Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism is often used in literature to paint colourful scenes. It affords the writer artistic expression that supersedes bland writing. Beyond that, symbolism also allows readers to visualize complex or difficult subjects. And, if nothing else, it presents readers at the local book club with an opportunity to pick apart various lines of text, searching for hidden meaning.

Symbolism can be an object, person, situation, event or action that has a deeper meaning in the overall context beyond a surface understanding. When used properly, it can enhance a piece of writing and provide further insight to the reader. Together, let’s enjoy some examples of symbolism in literature.

Symbolism in Novels and Plays

From Pexels

No doubt, you’ve come across symbolism in some of your favourite books. Below, we’ll discuss some of the classics, like Wuthering Heights, and move onto more contemporary works of art, including the Harry Potter series.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë went for symbolism right in the title of her novel. The “wuthering heights” are symbolic of the wild nature of the people involved in the story. It seems like, if Brontë could express herself with a symbol over the literal, she would’ve done so. Below, the foliage in the woods is symbolic of the ever-changing nature of love. And the rocks below the surface represent the necessary pain that comes from loving someone.

“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it; I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary.” 

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Aurora Leigh is an epic novel by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She explores many ideals throughout the course of her work but it would seem women were a focal point for her. Instead of saying, “Women are undervalued,” she compares them to a pair of slippers one mindlessly slips into at night.

The works of women are symbolical.

We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,

Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,

To put on when you’re weary.

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling mastered numerous rhetorical devices, all in one work of art. Entire theses have been written about Rowling’s use of symbolism in her Harry Potter series. Let’s take a look at some of the more poignant examples:

  • Harry’s scar is symbolic of his bravery, as a badge of honour. After all, he survives major battle after major battle. But, it’s multi-faceted because one could argue it also stands for emotional sensitivity since it hurts when someone directs hate towards him.
  • Albus Dumbledore’s name is a symbol of his personality. Dumbledore means bumblebee in Old English and he liked to hum. Albus means “white” which may symbolize a white wizard or good wizard.
  • The Golden Snitch symbolizes the spiritual enlightenment every “seeker” aims for.
  • Knockturn Alley is a symbol of darkness and evil. Doesn’t the name alone sound like nocturnal? To no surprise, the Dark Arts are practised in this alley at night.

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

As You Like It was one of Shakespeare’s many plays. He takes the big picture – the world – and symbolizes it on a smaller scale – the stage. Meanwhile, the “players” are a symbol for the people of the world. We’re all a part of the stage and we each have our part.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

they have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts. 

Symbolism in Poetry

From Pexels

Without question, poetry is a written form of art. Beautiful images are painted in the space of a few stanzas. It won’t surprise you to see that poets are huge fans of symbolism. It allows them to take in-depth concepts and paint them in interesting terms that will, hopefully, spark the reader’s imagination.

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

What type of thoughts does a black raven conjure up? We’ve been conditioned to think of them as the carriers of bad omens or, at least, a harbinger to the underworld. Perhaps it all began with Edgar Allan Poe. Nevertheless, he uses a blackbird to stand for death and loss in what is perhaps his most famous poem of them all – a poem he made $10 from. 

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;

But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door-

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door-

Perched, and sat, and nothing more

[ . . . ]

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing farther then he uttered-not a feather then he fluttered-

Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before-

“She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways” by William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth sure knew how to make a lady feel special – accept Lucy (The maid who is the subject of the poem) isn’t thought to be real. There is no evidence that this poem is even semi-autobiographical. In the lines below, he uses “springs of Dove,” “a violet by a mossy stone,” and a star “shining in the sky” as symbols for a quiet, unknown woman whom he loved very much. But, when she was dead, the difference was to him.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

-Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

Symbolism Is Never Going Out of Style

Symbolism is a rhetorical device that’s never going out of style. It allows writers to expose further truths, as they pertain to their message or theme. It also allows them to embrace the beauty – or the struggles – of life in thoughtful and unique ways.

Symbolism is, arguably, one of the strongest literary devices writers have. Much can be said behind while hiding behind the symbols that stream from nature and everyday life. 

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