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Understanding Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism is a literary device that employs an object, word, or action to portray ideas beyond literal interpretation. A symbol can be an action, a word or phrase, a person, location, color, description, or object. Writers can use these symbols to evoke a certain mood or emotion in a brief, subtle yet effective way. In this article, we explore the various types and effects of symbolism in literature.

Types of symbolism in literature

Writers throughout the ages have used symbolism in various ways to represent different themes and ideas. These frequent usage of symbols by writers have developed some categories of symbolism based on the subject matter they represent. And we discuss three of the categories below:

1. Religious symbolism. The earliest form of symbolism is probably religious symbolism. They depict the ideas, beliefs, and teachings of various religious groups. In Christianity, a dove represents the peaceful nature of God, and a serpent portrays the deceitful quality of sin and darkness. In contemporary fiction, religious symbolism also appears in notable works like C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series. Here, Lewis employs a lot of biblical symbols in narrating a story about the fight between good and evil. Another work of fiction that applies religious symbolism is John Milton's Paradise Lost: a retelling of the creation story of the Book of Genesis.

2. Romantic symbolism. The romantic era of literature also created a form of symbolism. Here, symbols help writers to evoke emotions, celebrate the beauty of nature and create powerful sensory imagery in their works. Examples of this usage appear in notable poetry, including the sonnets of Shakespeare, poems by William Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe, George Gordon, and John Keats, among others. 

3. Emotional symbolism. Many writers and poets use symbolism to express deep emotions. Feelings of love, hatred, anger, admiration, depression, and so on are given physical representation that creates vivid impressions in the reader's mind. We can consider this usage a subcategory of romantic symbolism, as they share similar examples in notable poetic works. 

Major effects of symbolism in literature

Symbolism can help convey complex ideas without the need for many words. Writers can use it to compress the concept or theme of their work into a single object, action, or person. For example, in To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee uses the symbol of a mockingbird to communicate the idea of beauty and innocence. 

Writers can use symbolism to reinforce the theme of their story, artistically weaving it into the fabric of their plot to make it a recurring element in their narration. You can see this effect in the use of the color green throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to portray how wealth and materialism define Jay Gatsby.

Symbolism helps to visualize an abstract theme. It uses symbols to graphically represent the deep meaning a story intends to convey, creating a stronger impression in the readers' minds. The visual effects of symbolism make the theme of William Golding's Lord of the Flies more memorable to readers. Golding uses a lot of symbols — a conch shell, a pig's head, a mountain, fire, and so on — to visually register the import of his story to the readers.

Also, writers can use symbols to express the attributes of a character. They can become a pointer to a character's backstory, action, future, potential, or disposition. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Harry's lightning bolt-shaped scar embodies a crucial aspect of his backstory.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen