What Is the Purpose of Symbols in Literature?

Lightning might symbolize a violent act, such as murder, in literature.

In any piece of literary work, symbolism can be used to add or represent meaning that goes beyond what is literally being said. The actions and events within the plot can be looked at on one level, while literary symbols within the writing can be considered on another level.

Types of Symbols

A symbol most commonly presents itself as a word, a figure of speech, an event or a character. There are a number of different ways a symbol might appear in a piece of literature, suggesting an array of different meanings. A symbol can take the form of a color, for example, red for passion or danger. The spring season might symbolize a new beginning. Types of weather conditions, such as fog, might represent the inability to think clearly. Other forms of symbolism include animals, the human body and objects.

Symbols and the Physical World

Symbolism can represent something that is happening in the physical world. For example, a lightning bolt might strike a tree while a murder is taking place, and the lightning hitting the tree could be a symbol of the killing. Similarly, a flower might symbolize youth, while an old, dying oak tree might symbolize old age.

Symbols Vs. Non-Symbols

The reader should not take everything in a literary work as symbolic. A plastic bag does not symbolize anything on its own. If, however, the bag is described as being gently blown around by the wind, drifting with no clear direction, it may symbolize wandering, or drifting aimlessly.

Symbol Cliches

Using symbolism can be as basic as inserting a symbol that can be connected to an action or event taking place in the plot. This is easy to do and adds to what the writer is trying to say, but using it too often can turn a good story and potentially good writing, into a series of obvious, unsubtle clichés.

Symbols as Part of Literature

Another slightly more difficult, but often more effective use of symbolism in literature can be seen when the writer has made the symbol a vital part of the work, not just a quick addition. Take the example of a man struggling with a dying relationship. The story could start in summer and slowly progress into winter as he grows colder and more distant with his partner. The changing of the seasons, from a warm, happy summer to a cold and frozen winter might symbolize his ever-darkening relationship.

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