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Dark & Light Symbolism in Literature


Symbolism is the use of imagery to emphasize deeper meanings and emotions. Two common symbols used in literature are darkness and light. Darkness is often used to convey negativity: evil, death or the unknown. Light is used to convey something positive: goodness, life or hope. Some of the most-studied literature contains symbolic uses of darkness and light.

The Bible

It could be argued that the Bible serves as the basis for almost all themes found in Western literature. At the heart of biblical themes is the concept of good vs. evil. Goodness is often portrayed as some element of light. In Genesis, God creates light and calls it good. In the New Testament, Jesus himself is described as the light of the world. The visions of heaven described in the Revelation of John contain imagery of light.

Shakespeare

Most academic studies in literature include at least one play by Shakespeare and dark and light symbolism abound in many of his works. In "Macbeth," darkness is used a number of times to symbolize death. The famous line, "Out, out brief candle," refers to Lady Macbeth's suicide. Banquo's torch is extinguished at the moment of his death. In "Romeo and Juliet," light is used to show Juliet's beauty and her dazzling influence on Romeo. When Romeo first sees Juliet, he says, "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!" (Act I, scene 5, line 45) Even when she dies, her brightness endures. When Romeo finds her in the tomb, he says,

"A grave? O, no, a lantern, slaughtered youth, For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes This vault a feasting presence full of light " (Act V, scene 3. lines 84-86)

The Great Gatsby

"The Great Gatsby" is one of America's most popular novels and in it F. Scott Fitzgerald also used darkness and light symbols. Light is used to symbolize idealism and dreams. Daisy, Gatsby's unattainable love interest, is frequently dressed in white. A green light at the end of a dock figures prominently in the novel as a beacon of the great American dream. Meyer Wolfsheim, a gambler, is first introduced to the narrator of the novel in a dark restaurant cellar. Wolfsheim and the darkness from which he emerges symbolize greed, corruption and the seedy side of the city.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost was probably one of America's favorite modern poets and his poems contain many images of light and dark. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" contrasts the darkness of the woods with the falling snow. The narrator states that it is "The darkest evening of the year" and that "The woods are lovely, dark and deep... ." The darkness represents an enticing mystery, one that may even bring peace and rest. The narrator is tempted to stay and watch the woods but his responsibilities call to him. In "Nothing Gold Can Stay," Frost uses the images of gold and dawn to represent beauty and innocence. These light-filled elements are brief, emphasizing the fleeting nature of beauty and life.

About the Author

Diane Kampf has more than 20 years of teaching experience ranging from middle school to college freshmen. She holds a Master of Arts degree in creative writing and English literature and a New York State Secondary Teacher Certificate. She has written educational materials for Learning Express, LLC, Kaplan and Pearson.

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