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Understanding symbolism

Understanding symbolism

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Summary

Understanding symbolism

In a nutshell

Words, objects and ideas which are repeated throughout a text are often symbolic. Writers use symbolism in narratives to add another layer of meaning to a text. In this summary, you'll learn to recognise symbolism and analyse its meaning within a text.



What is symbolism?

Key words, objects and pieces of imagery which are repeated throughout a text are often representative of something beyond their literal meaning. Some symbols have specific meanings or connotations, but with others, the reader has to work out from the context. The meaning of the symbolism in a story often ties in with the overall theme of the narrative.


Example

''Then I’ll give him the conch... That’s what this shell’s called. I’ll give the conch to the next person to speak. He can hold it when he’s speaking.''


(From 'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding)


In 'Lord of the Flies', the conch is a symbol for law and order. When someone is holding the conch everyone else has to respect and listen to them. When the conch is destroyed, so is any notion of law, order or respect on the island and everything falls apart. 



Common symbols

All sorts of things can be symbolic from colours to numbers, nature, the weather, animals, settings, ideas and more. Some symbols are specific to cultures or nationalities and they sometimes originate from religious texts. 


Examples

​​Symbol

Meaning

the colour red

anger, passion, danger

a four-leaf clover

luck, good fortune

a window

opportunity and freedom if open; a lack thereof if closed

the rain

sadness, depression

a lightbulb 

invention, intelligence

spring

new life, rebirth

an owl

wisdom, knowledge

a rose

romance, love

a desert

isolation, loneliness


Tip: Even common symbols can have many possible meanings. In order to work out the meaning of a symbol, you must take into account the context among other factors.



Connotations and layers of meaning

Symbolism adds another layer of meaning to a text. To work out what a symbol represents, or stands for, you need to carefully examine the way it is described. First, think about the possible connotations of the symbol; consider any meaning it could have beyond its literal one and what feelings it evokes. Also, bear in mind the characters and settings which are associated with the symbol as well as the overall context, theme and genre of the text.



Example 1

'Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.'


(From 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)


In 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' the albatross is symbolic. At the beginning of the poem, the albatross represents freedom, hope and even good luck. After the mariner kills the innocent bird, the meaning of the symbolism changes. Wearing the albatross around his neck 'instead of the cross', the bird is now a symbol of Christ. This is further reinforced by the fact that the mariner killed the bird with a crossbow, evoking images of the crucifixion. This symbolism ties into one of the poem's themes that nature should be revered as God is. 


Example 2

'... he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.'


(From 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald)


This excerpt from 'The Great Gatsby' is the first time the reader encounters both the character of Gatsby and the symbolic green light which represents his hopes and dreams. At the beginning of the novel, the green light symbolises Gatsby's love for Daisy, but it also represents their past and the physical and emotional distance between them. The green light also stands for money and the unattainable American Dream which Gatsby strives for; he is very rich but he still craves acceptance from those more powerful than himself.


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