Symbolism is a term that has rich and varied contexts. This term can encompass literary symbols, symbols of different religions, the cultural significance of symbols, political symbols representing different ideologies, natural symbols and symbols of everyday life, including gestures, objects and rituals. 

However, when we talk about symbolism in literature, authors use it in poems, prose, essays and other forms of literary works to convey deeper meaning to the text. Symbolism in literature involves a word that implies a broader concept or theme.

What is Symbolism in Literature?

Symbolism is a literary device in which a word or object represents abstract ideas, concepts, emotions, thoughts and feelings that go beyond their literal meaning. Authors use symbolism to enhance the tapestry of their literary work.  It is used to convey a deeper significance to the text.

Writers make use of several symbols in their literary work. Traditionally, some objects or concepts have predefined meanings associated with it. Such as red indicates love, passion or fire; white color depicts peace, serenity or calmness; night represents emptiness, fear or darkness and road indicates a journey or continuity of life.

Symbolism reveals the author’s inner thoughts and state of mind. It represents thoughts which are difficult to put forward directly. Writer magnifies the beauty of poetry and prose by delving the readers into the emotions created through symbolism.

 Authors also use symbolism to generate an atmosphere and ambience in the text. It creates a backdrop of surroundings to give a realistic visual imagery to the readers. Symbolism creates an image of the concept which the author wants to depict through the lines. For example- sunrise, fresh flowers, cold breeze, a cup of tea on the table, newspaper all these symbols depict the beginning of a day in a character’s life. 

One can interpret a symbol according to his desire. A writer may symbolize red as love and also to represent rage. The reader must carefully comprehend the use of symbols used in the text.  

Symbolism Examples From Literature 

There are numerous examples of symbolism used in literary works. Every generation author has used symbolism in his work. It adds charm in that piece of writing and lures the readers into it. Symbolism creates a realistic atmosphere in the minds of readers.  One can cite countless examples of symbolism from the literature. Here are a few of them:

“The Road not taken,” By Robert Frost

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth”

The poem “The Road not taken” is a masterpiece by Robert Frost. The two divergent roads indicate choices in our life and “yellow wood” symbolizes the autumn season. The poem revolves around the choice made between two roads. The poet wishes to convey that we should make decisions wisely because there is no going back to undo it. These decisions will only shape our life. 

“The Raven” By Edgar Allan Poe

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

            Shall be lifted—nevermore!”

The raven symbolizes the narrator’s grief, sadness and madness. The repeated refrain of “Nevermore” reminds the narrator of his loss. Thus, the narrator is indulged in lament, despair and emotional turmoil.

“Ode to the west wind” by P.B Shelley

“Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!”

In the poem, “Ode to the west wind” by P.B Shelley, the west wind serves as a symbol of “Destroyer” and “preserver”. It acts as a powerful force which causes destruction in order to bring revolution and changes in the world.

“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

“Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.”

The poem “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost is rich in symbolism. In this poem, fire symbolizes burning desires and  passion while ice represents hatred or lack of compassion in human beings. 

Forms Of Symbolism In Literature

For many decades, authors have been using symbolism in their literary works. It has been used in various forms: colors, objects, nature, animals, weather and actions.

  1. Color- Colors are often symbolized with abstract concepts. They represent emotions or thoughts of human life. For example- Red depicts love, passion, anger; white suggests purity and innocence; black is linked with devil mind or emptiness, green pictures freshness, etc. 
  2. Animals- Animals also carry symbolic meaning in the lines. For example– Dove symbolizes peace, snake represents evil, lion portrays bravery, horse stands for loyalty, etc.
  3. Nature- Elements of nature are often used as symbols by poets in their works. Water is symbolized as purification, sunset as decline of youth, Rose depicts passion of love, thorns represent obstacles in life, night symbolizes fear or loneliness, sea represents eternity, river depicts flow of life, etc.
  4. Objects- There are many objects symbolized by authors and poets from decades such as clocks represent passage of time, bridges signify connection, doors represent opportunities, books signify wisdom, etc. 
  5. Weather- Weather depicts broader concepts. One can see in “Ode to the west wind” by P. B Shelley, wind acts as a symbol of change and revolution. Likewise in many other works, sunlight represents hope; spring depicts rejuvenation, autumn represents fall of youth or old age, winter depicts coldness, stillness of life, etc.

Features of Symbolism

  1. Represents abstract ideas – Symbolism depicts conceptual thoughts. It illustrates ideas which are not present in our physical world, cannot be represented directly. It includes our inner feelings, emotions, thoughts, qualities, abstract concepts (which are not tangible). For example- Clock represents passage of time; Red Rose represents emotion of love
  2. Evokes emotions and feelings- Symbolism is a device used to paint our emotions on a piece of literary work. A tangible object associates with our feelings and thoughts provoked in our mind. It may represent love, anger, passion, fantasy, jealousy, sadness, happiness, etc. All these emotions are depicted through various objects.
  3. Helps to create the setting of the play- Authors may create background of the play using symbolism. They show various objects in the setting of the scene to give a realistic view, but these objects carry abstract significance. It gives readers numerous ways of interpretation.
  4. Create themes and motifs- There are many objects in a literary work which may not be highlighted, but carry deeper significance. They are used to create themes of the work. Some of them represent abstract ideas which depend on the reader’s understanding of concepts. Such as a mirror in the background of a scene, may reflect self-identity or self-analysis; Photo Frames on a wall may depict nostalgia; chimes reflect peace and harmony.
  5. Enhance the beauty of literary work- The technique of symbolism enhances the beauty of literary work. It helps to add more depth to the layers of narrative.
  6. Easy to understand- Using symbolism, one can easily understand complex abstract concepts. Our mind easily associates tangible objects with our feelings, thoughts, emotions and ideas. 
  7. Sense of pleasure- It evokes a sense of pleasure among readers. It makes the literary work more interesting and engrossing. The reader gets stuck on that piece of work. 

Nature and Symbolism

Nature acts as a source of symbolism in poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction and other literary works. Various elements of nature conveys emotions, feelings, metaphysical concepts, culture, spiritual concepts, power, humanity, etc. Path of woods represents the journey of life, the flowing river depicts continuity of life, darkness depicts isolation, peaks of mountains depict our goal or aim in life, sunrise shows hope and sunset shows decline of life cycle. Animals are also symbolic in nature: lion symbolizes bravery, fox stands for cunningness, dog depicts loyalty and dove represents peace.

Nature also sets the framework of the literary work. It illustrates the aura of the scene. Nature can make the background pleasant, ecstatic, cheerful, also gloomy, isolated and scary. 

For decades, authors have been using the technique of symbolism to add grace to their literary work. The era of Romanticism focused mainly on nature’s appreciation, symbolism and imagery. Many writers are well-known for their natural aesthetics in poetry and prose. Some of them are William Wordsworth, S.T Coleridge, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, John Keats and Emily Dickinson. They have very well adored the beauty of nature in their piece of work. 

People know William Wordsworth as nature’s poet. In his poetries, he has illustrated nature as a divine spirit. Nature served as a major source of inspiration in his works. Along with him, S.T Coleridge has also celebrated nature by adding supernatural elements to his work. Robert Frost is renowned for exploring the deep connection between nature and human activities, depicting rural habitants of New England. In his most famous work “The Road Not Taken”, he has used symbolism of nature to explore the theme of human decision making. Likewise, many other authors have taken elements of nature to enhance the beauty of their work.

Quotes of Natural Symbolism from Literature

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”- “ The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson 

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”- John Keats

“I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells, dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”- Pablo Neruda

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”- Carl Sagan

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”- Sylvia Plath

“On the open road there are no strangers. You share the same sky, same mountain, same sunshine and shade. On the open road we are all brothers.”- Roads to Mussoorie by Ruskin Bond

Symbolism vs Metaphor

Symbolism and Metaphor both are literary devices which authors use frequently in their works. People often get confused between them as they both represent abstract ideas and thoughts. People use them interchangeably. But in reality, there are many differences in both the techniques. 

Metaphor is used for direct comparison of two unrelated things. For example- “All the world’s a stage”, here a direct comparison is made of world and stage. It reflects a similarity between both the concepts. On the other hand, Symbolism uses various objects like person, place, nature, things to represent abstract concepts. It is much wider in scope. Ex- autumn season depicts decline of youth and spring season represents rejuvenation. It creates vivid imagery and enhances creativity of work.

Symbolism vs Imagery

Symbolism vs Imagery

Symbolism and Imagery are figures of speech which authors use to add richness in their work. But they have a distinct purpose to serve.

Symbolism involves using words, places, animate and inanimate objects to represent abstract ideas or concepts. It embodies thoughts, ideas, themes, feelings and emotions. However, Imagery is implying illustrative language and words which affects our senses and creates a visual image in the reader’s mind. It produces sensory experience to the reader. Reader can easily imagine that scenario in his mind.

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