Writing 101: What Is Symbolism? Symbolism Definition and Examples in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 5 min read

An object, concept, or word does not have to be limited to a single meaning. When you see red roses growing in a garden, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think literally about the rose—about its petals, stem, and thorns, or even about its stamen and pistil as a botanist might. But perhaps your mind goes elsewhere and starts thinking about topics like romance, courtship, and Valentine’s Day. Why would you do this? A rose is simply a plant growing in the dirt. The reason, of course, is that over the course of many generations, a rose’s symbolic meaning has evolved to include amorous concepts.


What Is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols, be they words, people, marks, locations, or abstract ideas to represent something beyond the literal meaning.

The concept of symbolism is not confined to works of literature: symbols inhabit every corner of our daily life. For instance, the colors red, white, and blue typically symbolize patriotism (in America at least), which is why they’re the favored hues of political yard signs. Colors like orange and brown connote fall, which is why they adorn so many Thanksgiving decorations. Road signs, logos, and emojis are other examples of symbolism—the visuals correspond to ideas, companies, or moods.

How Has Symbolism Been Used Throughout History?

In literature, authors have long favored the use of symbols among a wide range of literary devices.

  • The earliest recorded forms of human storytelling—cave paintings and hieroglyphics—are quite literally symbols representing more complex narratives or beliefs.
  • Ancient Greek theater, which is the basis for much of today’s narrative artforms, used symbolic props including phallic objects to represent Dionysus, the god of fertility. Symbolism remained in wide use throughout the Middle Ages (almost always with religious connotations) and then, from the Renaissance forward, returned in full force to represent human desires ranging from lust to ambition to heartbreak.
  • William Shakespeare used symbols to represent inner conscience (think of blood in Macbeth); Edgar Allen Poe used it to convey dread and mortality (think of the eponymous bird in “The Raven”); and William Blake used religious symbols (including Jesus himself) to represent human emotion and desire (as in “The Everlasting Gospel”).

3 Types of Symbolism in Literature

While the subject matter of literature has varied with the ages, the definition of symbolism has remained constant. All symbolism is united by the concept of a word or object representing something beyond its literal meaning. Throughout history, certain types of symbolism have enjoyed particular favor from authors, poets, playwrights, and lyricists:

  • Religious symbolism. This has been perhaps the most consistently “acceptable” form of symbolism throughout literary history, as it’s typically been sanctioned by religious authorities who have held sway over society for much of human existence. Religious symbolism traces back to the earliest human civilizations, but highlights of literary religious symbolism include Paradise Lost by John Milton (itself a retelling of the Genesis story); and The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (among its subtle symbolism is a physical representation of the Holy Spirit).
  • Romantic symbolism. Perhaps second only to religious symbolism, romantic symbolism has pervaded wide swaths of world literature. Poetry, from the sonnets of Shakespeare to the modernist stanzas of Edna St. Vincent Millay, has been a particularly fertile medium for romantic symbolism.
  • Emotional symbolism. Many authors and poets use physical symbolism to describe metaphysical emotions. French language symbolists like Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine are noted for this form of symbolism, as are English language writers like William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney.

5 Ways to Use Symbolism in Writing

Symbolism can elevate writing to a sensory experience. Symbols can give words double meanings, both literal and figurative, and writers can say more with less. Symbolism can also be a sort of secret language between the writer and the reader. Specifically, symbolism can be used to:

  • Add emotion. Symbols add emotional resonance to a story, which can create a lasting impression on a reader. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth is tortured by a spot of blood on her hands that will not wash clean after she kills King Duncan.
  • Add imagery. Symbols add a visual element to complex themes. In Seamus Heaney’s 1995 poem “A Dog Was Crying To-Night in Wicklow Also,” the author uses the image of “burnt wood disappearing into smoke” to describe the concept of dead humans drifting out of other people’s consciousness.
  • Connect themes. The color green used throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a marker for the money and materialism that defines life on the North Shore of Long Island.
  • Define characters. Symbols can express character attributes. For example, the Harry Potter series of books, Harry’s lightning bolt-shaped scar symbolizes the attempt on his life by Lord Voldemort and the love that saved him.
  • Conceal darker meaning. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester’s seemingly feral daughter Pearl symbolizes the sin that led to her conception. Her difficult demeanor represents the secret at the heart of her existence—that her father is the prominent reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Only when Dimmesdale’s paternity is revealed does Pearl transition into a positive symbol: the freeing spirit of the natural world.

How to Use Symbolism in Writing in 2 Easy Steps

The best symbolism in literature is the type that supports a story, rather than one that subsumes the story.

  • In your first draft of a novel, short story, play, or screenplay, focus primarily on creating compelling characters and placing them in an engaging story. Don’t preoccupy yourself with symbols at this stage, lest they become the central focus of your writing.
  • Once you’ve drafted (or at least outlined) your overall story, look for ways to insert symbols to represent themes already baked into your narrative.
  • Small-scale symbolism (such as the way a person dresses or the type of music they listen to) can add texture and help your audience understand the inner life of your characters.
  • Large-scale symbolism (such as weather events or physical descriptions of buildings or cities) can convey an overall mood or can make statements about broad themes like love, death, and power.
  • If you intentionally craft your symbols to service the themes already in your story, you will make your narrative all the more vivid and meaningful, without overrunning it with cosmetic detail.