What is Symbolism? Definition, Examples of Literary Symbolism

Symbolism definition: Symbolism is the representation of one thing for another using a person, object, or idea.

What is Symbolism in Literature?

What does symbolize mean? A symbol is something that is represented by something else. A symbol is a physical object that stands for another object, person, or idea.

Just about anything can be a symbol. However, some symbols are commonly understood.

Symbolism Examples:

  • a heart is a symbol for love
  • a dove is a symbol for peace
  • a white cross inside a red square is a symbol for first-aid or hospital

Modern Examples of Symbolism

What is the definition of symbolism and their meanings Symbolism is not just present in literature, but in everyday life as well.

Everyday example of symbolism: The Statue of Liberty is a symbol for freedom. The object itself does not mean freedom. However, over time, people have grown to associate this figure to mean freedom. Therefore, an image of this object could conjure images or ideas of freedom.

Everyday example of symbolism: A caduceus is a familiar symbol for medicine. The image itself does not mean medicine. However, the caduceus has become synonymous with medicine. So, seeing a caduceus on a door might mean a medical school or doctor’s office.

The Function of Symbolism

symbolic definitionSymbols help to associate and connect things with ideas or concepts. Sometimes, representing an idea with a physical object communicates more meaning than explaining the idea itself.

In writing, an author may not want to directly state a concept. He may just want to represent that idea with something else.

For example, perhaps a writer wants to represent the idea of “a fresh start” or “a new beginning.” To do so in his writing, he might not want to actually state these words. Instead, he might use a sunrise to represent these ideas.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

famous symbols in literatureSymbolism is used frequently in literature.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Yorick’s skull is a symbol for both death and fate. Hamlet speaks to this skull at great length, contemplating death and the concept of mortality. The skull is a physical representation of these ideas.

In Robert Frost’s poem “The Road not Taken,” two roads represent choices in life. The roads “diverged in a yellow wood” and the speaker has the option to choose one or the other. He contemplates each and eventually chooses “the road less traveled by” which ends up “making all the difference.”

Non-Literary Uses of Symbolism

literary symbolsIt is highly symbolic that Theresa May has chosen to visit Scotland so soon after becoming prime minister. But this visit will be about substance as well as symbolism. –BBC News

Yet, for J.P. Morgan, the symbolism of the move is likely larger than its financial impact. The raise is expected to cost the bank around $100 million over three years on top of employees’ regular wages, assuming an average increase of about $3 an hour. –The Wall Street Journal

Summary: What is Symbolism?

Define symbolism in literature: the definition of symbolism in literature is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities for literary effect.

In summary, a symbolism is:

  • the representation of one object, idea, or concept, with another object
  • used frequently in literature
  • often a way to communicate deeper meaning without expressing literal terms