Examples of Symbolism: Signifying Ideas Through Symbols

Symbolism can be defined as the practice or art of using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can have symbolic meanings. When authors want to suggest a certain mood or emotion, they use symbolism to hint at it rather than just blatantly saying it. There are many symbolism examples in literature and the arts, as well as in everyday life.

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What Is Symbolism?

Symbolism can take on many forms and be present in many areas of life. A symbol is defined as something that stands for something else, often representing an abstract idea. In other words, the term symbolism simply means that something is being used to convey meaning associated with something else.

When a symbol (like a heart) is used to symbolize something (like love), that's a real-world example of what symbolism is. When heart imagery appears in a work of art, the artist may be using it to symbolize love rather than specifically using the word "love" in their work. Any time an object or an element of an object is used to convey meaning beyond its literal purpose, that object or element is an example of symbolism.

Symbolism Examples in Everyday Life

Every language contains an immense number of symbols whose intended meaning or significance is generally well-known or understood fairly easily in context. Of course, there is always room for interpretation with symbolism.

Symbolic Colors

Different colors are associated with different ideas or feelings. This gives objects deeper meaning.

  • Black is often used to represent death or evil.
  • White stands for life and purity.
  • Red can symbolize blood, passion, danger, or immoral character.
  • Purple is a royal color; it can symbolize grandeur, pride or extravagance.
  • Yellow can stand for violence or decay.
  • Blue can represent peacefulness and calm.

Symbolic Objects

Everyday objects are often used to symbolize some bigger idea.

  • Chains can symbolize the coming together of two things.
  • Wedding rings symbolize marriage and commitment between two people.
  • Ladders can represent the relationship between heaven and Earth or ascension.
  • Mirrors can symbolize self-reflection, facing reality or the truth.
  • Broken mirrors can represent an unhappy union or a separation.
  • Clocks can symbolize a looming deadline or the inevitability of change.
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Flowers and Plants as Symbols

Botanical elements such as flowers and plants are often selected to be given as gifts or displayed because of their symbolism.

  • Roses stand for romance.
  • Violets represent shyness.
  • Lilies stand for beauty and temptation.
  • Chrysanthemums represent beauty and truth.
  • Gardenias symbolize purity and peace.
  • Four-leaf clovers are symbols of good luck.

Animals as Symbols

When you read a book, enjoy a poem or tell a story, the inclusion of animal characters can convey a message as part of the theme.

  • Bears might represent courage and strength.
  • Butterflies can symbolize great transformation.
  • Dogs often stand for loyalty or devotion.
  • Owls can symbolize wisdom and the importance of education.
  • Serpents might symbolize corruption or darkness.
  • Tortoises can symbolize perseverance.

Weather Conditions as Symbols

When used as a symbol, weather can set the mood of a scene or provide foreshadowing in works of literature.

  • Fog might represent a bad omen or something terrible on the horizon.
  • Clouds typically symbolize trouble brewing or a coming storm.
  • Storms usually symbolize hostility or turmoil.
  • Snow often comes with a message of calmness or purity.
  • Wind might be used to symbolize power or strength.
  • Rainbows can symbolize the promise of things to come or hope for tomorrow.

Metaphors as Symbolism

A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses symbolism. It compares two things that aren't similar and demonstrates that they actually have something in common. In order to understand a metaphor, one must consider figurative meaning in addition to the literal meaning.

  • time is money - This is symbolic because it warns you that, when you spend (or waste) your time, you're giving up the opportunity to be doing something else with that time (like earning more money or otherwise being productive).
  • the roller-coaster of life - This saying is symbolic because it indicates that it's natural to experience ups and downs in life, much like the expected motion pattern for a roller coaster. This metaphor is a reminder that things aren't always going to go smoothly.
  • he/she is my rock - This metaphor conveys that a particular person is someone who is strong and dependable. It is used to symbolize someone who will always be there for you and help keep you grounded, even when you are facing difficulties.
  • love is a jewel - This metaphor symbolically conveys that love is rare, precious and priceless.
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Allegories as Symbolism

Allegories are stories told through the extended use of symbolism. They convey meaning that is not specifically stated within the literary work. A story, a poem or even a whole book can be an allegory, with symbolism permeating the work.

  • perception vs. reality - In The Allegory of the Cave, Plato uses a story of cave dwellers who go through life seeing only shadows reflected on the wall to convey how people often go through life thinking that their perceptions represent reality when, in fact, the reality is the opposite of what they perceive.
  • life vs. drama - In As You Like it by William Shakespeare, Jacque delivers a monologue in which he states "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players." This portion of the play is allegorical, as it symbolically conveys the idea that people are putting on a show and play many roles over the course of their lives.

There are many allegory examples in literature, though the use of allegory is not limited to the world of literature. Any time someone shares a story that has a moral or meaning that the listener is expected to infer from the symbolism used, then that is an example of allegory.

Symbolism in Art

When artists want to say something with their work, symbols are a great way for them to communicate. In this medium, symbols are often tangible items, like an animal, object or plant. Certain types of symbolism are representative of art produced during a specific time in history.

  • Renaissance - During the Renaissance period, a lot of art was Biblical in nature. This was done so people who couldn't read or write could still understand the messages from the Bible. As such, the art produced during that time included a lot of serpents (representing the devil), lambs (representing peace), gardens (representing paradise), and crosses (representing Jesus' sacrifice).
  • Roaring Twenties - Experimentation and freedom were common themes of the Roaring Twenties. Paul Klee, a Swiss painter known for his extensive use of symbolism, liked to use stick figures, moon faces, fish, and arrows. He wanted to express a simpler reality than the complex material world around him.
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Symbolism in Literature and Poetry

Symbolism can give a literary work more richness and color and make the meaning of the work deeper. In literature, symbolism can be a figure of speech or the actions of a character, word, action, or event that has a deeper meaning. There are many examples of symbolism in literature. It is common in books, though there are also many examples of symbolism in poetry.

  • emptiness of extravagance - Much of the symbolism in The Great Gatsby shows the emptiness of an extravagant lifestyle focused on excess and status rather than building true friendships and real relationships.
  • darkness in human nature - The symbolism in Lord of the Flies paints a disturbing picture of how fragile civility is when people are removed from the confines of civilization and their dark sides are able to emerge unchecked.
  • daisies as a symbol of youth - In the poem Wild Asters, Sara Teasdale makes use of nature, specifically the spring and daisies, to symbolize the wisdom of youth. The poem reads, "In the spring I asked the daisies / If his words were true, / And the clever, clear-eyed daisies / Always knew."

Look Beyond the Literal

Whether you're enjoying art on a canvas or a novel on an e-reader, look beyond what you notice at first glance. Go forward with a keener eye for the layers of symbolism that surround you, both in the physical and artistic worlds. Get started by learning more about figurative language.