A Guide to Understanding Symbolism in Literature: Symbols in Poetry, Plays, Novels & Short Stories

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Symbolism 101

Without symbolism, something essential is missing from language and art. Symbols allow authors to impart ideas above and beyond the literal level of the text. A symbol represents, or stands in place of, something else. Even letters and words themselves are symbols, because our brain turns those markings into thoughts and ideas.

Symbols are everywhere in our lives. Traffic signs, advertising logos and religious iconography all provide visual information that transcends the physical world. Think of the Apple logo–It’s really very simple, silhouette of an apple with a single leaf at the stem and a small bite taken out of the top. Show that logo to nearly anyone in the world, and they will immediately recognize it. The Apple logo represents a whole network of products, images and emotions. Amazing doesn’t begin to describe what our mind is capable of doing in terms of converting a simple image into something utterly profound.

There are culturally based symbols, like a nation’s flag or a historical monument, and then there are symbols that belong to the world of literature. Great symbolism in literature requires enormous intelligence and creativity on the part of author. Literary symbols allow tellers of tales to impart information without rehashing a long explanation or description of something.

Understanding Symbolism in Novels

The novel is a relative newcomer to the literary scene, only becoming really popular in the last 200 years. The length of a novel allows a writer to develop a whole network of interconnected symbols. In science fiction and fantasy, it’s especially important that writers take the time to craft rich, believable symbols.

An interesting aspect to great symbolism in novels is that the symbols often undergo changes between the beginning and end of the narrative. Characters invest in certain symbols, only to have their beliefs shaken or destroyed. Readers depend on symbols as well to guide them through a winding, lengthy story with multiple subplots.

Short Stories

Some critics and writers have argued that the short story is the ideal genre of literary expression. With fewer pages to work with, short story authors must build narratives that are strong and tight. A short story is intended to be read in a single setting. Therefore, characterization, setting and plot structure are direct and vibrant. There’s no time or space for all of the diversions and subplots you might find in a lengthy novel. A short story has no wasted verbiage.

Like everything else in well crafted short story, the symbols and themes are designed to have strong impact.

Improve Your Understanding of Poetry

Poetry arguably depends on rich symbolism and metaphoric language more so than any other genre of literature. In some cases, the symbols are obvious and nearly universal. In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” for example, the road acts as a symbol for the pathway of life. Excellent poetry often takes a powerful symbol as its foundation and examines all the intricacies of the symbol. Poetry and symbolism work together to illuminate the darker corners of life, and give us greater appreciation for the light.

Symbolism in Drama

The works of history’s greatest dramatists often incorporate rich symbolism. With theatrical performances, the set and costume departments have the chance to breathe life into the playwright’s symbolism. Both the work of William Shakespeare and the classic Greek tragedies are well noted for their use of symbols, powerful imagery and inventive metaphors.

Symbolism is one of the most important aspects of all types of creative writing. This table of contents brings together some of the best articles Bright Hub has to offer on the topic. The lesson plans, talking points and summaries will ideally help you and your class come to a fuller understanding of great symbolism in literature.


  • Author’s experience and educational career.