This post is part of the Grammar Gadgets series, a collection of in-depth studies of literary devices, aka figures of speech. Focusing on one device at a time will present a clearer understanding of each, as well as answer when, where, and how the tool is used. Since so many literary devices are very similar to one another, this will help us to differentiate between, say, a simile and a metaphor.
As writers, we often strive to make our writing more meaningful and impactful. One way to achieve this is through the use of symbolism. Symbolism refers to the use of symbols or objects in writing to represent something else, often an abstract concept or idea. These symbols can be physical objects, actions, or even colors and patterns. Symbolism is a powerful tool in writing because it allows writers to convey complex ideas and themes in a way that is both memorable and emotionally resonant. By using symbols that are rich in meaning, writers can evoke powerful emotions and connect with readers on a deeper level. Every culture and individual has a unique set of symbols that represent different concepts, feelings, and events. In literature, there are three main types of symbols—universal symbols, cultural symbols, and personal symbols.
Types of Symbolism
Universal symbols are those that are commonly recognized across cultures, religions, and time periods. These symbols often have an inherent meaning or association that is understood by most people. Examples of universal symbols include the sun (representing warmth, light, and growth), the heart (representing love or emotion), and the rose (representing beauty or passion). These examples illustrate how these simple objects can carry powerful meanings across a range of cultures. As a writer, incorporating universal symbols can help to make your story more relatable across different audiences. By using these shared metaphors in your writing, you can tap into readers’ emotions instantly. Be mindful to not overuse them; they will lose their impact if they appear too frequently in your writing.
Cultural symbols often represent specific aspects of a culture such as its history or religion. They may be images like religious iconography such as the Cross for Christianity or the Star of David for Judaism; it could also be gestures like bowing in Japan as a sign of respect. Incorporating cultural symbols in your writing creates authenticity when representing different cultures and helps readers understand customs that may not be familiar to them. However, it’s important to research cultural symbolism thoroughly before using them; what is appropriate in one culture may not be acceptable in another. Avoid stereotypes—their use can lead to inaccurate representation which may offend some groups.
Personal symbolism involves objects that hold significant meanings for an individual character within a narrative. An example could be a pocket watch handed down from a grandfather. They are powerful because they anchor the character to something beyond themselves that has emotional depth. These symbols represent different things for each character, which can add complexity to their personalities. Using personal symbols in your writing can help readers connect better with your characters, making them more relatable and authentic. It’s essential to ensure the symbol is well-described and its importance is communicated clearly so that readers can understand its significance.
How to Use Symbolism in Writing
Symbols can be a powerful tool in enhancing your writing, but they must be used effectively to have the desired impact on your readers. Here are some tips on how to use symbolism in your writing:
When selecting symbols to use in your writing, it is important to consider the theme and tone of your story. What emotions do you want to evoke in your readers? Are there particular objects or images that relate to these emotions? It is also critical to choose symbols that are relevant to the story or characters. The symbol should not seem out of place or random. Instead, it should fit naturally into the narrative and add depth and meaning.
The placement of symbols within your writing is crucial for their effectiveness. Symbols should be introduced early on in the story so that they have time to develop and become significant. This allows readers to become familiar with them and understand their relevance. Symbols should also be used sparingly and purposefully. Too many symbols can confuse readers or dilute their impact. Choose a few key symbols that will have a strong impact on the story.
Symbols can have different meanings depending on who is interpreting them, so it is important not to be too heavy-handed with them. Allow readers to draw their own conclusions about what the symbol means rather than spelling it out for them. This also means considering how different readers may interpret the same symbol differently based on their own experiences or cultural background. Overall, using symbolism effectively requires thoughtfulness and care when choosing, placing, and interpreting symbols within your writing. When done well, symbolism can add layers of meaning and emotion that elevate your writing beyond the surface level.
Not to be Confused With… Motif
A motif is very similar to symbolism but there are some key differences between the two rhetorical cousins. Like symbolism, motifs can be an idea, object, or symbol, however, the primary function of motifs in literature is to create unity and coherence by repeating those elements or patterns throughout the story. Writers use motifs to help readers appreciate thematic connections between different parts of the literary work. Through their recurrence throughout the story, motifs give readers more profound insights into the characters' motivations. The best way to determine if the literary element is a motif or a symbol is to identify its place in the story. If the objects or symbols are meant to represent something else, like an idea or a thing, that is symbolism. If the objects or symbols recur throughout the story and are used to create a theme, that is a motif.
Examples of Symbolism in Literature
The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
One of the most famous examples of symbolism in literature can be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter. In this book, Hawthorne uses one simple symbol, a scarlet letter “A” to represent a much larger concept—societal shame and condemnation. The Scarlet Letter “A” remains one of literature’s most enduring symbols – a testament to the power of symbolism in storytelling.
The Star Wars Saga
Many people view George Lucas’ Star Wars films as being symbolic of the Christian faith, or at least of God in some manner. There is good and evil, a father and a son, and the Jedi Council is a supernatural entity—just to mention a few.
The 1994 Robert Zemeckis’ blockbuster film Forrest Gump, based on Winston Groom’s novel of the same title, is chocked full of symbolism and motifs. Symbols in the film, or book, range from "life being like a box of chocolates" to Forrest playing ping pong non-stop, symbolizing the character’s determination. One of the motifs in the story is running, as Forrest is continually running for some reason or another throughout the film, and one of the main lines is even, “Run, Forrest, run!”
What Have We Learned
Symbolism Helps to Connect With Readers on a Deeper Level
We learned that symbolism is a powerful tool used by writers to convey complex ideas with symbols and objects used to represent something else. Symbols have been used in literature for centuries, whether it be a universal symbol, such as a heart symbolizing love, or a personal symbol like a trinket passed down through generations that puts the reader closer to the character in the story.
Like so many of the Grammar Gadgets, symbolism is similar to other rhetorical devices, and it is often confused with motif, which is a recurring theme throughout the story. One way to tell if something is a symbol or a motif is to identify how often it is mentioned in the whole story. Symbols are usually mentioned once or twice, but motifs are brought up continuously throughout the story and create a mood or theme.
We also learned that by using symbols in your writing, you can evoke emotions in your readers and, if used properly, you can create a closer connection to those readers. Symbolism is everywhere—all around us, all the time; but not all symbols are interpreted the same by all people. For this reason, it is best to take care and be thoughtful when choosing the symbols, objects, and phrases in your work. Other tips on using symbolism are to introduce symbols fairly early so they can develop over the course of the story, and use them sparingly and purposefully. As writers, we should allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about what the symbols mean, as opposed to giving them to them on a platter.
Both symbolism and motif are commonly pulled from the writer’s toolbox and when used properly, can deepen the meaning of their writing, as well as form a bond with the reader.
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Don't miss the next Grammar Gadget: Chiasmus- A device used to produce an artistic effect.