by Veronika Guttenberger

A symbol is something that represents something else.  It can be a word, image, object, action, character, or really, anything.  It is one of many figures of speech.

Here are some examples of literary symbolism:

In Ernest Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, the river symbolizes the narrator’s life; fishing the upper part of it symbolizes the lost paradise of his boyhood.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the letter A symbolizes adultery.scarlet-letter

In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, the black bird symbolizes death, loss, regret, mourning, and loneliness.the-raven

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the albatross symbolizes a burden one must bear.

In Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge, published in 1961, the mother’s hat represents her longing for past traditions.  The same hat worn by the African American woman represents the aspirations of the new black middle class. The identical hats are a concrete symbol for equality. Therefore, the “converging” of equality.

A critic, reviewing Hemingway’s novel, Across the River and Into the Trees,” pointed out that the white bird that flies out of the gondola during a romantic moment symbolized the loss of the heroine’s virginity.

Hemingway responded by saying, “That white bird was just something I wrote into the scene because I thought it was a nice touch. It sure as hell wasn’t anybody’s flying virginity.”

This source argues that one should not consciously place symbols into one’s writing, because such deliberate implants often create an awkward, artificial impression.

Further, he says it’s impossible for anyone to write fiction without subconsciously inserting hidden symbols on various levels.  Symbolism flows from the subconscious and becomes a natural part of the narrative.  By consciously ignoring symbolism, you let your subconscious work freely.  Let your readers discover whatever symbolism they perceive.  How a reader interprets your work should not concern you.

On the other extreme of the symbolism, spectrum is The Imagist School, a school of literary criticism that grew out of the “New Criticism” of the 1940s and 1950s.  This School basically said that the reader is the author, not the writer.

In this kind of writing, a “literary symbol” means nothing to the story’s characters.  It has meaning only to the reader.  For example, if you repeatedly and strategically use the image of a pair of dirty socks, you are asking the reader to find the hidden meaning of the dirty socks.  It is artificial and has no meaning to the characters — only the reader.

But maybe there IS a conscious way to use symbolism that is not forced and artificial and IS meaningful to the characters in the story.

Here is an example of an appropriate, deliberately placed symbol:

The sled in the film, Citizen Kane, symbolizes Kane’s yearning to return to the innocence and joy of his childhood.  When the elderly Kane says “Rosebud” near the end of the film, you realize that’s all he ever really wanted.  Although this symbol is consciously inserted into the script, it works because it has meaning for Kane.


Interesting item:

Leon Howard, Herman Melville’s biographer, wrote that it was Melville’s “practice to let his mind play with concrete details until they became ‘luminous with suggestive implications.’  Until they turned into symbols, . . . which then formed a conduit between the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the generalization.”

Final point:

A WORD is itself a symbol for something. For example, the word “table” is a symbol for the actual thing.

Every word is a symbol for the idea or thing it represents. These word symbols are our language for verbal and written communication.

As writers, we arrange the sequence of words in particular ways to create an effect in the reader. Each word we write is a symbol for the actual thing or idea.  Then, on top of the arrangement of symbolic words at the first level, the reader perceives a second level of symbolism.