What is Symbolism in Literature? - Definition, Types & Examples

  • 0:02 Symbolism Defined
  • 1:12 Types of Symbolism
  • 2:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Symbolism is a literary element used in literature to help readers understand a literary work. Learn more about the definition of symbolism and the different types of symbolism used in literature, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Symbolism Defined

Symbolism is everywhere; symbolism exists whenever something is meant to represent something else. Symbolism is a figure of speech that is used when an author wants to create a certain mood or emotion in a work of literature. It is the use of an object, person, situation or word to represent something else, like an idea, in literature. Some common types of symbolism include:

Metaphor - a comparison between two unlike things without using the words 'like' or 'as.' For example, the phrase 'time is money' is an example of a metaphor comparing time to money. Money and time are two different things; this is an example of symbolism because these words show the importance of using your money and time wisely.

Allegory - an extended metaphor. An allegory can be an entire story, poem or book with symbolism that continues throughout the literary piece. In the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell, animals on a farm are used to represent the events leading up to the Russian revolution. The animals on the farm represent how greed and not having concern for others impact revolution.

Types of Symbolism in Literature

In literature, authors often use different symbols to represent a particular concept. Throughout various forms of literature, the following symbols might be used to create meaning in a story.

Colors

  • Black is often used to represent something bad, such as death or evil. For example, in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'the black man' is used to represent Satan.
  • White often represents something that is good and pure.
  • Red can symbolize passion, blood or danger.
  • Green can symbolize hope and immaturity. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'a green light' is used to symbolize Gatsby's hope for a future with his love interest, Daisy.

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