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What is Symbolism? Explained With Examples in Different Genres

An art movement of the late 19th century, symbolism affected art and literature in a very significant way. This article explains what symbolism is in fiction, poetry, and art.
Ishani Chatterjee Shukla
Last Updated: Mar 12, 2018
The symbolism movement traces its origins to 19th century France and Belgium. The first instance of it in literature is often cited as Charles Baudelaire's poetical work Les Fleurs du Mal (or The Flowers of Evil). The belief follows metaphorical representation of the truth, be it in art or literature. Rather than expressing an idea or opinion or describing a person or situation the way it is, symbolists made use of metaphors and incorporated allusions that imparted a symbolic undertone to images and objects.
The emergence of the movement is believed to be a reaction against the naturalism and realism movements. Followers argued that the objective of art and literature is to capture the core essence of absolute truths by approaching them indirectly such that the idea is conveyed without using long and tedious descriptions or details. For instance, the symbolism of the lily, be it in art, prose, or poetry, is used to hint at purity, innocence, and virginity.
In Fiction
Symbolism in prose has a very long and rich history. The works of many eminent authors contain allusions ingeniously inserted among the prose. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, presents a good example of transcendental symbolism in fictional literature. Other examples include Lord of the Flies by Nobel Prize winner William Golding, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, and Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.
In Poetry
The most abundant reservoir of literary symbolism is none other than poetry. This is because poetry serves as a more suitable ground for symbolism due to the preference of indirect allusions to impart poetic eloquence to the subject. A poem has less of description and more of a feel of the central idea. Even when it has descriptive elements, it chooses to go along with it by way of metaphors and allusions rather than an explanation. Some examples are:
Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

~ "The Sick Rose" by William Blake
A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet -
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
"My fragile leaves," it said, "his heart enclose."
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

~ "One Perfect Rose" by Dorothy Parker
In both these poems the flower is very dominant, and everything else surrounding the roses impart different meanings to its being. Besides the rose and the lily, the lotus flower can also be found in literary and philosophical works and it alludes to spiritual beauty and gradual blooming of the higher consciousness.
In Art
In the painting, The Caress by Khnopff, the image of a leopard bodied female caressing a young man is strongly symbolic of the dormant feral aggression that lies beneath an externally benign facade. Many of Khnopff's artistic works dealt with the subject of the duality of a woman's identity as angelic and a femme fatale at the same time. In terms of popular art, trees and dragonflies also hold very interesting associations. While the former symbolizes the oneness and interdependency of cosmic life, the latter stands for the subconscious self (like a mirror which the dragonfly's wings resemble) and probing beyond the surface to get to the complete truth. As such, these motifs are very popular as tattoo art subjects owing to their deep philosophical connotations.