If you’re ever lucky enough to travel to Bergen in Norway, (which, by the way, I would highly recommend) you’ll likely find yourself amongst brightly-coloured buildings packed tightly together as if bracing themselves against the wind and rain (the weather can get fairly atrocious). This is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf (Tyskebryggen).
The buildings are restaurants, studios, workshops, and boutique shops, but once they were merchant houses, many of which still have distinct symbols on them. Why symbols, you might ask? Because these buildings date back as far as the 14th century, to a time when many people couldn’t read, and the symbols made it easier to find which house or place of trade they were looking for.
Symbols have been used, one way or another, since the beginning of time – and that still remains when it comes to writing.
In this blog post I’ll further explore the use of symbols and symbolism in literature, as well as looking at how their uses benefit both readers and writers.
Symbology vs Symbolism
The use of symbols in the example above is a fairly obvious one, for an equally obvious reason. But even today, supermarket chains, for example, have distinct branding or logos. These are used to distinguish themselves from competitors and are often in bright colours, sometimes even with a little picture.
My three-year-old pointed out to me the other day that the four yellow dashes above the bright green letter ‘A’ in ASDA look like the sun rising above a field. I must have seen that logo a hundred, maybe even a thousand times, and never noticed. Now I do. Is he right? Maybe. Does it matter? Not at all. What matters is that it’s a symbol we recognise and can distinguish from others.
More recently, the rainbow, a symbol of hope and promise, has become synonymous with the UK’s NHS and the nation’s support of all the hard work that is being done by healthcare workers during the pandemic. It’s also synonymous with the LBTQ+ community. Everybody knows that rainbows are positive and happy symbols.
A red rose symbolises love and romance; a four-leaf clover is supposed to bring us good luck; green means go, and red means stop. These are all examples of symbols that have become ingrained in our everyday existence.
But what does all of that have to do with writing? And what is the difference between symbology and symbolism?
To put it simply, here’s our definitions of symbology and literary symbolism:
Symbology is the study and use of symbols, whereas symbolism is the representation of a concept through symbols.
Let’s look at birds as an example. Doves, usually white in colour, are used to represent peace or love; artists make use of owls to symbolise wisdom, and ravens – with their black plumage, croaking call, and diet of carrion – are often associated with death, loss, ill omens and lost souls.
Types of Symbolism
There are many different types of symbolism that we writers use in our work. Let’s look at a few of the most common ones.
As brave as a lion, as strong as an ox, as big as an elephant; these are all examples of similes, which is a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid. A lion is renowned for being brave and courageous, so making this direct comparison is a way in which to show meaning through a well-known symbol.
Whereas a simile compares two separate things, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denotes one kind of object or idea and is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. For example, in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Romeo says:
“What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet, the sun!”‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Shakespeare
Juliet is not literally the sun and Romeo knows that Juliet is not literally the sun, but this demonstrates he compares her to the sun, thinks her what the sun symbolises: beauty, strength, awe, a life-giving force.
The word allegory has a long history. The first evidence of its use in the English language is in the late 14th century and comes from the Latin word allegoria, which in turn is the latinisation of the Greek word ἀλληγορία (allegoría), meaning veiled language or figurative. That word comes from both ἄλλος (allos), meaning another, different and ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), which is to harangue, to speak in the assembly, which originates from ἀγορά (agora): assembly.
A modern definition is: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where each animal is a representation of a different political faction, is an example of an allegory. Another is The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (which symbolises the moral and spiritual journey of an individual through innumerable temptations of sins towards the ultimate attainment of glory and truth), or Aesop’s Fables (such as the tale of The Tortoise and the Hare, where the tortoise wins because he’s slow and steady).
In its most basic definition, an archetype is a typical example of a person or thing. In literature, there are four main archetype options, each with many examples. I’ve listed a few below, but there are many more.
- The hero – the main character who often has a task/journey to complete.
- The Outcast – someone living on the outskirts of society, sometimes, but not always, for something that isn’t his/her fault.
- Star-Crossed Lovers – lovers who are destined not to be together.
- The Battle of Good and Evil – a battle in which good triumphs over evil.
- The Hero’s Journey – the journey, physical or emotional, that the main character must complete.
- Rags to Riches or vice versa – a character rises from a lower position in society to a better one, or vice versa.
- The Garden – symbolises love and fertility.
- The River – water symbolises life and a river can show life’s journey or boundaries.
- The Small Town – a place where everyone knows everyone and generally depicts intolerance.
- Hourglass – the passing of time.
- Heart – love.
- Square – stability.
Exaggeration can be used to reflect how someone feels. These are not statements or claims that are meant literally, but instead used to symbolise meaning. An examples of this could be ‘I’ve told that story a thousand times’ or ‘There’s enough food to feed an army’. The speaker hasn’t literally told the story a thousand times, but maybe feels she has. In the second example, whether it be a good thing or not, there’s a lot of food to be eaten.
There are many more types of symbolism in literature, such as allegory, archetype, personification and irony.
Symbolism in Fiction
Many writers make use of symbolism in their fiction to paint a brighter picture, or add depth or tension.
In The Scarlet Letter by Daniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne, a young woman in 17th Century Puritan Boston, Massachusetts, is punished for giving birth to a daughter as a result of adultery. She is made to stand on a scaffold for three hours, subjected to public humiliation, and made to wear the letter A for the rest of her life.
“They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth tinged in an earthly dyepot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the nighttime. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.”The Scarlet Letter by Daniel Hawthorne
The letter ‘A’ initially means adultery and penance, but as the novel progresses it takes on different meanings for different people. For some, ultimately, after Hester spends a lot of time as a visitor in homes of pain and sorrow, the ‘A’ means Angel.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter, makes strong use of symbolism
There’s a feather on my pillow.
Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.
It’s a big, black feather.
Come and sleep in my bed.
There’s a feather on your pillow too.
Let’s leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.”Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Many cultures believe feathers are a symbol of a connection to the spirit world. The black feathers that appear on the boys’ pillows signal the arrival of something ominous, in this case grief at the loss of their mother. The Crow, who leaves the feathers, is in fact a character within the story, helping both the boys and their dad through those initial dark days. Feathers are also said to represent strength and growth, and as they learn to manage their grief, the Crow moves on.
Nature plays a strong role in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, signifying a sense of freedom.
“‘Is this a hint to me, Lizzy,’ said her father, ‘to send for the horses?’
‘No, indeed. I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing, when one has a motive; only three miles.’”Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The outdoors also plays a role in the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy as it is predominantly in these settings that they are able to move their relationship forward. Outdoor settings become a symbol of openness and understanding.
Other examples are the green light in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) symbolising the protagonist’s quest for Daisy and the American Dream; the conch in The Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a symbol of power; and the lake in Housekeeping, by Marilynn Robinson, is synonymous with loss and it is not until the main character, Ruth, crosses the lake on a bridge that she is able to start putting the depth of her loss behind her.
Why Use Symbolism?
So, why do authors use symbolism in literature?
Whether it be a conscious or unconscious decision, the main impact of using symbolism in literature is to strengthen its meaning and make a bigger impact on the reader. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, using symbolism adds emotional resonance to the story. The mockingbird, which “don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us”, as Miss Maudie explains to Scout, symbolises the innocent characters in the narrative and to kill them, like to kill the bird, would be a sin.
Another way in which symbolism works is providing a visual aid for the reader. In Captain Jesus, by Collette Snowdon, three brothers find a dead magpie in the garden. They hang it on the washing line and when it blows in the gentle breeze.
“‘[i]t’s like we brought it back to life,’ Gabe says.”
The conversation continues with John-Joe saying, “‘we’re not miracle workers, we can’t do a proper resurrection.” The scene, along with the dialogue, alerts the reader to the impending death knowing that no matter how harder they may wish it, they will not be able to bring the deceased back to life.
Using symbolism can help an author portray a complex concept. In the Booker-longlisted novel, An Island, Karen Jennings’ main character, seventy-year-old Samuel, lives in self-imposed exile on a tiny island off the coast of an unknown African country. The only people he sees are those who bring his supplies once a fortnight. One day a stranger washes up on the shore; a symbol of hope, redemption and reparation for Samuel.
Looking Out for Symbolism in the Everyday
Many readers, I’m sure, don’t pay much attention to the symbols or symbolism in literature. Not consciously, that is (more so if studying a text for school or discussing it in a book club). However, so much is ingrained in our everyday life, in our society and common beliefs, it’s hard not to take them in at all. And there will always be people looking for the hidden meanings between the words on the pages – whether you intended them to be there or not!
As writers, inserting symbols and considering symbolism in our writing is definitely something to pay close attention to. Like Hansel and Gretel dropping breadcrumbs to find their way home, making use of this literary device is providing images and objects, words and concepts, to help deepen our readers’ experience of our writing.
And once those words are printed on the page, carefully chosen words creating a million vibrant images for your readers, unlike in Grimm’s fairytales nothing can come along and gobble them up!
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