Kinds of Symbols in Literature

A literary symbol is something that has greater meaning than its mere literal significance in a story or poem. This symbolic meaning may be specific to the author or more widespread, ranging from cultural significance to universal association. The whale in Herman Melville's novel "Moby Dick," for example, is often considered to be a sign of evil, although that meaning is rarely linked to whales in other works. A rose, on the other hand, is seen as a sign of romance the world over. Many other symbols in literature are equally widespread.


Colors often have symbolic meaning in literary works. Red is usually associated with life, danger or passion. Green is a color of birth and hope, while yellow is a color of old age and decay. Blue often symbolizes peace and tranquility, while orange is tied to powerful spiritual or sexual love. Purple can be a symbol of either royalty or pain, but its lighter shade, violet, is a symbol of clear-mindedness. Brown, the color of earth, is often tied to humility. Both white and pink are colors of innocence, but white can also be symbolic of enlightenment, while pink suggests femininity. Black is almost always the color of death or evil.


Many aspects of nature have traditional symbolic meanings. The progression of the seasons is often tied to that of human life, with spring, summer, fall and winter representing birth, maturity, old age and death. The sun and gold are masculine symbols, while the moon and silver are feminine. The apple tree symbolizes temptation, as a result of the belief that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was an apple. The sycamore represents vanity, the oak, strength and the chestnut, prescience.


The four compass directions are seen as symbols of different things, depending on the work in question. The east is tied to birth, renewal and the classic "wine, women and song." The west, where the sun sets, is almost always related to decrepitude and the end of things. The icy north is a place of death, hostility and loneliness, while the south, on the other hand, symbolizes comfort, strength and peace.


Many animals have long had symbolic significance. Both the lion and the peacock are associated with pride, but the lion is also a symbol of strength, while the peacock's pride represents vanity. Among the birds, owls are wise, hawks are observant and ravens are harbingers of death. The salmon is also a symbol of wisdom, while the mouse is one of humility and fear. Foxes and cats both symbolize trickery, but the cat is clever, while the fox is sly. Hearkening back to the Edenic tradition, snakes are often symbolic of evil and temptation.

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