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Symbolism: Examples in Literature That Convey More Than Just Words

Symbolism Examples
If you have ever wondered about the use of images and words to represent completely unrelated ideas, then symbology is a subject that you will definitely find fascinating. There are many examples of symbolism that can help you understand this device of communication better.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Mar 9, 2018
"A symbol means more than itself, but first it means itself. Like a developing image in a photographer's tray, a symbol reveals itself slowly. It's been there all along, waiting to emerge from the story, the poem, the essay - and from the writer herself." - Rebecca McClanahan

Symbolism or the use of images to represent other distinct thoughts and ideas has always held a very mysterious appeal for most of us. Symbols are intriguing and they hold a certain gravitational pull forcing us to at least try to figure out the hidden meaning behind these representations. To a certain extent, that is probably the reason why The Da Vinci Code became the worldwide phenomenon that it did. Dan Brown knew how to capture the attention of his target audience. But literary references apart, symbolism has come a long way from the 18th century use of the literary device to put forward mystical ideas. Today symbols are used for both practical purposes and to express abstract thoughts. This is evident from the many examples across many different spheres, for example mathematics, arts, politics, literature, philosophy, etc. The list of the same can be endless.

Use of Symbolism

Symbols are an integral part of our daily life and a single image or word at times is enough to give us an entire picture. Anything can be used as a symbol; a sign, an image, a picture, a character, or even a word. Any of these can be representative of an idea or a thought. For example, the moment you see the image of a skull and crossbones, you know there is danger ahead. If you notice that the traffic signal is amber, you slow down the vehicle because you know that the stop signal is next. If someone shows you the picture of Eiffel tower, you will immediately associate the same with Paris, which in itself is associated with romance, good food, and culture. If someone makes a comparison between an acquaintance of yours and Hamlet, then you would automatically assume that the person is troubled. You do so without second guessing yourself because it is one of the best examples in literature that can be used to associate with a troubled individual. That is the power of symbology. Without saying much, a lot can be communicated and expressed.

Symbolism is also used for more practical purposes. Roman numerals, musical notations, religious icons are all examples of symbology that are used by us everyday. We use them in artwork, in writing, music, movies, and a lot of other things. For example, every color is associated with an emotion, like red with anger and green with envy. Symbols can be used to identify a concept, it can be used to express facts that cannot have physical representations. They can represent unknown facts and be used to convey hidden and deeper meanings.

Examples of Symbolism

Derived from the Greek word, sumballein, symbol literally means 'thrown together', with an association with the theory of contrast or comparison. Today, symbols do not necessarily have to denote contrast. They can be straightforward representations that have come to be associated with a certain idea.
  • Mathematics is filled with many symbols, from the commonly used addition, subtraction (±), multiplication (×), division (÷) to the lesser used π or Pi which is a symbol for the value 3.14159...., which is an indefinite value. Most operations in mathematics have different symbols to represent them. This is one of the easiest examples for kids to understand as they use it more often.
  • There are also many religious symbols that are commonly used. The cross is a symbol of Christianity and the Star of David is associated with Judaism. The swastika, which is a symbol associated with Hinduism and is used to denote good luck, has more recently acquired sinister affiliations, thanks to its use by Hitler and the Nazi party.
  • The flags of most nations are good examples of symbology. The U.S. flag has thirteen stripes to represent the thirteen colonies that came together to form the nation and fifty stars to represent the fifty states. The Indian flag is a tricolor, where each color symbolizes a different meaning, saffron standing for courage and sacrifice, white for peace and truth, and green for faith and chivalry. The Ashoka Chakra represents the wheel of law.
  • Arts and literature is one field which is bursting at the seams with examples. One of the most notable examples is the use of the alphabet A, pinned to Hester Prynne, to symbolize adultery, in The Scarlet Letter. Another masterpiece that is replete with symbols and references is the Animal Farm, an allegorical novel by George Orwell, which uses farm animals with human qualities to represent communism and its ills. One of the most commonly cited examples in poetry is the use of the literary device in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. Addressed to his father, the poem uses night as a representation of death and light or day to symbolize life.
  • There are many cultural symbols also that are synonymous with specific countries. The Bald Eagle is a symbol of courage in America, the Yin Yang, a symbol of balance that originated in China. These symbols are often patriotic or evidence of moral standards and beliefs.
It helps to enhance the quality of literature in a way that no other literary device quite manages. Similarly, if used in daily life it can help us in reducing the effort that sometimes needs to be put into explaining an idea. The examples that have been elucidated in this article are just some of the signs used to represent different ideas and thoughts.
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