Discover Online Classes in Creative Writing

Storytelling, Fiction, Nonfiction and more

When it comes to literature and poetry, what we read shouldn’t always be taken at face value. In many cases, words, phrases, objects, and even characters can all mean something very different than what we see on the page. Symbolism has been used in writing for thousands of years and is one of many literary devices authors use to tell their stories. But what narrative devices actually count as symbolism, and which ones are something else entirely? Let’s take a look.

Quick Links

What Is Symbolism?

When it comes to a symbolism definition, the clue’s in the name: Symbolism is something that stands for or suggests something other than the literal meaning. In writing, that usually takes the form of objects or words having an additional meaning that plays a key role in the overall narrative.

Literary symbolism is one of the most popular ways for writers to “show, not tell” in a story. Symbols are often scattered throughout a narrative, some more obvious than others, and used to give readers an indication of what is about to happen. It’s a great way to bring out an emotional response in your audience, build tension, or create an added sensory experience for your readers to enjoy as they progress through the writing.

Symbolism Examples

We see examples of symbolism everywhere, both in literature and in our daily lives, and there are hundreds of universally accepted meanings for different phrases or images that go beyond their most obvious interpretations. Here are just a few:

White: Innocence and Purity

The color white is often used as a symbol for innocence or purity—think traditional white wedding dresses or raising a white flag in surrender. There’s nothing specific about white that would suggest these meanings, but over years of people attributing additional meaning to the color, these deeper implications have become part of our collective understanding.

Four-Leaf Clover: Luck or Good Fortune

The “luck of the Irish” is often ascribed to the four-leaf clover. While the three-leaf clover is common, a clover with four leaves is much rarer to stumble across. For this reason, if you’re able to find one, it’s considered to be incredibly lucky.

Ravens: Prophecy or Death

As a talking bird, ravens have often been seen throughout history as symbolic of prophecy or wisdom; a connection between the human and spirit worlds. But their dark feathers, ominous presence, and typical diet of decaying flesh have also led to their association with death, loss, or bad fortune. Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous poem “The Raven” is a good example of this type of symbolism in literature.

Write Stories That Captivate Your Readers

The Writer’s Toolkit: 6 Steps to a Successful Writing Habit

Types of Symbolism

Religious Symbolism

For centuries, religion has been a dominant force in societies all across the world. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that symbols around religious beliefs have been so prevalent in literature and poetry. 

Shakespeare was a fan of using religious symbolism, often using phrases like “pilgrim,” “saint,” and “shrine” to discuss the love of Romeo and Juliet. Not only did these phrases resonate with a highly religious audience during his time, it also allows modern readers to empathize with the plight of the two lovers and feel the depth and purity of their love.

Romantic Symbolism

Other universally understood concepts, love and romance are symbolized in various ways throughout literature and poetry. Swans and red roses, for example, have become synonymous with love and devotion. 

While some writers are more obvious with their romantic symbols (a candlelit dinner or heart-shaped objects are clearly about love), others choose to keep their literary symbolism less straightforward for the reader. In John Keats’ poem “Ode to Nightingale,” the music of the bird suggests the beauty of communication between man and animal. What’s more, it also symbolizes love, drawing on traditional symbols of birds and romance from Greek mythology.

Emotional Symbolism

In all ages, writers have all used physical objects to suggest emotion. Take, for example, Lady Macbeth’s blood-stained hands that won’t wash clean to represent her guilt or Rose’s butterfly hair comb in Titanic to represent her feelings of freedom around Jack.

Water is also often used as a symbol of emotions. A calm rainstorm might suggest sadness, whereas rough seas usually mean there’s trouble brewing. On the other hand, fire is commonly used to represent anger, pain, or destruction. In the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, the burning of books is both literal destruction and symbolic of the erasure of freedom and knowledge.

Other Types of Symbolism

Mythology

Myths are a particular genre of narrative heavily based in symbolism. They often tell the stories of gods or non-human creatures interacting with the human world or having some impact on our lives. 

Historic myths have come to form a strong connection with many religious and spiritual groups around the world, especially in connection with creation stories, while others discuss explanations for cultural norms and customs. These types of examples of symbolism can be found in Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Norse mythology—simply think of any deity in the pantheon, and they represent more than just their name.

Personification

Personification is a literary device typically used by writers to give an inanimate object or non-human character the behavior of a person. It can help readers to connect more deeply with whatever is being personified, particularly in non-human characters, or can simply add more decorative language to literary works and poetry.

Weather and buildings are some of the most commonly personified examples of symbolism in literature—take the phrase, “the thunder roared through the valley,” for example. When it comes to poetic symbolism, Emily Dickinson was known for her frequent use of personification. She once wrote, “The Heart wants what it wants—or else it does not care.”

Literary Devices That Aren’t Really Symbolism

Metaphor

While on the surface, it may seem like metaphors are symbolic, this isn’t quite accurate. As a figure of speech, metaphors make a like-for-like comparison, rather than giving the object or person a symbolic meaning. 

The classic Elf line, “you sit on a throne of lies,” may appear to be symbolism at first glance (the chair is representative of a throne), but it’s actually a metaphor. The chair is metaphoric for a pile of lies, which is of course something entirely intangible, and a direct comparison is made between this imagined pile of lies and a throne.

Simile

Like a metaphor, a simile is a figure of speech that compares two objects or concepts—although this time, we’re talking about two dissimilar things. You’ll see this concept in plenty of everyday phrases, such as “flat as a pancake,” “light as a feather,” or “fits like a glove.”

These aren’t symbolic in a classic sense, as the use of “as” and “like” makes it clear a direct comparison is being made, rather than something being representative of something else. This is also what makes them different from a metaphor, since the “as” or “like” is making the comparison much clearer.

Allegory

Allegory is the next closest literary device to symbolism, using events, actions, or characters to represent specific ideas. Allegories work on their own as standalone events or beings, without any symbolism being taken into account, but are closely tied to the overall theme or message of the narrative. In an allegorical story, almost every detail has some level of symbolism. On the other hand, a symbolic story does not necessarily need to be an allegory.

One common (though debated) example is the character Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Aslan is often thought to represent Jesus—sacrificing his life to save Edmund’s life and his resurrection in the final chapters only strengthens the argument.

Symbolism in Poetry

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

Wordsworth’s work is full of poetic symbolism, and this piece is no different. His references to daffodils, following from his descriptions of loneliness, are symbolic of a new beginning and blooming into a new life:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson

Many of the best examples of symbolism in poetry are written by Emily Dickinson. In this poem, she uses the symbol of the carriage to suggest the speaker’s movement toward death (which is also suggested later in her use of the sunset) and the passage between life, death, and the afterlife.

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

Write Your Own Symbolic Stories

Now that you have a better understanding of what symbolism is—and isn’t—you can start to add elements into your own works of fiction. Take inspiration from the world’s best authors and poets, test out a few symbols yourself, and see how they can transform your next piece of writing.

Start a Brand New Story Today!

Novel Writing for Beginners: How to Write Your First Draft