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Guide to Symbolism in Literature

Updated on November 14, 2012

Symbolism abounds in literature, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry. Whether writers consciously decide to insert symbolism into their works is irrelevant because the thoughts in their minds will be communicated onto the page in a variety of forms, many of them not direct. When interpreting the meaning of a passage, it is necessary to look beyond the written words to the ideas at their core. These ideas are often communicated via symbolic representations. Here I will touch on three of the main categories of symbolism in an effort to aid the comprehension of readers and writers everywhere.

Muddy Creek Falls: the pinnacle of life before it crashes back to earth
Muddy Creek Falls: the pinnacle of life before it crashes back to earth

Water

Water is often used to represent life or stages of life depending on the flow of the water mentioned. The reason for this is the importance of water in our lives since we are largely composed of water and we cannot live without it. The need for water and the participation in activities involving water are shared across all people, so this creates a common ground that can be used to understand one another in literature as well as life.

Here are a few examples:

  • Stream - life in motion, but often repetetive
  • River - rapid rush of life, active, important
  • Waterfall - the climax of someone's life
  • Pond - stagnation (unless the pond is teeming with life)
  • Lack of water, such as a dried up riverbed - death

Pena Palace: home to a crazy king or perhaps a quirky, creative man?
Pena Palace: home to a crazy king or perhaps a quirky, creative man?

Color

Color is mainly used to represent emotions, and the context must be taken into account in determining the symbolic meaning because colors can often represent contradictory things. Light colors typically are meant to evoke happier emotions, whereas dark colors are designed to bring to mind sadder or more painful feelings. Warm colors often show happiness, excitement, and anger, whereas cool colors show sadness and tranquility.

Common symbolic usage of the standard set of colors:

  • Red - anger, pain (also danger)
  • Orange - happiness
  • Yellow - joy, energy (also could be cowardice or disease)
  • Green - life, rebirth, energy, tranquility
  • Blue - sorrow, loneliness, despair
  • Purple - pain, suffering
  • White - purity, health, life
  • Black - depression, pain, death

Aqueduct of Segovia: this ancient water channel cuts through the modern aspects of the city, perhaps representative of an age-old conflict splitting the consciousness of the current people
Aqueduct of Segovia: this ancient water channel cuts through the modern aspects of the city, perhaps representative of an age-old conflict splitting the consciousness of the current people

Location

Location is always present whenever the setting is described. Locales can easily indicate the meaning behind the occurances in a piece of writing. The location of a situation can be quite revealing of the thoughts of both the characters and the writer.

Example settings and their symbolic meanings:

  • Forest - depending on the quantity of trees, their spacing, and the light present, forests can represent anything on a scale from danger to safety while often remaining a bit mysterious (the more trees, the less spacing between them, and the less light penetrating to the forest floor, the closer to danger on the scale)
  • Town - tends to represent the bonds between people and a place of refuge
  • City - represents the busy and more chaotic aspects of life; also, the more people, the more isolating the city is (a character can often only handle a certain number of acquaintances)
  • House - symbolizes comfort and familiarity, safety

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