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The Role of Symbols in Literature - Definition, Meaning, and Purpose

Updated on August 1, 2013
A white dove.
A white dove. | Source

Symbol? What is That?

Without trying to generalize, a "symbol" is something that indicates towards something else. If we were to check the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 5th Edition, we would see that a symbol can either be:

  1. A picture or shape that has a particular meaning or represents a particular meaning or idea.
  2. A letter, number, or sign that represents a sound, an amount, a chemical substance etc.
  3. Someone or something that represents a particular quality or idea.

By looking at the definitions, the symbol is basically someone or something that has a plurality of meanings with the significance being condensed to a single object or person. For example, the white dove; the dove is, strictly speaking, a common bird. However, in terms of semiotic value, the dove is also one of the common symbols in literature, and it can either stand for peace, purity, or even divinity.

So, how do we know which one is it?

Departing from this example, the symbols in literature are a bit more tricky to decode, mainly because the writer wants to be as original as possible, therefore attributing the symbol with as many valences as possible. I would even go so far as to say that the symbols are so charged that it leads to ambiguity, and so triggering the "What did the author mean by that" type of discussion.

In the real world, the associations are simple. The red color at the traffic light means that one has to stop (a simple A to B connection). In the literary domain, A to B is but one possibility out of many; a metaphor or an allegory is a B that might indicate towards an A, or even multiple As.

Just as a small side note, a late nineteenth century movement called Symbolism made great use of the symbol as being more of a suggestion rather than an association, thereby having a great influence in the later poetry. Symbolism started in France with the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé. Definitely worth a check.

What Does "It" Mean?

In a nutshell, a symbol means what do you want to mean. Without trying to sound like a wise guy or trying to avoid giving a more complex answer, if one has a valid interpretation of a symbol, then he is right. Who are we to challenge that?

But here resides the problem: the readers want the symbol to mean something. Not just something in particular, but "The" something. However, things are, again, not that simple. As I have discussed in the previous paragraph, the white dove can either represent purity, divinity, or peace.

Another problem with symbols is that the readers expect them to be objects and images rather than events or actions. Going somewhere is not necessarily moving from A to B. On a deeper level, it also implies transformation, growing, achieving a sense of purpose. Plato's "Parable of the Cave" is not only just about people watching shadows on the walls; rather, it gives an accurate depiction of the collective consciousness, and how rooted are we in our preconceptions. Furthermore, the interpretation of Plato's cave as a symbol in literature is strictly personal. That is what it means for me, and it should not be taken as an absolute truth. For in the end, this is one of the joys of literary studies: finding different and often conflicting interpretations of the same work inevitably leads to an enriched discourse regarding great works of art.

Plato and the Cave

Plato said that our reflection on the cave's wall is what we take as being authentic.
Plato said that our reflection on the cave's wall is what we take as being authentic. | Source

What is it Good For?

By now I hope to have drawn your attention on the fact that a symbol is not just a replacement for something else; rather, a symbol in literature gives way to an almost infinite number of potential interpretations.

Just to recap, if you have some experience in reading literature, whenever you find a symbol, do not say that if it's a dove, then x, or y. On the contrary, it might mean something else entirely. Reading literature is a highly intellectual activity, however it also involves instinct. And as it is with every instinct, they need training. The more you exercise this type of close reading, the better.

Because it implies a certain affect of us, reading at this level leaves the author in the background. It essentially becomes an exercise of imagination, and free associations, so next time when you have your "symbol-sense" tingling, you should pay attention to it.

Here are a couple of ways to enhance your reading of symbols in literature:

  • Break the symbol into smaller pieces. Try to focus on a single strand of meaning.
  • Associate, think, takes notes, make diagrams.
  • Plan some interpretations that are valid for your symbol.
  • Ask questions. What is the author doing, what is he trying to achieve?
  • Repeat.

Symbols in Literature

Do you think symbols add to the literary experience?

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    • Mark Lees profile image

      Mark Lees 3 years ago

      Derrida gives a very good account of deconstructing literature which uses the symbolic.

      It is also useful for writers to use forms of redundancy to ensure the correct interpretation is arrived at- so while there may be multiple interpretations to a single symbol (in fact there almost certainly will) by placing it in the context of the rest of the work it will limit it to just the desired interpretation or the desired level of ambiguity (if that is the writers intention).

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Yes, I agree, but you are shifting the discussion in a different direction - that of authorial intent. But yes, deconstructing the literary symbols in the way Derrida suggested can only bring numerous and various interpretations.

      Kind regards, thanks for stopping by, and have a great day!

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