What Is Symbolism? Reviewing Examples in Literature

Have you ever wondered how to make your essay entertaining and interesting by changing only a few lines? Symbolism is a great tool to improve your paper in a sophisticated way. In this article, we will introduce you to symbolism and ways to use it in your own writing effectively.

What Is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a tool used to give objects a deeper meaning and a different quality with the use of a symbol. Symbols are deeply rooted in our speech without us noticing because they enhance our conversation, make sentences elaborate and exemplify things we talk about more vividly.

For example:

A dove is a symbol of peace, a black cat signifies bad luck, and a white flag means a peace offering.

Most symbols are universal and can be understood by people from different countries and backgrounds. However, some of them are culturally specific and one should be careful in order not to offend anyone or be misunderstood.

How Symbolism Is Used in Literature

Certain objects and terms signify things which are different from their literal sense. Usually, symbolism is used in order to give deeper and more significant meaning to events, objects and characters throughout the text, unify them, and give certain connotations. Authors incorporate symbolism to express complicated concepts visually and show a thread of certain ongoing themes in their writing. Since, in most cases, symbols that are used are hidden in the text, they force the reader to engage in critical thinking. It makes the reader wonder about the metaphorical use of one or the other object as a symbol. If the theme of a book or an essay might be sensitive to certain people, symbolism also comes in handy. It can help express ideas that an author wants to address through the prism of a symbol, as opposed to talking about controversial things openly.

Another reason a writer might choose to use symbolism in his work is to create different levels of meaning in his story. This meaning is not only literal, but also deeper. It connects the reader with his story on a different, an emotional level, besides just telling the story. Readers, on the other hand, like to discover these hidden symbolic ties and meanings, because it gives them a chance to peek into the writer’s mind and get a sense of what intentions he had in creating them.

The bottom line is that symbolism lets a writer introduce his audience to a concept in an interesting poetic way that does not give away the idea right away, luring the reader into his world full of beautiful implications and complicated ties.

Types of Symbolism in Literature

There are many different literary devices that help writers to use symbolism in their texts:


Metaphor is a type of figurative language that shows characteristics of a subject through comparison with something else, their likeness or contrast between them.
A great example of a metaphor can be found at the opening words of “As You Like It”, a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …”

Here, he compares human life to a theatre stage. Same as anything can happen in life, a stage can have all kinds of different plays portrayed. The play will also be over sooner or later, the same as life. By making this simple comparison, he explains the complicated and difficult laws of nature, such as human mortality. The last phrase refers to people’s ties and their meaning in each other’s lives as “exits” and “entrances”.


It is a figure of speech used when one thing gets assigned some qualities of the other and is compared to it. The two usually are compared to one another with the use of the word “as” or “like”. It might sound similar to a metaphor, but the latter gives only a slight implication that something is like something else, whereas a simile directly states it. A great example of a simile can be found in “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov:

“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa.”

Here Nabokov says that ladies’ canes remind him directly of the tower of Pisa — a building in Pisa, Italy, that is tilted to the side. This beautiful simile showcases artist’s elaborate way of expressing his thoughts, how educated and developed he is, but most importantly, gives the reader another visual of how these canes made him feel and how they might look like.


Another literary device that helps to use symbolism is an allegory. It is also similar to a metaphor, but expresses the meaning of the object, its significance, rather than an external characteristic of likeness. Through the association that allegory creates with the characters in writing, the reader gets a sense of how a situation or a problem at stake fits in the history of the world, art history, or a certain culture.

A good example of allegory in literature is “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. There he compares society around him to a group of children who are stuck on a deserted island due to a plane crash, and are trying to survive there. The island in the book represents the world itself, the conch is a symbol of law and order, the fire represents destruction. Each child, with his role and character, represents a certain societal imperfection, depicting people’s flaws in the institutions of religion, politics, morality, and many others.

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An archetype is another literary device used to represent a human behavioral pattern that is usually universal throughout the world and can be applied and understood in many cultures. The archetype can also be a place in space and time, a certain theme that is shared collectively by citizens of the world. Many archetypes came into literature from folk art and fairy tales.

One of the most common and famous archetypes is the hero. Some of the characteristics defining a hero include mysterious circumstances of their birth, struggle and proving everyone who lost faith in them wrong, tragic events throughout their lives, and complicated and dangerous adventures. A great example of an archetype is Harry Potter, the main character of the series by J.K. Rowling. He was orphaned by the cruel dark wizard Lord Voldemort and fought him throughout the book series.


An allusion is used to imply something or refer to another mythological, religious, or historical character without directly mentioning them. The use of allusion allows an author to deliver his text using elaborate language. Different rhetorical figures force readers to incorporate their background knowledge and associate the character or problem in question with external references.

In his book “Fahrenheit 451”, Ray Bradbury uses a reference to a historical tragedy that happened in 79 A.D. near the city of Pompeii, Italy, where a volcano called Vesuvius erupted and killed the entire population, leaving the city covered in ashes.

“Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius.”

By using this explicit allusion, Bradbury explains that Mildred was running away from something terrible, as fast as she could, because it would otherwise have killed her — just like every inhabitant of Pompeii.


Hyperbole is used in text in order to exaggerate somebody’s trait or characteristic, such as power, beauty, wealth, influence, strength, and many others. Hyperbole usually has an amusing effect used to help readers visualize the strong points of the text. An example of hyperbole would be a line from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”:

“I had to wait in the station for ten days — an eternity.”

In order to indicate how painful, worrisome, and exhausting it was for the character to wait in the station for ten days, he compares to an eternity. It was only 10 days but felt much longer given the circumstances.

Conventional Symbols in Literature

Some of the symbols in literature are incorporated in culture so deeply that they became conventional — clear to almost anyone, because they create images and moods instantly after being mentioned.

Colors usually suggest certain emotions and characteristics with powerful meanings: red — anger, blood, love, or passion; blue — calmness and peace of mind; green — wealth, jealousy, nature; white — purity, innocence, spiritualism; purple — royalty and many others.

Seasons in most cases pertain to age: spring — youth and freshness, start of something new; winter — elderly people or even death, the zenith of one’s life; summer — the peak of development, prime of life; fall — decay, negative change, middle life, growing older.

There are many other everyday life things that involve symbolism: light — good, hope, and freedom; darkness — bad luck, tragedy, evil, the unknown; wind — change in life, speed, transition, inability to change things, destruction; rainbow — hope for the better.

Some objects and animals can also carry symbolic meaning: dove — peace; snake – evil; horse — phallic sexuality; a ring — fidelity, happiness; a broken mirror — bad luck and misfortune; a chain — unity or imprisonment.

Ways to Use Symbolism in Writing

As we saw earlier, there are many different literary tools that can help use symbolism in your own writing. Understanding of their function and examples helps you embed them in your essay. Symbolism has numerous functions in writing.

Some of the things you can create in your essays with symbolism are adding emotion. In “Night” by Ellie Wiesel, the concept of night, its darkness and mystery is used as a symbol of negative emotions, tragedy, despair, and death suffered by incarcerated Jews in the concentration camp.

Another role it might play in your paper is connecting themes. In “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the color green is used throughout the whole book to suggest wealth and lust for money, a desire of getting rich in spite of any moral issues, a luxury lifestyle, and grandeur.

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Defining a character is another thing a person might achieve while using symbolism. In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” the character of Tom is suggested to be innocent, because he was hurt, but he, like a mockingbird, is harmless.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The best way to include symbols in your essay is to do so once you are done writing and can look for places where it can be incorporated best out of the whole body of text. By no means should symbolism be your main focus of writing. Instead, you should focus on the strong points of the story and its characters. Symbolism is only a beautification of a piece that is already strong. It only helps you to enhance the story, make it alive and vivid, and showcase its complexity to the reader.


It is not extremely difficult to use symbolism in your own writing. Metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, allusion, archetype, and all the other literary devices discussed in this article are great aids to make your essay a beautiful piece of literature. A simple comparison of one thing to another can enhance the text tremendously, show off your semantic skills, and make the text beautiful overall, like a flower. See what I did there? Not that hard, I presume.

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