The Complete Guide to Symbolism

Symbolism is important in writing, though probably not as important as English literature courses would have you believe.

I have a confession to make: I hated English at school. For me, the pleasure of reading a novel was destroyed by then having to analyze it to within an inch of its life.

And quite a lot of this analysis took the form of discussing the symbolism in the novel.

One of the books I had to study was Lord of the Flies. I loved that book for the characters and the exciting events, but I began to despise it when the teacher started talking about the literary symbolism...

  • The conch symbolized authority and order.
  • Piggy's glasses symbolized the ability to understand and to see clearly.
  • The island symbolized the Garden of Eden.
  • The pig's head symbolized evil.
  • The older kids represented the ruling classes and the younger kids the workers.

I really didn't want to think about all that stuff, much less write academic essays on it! To me, the pleasure of reading fiction was the reading itself, not the picking it to pieces afterwards. (I still feel that way.)

If I happened to absorb all of the symbolism and deeper layers of meaning whilst reading for enjoyment, then great - not only would I be entertained, but my understanding of the human condition would also be furthered and enhanced. But if the understanding didn't happen at a subconscious level, it would ruin the entertainment.

A year or two after reading Lord of the Flies, I stumbled upon this dedication in a book of stories by J. D. Salinger:

"If there is an amateur reader still left in the world - or anybody who just reads and runs - I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children."

An "amateur reader" - that was me! English courses could take their discussions of literary symbolism and stick them.

And yet, and yet, and yet...

The fact remains that literary symbolism is important. All good novels should contain it - and that includes yours.

The trick, as this article will demonstrate, is not to allow it to become too important. Later, once your novel is published, it will be up to the readers to take from it what they will...

  • The more serious-minded readers will pick the novel apart with zeal, and quite likely find things in it that you, the writer, were not even aware that it contained.
  • The "amateur" readers will absorb the symbolic and thematic meaning without particularly being aware of it. The novel will enrich them in some small or large way, as all good novels do, though not at the expense of their enjoyment.

But let's forget about novels for a moment and ask ourselves...

What Exactly Is Symbolism?

As always, a good starting point in these things is the dictionary. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary:

Symbolism, noun - the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.

Which begs the question: what, precisely, is a symbol? Back to the dictionary...

Symbol, noun - a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.

And so a cross, for example - or, more precisely, a crucifix - is symbolic of Christian faith. Some crucifixes, particularly those in churches, can be very elaborate, but the same abstract idea of Christian faith can by symbolized equally well by two simple lines drawn on paper.

Similarly, a black arm band symbolizes grief. On a material level, it is nothing more than a piece of black fabric, but symbolically it stands for the abstract concepts of grief and loss and mourning.

Symbolism, then, is a kind of shorthand - not just in literature but in the world around us.

All road signs, for example, are symbolic. They are universally understood by motorists (even the ones who choose to ignore them) and they can get over a lot of information in a very small space.

Show a motorist a symbol of a vertical black line bending sharply to the left, for example, and they will understand that there is a sharp left turn ahead and they had better slow down if they don't want to end up wrapped around a tree.

The signs that motorists give to each other are symbolic, too...

  • If a driver waves at you, they are thanking you for your consideration - for letting them pull out in front of you, perhaps.
  • If you failed to let them pull out in front of you, you are liable to receive a different kind of hand gesture altogether.

Both of these hand gestures are symbolic. They allow one driver to communicate their precise feelings to the other driver, and they allow them to do this in the most concise way imaginable.

Real World Symbolism vs. Literary Symbolism

What is the difference between symbolism in the real world and literary symbolism?

Before answering that, here is an example of symbolism in a novel. Picture the scene...

A boy has just been dumped by his girlfriend and he has shut himself away in his bedroom to be by himself. He is sitting by the window with his nose an inch from the glass watching the sky turn blacker and blacker as a storm blows in.

When the rain starts, he watches the water streak down the window pane.

The symbolism here is obvious: The heavy skies symbolize the boy's heavy heart and the raindrops symbolize his tears. The boy's feelings were barely mentioned in the summary above, but the description of the weather nevertheless conveys precisely how he is feeling.

So how does that differ from a real-world symbol - a road sign, say?

On one level, they are exactly the same...

The road sign "stands for" a sharp bend in the road and the black sky "stands for" the boy's black mood.

The simplicity of the road sign is a much more concise way of warning motorists of the danger ahead than a written warning would be, just as a simple description of a storm moving in is a more concise way of describing what is going on inside the boy's broken heart.

On another level, symbols in novels are generally far more complex...

Symbols in the real world tend to be universally understood. Why? Because we have seen them all a hundred times before...

  • Road signs
  • Crucifixes
  • Swastikas
  • Politicians wearing red or blue ties

...we all know what they mean and they are in no way ambiguous.

Symbolism in literature, however, tends to be less obvious and more open to interpretation. Even when the meaning of a literary symbol is obvious (like in my "stormy skies" example above), the symbol should not stand out as being obviously symbolic.

In other words, a reader should be able to take it as just a simple description of the weather without picking up any symbolic significance whatsoever.

If the symbolism screams "I AM A SYMBOL!" in a loud voice, you have probably been too heavy-handed.

"To take an example from my own book, Wise Blood, the hero's rat-colored automobile is his pulpit and his coffin as well as something he thinks of as a means to escape...The car is a kind of death-in-life symbol, as his blindness is a life-in-death symbol. The fact that these meanings are there makes the book significant. The reader may not see them but they have their effect upon him nonetheless."
- Flannery O'Connor

Another Example of Symbolism

The next example is a lot more subtle this time...

It is the final scene in a novel and a man is raking leaves. This man has had to face all manner of troubles throughout the story - financial problems, an adulterous wife, a health scare - but that is all behind him now and he is moving on.

It is a bright but windy day and the occasional gust keeps scattering the leaves that the man has raked into neat piles. Whenever this happens, the man stops and watches the blowing leaves, then patiently starts raking again once the gust has blown through.

Here, the symbolism is not so clear cut. A reader could read that passage and fail to pick up on any hidden layers of meaning at all...

The man has been to hell and back during the story, a reader might think, but he has survived and is now simply pushing on with his everyday life by getting some fresh air and exercise.

Other readers will notice the symbolism - maybe consciously, maybe at a more subconscious level - and (consciously or subconsciously) will attempt to draw meaning from it...

  • Perhaps the symbolism is a comment on the resilience of mankind. No matter what is thrown at people, they still somehow find the strength to keep on keeping on.
  • Or maybe the literary symbolism is a comment on the futility of this life. No matter how hard we might try to bring order and meaning to our lives (symbolized by the neat piles of leaves) there will always be gusts of wind waiting to blow them right away again.
  • Is the sunshine a symbol of hope?
  • Are the falling autumn leaves symbolic of death?

The answer, of course, is that good art is always open to interpretation, and in the case of a novel it is up to the reader to draw from it whatever they will.

In the sense that life itself is ambiguous, with no clear-cut answers, ambiguity is good. It makes us think.

Why Does Symbolism Matter?

As we've discussed, one advantage of literary symbols is that they allow the fiction writer to say a lot with a little.

For example, a simple, symbolic description of storm clouds rolling in will probably take a paragraph or two, whereas a description of everything going on inside a boy's heart and head after his girlfriend has just dumped him will take much longer.

So go with the shorter version.

But symbolism is not just about enabling a writer to say the same thing more concisely. It is about allowing them to say something more effectively.

All good novels require input from readers. If everything is spelt out for the audience and nothing is left to the imagination, reading becomes a passive exercise.

But if readers are required to interpret - to read between the lines and fill in the gaps - reading becomes far more active and stimulating.

That is why novel writers use symbols...

  • An analytical, psychological essay describing everything a boy feels after he has loved and lost might well move the readers, but it will leave little to their imaginations.

  • A sensory description of dark skies and rain-streaked window panes will invite them to compare the weather outside with the boy's feelings inside.

    Moreover, because everything is not being spelt out for them, they will be forced to remember how they felt when they were young and broken-hearted, and their memories will likely have a far more powerful effect on them than a piece of writing that might have come straight from a psychology textbook.

Am I saying that every time you want to describe what a character is feeling inside, you should abandon the description and focus on the weather or nature or some other symbol of the character's suffering?

Absolutely not.

Using symbolism is simply another option to consider...

  • Sometimes you might describe the character's feelings literally.
  • Sometimes you might describe them symbolically (by describing the weather instead, for example, and letting the readers make the connection).
  • And sometimes you will want to combine the two.

My job is to let you know all of the options open to a writer. How you use and combine those options is up to you.

Using Symbolism to Inject Pace Into a Story

So far I have talked about how using literary symbols allows a writer to convey abstract concepts far more concisely, and perhaps far more powerfully, than a literal approach would allow them to do. And the ability to do this brings with it another huge advantage: it does not hold up the forward momentum of the story.

Novels, essentially, are a means of entertainment. Entertaining novels are page-turners, and the way that a writer keeps a reader turning the pages is by...

  • Creating characters that the reader cares about.
  • Putting those characters into situations where something important is at stake and the outcome is in doubt.

Now, it is also true that novels - good novels - should be about more than just the surface story. There should be hidden layers of meaning running beneath the surface - in the form of theme and symbolism - and this meaning will stay with the reader long after they have turned the final page.

Meaning by itself, though, is not particularly entertaining.

It is interesting and perhaps enlightening, yes, and it can cause the reader to come to fresh understandings about what it means to be alive in this funny old world. But does it turn pages?

Not really, no.

The surface story does that, and anything which interferes with the surface story is a distraction. So here is the thing...

Anything in your novel which does not advance the surface story is best dealt with in as short a space as possible. (Though that is dependent on the variety of novel you are writing - fans of literary fiction, for example, will be far more patient with "slow bits" in a novel than fans of genre fiction.)

A boy's feelings after he has been dumped by his girlfriend are important, and they move us when we read about them. Because we care about this character, we can't help but care that he is hurting inside.

But a boy sitting in his bedroom feeling blue does not represent action. For the story to continue moving, the boy must do something...

  • Go to see the girl and beg her to take him back.
  • Run himself a hot bath and slit his wrists.
  • Decide he didn't much like the girl in the first place and go tomcatting after the next one on his list.

Until the boy does take action, the story has ground to a halt. Readers will enjoy a brief period of inactive introspection, of course, but not 20 pages of it.

Using symbols to convey how the boy feels inside enables the writer to deal with this passage not only more powerfully but also in a much shorter space.

Where to Use Symbolism

There is a huge danger, in my opinion, of overusing symbolism in novels, or of being too ambitious with it. Take the Lord of the Flies example I mentioned at the beginning...

If you make your setting symbolize the Garden of Eden, and if each of your principal characters symbolize a universal human trait - goodness, evil, wisdom - it is easy to end up with an allegorical novel, a form most modern readers would not be comfortable with.

If you are a genius like William Golding (or aspire to be), go for it - you might well produce the next twenty-first century classic.

Similarly, if you have an idea for a novel along the lines of George Orwell's Animal Farm or C. S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, feel free to lay on the symbolism with a trowel.

If your ambitions are a little more down-to-earth, however (and that includes 99.9% of us), take my advice and adopt a more naturalistic, subtle approach to symbolism.

Earlier, I gave you two examples of using symbols in this way...

  • The first involved using a description of stormy weather to symbolize the emotions of a broken-hearted boy.
  • The second invited the reader to compare raking leaves on a windy day with the situation the character found himself in at the end of his story.

Here are three more specific applications for symbolism in novels...

1. Symbolizing a Character's Goal

Novels are essentially about a character struggling to achieve a goal in the face of opposition...

  • Sometimes these goals are concrete - to rob the city bank, for example, or to find a missing child.
  • Sometimes goals are more abstract - to find happiness or self-confidence, say.

Now, the trouble with an abstract goal is that it can make the whole novel rather vague. If a character wants to find happiness, for example, what precisely is it that they are looking for? And how will they (and the readers) know when they have found it?

The solution, as I'm sure you have guessed, is to make the character's goal more tangible by using symbolism in the novel. Let's say that a character's goal is to "make something of himself in life."

We can all sympathize with that one, but it is still an abstract concept. What does he want in concrete terms?

  • To become a millionaire?
  • To hold political office?
  • To marry the most beautiful woman in town?

Yes, all of these things - plus plenty of others. But although his goals are more specific now, there are too many of them to provide any focus.

What you need is a single concrete goal which is symbolic of all of them, including the overall abstract goal.

One such goal might be to be elected mayor of the town in which he grew up in poverty. He wants other things, too - like making plenty of money and marrying a beautiful woman - but these things will act as subplots to the main plot, which is about the election.

Becoming mayor will symbolize the far broader concept of "making something of yourself."

Don't like that idea?

Then how about making his concrete, symbolic goal to one day live in the mansion on the hill which overlooks the town.

In reality, owning this house is only one small part of his overall dream of "making something of himself in life", but concentrating on the mansion above everything else gives the novel focus and gives his dream house a symbolic value.

The mansion in the novel becomes more than just a mansion, it symbolizes the main character's wider, more abstract dreams.

Moreover, it becomes symbolic for us readers, too, in the sense that all of us, in our different ways, aspire to live in "the mansion on the hill." The mansion (as a symbol) will be different for all of us...

  • For some, their mansion will be to quit work and become their own boss.
  • For others, it will be to raise a healthy and happy family.

We are all searching for our own particular mansions in our own particular ways, and we will therefore be able to make the symbolic connection between the character's search for his mansion and our search for ours.

And that is the beauty of symbolism in novels - you take ordinary, everyday things and somehow make them profound.

2. Symbolizing a Character's Feelings

This one is very similar to the "broken-hearted boy" example from earlier. It is worthwhile giving another example, though, because using literary symbols to demonstrate a character's feelings is probably the most common use of symbolism that there is.

Picture the scene...

A husband and wife are arguing at home. He wants to watch the football on TV and she wants to watch a nature documentary.

(Of course, they are fighting about more than just what to watch on television. What is actually at stake is the fact that they have little in common with each other and their marriage is crumbling around them as a result. The TV-channel argument is symbolic of the larger argument they are really having.)

Back to the scene...

It is told from the husband's point of view and he eventually gives in, as he always does, and lets his wife watch the nature documentary. They sit there in silence, bristling, and watch the show.

What you could do at this point is describe what the husband feels inside. What emotions is he experiencing? What thoughts are going around his head?

Instead, you simply describe him sitting there watching the nature documentary, which is showing a female spider devouring her mate.

Too heavy-handed? Almost certainly. You might need to work on the details, but whatever image you decide to describe on the television screen, the readers will make the symbolic connection between that and the character's feelings.

3. Symbolism as Suggestion

I used symbolism to conclude my own novel-in-progress, Beth and Ben Joe. It is essentially a girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-wins-boy novel, so it will come as no surprise that the two lovers get together in the end and live happily ever after.

But I didn't want to write a traditional happy ending...

  • Partly this was because happy endings can turn syrupy if you are not careful.
  • And partly it was because I didn't want to hang around once the action had been resolved. (Once the couple have been reunited, the overall question that the novel asks - will the girl win the boy? - has been answered and there is little left to say.)

In the final scene, Beth goes to make things up with Ben Joe after a terrible fight. She doesn't know if she can succeed but she knows she must try. They go for a walk and talk things through and, little by little, edge closer to a reconciliation.

This is the point where things could have turned syrupy. I could have had them kiss tenderly in the moonlight, but I didn't want that. I wanted to keep the ending low key and perhaps even ambiguous - will they live happily ever after or not?

What I wanted was some literary symbolism - something to suggest a happy ending and leave the rest up to the readers. What I settled on was the symbolic act of hand-holding...

  • Things start out frosty as the couple go for their walk and talk, but things begin to thaw as they sort through their differences.
  • Eventually, Beth works up the courage to take Ben Joe's hand in hers. He doesn't shake her off but he doesn't reciprocate, either, and she wonders if their relationship is dead after all as she holds his lifeless hand.
  • But then, just as Beth is giving up hope, Ben Joe wraps his hand tighter around hers and squeezes her fingers.

And that is it - the end. This small, symbolic act tells you everything you need to know about the couple's future.

If you are one of life's romantics, you will take the squeeze as a symbol of connection and commitment. Alternatively, you could take the hand-holding as a final moment of tenderness before the couple inevitably drift apart.

What did I believe as I wrote the scene? The beauty of symbolism in a novel is that the writer can suggest without ever having to explain.

How to Add Symbolic Meaning to a Novel

Understanding what symbolism is and why it is important in novels is a good start, but this knowledge is hopeless if you don't know how to add symbolic meaning to your own novel.

Symbolism is very similar to theme in a novel: they are both "hidden" elements of fiction that, although not visible, will be missed if they are not there.

And so, everything I said about adding meaning to a novel, in the form of a strong theme, applies to adding symbolic meaning to fiction.

In a nutshell, the best way to work symbolism into a novel is to "sow the seeds" in advance. In other words, take a work session or two now to think about any symbols you might want to work into your novel. Then more or less forget about it.

Like theme, symbolism works best when it is left to simply emerge, organically and magically, as you plan and write the novel.

Two Types of Symbolism

There are two broad varieties of symbolism that you need to be aware of...

  • Small-scale symbolism. I gave a good example of this earlier in the series, when I talked about using a storm to symbolize a boy's broken heart. Why is it "small scale"? Because you will probably only use it in a single scene (the scene where the boy is crying in his bedroom).

    Because you will only use this type of symbolism once, there is no need to plan it in advance. Deciding to use rain running down a window to symbolize tears will occur to you when you actually write the scene.

  • Large-scale symbolism. As the name suggests, this variety of symbolic meaning is carried through an entire novel, not just used in a single scene. As such, it does need working out in advance. (Large-scale symbolism, incidentally, is sometimes referred to as a novel's "central metaphor.")

Remember the example I gave of a character's abstract goal of wanting to "make something of himself in life" being symbolized by the concrete goal of wanting to live in the mansion on the hill?

This type of symbolic meaning is clearly not something you can decide upon at the last minute, as it fundamentally affects the entire story. You need to decide on the "mansion" symbol right here and right now, before you begin the detailed planning of your novel.

To give another example, you would need to decide right here and right now to use the turning of the seasons as a symbol, or a central metaphor.

You could start the story with the first chill wind of autumn and conclude it with the first warm breeze of spring - the seasons will stand for losing hope and then re-discovering it at the end.

So you must plant this symbolic "seed" in your mind right at the start. Consciously or sub-consciously, the symbolism will then work its way into the fabric of your story as you plan it in detail and then write it.

"Write your story or novel the best that you can - write it truly and well, as Hemingway might have said - and don't worry about what will be symbolic and what won't be. Let things and characters that turn out to be symbolic simply materialize."
- Ron Rozelle

Final Caveat

Just as with theme, you must handle symbolism in a novel with a lightness of touch. Heavy-handedness with themes and symbols is almost as bad (maybe worse, in fact) as not bothering with them at all.

If you have decided to use Spring as a symbol of hope, for example, actually making the decision is all the work you need to do. When the time comes to actually describe the blossoming of an apple tree, say, forget that the blossom has any symbolic value and simply describe it.

Astute readers will pick up on these small moments of symbolism all through the novel; other readers won't, at least not consciously.

Either way, it's fine. The astute reader will appreciate the symbolism, but the less astute one will still appreciate a pretty description of apple blossom (the fact that they missed the symbolic significance won't especially detract from their enjoyment of the story).

But if you lay on the symbolic meaning too thick - by going over the top with your apple blossom description, and perhaps even stating directly that this causes the central character to feel a renewed sense of hope - you will let down both types of reader...

  • You will deny the astute reader the chance to discover the symbolism for herself.
  • The less astute one will feel that the overly-poetic description is getting in the way of the storytelling.

Symbolism at its best works almost subliminally. If readers notice it, it will remind them of the artificiality of fiction and distance them from what is really important - the characters and the events.

So keep any symbolism subtle - present but hidden, there but not there.

The final word on symbolic meaning, and whether or not readers will pick up on it, goes to John Steinbeck (he is talking about East of Eden)...

"...a man can take from this book as much as he can bring to it. It would not be well to confuse the illiterate man with the statement of a rather profound philosophy. On the other hand, such a man might take pleasure in the surface story and even understand the other things in his unconscious. On the third hand, your literate and understanding man will take joy of finding the secrets hidden in this book almost as though he searched for treasure, but we must never tell anyone they are there. Let them be found by accident."