What Is Symbolism? Examples of Symbolism as a Literary Device

What is symbolism

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Are you a professional writer looking to elevate your work by learning what is symbolism? Or maybe you want to better understand literature and how the authors use symbolism? Then look no further! Whether these literary symbols appear in characters, objects or events, this blog post will cover everything you need to know about symbolism.

Let’s start by exploring what is meant by “symbolism,” then delving into specific examples of its usage as an artistic device so that you can begin incorporating it into your own writing.

What Is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a technique in literature where an object or action is used to represent something else, often something abstract or intangible. This technique can be found throughout all types of literature, from poems to novels to plays. For example, a rose may symbolize love or beauty, while a snake may symbolize deceit or danger.

The use of symbolism can add depth and complexity to a piece of writing, as well as evoke emotions and create a deeper connection between the reader and the text. When reading literature, it is important to pay attention to the use of symbols and the meaning behind them to fully understand and appreciate the work.

What is symbolism

The Role Of Symbolism In Literature

Symbolism is a powerful literary device that enhances storytelling by elevating the themes and motifs within works of literature. Through symbolism, authors can convey complex ideas and emotions beyond the limitations of language, using visual objects or elements to represent abstract concepts and universal truths.

Symbolism is commonly used in both poetry and prose, where it can be found in everything from character names to settings and objects. In poetry, symbolism often takes center stage, with every line rich in metaphor and allusion. In prose, symbolism is more subtle, woven into the fabric of the narrative to create a deeper meaning and sense of cohesion.

Whether used overtly or covertly, symbolism is a key element in literature, making stories more engaging, complex, and ultimately, more impactful.

Common Examples Of Symbolic Imagery In Literature

Symbolic imagery is an essential aspect of literature, adding depth and complexity to a story’s meaning. Some of the most common examples of symbolic imagery in literature includes:

Nature As A Source Of Literary Symbolism 

Nature has long been a source of inspiration for writers when it comes to symbolism. From the majestic mountains to the dainty flowers, nature’s vast landscape offers a plethora of symbolic imagery that can be used to represent various themes and ideas. The wind can symbolize change and freedom, while a tree can represent growth and resilience.

The use of symbolic imagery in literature can add depth and meaning to a story, as well as evoke powerful emotions in readers. Whether it is a novel, poem, or short story, nature’s rich symbolism has been and continues to be a popular choice among writers looking to create a lasting impact on their readers.

Animals as Symbolic Figures in Literature

Throughout the years, animals have played an important role as symbolic figures in literature. From Aesop’s Fables to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the animal kingdom has been used as a metaphor for human behavior, emotions, and societal structures. Lions have represented courage and strength, while the cunning fox has been associated with deceit and trickery.

In Native American folklore, the eagle has been revered as a symbol of power and freedom, while the wolf has symbolized loyalty and family values. By using animals as symbolic figures in literature, authors can convey complex ideas and messages in a way that is relatable and engaging to readers.

Color As A Source Of Literary Symbolism 

In literature, the use of color as a source of symbolic imagery is a common practice. It allows authors to express complex emotions and ideas through vivid, visual language that resonates with readers.

From the scarlet letter prominently displayed on Hester Prynne’s chest in “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, to the green light that beckons to Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” colors can signify a variety of themes such as love, jealousy, power, and innocence.

Indeed, color is a dynamic tool that can add depth and richness to an author’s work, and it continues to be a powerful source of imagery in literature today.

Objects as Sources of Literary Symbolism 

In literature, symbolic imagery is a powerful tool that allows writers to communicate deeper meanings beyond the surface level. One of the most common examples of symbolic imagery is objects. By infusing objects with symbolic significance, writers can convey complex themes and ideas to their readers. Objects such as a rose, a clock, or a mirror can take on meanings that extend far beyond their physical properties.

These objects can become powerful symbols that evoke emotions and ideas in the reader. Whether used to represent love, mortality, or self-reflection, objects as sources of symbolism add depth and richness to literature.

The Human Body As A Source Of Literary Symbolism 

Throughout history, the human body has been an important source of symbolism in literature. From our physical features and biological processes to our emotions and behaviors, authors have used various aspects of the human body to convey deeper meanings and evoke emotions in their readers. For example, the heart is often used as a symbol of love, while the eye is a symbol of knowledge or perception.

Similarly, the use of body language and bodily functions can create powerful imagery that helps to illustrate a character’s thoughts and feelings. Through the use of symbolic imagery, writers can add depth and meaning to their stories, making them more relatable and memorable for their audiences.

Gestures And Actions As Sources Of Literary Meaning  

Gestures and actions are often used as sources of literary meaning and are common examples of symbolic imagery in literature. These can help reveal a character’s personality traits, motivations, and emotions. Through gestures and actions, we can gain insight into a character’s subconscious desires and conflicts. For instance, a character’s tapping foot may indicate anxiety or impatience, while folding their arms across their chest may suggest defensiveness.

These symbolic gestures and actions can deepen the readers’ understanding of the story and its characters, adding layers of meaning to the narrative. As a result, authors carefully craft their characters’ movements and actions to convey their intended message and create a more vivid and engaging reading experience.

Food, Drink, and Eating Habits As Sources of Literary Symbolism

Food, drink, and eating habits have been used extensively in literary works as symbolic imagery. This is because food is a universal element that has been used to explore myriad themes such as love, pleasure, nourishment, and gluttony. Drinking also shares a long history of being used symbolically to underscore themes of celebration, intoxication, and despair.

Various eating habits, whether healthy or unhealthy, have also been explored as metaphors for addiction, control, and indulgence. When authors use food, drink, or eating habits in their writing, they create a powerful connection to their readers, who are often able to recognize themselves in the symbolism.

Thus, food and drink in literature go beyond satisfying physical hunger and thirst; they engage readers on a deeper level by tapping into their emotions and experiences.

Clothing And Accessories As Sources of Literary Symbolism

Throughout the history of literature, symbolism has been used to enhance the meaning of a story or poem. One of the most common examples of symbolic imagery is the use of clothing and accessories. The way a character dresses and the accessories they wear can often offer insight into their personality and motivation.

Clothing can also be used to represent social status, with certain fabrics and styles reserved for the wealthy and others for the poor. Accessories, such as jewelry or hats, can also serve as symbols, representing anything from love to wealth. By using clothing and accessories as sources of literary symbolism, authors can add depth and nuance to their writing, making their stories and poems all the more engaging to readers.

Places and Locations as Sources of Literary Symbolism

One of the most common forms of symbolic imagery in literature is the use of places and locations as sources of symbolism. Through the description of a location, an author can imbue it with meaning beyond its literal representation.

  • For example, a dark forest may symbolize danger or the unknown, while a bright and open field may symbolize freedom and hope.

Symbolic locations can also represent ideas or themes, such as a city being a symbol for modernity or a small town for tradition. The careful use of symbolic location can deepen and enrich a reader’s understanding of a story and its themes. From the moors of Wuthering Heights to the island in Lord of the Flies, symbolic locations have been a powerful tool in literature for centuries.

Through the use of symbolic imagery, authors effectively convey themes and ideas that may be difficult to express through straightforward narration. As a reader, it is exciting to discover the hidden meanings behind these images and how they contribute to the overall message of the story.

Religious Symbols in Literature

Religious symbols have been used in literature throughout history. These symbols serve as powerful tools to represent greater themes and ideas. One of the most prominent examples of this is the cross, which obviously represents Christianity, but also embodies themes of sacrifice and redemption.

The Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, is often associated with spirituality and prophetic wisdom. The Buddha, a symbol of Buddhism, represents the path to enlightenment and inner peace. By incorporating these symbols into literary works, authors are able to convey deeper messages that reveal the human condition and the quest for spiritual truth.

Ultimately, the use of religious symbols in literature can provide readers with a more profound understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Mythology and Folklore Symbols in Literature

Mythology and folklore symbols have played a significant role in literature throughout history. These symbols are often used by authors to add depth and meaning to their stories.

  • For example, the Greek myth of Prometheus, who brought fire to humans and was punished by the gods, represents the struggle between knowledge and authority.

Similarly, the Norse god Odin, who gave up an eye for wisdom, symbolizes sacrifice for knowledge. These symbols can provide insight into the themes of a work and allow readers to connect to the story on a deeper level. From the use of mythical creatures to the retelling of ancient legends, mythology and folklore continue to influence literature in both subtle and overt ways.

Symbols Representing Emotions

Symbols hold significant meaning in our lives and can represent various emotions. From a smiling emoticon to a red heart symbol, they convey a range of sentiments that are difficult to express merely through words. These small graphics have become an integral part of our digital communication, and we use them every day to express our happiness, sadness, love, anger, and every emotion in between.

With just a few clicks, we can let someone know how we feel, even if we are miles apart. Memes, emojis, and other symbols help us connect way, and bring a touch of levity and color to our everyday conversations. In essence, these symbols are the new language of the modern world.

Symbols Representing Conflict

Symbols can powerfully convey emotions and ideas, especially when representing conflict. In literature, sword fights, gunshots, and bombs exploding are all symbols that can represent physical conflict. However, conflict can also be represented through less tangible symbols, such as a broken heart or a clenched fist.

The symbol of a dove has become a popular representation of peace in contrast to conflict, while the representation of the scales of justice often represents a conflict between good and evil. Even though these symbols may seem simple, they can carry deep meanings and emotions, making them powerful tools to convey conflict in various forms of communication.

Symbolizing Good vs Evil

Symbolism is a powerful tool in storytelling, and one of the most enduring symbols is that of good versus evil. Whether represented by light and shadows or angels and demons, this dichotomy captures the essence of human morality and the struggle between our better and darker natures.

Literature and religious texts have long utilized symbolism to explore this age-old conflict, and it continues to be a popular theme in movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment. By using symbols to represent good and evil, creators can tap into our deepest fears and hopes, making these stories more impactful and meaningful.

Symbolizing Life & Death

Symbolism has always been present in different aspects of our lives, and it serves as a language of its own. In art, literature, and mythology, symbolism helps convey ideas and emotions that are otherwise difficult to articulate. In life and death, symbolism plays a significant role in how we express our emotions and understand the world around us.

Whether it’s through the black clothing we wear to funerals or the flowers we bring to a loved one’s grave, these symbols help us cope with the complexities of existence. The power of symbolism lies in its ability to convey profound and deeply felt emotions without the need for words.

It serves as a reminder that even in the face of death, life persists, and that even the smallest symbol can hold great significance.

Symbolizing Transformation

Transformation is a powerful process that is often marked by significant changes and growth. It is a time of both introspection and outward expression and is often marked by the use of symbols to represent the shifts in our lives. These symbols can take many forms, ranging from personal tattoos and jewelry to cultural signifiers and religious iconography.

Whatever form they take, these symbols serve as a reminder of the transformative power of change, and help us to stay connected to the growth that we are undergoing. So if you’re in the midst of a period of transformation or growth, consider finding a symbol that speaks to you, and using it to help you stay focused and inspired on your journey.

Using Metaphors to Create Symbolic Meanings

Symbols are an integral part of communication and the way information is conveyed. Symbolic meaning comes into play when people use metaphors to convey messages. Metaphors give a meaningful, yet different interpretation to the subject being discussed, allowing the audience to connect more with the message at hand and expand their understanding of its purpose.

This can lead to an enhanced comprehension of what is being communicated as metaphors create visual or abstract imagery associated with a concept that may not be easily understood otherwise. As a result, using metaphors to create symbolic meanings can provide an approachable form of communication that allows the audience to make lasting connections with the information.

Using Symbols To Create Irony

Symbols are powerful tools in the literature that can be used to convey complex ideas subtly. When used to create irony, symbols can imbue a story with a layer of meaning that goes beyond the words on the page. Take, for example, the classic tale of “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. In this story, the main symbols of sacrifice and love are beautifully intertwined.

The wife sells her hair to buy a chain for her husband’s pocket watch, while the husband sells his watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair. The irony lies in the fact that each of them has given up something of great value to buy a gift for the other, yet the gifts are now useless without the things that were sacrificed.

This clever manipulation of symbols creates a poignant and thought-provoking story that has become a classic in its own right.

Symbolism In Modern Literature

Symbolism in modern literature plays a significant role in engaging readers and conveying deeper meanings beyond the surface level of the story. While symbolism has been used by writers throughout history, it has gained even greater importance in modern literature as authors use it to comment on current social issues and explore the complexities of the human experience.

Symbols can be found in various forms, including objects, colors, or even characters themselves, and allow for a deeper understanding of the story’s themes and messages. Through the use of symbolism, modern literature offers readers an opportunity to reflect on their own lives and the world around them.

Symbolic Meaning of Numbers in Literature

Throughout literary works, numbers are often used symbolically to represent different concepts or themes. For example, the number three often symbolizes completeness or unity, as seen in the Holy Trinity or the three musketeers. Similarly, the number seven is frequently associated with perfection or purity, as in the Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Wonders of the World.

Numbers can also be used to convey a sense of order or chaos – the number nine, for instance, can represent disorder and confusion, while the number four is often used to represent stability and balance. By using numbers symbolically in literature, authors can add additional layers of meaning to their work, helping to deepen the reader’s understanding of the themes and ideas presented.

The Use Of Imagery in Literature

The use of imagery in literature is an essential element that enhances the reader’s experience. Imagery is a literary device that allows the reader to create vivid mental pictures by using descriptive language. It is often used to convey emotions, set the mood, or paint a detailed picture of a particular scene.

Whether it be using the imagery of the sunset to describe the end of a chapter or the vivid imagery of a battlefield to describe the horrors of war, imagery brings the words to life and makes the story more relatable. It can transport the reader to another world or another time, making the experience more engaging and immersive.

The use of imagery in literature has been a powerful tool for centuries and continues to be an important element in literature today.


Symbolism is an important literary device used by authors to convey ideas and emotions to readers. We have explored the definition of symbolism, its role in literature, common examples of symbolic imagery, and sources of symbols such as nature, animals, color, objects etc., religious symbols in literature and how metaphors are used to create symbolic meanings. Additionally we discussed the use of symbols in modern literature and the symbolic meaning of numbers in literature.

Symbolism can be a powerful tool for enhancing story-telling when used correctly; it allows authors to communicate complex concepts quickly with their audience without spelling out every detail. By understanding these various aspects of symbolism writers can craft stories that captivate their audiences’ imaginations while conveying deeper underlying messages about our world today.


What is symbolism in literature?

Symbolism in literature is the use of symbols to represent ideas, emotions, people, and objects. It can be used in any type of writing to help create a more vivid picture for readers. Symbols are often found in stories, poems, plays, novels, and other written works. They can take the form of physical objects like an apple or a rose, animals such as a lion or eagle, colors like blue or red, and words like “love” or “hate”.

What is the role of symbolism in literature?

The role of symbolism in literature is to convey ideas and emotions that would otherwise be difficult to articulate into words. Writers may use symbols to communicate complex feelings that cannot be expressed in a single sentence. Symbols can also be used to create suspense, reveal hidden meanings and foreshadow events.

What are some common examples of literary symbols?

Common examples of literary symbols include nature elements like water or fire, animals such as birds or wolves, colors representing various emotions, objects associated with certain characters or themes, and words like “truth” or “peace”. Metaphors are also often used to convey symbolic meaning.

Are there religious symbols in literature?

Yes, religious symbols are often found in literature. For example, a cross may symbolize faith in Christianity while a crescent moon is symbolic of Islam. In addition to these religious symbols, writers may also use symbols from other faiths such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

How is symbolism used in modern literature?

Modern writers continue to use symbolism in their writing. Symbols often appear in the form of metaphors, which are devices used to describe something by comparing it to another object or concept. For example, a character’s “heart of gold” might symbolize their kindness and generosity.

What is the symbolic meaning of numbers in literature?

Different numbers can have different symbolic meanings in literature. The number three is often seen as a holy number that represents purity and life while four usually symbolizes order and stability. Other numbers like seven and twelve can represent completion or perfection while eight is seen as a symbol of eternity.

Symbolism is an important literary device used by writers to convey ideas, emotions, and objects in a way that readers can easily understand. By exploring the definition of symbolism, its role in literature, common examples of symbolic imagery, and religious symbols in literature, we can gain a better understanding of how this powerful tool works.

We can also see how modern literature continues to use symbols to communicate complex themes and meanings. Lastly, we can examine the symbolic meaning of numbers in literature and how they are used as metaphors to craft powerful stories. With this knowledge in mind, we will be able to appreciate the depth and beauty found within the written word.

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