Symbolism Definition and Examples

When you think of the color blue, does sadness or despair come to mind? This is because the color blue, like many other colors and symbols, has come to be associated with these emotions over the years. Someone entering and then emerging from a body of water is sometimes a symbol for baptism as well.

Symbolism has been used in history dating back hundreds of years. Symbolism has been used in cave paintings, hieroglyphics and Greek Theatre, to name a few. Using images and elements like this, symbolism can help the reader or viewer understand more about a character, a feeling or the plot.

What is Symbolism?

Symbolism, often used in literature and other media, is the use of symbols to represent ideas, moods or qualities. It is an artistic and poetic style of expression that uses symbolic images and indirect suggestions to convey feelings and states of mind to the viewer.

Objects that we see in our everyday life do not often carry complex or emotional meanings to us. But throughout the years and as literature has evolved, many objects, images and colors have begun to carry additional meaning. This designation of meaning creates a symbol, which is then universally recognized throughout all media types.

What Types of Symbolism are there?

There are three main types of symbolism: religious, romantic and emotional.

  • Religious symbolism​ - is the use of art, images and iconography to convey religious history and the views upheld by a certain religion. In Christianity, the cross is a symbol for sacrifice, redemption and love. In Judaism, the Star of David is a symbol of their religious affiliation. Many religions have images, objects and even clothing garments that are symbols of their dedication to their faith and the views it holds.
  • Romantic symbolism​ - is seen very often in poetry and other mediums of art. The most obvious symbol of romance is the heart, which is the center for love and life.
  • Emotional symbolism​ - is seen very commonly in modern literature, movies and poetry. Authors and creators of art use physical objects to symbolize the emotional feelings of the world or characters in their story. This can be seen in colors like blue which shows sadness, or yellow which often symbolizes happiness.

5 Ways to Use Symbolism with Examples

When it comes to symbolism in writing, it may not be immediately evident why the author chose to include symbolism in their work. We know symbolism can show complex emotions and convey specific moods, but authors can use symbolism in a multitude of ways to better reach their reader.

1. ​Add Emotion​ - Using a symbol to impress an emotion upon a reader can leave a lasting effect. Evoking an emotional response from the reader can tether them to a character or story line, further investing them in the outcome of the story. This can be accomplished through physical elements, colors and more.

2. ​Add Imagery​ - Authors can use vivid description of imagery within their work to showcase symbolism that is important to the reader. For example, in ​A Separate Peace​ by John Knowles, he writes "With the sensation that I was throwing my life away, I jumped into space. Some tips of branches snapped past me and then I crashed into the water. My legs hit the soft mud of the bottom, and immediately I was on the surface being congratulated." By using this imagery to convey symbolism, Knowles' alludes to the baptism of Gene as he enters and emerges from this body of water.

3. ​Connect Themes​ - By using symbolism intermittently throughout a work, authors can connect themes. A good example is F. Scott Fitzgerald's ​The Great Gatsby,​ the color green is a symbol for money, greed and materialism that is a prevalent theme throughout the work.

4. ​Define Characters​ - Symbolism can also be used to define characteristics of a character in a literary work. One example is when Jo cut her hair and sold it for money in ​Little Women​. Her hair was a sign of her femininity and the expectations that came along with it, and she rejected those societal norms by ridding herself of that symbol.

5. ​Conceal a Darker Meaning​ - If you look at ​The Pearl​ by John Steinbeck, while the pearl is a symbol of hope for the characters in the story, it has a darker meaning. The pearl is also a symbol for the evil and greed of the world, showcased by the means people go to in order to obtain the pearl throughout the story.

What do Animals Symbolize in Literature?

Throughout time, certain animals have taken on complex meanings and are symbols for certain themes, emotions and moods. Some key examples are:

  • Lions - strength, courage
  • Dove - peace, love, prophesy
  • Mouse - quiet, shyness
  • Snakes - deception, evil
  • Falcon - ambition, superiority
  • Rabbits - rebirth
  • Fox - intelligence, good fortune
  • Tortoise - wisdom, knowledge
  • Dolphins - reincarnation
  • Dogs - loyalty, vigilance

What do Colors Symbolize?

  • Black - death or evil
  • White - life and purity
  • Red - blood, passion, danger, or immoral character
  • Purple - a royal color; it can symbolize grandeur, pride or extravagance
  • Yellow - joy and loyalty
  • Blue - peacefulness and calm; or sadness
  • Orange - creativity and youth
  • Green - nature and growth
  • Pink - femininity and playfulness
  • Brown - wholesomeness and warmth
  • White - simplicity

What do Season Symbolize?

  • Winter - old age, death, pain, grief
  • Spring - rebirth, rejuvenation, new beginnings, fertility
  • Summer - youth, adventure, freedom
  • Autumn - adulthood, reflection, tiredness