text might change as we grow, but this is what makes the reading experience uniquely special for each of us.
What are some of your favorite symbols in literature or film? Feel free to share in the comments below!