What is the meaning behind the green light in The Great Gatsby or the One Ring of The Lord of the Rings fame? Besides just sounding cool, these things symbolize the characters’ internal struggles and central themes of the texts. Symbolism is one of the things that elevates writing to an art form. It allows the writer to paint a portrait with their words and helps readers visualize what is happening on the page to uncover hidden meanings.
What Is a Symbol in Literature?
The literary definition of symbolism is “the use of symbols that represent other concepts or ideas in order to convey a deeper meaning.” Symbolism can use an object, person, situation, event, or action with a deeper meaning in the overall context of literary work that goes beyond surface understanding. When used properly, symbolism can enhance a piece of writing and bridge the gap between the reader and writer.
Symbolism in Literature: Novels and Plays
No doubt, you’ve come across symbolism in some of your favorite books, poems and other works of art. From the great classic novelists to contemporary artists, symbolism enriches the text and paints a picture for the reader.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
This classic novel is full of symbolism. So much so that Emily Brontë uses symbolism in the title itself. Both the name and location “Wuthering Heights” are symbolic of the wild nature of the people involved in the story.
In this excerpt, the foliage in the woods is symbolic of the ever-changing nature of love. Additionally, the rocks below the surface represent the necessary pain that comes from loving someone.
"My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it; I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary."
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The epic novel Aurora Leigh is rife with symbolism. In it, Elizabeth Barrett Browning explores many ideals throughout the course of her work, but the role of women is a focal point. Instead of simply saying “Women are undervalued,” she compares them to a pair of slippers one mindlessly slips into at night.
"The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary"
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
As You Like It is one of William Shakespeare’s many great plays. In this scene, he uses symbolism to liken the big picture — the world — to a stage. The “players” are a symbol for the people of the world. We’re all a part of the great performance on the “world stage” and we each have a part, or several, to play in the production of life.
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
they have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts."
Night by Elie Wiesel
The autobiography Night by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel recounts the horrific, firsthand experiences of surviving a Nazi concentration camp. The concept of night is used throughout the book to symbolize death, darkness and loss of faith.
"The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our souls."
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Symbolism isn't hard to miss in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In fact, the main character, Hester, wears it on her chest. The letter "A" symbolizes "adultery." However, that meaning shifts throughout the story as Hester becomes "able."
"But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth,—for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to little other than a rag,—on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A."
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
In Lorraine Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun, a plant on the windowsill symbolizes need and hope. Like a plant needs the sun to grow, we have needs that require nourishment in order to flourish.
"Lord, if this little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again"
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
In Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the Grinch takes all the symbols associated with Christmas from Whos of Who-ville in hopes of preventing Christmas from coming at all. In the end, he discovers those material things symbolize something greater: the spirit of Christmas. The true symbolism here is the Whos’ singing, which represents the spirit of Christmas that “doesn’t come from a store” but from the heart.
"Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!"
Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
Entire theses have been written about Rowling’s use of symbolism in her Harry Potter series. Take a look at some of the more poignant examples.
Harry's scar is symbolic of his bravery and survival. However, it also symbolizes his connection to Lord Voldemort and how he must continuously choose the good, brave path.
Albus Dumbledore’s name is a symbol of his personality. For example, Dumbledore means “bumblebee” in Old English and he liked to hum. Also, Albus means "white," which may symbolize a white wizard or good wizard.
The Golden Snitch symbolizes the spiritual enlightenment every “seeker” aims for.
Knockturn Alley is a symbol of darkness and evil. Doesn’t the name alone sound like nocturnal? To no surprise, the Dark Arts are practiced in this alley at night.
Symbolism in Poems
In poetry, beautiful images are painted in the space of a few stanzas. So it should come as no surprise that poets are huge fans of symbolism. It allows them to take in-depth concepts and paint them in interesting terms that will, hopefully, spark the reader’s imagination.
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
This famous poem is known for its rich symbolism. Ravens have been viewed for centuries in Western culture as bad omens. Edgar Allan Poe uses the raven to symbolize death and loss as the narrator descends into madness.
"Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more."
She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways by William Wordsworth
Famous poet William Wordsworth sure knew how to make a lady feel special. In the lines below, he uses romantic imagery and symbolism to convey his adoration for a quiet, unknown woman whom he loved very much.
"She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky."
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This legendary poem describes an albatross, or large bird, that’s about to be hung around the neck of the protagonist. However, it’s not merely some strange form of punishment. Rather, Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses the albatross, which was traditionally viewed by sailors as a sign of good luck, as a symbol of the terrible crime the narrator committed when he killed the bird. He likens the bird to a cross, which can be interpreted that the bird is his cross to bear for his sin.
"Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung."
He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven by W.B. Yeats
Here, William Butler Yeats uses “the heavens” to symbolize great wealth and plenty. Even if Yeats had all the money in the world, he still could not have afforded to buy the treasures of heaven for the woman he loved. In this poem, his poverty is taken as a symbol of his (self-perceived) lack of talent, status or imagination.
"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."
Symbolism Is Never Going Out of Style
Symbolism is one of the strongest tools in a writer’s arsenal. Sharpen your proverbial sword (i.e. your pen) with these literary devices.