Symbolism is the practice or art of using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning.
When an author wants to suggest a certain mood or emotion, he can also use symbolism to hint at it, rather than just blatantly saying it. Let's explore some examples of symbolism in the arts and our everyday lives.
Symbolism is often used by writers to enhance their writing. Symbolism can give a literary work more richness and color and can make the meaning of the work deeper.
In literature, symbolism can take many forms, including:
A figure of speech where an object, person, or situation has another meaning other than its literal meaning
The actions of a character, word, action, or event that have a deeper meaning in the context of the whole story
If you're a fan of the classics, you might've read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. She paints a beautiful image with these words, equating her affection for Linton and Heathcliff by comparing them to "foliage in the woods" and "eternal rocks," respectively:
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.
For something more modern, here's an excerpt from Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain. You can feel the torment Ennis is experiencing over the loss of a great love, as symbolized by the two shirts.
At the north end of the closet, a tiny jog in the wall made a slight hiding place and here, stiff with long suspension from a nail, hung a shirt. He lifted it off the nail. Jack's old shirt from Brokeback days. The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain when Jack, in their contortionistic grappling and wrestling, had slammed Ennis's nose hard with his knee.
The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack's sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he'd thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack's own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.
For more on figures of speech, check out these Examples of Rhetorical Devices in literature.
Many poets used symbolism to deepen the meaning of their poems.
Here is an excerpt from William Blake's "Ah Sunflower." In it, Blake refers to life cycle and uses sunflowers to represent humankind and how they desire everlasting life.
Ah Sunflower, weary of time, Who countest the steps of the sun; Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveler's journey is done;
Here's another example, this time from Sara Teasdale. In her poem "Wild Asters," Teasdale makes use of nature, specifically the spring and daisies, to symbolize youth.
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.
Typically, artists want to say something with their work and symbols are a great way for them to communicate. In this medium, symbols are often tangible items, like an animal, object, or plant.
Symbolism can also be found in the very colors artists choose to paint with. Colors convey various messages. Perhaps an artist will use a lot of white to emote hope or black to indicate sadness. Let's consider two important periods in art history and see how symbolism affected the work produced during that time.
During the Renaissance period, a lot of the 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, we saw a lot of serpents (representing the devil), lambs (representing peace), gardens (representing paradise), and crosses (representing Jesus' sacrifice).
During the Roaring Twenties, there began a period of experimentation and freedom. Masters like Picasso, De Gaulle, and Chagall made their mark.
Another famous fellow was Paul Klee, a Swiss painter known for his extensive use of symbolism. Some of his favorite symbols were stick figures, moon faces, fish, and arrows. He wanted to express a different, simpler reality than the complex material world we live in.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses symbolism. It compares two things that aren't similar and proves they actually have something in common. In a metaphor, there is an additional meaning to a word. This makes it an example of symbolism.
Examples of symbolism that take the form of metaphors include:
Time is money: This is symbolic because it warns you that, when you spend your time, you're giving up the opportunity to be doing something else with that time (like making more money). Just as when you spend your money, you give up your chance to do something else with the money. Further, like money, time is finite.
Life's a roller-coaster: This is symbolic because it indicates that there will be ups and downs in life that you have to weather.
He's my rock: This is symbolic because it signifies he's strong and dependable. He will keep you grounded.
Love is a jewel: This is symbolic because it suggests that love is rare and precious.
Sometimes symbolism takes the form of a literary tool called an allegory. An allegory is an extended use of symbolism and metaphors. A story, a poem, or even a whole book can be an allegory and the symbolism will permeate throughout.
One example of an allegory is the monologue from Shakespeare in his play As You Like It.
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.
This is symbolic of the fact that people are putting on a show and that they play many roles over the course of their lives.
Our language contains an immense number of symbols whose intended meaning or significance is well-known and accepted by the majority. Of course, many of these do wind up in books, magazines, stories, and other written works.
Symbolism is often found in colors:
Black is 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.
Yellow stands for violence or decay.
Blue represents peacefulness and calm.
Everyday objects are often used to symbolize something else:
A chain can symbolize the coming together of two things.
A ladder can represent the relationship between heaven and earth or ascension.
A mirror can denote the sun but, when it is broken, it can represent an unhappy union or a separation.
Roses stand for romance.
Violets represent shyness.
Lilies stand for beauty and temptation.
Chrysanthemums represent perfection.
When we read a book or enjoy a poem, any animals added to the story can convey a message or work as part of the theme. Let's take a look at a few examples:
A bear might represent courage or danger.
A butterfly can symbolize great transformation.
A dog often stands for loyalty or devotion.
A serpent might symbolize corruption or darkness.
Also in works of literature, a writer might spend a moment describing the weather in a particular scene. This is likely for a reason. Let's take a look at a few examples:
Fog might represent a bad omen or something terrible on the horizon.
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.
Whether you're enjoying art on a canvas or a novel on a Kindle, look beyond what you glean at first glance. See if there are any elemental symbols being used to convey a message. Here's more on figurative language.
Perhaps a white blanket of snow is telling people to "keep the faith" and never lose hope. Perhaps a scene with eerie morning fog is pointing toward a future battle or dilemma to be solved. You never know!
Together, let's go forward with a keener eye for the layers of symbolism that surround us, both in the physical and the artistic world.