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Understanding, Recognizing, and Examining Symbolism in Literature — Find Out How to Write a Symbolism Essay

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As a middle school English teacher I’ve spent countless hours reading novels, short stories, poetry, and beyond with my students. We read for content, we read for meaning, we read for literary devices, we read for themes, we read for countless reasons.

With each new work of literature we read, we try to extract the story’s lesson, its central message, its theme.

If you’ve found yourself in the same position my students often find themselves, grappling to understand an abstract idea like symbolism, you’ve come to the right place. If you read on, you will be able to understand the following principles of writing a symbolism essay:

  • Defining symbolism.
  • The different types of symbolism.
  • The function of symbolism in literature.
  • Components of a symbolism essay.

How to Write a Symbolism Essay: Defining, Identifying, and Analyzing Symbols

One of the many ways we arrive at a work’s meaning is through an analysis of the literary devices employed by writers. When we get to our study of symbolism, students like you have no trouble understanding the overarching idea of symbolism. However, independently identifying and analyzing symbolism in a passage can be mind-boggling.

One of the easiest and most relatable examples I use to teach symbolism is the American flag. Concretely, it’s a rectangular piece of fabric with red and white stripes and white stars upon a navy blue background.

American Flag Includes Many Symbols Which Can't Be Seen at First Glance

Symbolically, however, the flag means so much more. It represents our freedom, patriotism, the thirteen original colonies, the 50 states, liberty, justice, our independence from Great Britain, and so much more.

Easy peasy, right? You get it just like my students get it! But when they have to apply the idea of identifying symbolism in literature, they’re totally lost.

In trying to help my students recognize symbolism I’ve visited countless forums, blogs, university websites, and beyond to try to strategize ways to make the concept clearer. What it comes down to is, as with any other assignment, you have to be willing to do the work to conceptualize symbolism.

To be good a analyst of symbols, you need to truly understand what a symbol is. So let’s start in the same place I start with my own students: defining symbolism. After that, I’ll tell you how to write a symbolism essay.

Symbolism Defined

In short, symbolism is the literary device that refers to the use of words, colors, objects, people, locales, or ideas that represent an idea beyond itself.

Anything That Represents an Idea Can Be a Symbol

If you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” try to recall how frequently he references the color green. Green is widely accepted as symbolic of greed and money. In the novel, green represents the protagonist’s belief that he has to earn and maintain great wealth to win the heart of the object of his affection.

Symbolism calls on readers to make the connection between recurring objects, colors, words, etc., and their intended meaning. Ask yourself, is green just a descriptive word that modifies a noun? Or is there more to it than that? If, as a reader, you can attach greater significance to that recurring element, you’ve likely just identified symbolism.

In this helpful video, an Oregon State University professor discusses ways to recognize symbolism in literature.

He provides some really great examples to further aid students like you in identifying recurring objects that are likely symbolic.

3 Types of Symbolism in Literature

Although how we define symbolism has not fluctuated over time, the types of symbolism writers use, have. With that being said, the three most commonly used types of symbolism are as follows:

1. Religious Symbolism

Probably the most widely recognized type of symbolism, religious symbolism refers to objects or ideas that have sacred, spiritual, or holy significance. For instance, in Christianity, the Crucifix is literally the wooden cross upon which Jesus Christ lost his life, but spiritually it represents God’s sacrifice for the salvation of humanity.

In Buddhism, a Lotus on its surface is a beautiful flower, while symbolically the stages of the flower’s budding represent Buddha’s awakening and a Buddhist’s spiritual growth.

The Name Buddha Itself Means “One Who Is Awakened”

Religious symbols have been used by writers throughout the ages to allude to the conflicts, settings, etc. that characters endure in the plot of a story.

For example, in William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies,” the story’s setting, a utopian island with temptation at every turn, religiously symbolizes the Garden of Eden. Much like the boys on the island who are unable to regulate their desires without social order, the Garden of Eden is absent of authority which leads its occupants to their own devices.

2. Romantic Symbolism

Romantic symbolism refers to those objects correlated to expressions of love. Love has been a topic for many novels and poems. Romantic symbols are those objects, words, colors, etc. that so emblematically express and signify love.

Literature Presents All the Types of Love in a Very Excitable Way

In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” for instance, the speaker compares his mistress’s cheeks to the color of a rose and her scent to the fragrance of a rose. Red roses are commonly accepted as a symbol of love; through the speaker’s comparison of his mistress to the rose, the reader understands, that although it’s not implicitly stated, the rose represents his love for her. Ergo, romantic symbolism.

3. Emotional Symbolism

Good writers use figurative language to hint at the emotions and feelings characters experience rather than coming right out and saying it. Doing so is what makes literature engaging and entertaining.

This Sign Is Used in Relation to People Experiencing Any Form of Oppression to Reject Discriminatory Behavior

Emotional symbols represent particular sentiments. Like when someone raises a clenched fist it represents political solidarity as in the Black Lives Matter Movement. The fist is just a fist, but depending on the circumstances in which it’s raised, it may carry this much deeper meaning.

The Effect of Symbolism in Literature

Rarely are fictitious stories written purely for the reader’s enjoyment. Like your literature teachers have likely told you, good fiction writers teach a lesson or moral or recreate some significant conflict from which you, the reader, are called upon to recognize the importance.

By including literary devices like symbolism, writers create layers of meaning beyond the prosaic. Symbols demonstrate and reveal themes, lessons, morals, and significance better than just outright saying them.

Symbols Can Teach You Life Lessons and Show What Is Better for You

For example, when you read the Modoc Indian origin story, “When Grizzlies Walked Upright,” you’re meant to learn the importance of obeying your parents. You glean a deeper meaning from the symbolism in the story than if the writer were to just say, “It’s important to obey your parents.”

Components of a Symbolism Essay and What You Should Include There

So, what’s a symbolism essay anyway? How to write a symbolism essay? One of the best ways to help you grapple with the concept of symbolism is by analyzing it in the context of the texts you read.

The fact is, symbolism has been a well-loved literary device by authors since cave paintings and hieroglyphics. The more comfortable you become with recognizing symbolism, the better you’ll understand the text and the better readers you’ll become.

The Eye of Horus (Also Called ‘Wadjet’) Is the Symbol of Power, Protection and Good Health

The body of a symbolism essay essentially identifies and analyzes particular symbols as presented in a text. When identifying the symbol(s) you should explain the author’s purpose in using them.

As the essayist, you must ask yourself why the writer thought it was important to utilize particular symbols, what he/she hopes to convey or reveal, and what you, the reader, were meant to extract from the given symbol(s)?

It’s similar to when a writer chooses to include curse words in his/her composition. What’s the purpose? What does the particular curse word add to the meaning of the text? Would the passage have the same effect without the curse word?

Just as you may wonder about the author’s choice to include curse words, which I dive into here , his/her purpose in selecting particular symbols to further engage you is significant.

You Can Use Critical Thinking While Reading for a Better Understanding

Analyzing symbolism is a process. The first step in that process is identifying a symbol in the literature.

After you’ve read a passage, think about whether an overarching subject stuck out to you. If so, is it repeated? Could it contain a deeper meaning?

If there’s an object that stands out to you, consider whether the object has other accepted meanings. If not, could you attach a logical and reasonable meaning to the object? If so, you’ve successfully identified symbolism in the text.

In this awesome overview on symbolism, Shaelin of “Shaelin Writes” discusses how you can arrive at the symbolic meaning of significant and recurring objects, colors, words, etc.

Next, it’s important to consider the effect or function of the symbol? What is the writer trying to convey? What is the writer hoping to show you instead of outright telling you?

“Word Ink” bloggers Gannon Daniels and Vanessa Ziff Lasdon, sum up the purpose of symbolism so eloquently when they assert, “In the best literature, symbols are unexpected and unique to the character, yet utterly logical and precisely chosen by the writer to evoke multiple layers of meaning.”

Finally, marry your analysis in a well-organized paragraph where you identify the symbol in a topic sentence, explain the meaning of the symbol, and provide textual evidence of how the symbol is used in the context of the passage; make these explanations in the sentences that follow the topic sentence. Round out your paragraph with a concluding sentence that links back to the topic sentence of the same paragraph.

For Analysing the Symbols Use Different Sources Like Books, Encyclopedias or Internet

In some writing mediums, you may consider alternate approaches. Like when you write a narrative literature review, as I discuss here , there are a variety of formats to choose from. However, the five-paragraph structure is most suitable for a symbolism essay.

The five-paragraph essay format is generally a good way to format a symbolism essay. Introduce the text and your subject in the first paragraph, identify and analyze a different way the symbol presents itself in each body paragraph, and conclude by connecting your analyses.

Useful Resources

  • Color meanings – the power and symbolism of colors
  • Animal symbolism: animals and their meanings
  • Examples of symbolism in literature
  • Meanings of various religious symbols

Finally, in literature symbolism is a literary device, or figurative language, that calls upon the reader to extract deeper meaning from objects, concepts, words, etc.

In literature, writers use symbols to show readers something instead of outright telling them.

A symbolism essay helps readers to identify and analyze symbols for their intended meaning and function. As well as the useful resources provided herein on how to write a symbolism essay, this article provides additional support in choosing the best plagiarism checker for teachers.

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Definition of Symbolism

Symbolism is a literary device that refers to the use of symbols in a literary work. A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else; it represents something beyond literal meaning. In literature, a symbol can be a word, object , action, character , or concept that embodies and evokes a range of additional meaning and significance.

For example, in his poem “ Fire and Ice ,” Robert Frost utilizes symbolism to indicate to readers how the world may be destroyed:

Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice.

In the poem, fire symbolizes destructive and consuming emotions such as jealousy, desire for power , anger, and impulsivity. Ice, in the poem, symbolizes destructive and withholding emotions such as hate, indifference, loneliness, and isolation. Of course, the poet indicates to the reader that the literal meanings of fire and ice make them capable of destroying and ending the world. However, it’s the symbolism of fire and ice that enhances the meaning and significance of the poem.

Common Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life

Everyday words, objects, and even concepts often have more than a single meaning. Across time, certain aspects of everyday life and experience evolve in meaning and associated significance, making them symbols of something besides what they actually are. Here are some common examples of symbolism in everyday life:

  • rainbow–symbolizes hope and promise
  • red rose–symbolizes love and romance
  • four-leaf clover–symbolizes good luck or fortune
  • wedding ring–symbolizes commitment and matrimony
  • red, white, blue–symbolizes American patriotism
  • green traffic light–symbolizes “go” or proceed
  • tree blossoms–symbolize spring season
  • Pilgrim hat–symbolizes Thanksgiving holiday
  • dollar sign–symbolizes money, earnings, wealth
  • image of shopping cart–symbolizes online purchases

Examples of Types of Symbolism and Their Effects

Writers utilize many types of symbolism, both as a way to convey meaning to their overall readership and as a method of allowing individual readers to make their own interpretations and discover meaning. In addition, different types of symbols create different effects for readers, though the overall goal of symbolism as a literary device is to enhance the reader’s experience with literature.

Here are some examples of types of symbolism and their effects:

  • emotion : symbols often evoke emotional responses in readers, allowing them to invest in the plot and characters. This emotional effect of symbolism also creates a lasting impression for the reader of the literary work.
  • Imagery : symbols can create imagery and provide visual elements that allow readers to understand complex literary themes. This also has a beneficial effect for writers so that they don’t feel an overreliance on language to explain their intended meaning.
  • thematic connection: symbols can connect themes for readers within a single literary work and across literature itself. This allows for greater understanding of literature as an art form.
  • Character attributes: symbols can represent different attributes of characters, both in a literal and figurative sense. This has an effect for readers in that they can identify character traits and understand their actions based on symbolism in the literary work.
  • deeper meaning:  symbolism also allows writers to convey deeper meaning in their work for the reader. This creates a layered effect of understanding so that different readers can find their own individual significance in a literary work, and individual readers can find different levels of significance with each exposure to the literary work.

Famous Examples of Symbolism in Movies

Symbolism is a device utilized by many film artists as well. Symbolism in cinema allows the audience to make connections and understand meaning, adding to both the entertainment and thematic value of a film.

Here are some famous examples of symbolism in well-known movies:

  • white cowboy hat = hero in classic Westerns
  • mockingbird = innocence in  To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Balloons = hopes and dreams in  Disney’s Up
  • feathers = beginnings and endings in Forrest Gump
  • Yellow Brick Road = street paved with gold in  The Wizard of Oz
  • coin toss = fate, chance, free will in  No Country for Old Men
  • Fog = confusion and the unknown in  Apocalypse Now
  • cat = home and belonging in  Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • doors = separation and transition in  The Godfather
  • deer = prey and vulnerability in  Get Out

Difference Between Symbolism and Motif

Symbolism and motif are both effective literary devices that can appear to be synonymous or interchangeable. However, these devices serve different purposes in literature. Symbolism, as a device, utilizes symbols such that the concept of a word or object represents something beyond its literal meaning. Symbols can be featured singularly or several times in literature. A motif is a recurring element, in the form of an image, phrase , situation, or concept, that is integral to the plot and appears several times throughout a literary work and emphasizes or draws attention to the overall theme .

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism is an effective literary device utilized by writers to connect with readers and allow them to actively participate in understanding the deeper meaning of a literary work. Writers use symbolism to evoke emotion, create a sensory experience, and to demonstrate artistic use of language so that words have both literal and figurative meanings. Here are some examples of symbolism in literature:

Example 1:  The Glass Menagerie  (Tennessee Williams)

Yes, movies! Look at them — All of those glamorous people — having adventures — hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America , while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone’s dish, not only Gable’s! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves — Goody, goody! — It’s our turn now, to go to the south Sea Island — to make a safari — to be exotic, far-off!

In Williams’s play , Tom’s character frequently goes to the movies to escape the monotony and pressure of his life at home with his mother and sister. Therefore, movies offer Tom both a literal and figurative escape from his home, though it is a passive escape in darkness with no true experience of adventure. The movies symbolize Tom’s dreams and fantasies as well as their unattainability and manufactured reality. In this passage, Williams also makes artistic and ironic use of the word “movies” in that the act of going to the movies actually makes Tom feel more stagnant, stuck, and unmoving.

Example 2:  The Lesson  (Toni Cade Bambara)

Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and I got a headache for thinkin so hard. And we lean all over each other so we can hold up under the draggy ass lecture she always finishes us off with at the end before we thank her for borin us to tears. But she just looks at us like she readin tea leaves. Finally she say, “Well, what did you think of F.A.0. Schwarz?” Rosie Giraffe mumbles, “White folks crazy.”

In Bambara’s short story , the famous New York City toy store F.A.O. Schwarz is a symbol for economic wealth and frivolous spending. Miss Moore’s character, by bringing a group of underprivileged black kids to the toy store, also wants F.A.O. Schwarz to be viewed as a symbol of systemic racial and social division in America as well as monetary separation. By exposing this group of kids to such an outrageously expensive toy store, Miss Moore intends to teach them a lesson and instill a deeper concept of failed American opportunity and equality through the symbolism of F.A.O. Schwarz.

Example 3:  The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night . Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The color green is a strong motif in Fitzgerald’s novel , used frequently to reinforce the theme of money, wealth, and materialism. The green light across the water from Gatsby’s home does play a role in this color motif; however, Fitzgerald uses the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock as symbolism in the novel. In fact, as the narrator Nick Carraway mentions in the above passage, Gatsby “believes” in the green light because of what he feels it symbolizes.

The light not only represents Gatsby’s future hopes and dreams, especially in terms of his love for Daisy, but the green color of the light symbolizes, to Gatsby, permission to follow and pursue these hopes and dreams. Despite the knowledge that Daisy is a married woman, Gatsby views the green light as guidance and a signal to proceed with his futile quest to win Daisy.

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5 paragraph essay about symbolism

Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Gustave Moreau

The Love Song

The Love Song

Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Island of the Dead

Island of the Dead

Arnold Böcklin

Inter artes et naturam (Between Art and Nature)

Inter artes et naturam (Between Art and Nature)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The Shepherd's Song

The Shepherd's Song

Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary)

Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary)

Paul Gauguin

Vase with face

Vase with face

Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat

The First Communion

The First Communion

Eugène Carrière

The Blind Man's Meal

The Blind Man's Meal

Pablo Picasso


Odilon Redon

Nicole Myers Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

August 2007

Symbolism initially developed as a French literary movement in the 1880s, gaining popular credence with the publication in 1886 of Jean Moréas’ manifesto in Le Figaro . Reacting against the rationalism and materialism that had come to dominate Western European culture, Moréas proclaimed the validity of pure subjectivity and the expression of an idea over a realistic description of the natural world. This philosophy, which would incorporate the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s conviction that reality was best expressed through poetry because it paralleled nature rather than replicating it, became a central tenet of the movement. In Mallarmé’s words, “To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment to be found in the poem… suggestion , that is the dream.”

Though it began as a literary concept, Symbolism was soon identified with the artwork of a younger generation of painters who were similarly rejecting the conventions of Naturalism. Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in the objective, quasi-scientific manner embodied by Realism and Impressionism. Returning to the personal expressivity advocated by the Romantics earlier in the nineteenth century, they felt that the symbolic value or meaning of a work of art stemmed from the re-creation of emotional experiences in the viewer through color, line, and composition. In painting, Symbolism represents a synthesis of form and feeling, of reality and the artist’s inner subjectivity.

In an article on Paul Gauguin published in 1891, Albert Aurier gave the first definition of symbolism as an aesthetic, describing it as the subjective vision of an artist expressed through a simplified and non-naturalistic style and hailing Gauguin as its leader. However, the groundwork for pictorial Symbolism was laid as early as the 1870s by an older generation of artists such as Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Odilon Redon (1840–1916) ( 60.19.1 ), Eugène Carrière (1849–1906) ( 63.138.5 ), Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) ( 26.90 ), and Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). All would have a profound influence on Gauguin and his contemporaries in the later nineteenth century.

Wanting to imbue their works with spiritual value, these progenitors of Symbolism produced imaginary dream worlds populated with mysterious figures from biblical stories and Greek mythology as well as fantastical, often monstrous, creatures. Their suggestive imagery established what would become the most pervasive themes in Symbolist art: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. Woman became the favored symbol for the expression of these universal emotions, appearing alternately as wistful virgins ( 06.177 ; 63.138.5 ; 47.26 ) and menacing femmes fatales. In this latter category, Moreau popularized the motifs of Salome brandishing the head of John the Baptist and the man-eating sphinx through paintings such as Oedipus and the Sphinx ( 21.134.1 ) in the Salons of the mid-1860s and 1870s. These two mythical female types—the virgin and the femme fatale—would become staples of Symbolist imagery, appearing frequently in both visual and literary sources from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century.

Unlike the Impressionists , the Symbolists who emerged in the 1880s were a diverse group of artists often working independently with varying aesthetic goals. Rather than sharing a single artistic style, they were unified by a shared pessimism and weariness of the decadence they perceived in modern society. The Symbolists sought escape from reality, expressing their personal dreams and visions through color, form, and composition. Their almost universal preference for broad strokes of unmodulated color and flat, often abstract forms was inspired by Puvis de Chavannes, who created greatly simplified forms in order to clearly express abstract ideas ( 58.15.2 ). His muted palette and decorative treatment of forms made a considerable impact on a new generation of artists, most notably Gauguin (1848–1903) and the young Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).

Gauguin’s Symbolism was unique in that he sought escape from civilization in less industrialized, so-called primitive cultures rather than in the imaginary dream world of his predecessors. Vision of the Sermon (1888; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) marks his first intentionally Symbolist picture painted in the Synthetic style that he developed with Émile Bernard (1868–1941) in Brittany in 1888, which aimed to synthesize abstracted form with emotional or spiritual experience. Here, Gauguin combined heavily outlined, simplified shapes with solid patches of vivid color to symbolically express the ardent piety of simple Breton women. This painting exerted a tremendous influence on the group of artists known as the Nabis , who enthusiastically adopted his aesthetic in the late 1880s and 1890s.

Gauguin’s search for a lost paradise ultimately led him to the South Seas, where he filled his canvases, prints, and sculptures with highly personal and esoteric imagery that deliberately eludes a clear or finite interpretation ( 51.112.2 ). Describing his greatest Symbolist masterpiece, the monumental Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897–98; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Gauguin echoed Mallarmé in proclaiming that “explanatory attributes—known symbols—would congeal the canvas into a melancholy reality, and the problem indicated would no longer be a poem.”

Though it began in France, Symbolism was an international avant-garde movement that spread across Europe and North America during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863–1944) was closely associated with Symbolist circles, spending time in Paris before settling in Germany in the early 1890s. Munch’s intensely personal style is often referred to as Symbolic Naturalism as his subjects are not exotic or fantastical but based on the real anxieties of modern existence. Virtually all of the canvases he produced between 1893 and 1902 belong to a series called the Frieze of Life . These paintings explore themes of illness, loneliness, despair, and mental suffering associated with love, conditions that Munch deemed emblematic of “modern psychic life.” The Scream of 1893 (Munch-Museet, Oslo) best exemplifies fin-de-siècle feelings of isolation, disillusionment, and psychological anguish conveyed through distorted forms, expressive colors, and fluid brushwork.

In 1892, the eccentric “Sâr” Péladan founded the Salon de la Rose + Croix, inviting artists with strong Symbolist tendencies to exhibit their artwork. Ferdinand Hodler (Swiss, 1853–1918), Jan Toorop (Dutch, 1858–1928), and a number of Belgians, including Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921), were among the international participants. Also working in Belgium, though rarely exhibiting his work, was James Ensor (1860–1949), who developed a unique Symbolist style based on grotesque and carnivalesque figures. Picasso, an avid admirer of Gauguin, whose works he first encountered while visiting Paris in 1901, enthusiastically embraced Symbolism during his formative years in Barcelona. His Blue Period works, such as The Blind Man’s Meal (1903; 50.188 ), depict mentally and physically downtrodden characters in the greatly simplified style characteristic of pictorial Symbolism.

In Central Europe, Symbolism witnessed a late flourishing in the works of the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) in particular, whose canvases display a deep fascination with both the productive and destructive forces of female sexuality ( Salome , 1909; Museo Ca’ Pesaro, Venice). Klimt’s highly ornamental style reveals the close connection between Symbolism and parallel movements in the decorative arts such as Art Nouveau .

The Symbolists’ rejection of naturalism and narrative in favor of the subjective representation of an idea or emotion would have a significant effect on the artwork of the twentieth century, particularly the formulation of German Expressionism and Abstraction.

Myers, Nicole. “Symbolism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/symb/hd_symb.htm (August 2007)

Further Reading

Christian, John. Symbolists and Decadents . London: Thames & Hudson, 1977.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Symbolist Art . London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.

Mathieu, Pierre-Louis. The Symbolist Generation, 1870–1910 . New York: Skira, 1990.

Additional Essays by Nicole Myers

  • Myers, Nicole. “ The Lure of Montmartre, 1880–1900 .” (October 2007)
  • Myers, Nicole. “ Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France .” (September 2008)
  • Myers, Nicole. “ The Aesthetic of the Sketch in Nineteenth-Century France .” (March 2009)

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  • Great Britain and Ireland, 1800–1900 A.D.
  • Iberian Peninsula, 1900 A.D.–present
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  • Oil on Canvas
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Artist or Maker

  • Baziotes, William
  • Böcklin, Arnold
  • Burne-Jones, Edward
  • Carrière, Eugène
  • Carrington, Leonora
  • Dalpayrat, Pierre-Adriene
  • Ensor, James
  • Gauguin, Paul
  • Klimt, Gustav
  • Messerschmidt, Franz Xaver
  • Moreau, Gustave
  • Munch, Edvard
  • Picasso, Pablo
  • Puvis De Chavannes, Pierre
  • Redon, Odilon
  • Schiele, Egon
  • Spilliaert, Léon
  • Voisin-Delacroix, Alphonse

5 paragraph essay about symbolism

Symbolism Definition

What is symbolism? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—usually a physical object or phenomenon—to represent something more abstract. A strong symbol usually shares a set of key characteristics with whatever it is meant to symbolize, or is related to it in some other way. Characters and events can also be symbolic. A famous example of a symbol in literature occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird , when Atticus tells his children Jem and Scout that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds cause no harm to anyone; they just sing. Because of these traits, mockingbirds in the novel symbolize innocence and beauty, while killing a mockingbird symbolizes an act of senseless cruelty.

Some additional key details about symbolism:

  • Symbolism can be very subtle, so it isn't always easy to identify or understand.
  • It can sometimes be difficult to say whether an author intended for something to be symbolic or not.
  • Symbolism allows writers to convey things to their readers poetically or indirectly rather than having to say them outright, which can make texts seem more nuanced and complex.

Symbolism Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce symbolism: sim -buh-liz-uhm

Types of Symbolism

A symbol can be a physical object, a character, or an event. Here's a brief overview of how each type of symbolism works:

  • Symbolism through physical objects: Most often, physical objects are used to symbolize an idea or concept, as a way of pointing the reader towards some of the basic themes that a work is dealing with. For example, a poet might write a poem about a flower dancing in the wind in order to convey a sense of innocence, harmony with nature, or sheer happiness.
  • Symbolism through characters: Sometimes, characters themselves can serve as symbols—of a particular virtue or vice, or of a political ideology. For example, in Edmund Spenser's famous allegorical poem, The Faeirie Queene , the female knight Britomart is a symbol of the values of chastity and restraint, traits which many 16th-century readers held in high esteem.
  • Symbolism through events: Events can also be symbolic. For example, while a character's long, wild hair might symbolize a period of youth or innocence, a scene in which the character chops off his or her long hair might symbolize a loss of innocence—or the sacrifices people have to make in the process of becoming a mature adult with responsibilities. While the act of cutting off the hair is neither an object nor a character, but it would still be an example of symbolism.

Identifying Symbolism

Writers employ a wide variety of symbols to deepen the meaning of their work. Some symbols, though, are much easier to identify than others. It's worth recognizing the ways that some symbols can be obvious, while others might be less so. For example, sea glass might be used as a fairly obvious symbol in one text, and a more subtle symbol in another:

  • Sea glass as an obvious symbol: If a character in a story gives her son a piece of sea glass just before she dies, and the son then puts the sea glass on a necklace and wears it every day, that's a pretty clear example of something being symbolic: the sea glass represents the son's relationship with his mother, his grief at her passing, or perhaps even the more general concept of loss. In this example, the author might choose to describe how the son plays with his necklace obsessively in order to convey his ever present grief at the loss of his mother—instead of having to state it outright.
  • Sea glass as a less-obvious symbol: If a character in a story delivers a monologue about sea glass in which they explain how something sharp and broken (a shard of glass) becomes smooth and beautiful only through years of being tossed about on the ocean's currents, it might over the course of the story come to be symbolic for the process of growing up or recovering from trauma—but not every reader will necessarily pick up on the symbolism. In this case, sea glass would be an example of a symbol that might be harder to identify as a symbol within the context of the story.

Is a Symbol Purposeful or Not?

In some cases, particularly when a symbol is subtle, it's not always even clear whether the author's use of symbolism is intentional, or whether the reader is supplying their own meaning of the text by "reading into" something as a symbol. That isn't a problem, though. In fact, it's one of the beautiful things about symbolism: whether symbolism can be said to be present in a text has as much to do with the reader's interpretation as the writer's intentions.

Symbol vs. Metaphor

At first glance, symbolism and metaphor can be difficult to distinguish from one another—both devices imbue a text with meaning beyond its literal sense, and both use one thing to represent something else. However, there are a few key differences between metaphor and symbolism:

  • Metaphors compare two different things by stating that one thing is the other (e.g., your eyes are heaven). This doesn't happen in symbolism, where the relationship between a symbol and what it represents is not stated explicitly and one thing is not said to be the other thing. Instead, a symbol stands for or represents something else.
  • Whereas a metaphor is used to compare one thing to another based on shared characteristics, symbols can but don't need to have any characteristics in common with what they represent. For instance, Annie Proulx's story Brokeback Mountain ends with one character taking in the smell of a shirt that was once worn by his lost love. The shirt doesn't have any characteristics in common with the lover—it symbolizes him only insofar as it once belonged to him.

Symbolism and Allegory

An allegory is a work that conveys a moral through the use of symbolic characters and events. Not every work that incorporates symbols is an allegory; rather, an allegory is a story in which the majority of characters and plot developments serve as symbols for something else, or in which the entire storyline is symbolic of a broader phenomenon in society.

For example, the characters in Edmund Spenser's allegorical poem The Faerie Queene are not very complex or deep characters: they're meant to embody virtues or ideas more than they are meant to resemble real people. By contrast, Hester Prynne (the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's highly symbolic novel, The Scarlet Letter ) exhibits a great deal of complexity and individuality as a character beyond whatever she may symbolize, so it doesn't really make sense to say that The Scarlet Letter is an allegory about adultery; rather, it's a novel that is literally about adultery that has symbolic aspects. In short, all allegories are highly symbolic, but not all symbolic writing is allegorical.

Symbolism Examples

Symbolism is very common is all sorts of narrative literature, poetry, film, and even speeches.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Authors frequently incorporate symbolism into their work, because symbols engage readers on an emotional level and succinctly convey large and complex ideas.

Symbolism in Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain"

The following passage from Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" describes a character named Ennis's visit to the childhood home of a lost lover named Jack. There, Ennis finds an old shirt of his nestled inside of one of Jack's shirts.

At the north end of the closet a tiny jog in the wall made a slight hiding place and here, stiff with long suspension from a nail, hung a shirt. He lifted it off the nail. Jack’s old shirt from Brokeback days. The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain when Jack, in their contortionistic grappling and wrestling, had slammed Ennis’s nose hard with his knee. He had stanched the blood, which was everywhere, all over both of them, with his shirtsleeve, but the stanching hadn’t held, because Ennis had suddenly swung from the deck and laid the ministering angel out in the wild columbine, wings folded. The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.

Proulx's description of the shirts sounds like it could be a description of the feeling of intimacy shared between lovers: she writes that they are "like two skins, one inside the other, two in one." The shirts symbolize the love the two men shared, but Proulx avoids having to explain Ennis's feelings directly by using symbolism in her description of the shirts, instead.

Symbolism in Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias "

In the sonnet "Ozymandias," Shelley uses the story of an encounter with a decaying monument to illustrate the destructive power of nature, the fleetingness of man's political accomplishments, and the longevity of art.

I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The symbolism in Shelley's poem transforms the half-sunken monument into a powerful representation of the passage of time. The poem reminds readers that natural forces will put an end to the reign of all empires and the lives of every person, whether king or commoner. In the final lines, the poem juxtaposes two very different symbols: the fallen statue, greatly reduced from its former size, and the huge, barren, and unchanging desert. The statue of Ozymandias is therefore symbolic of man's mortality and smallness in the face time and nature.

Symbolism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

In Chapter Ten of I nvisible Man , the book's protagonist goes to work at the Liberty Paints Factory—the maker of a paint "so white you can paint a chunk of coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through"—where he is surprised to learn that the recipe for the brilliant white paint actually calls for the addition of a few drops of black paint. The symbolism of the black paint disappearing into the white is a direct reference to the "invisibility" of black people in America—one of the major themes of Ellison's book.

"The idea is to open each bucket and put in ten drops of this stuff," he said. "Then you stir it 'til it disappears. After it's mixed you take this brush and paint out a sample on one of these." He produced a number of small rectangular boards and a small brush from his jacket pocket. "You understand?" "Yes, sir." But when I looked into the white graduate I hesitated; the liquid inside was dead black. Was he trying to kid me?

Symbolism in Film

Filmmakers often endow particular objects with emotional significance. These visual symbols may shed light on a character's motivations or play an important role later on in the film.

Symbolism in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane

In the closing scene of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane , the camera pans to a sled with the word "Rosebud" printed on it—the same word that is uttered by the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed. The movie itself portrays Kane's ruthless efforts to consolidate power in his industry. Yet in his final moments, he recalls the sled associated with the happier days of his youth. The "Rosebud" sled can be described as a symbol of Kane's youthful innocence and idealism, of which he lost sight in his pursuit of power. The sled is one of the most famous symbols in all of film.

Symbolism In Speeches

Orators often turn to symbolism for the same reasons writers do—symbols can add emotional weight to a speech and can stand-in for broad themes and central parts of their argument.

Symbolism in John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address

In the opening lines of his 1961 inaugural address , President Kennedy claims that his inauguration is the symbol of a new era in American history, defined by both reverence for the past and innovation in the years to come:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

Here, President Kennedy argues on behalf of the symbolic significance of his election, suggesting that his Inauguration Day stands for the progress in America that is soon to come. Though it's not an especially subtle use of symbolism, Kennedy's assertion that his first day in office represents the first of many steps forward for America likely had a considerable emotional impact on his audience.

Symbolism in Barack Obama's Speech on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Marches

In his speech on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches , President Obama casts the Edmund Pettus Bridge (in Selma, Alabama) as a symbol of American progress and resilience.

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

In this example, President Obama paid tribute to the activists who were beaten brutally by state troopers after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a 1965 demonstration in Selma, Alabama. Likening their perseverance in the face of police brutality to other prominent examples of American resistance, such as the American Revolution, Obama claims that the demonstrators symbolize a quintessential American trait: a commitment to securing and protecting personal freedom. Thus, in Obama's speech, crossing the bridge can be said to function as a symbol of the long struggle for civil rights.

Why Do Writers Use Symbolism?

It's hard to find a work of literature that lacks any kind of symbolism. Symbolism is an important literary device for creating complex narratives because it enables writers to convey important information without having to state things directly. In addition, the use of symbolism is widespread because it can:

  • Help readers visualize complex concepts and central themes, and track their development.
  • Afford writers the opportunity to communicate big ideas efficiently and artfully.
  • Invite readers to interpret a text independently, rather than be directly told what the author means.
  • Add emotional weight to a text.
  • Conceal themes that are too controversial to state openly.
  • Imply change or growth in characters or themes through shifts in the way that characters interact with particular symbols, or ways in which the symbols themselves change over time.

Other Helpful Symbolism Resources

  • The Wikipedia Page on Symbols : A rather theoretical account of symbolism, which delves into competing definitions of the term that might be more complicated or detailed than is necessary for many readers. Still, the page demonstrates just how pervasive symbolism is in language and thought.
  • Cracked's List of 7 Films With Symbolism You Didn't Notice : Though the author's speculations verge on conspiracy theories at times, at its best, the list demonstrates how artists might use symbols to bury risqué themes in works for popular consumption.
  • The HyperTexts Page on The Best Symbols in Poetry and Literature : The explanations here aren't especially in-depth—certainly not as sophisticated as the symbols they discuss. Still, this is useful as a survey of poems by major writers with examples of concrete, object-based symbolism.

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Symbolism describes the use of concrete images to convey abstract ideas. Because this literary device is widely open to interpretation, and because many readers form different relationships to concrete objects, this is one of the more slippery elements of literature to both understand and convey to an audience. Nonetheless, understanding symbolism, and knowing what is a symbol, are crucial to writing good poetry and prose.

What makes symbolism particularly tricky is understanding how an image is being employed in the text. For example, fire can represent destruction and evil, but it can also represent regrowth and the cycles of life. So, this article demystifies the complexities of symbolism in literature. Along the way, we’ll look at symbolism examples in poetry and fiction, before moving towards how to represent abstract ideas in your work.

What is symbolism in literature, and how do you wield it? Let’s define this slippery concept.

Symbolism Contents

What is a Symbol?

Symbolism in literature, symbolism in poetry.

  • Universal Symbolism: Does It Exist?

Wielding Symbolism in Your Writing

Symbolism definition: what is symbolism in literature.

Symbolism refers to the use of representational imagery : the writer employs an image with a deeper, non-literal meaning, for the purpose of conveying complex ideas.

In literature, symbolism is the use of a concrete image to represent an abstract idea.

For example, the heart is often employed as a symbol of love. Obviously, love is more complex and full-bodied—it doesn’t just sit in the chest—but we constantly refer to a loving person as “having a big heart,” or a person who lost their love as “heartbroken.”

Sometimes, a symbol is the stepping stone for an extended metaphor . If the heart represents love, what does it mean when a heart is iced over, or two hearts beat in the same chest, or someone has the heart of a deer? While a good symbol can certainly stand on its own, it also creates opportunities to play with ideas in a way that abstract language prevents us from doing.

That said, a symbol is not a metaphor. Symbolism uses a relevant image to convey a relevant idea, whereas a metaphor compares two seemingly unrelated items. Unlike metaphors and similes, symbolism employs a symbolic image repeatedly through the text, with the intent of being a central image and idea of the text.

The trickiest part of understanding symbolism in literature is knowing which images are symbols, and why. To answer this, we must first dive deeper into the images themselves. What is a symbol?

A symbol is an image whose figurative meaning is much deeper than its literal one. It is an object, often ordinary and commonplace, that has been imbued with extraordinary significance.

What is a symbol: an image whose figurative meaning is much deeper than its literal one.

Some symbols are culturally specific. An example of a symbol that varies by culture is that of a marriage proposal. While many countries use engagement rings as a symbol of being betrothed,  the people of Wales often uses “ lovespoons ” to signify one’s partnership. In Thailand, a marriage proposal might be signified by a thong mun —gifts made out of gold.

Other symbols are either more universal, or else easily inferred from the text. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a green light represents all that is unreachable to Jay Gatsby. He sees a green light on the other side of the sound, where his love interest, Daisy, lives. Not only is Daisy unreachable, but so is everything she and the green light represents: the (perceived) stability and decadence of the American Dream.

Perhaps there is also symbolism in the color green itself: it is the color of money, and the “go” color of stoplights. This last interpretation is certainly laden with irony , because chasing his dreams is exactly what kills Jay Gatsby.

Because the green light is so far away from Jay, and because he’s never able to touch it (or Daisy, for that matter), it obviously represents some sort of unreachability. Because this image recurs throughout the novel, it is a clear example of symbolism—so much so, that the green light has become nearly universally understood, to the point that Lorde has a song inspired by the symbol.

Symbolism Examples

Symbolism operates slightly differently in poetry than in prose, primarily because of the differences in word choice and length in poetry vs prose . A symbol tends to recur in prose, in such a way that it becomes a motif or builds towards a broader theme . Each recurrence of the symbol complicates the idea that the image represents.

Because poetry tends to be shorter, it also tends to employ symbols more economically. Symbolism in poetry may be harder to interpret or understand, as the poem does not provide as much context for the reader, and thus requires the reader to make more inferences and interpretations.

As such, we’ll look at symbolism examples differently in prose and poetry. The below symbolism examples come from published works of literature.

“Big Mother” by Anya Ow

Read this short story here, in Strange Horizons .

Central symbol: Big Mother, a mythical snakehead fish.

What it represents: The loss of childhood innocence.

Symbolism examples in the text: Catching snakehead fish seems to be a rite of passage into adulthood: the oldest boy is obsessed with catching them. What’s more, when an uncle finds out that the children have caught snakeheads, he trusts them with his favorite rod. When the oldest boy misses out on catching Big Mother, he becomes obsessed with capturing this symbol of adulthood. Then, when he does catch Big Mother, she ensnares him. The only way to ensure the oldest boy’s safety is to bargain their current lives for their future ones.

Analysis: Big Mother represents the complicated relationship people have to adulthood. The children all glorify her at first, but the eldest children realize the sacrifice they must make to save themselves from her wrath. This darkens the moods of the eldest children, as they come to understand the permanence of adulthood, the fragility of innocence. What at first seems mystical and fantastic about the real world is actually laden with terror.

The fact that the river is paved over further complicates this theme. While the characters are saved from the fate they sealed, they also catapult further into a world that replaces magic and mystery with the practical and mundane.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

You can read the full play here, from Project Gutenberg.

HAMLET: Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.

HAMLET: No, faith, not a jot. But to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. O, that that earth which kept the world in awe Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw. But soft! but soft! aside! Here comes the King. The Queen, the courtiers. Who is that they follow? And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken The corse they follow did with desperate hand Fordo it own life. ’Twas of some estate. Couch we awhile and mark.

Symbol: Yorick’s skull.

What it represents: The inherent meaninglessness of life.

Symbolism examples in the text: Although many symbols recur through their texts, this symbol occurs exactly once. In Act V Scene I, Prince Hamlet comes across the skull of Yorick, his former jester. This encounter occurs towards the end of the play, after Hamlet’s depression, nihilism, and helplessness have radically altered his perspective of the world.

Analysis: Hamlet’s contemplation of Yorick’s skull reveals his belief that our lives are inherently meaningless. That Yorick used to make people laugh matters little, because now he can make people laugh no more. He is fated to the same end that the likes of Alexander and Caesar were fated towards, too. Hamlet’s contemplation here is especially meaningful, given that he is trying to avenge his father’s murder. Because he is visited by his father’s ghost, Hamlet tries to believe that a person’s life can have meaning after death; but, his father cannot avenge himself, so what meaning is there left to have, unless we, the living, remind ourselves of it?

It is strange to have an important symbol occupy such a small space in as long a text as Hamlet. The importance of this symbol stems partially from its endurance in pop culture: Yorick’s skull has inspired many novels, poems, songs, and works of art. Additionally, it is a memento mori , or reminder of death, which is a prominent theme in European artwork in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The full text of Jane Eyre can be retrieved here, from Project Gutenberg.

Symbol: The Red Room.

What it represents: The childhood obstacles Jane must overcome to achieve a life of happiness and freedom.

Symbolism examples in the text: We encounter the Red Room in Chapter 2. Jane is locked inside the Red Room by her unfair aunt after Jane stands up for herself against John Reed, her cousin. The Red Room is also where Jane’s uncle died. Jane and her cousins believe that the room is haunted by this uncle, so when Jane is locked inside, she first focuses on the injustice of it all, but then becomes so consumed by fear, and by her belief that her uncle might rise up from the dead, that she blacks out. Jane references this episode several times later in the novel, often to reflect on her journey.

Analysis: The color red is no accident: it represents anger, passion, fear, and intensity. Jane experiences all of this when her aunt imprisons her at only ten years old. The obvious symbolism here is that pure, righteous Jane is imprisoned inside the angry, intense wrath of her unloving family, but the novel encourages us to explore this further. The Red Room represents Jane’s ambivalent relationships to adults: they are always authoritarian, always ready to punish, and always ready to trap Jane inside their own worst impulses.

One possible interpretation of the color red is that it represents period blood, and thus the transition from childhood to adulthood. Jane is forced to be an adult before she’s ready, maturely handling the emotions of other adults when she’s still an innocent child.

Madeleine Wood argues that the Red Room continues to affect Jane, because her relationships to adults as a child manifests itself in her relationships to men as an adult. Remember, the society Jane grew up in was heavily patriarchal: grown women had to always defer to men as authorities. Yet, Jane desires freedom more than anything else, both as a child and as an adult, so the institutions of marriage and the patriarchy fundamentally challenge her freedoms. When she reflects on the Red Room as an adult, it is always juxtaposed to her relationship with a man. She even thinks about the Red Room after walking out on Rochester, an important suitor of hers in the novel.

Only when Jane is comfortable with herself and confident in her freedom is she able to find love and happiness, thus overcoming the burden symbolized by the Red Room.

“My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth

Retrieved here, from Academy of American Poets . 

My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is father of the Man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.

Here’s an example of poetry with symbolism in which the symbol is employed only once, but very effectively. The rainbow represents the kind of natural beauty that children are best at admiring. If you remember observing nature as a child, you might remember being moved by a rainbow, or by a forest, or a desert, or by any number of beautiful things that abound on this Earth. Wordsworth asserts that “The Child is father of the Man” precisely because children are inspired by natural beauty in a way that adults are not. We have much to learn from kids and their relationship to our planet, and as an adult, this poem’s speaker hope to worship this beauty—”bound each [day] to each [day] by natural piety.”

“City Lake” by Chelsea DesAutels

Retrieved here, from The Slowdown.

Almost dusk. Fishermen packing up their bait, a small girl singing there’s nothing in here nothing in here casting a yellow pole, glancing at her father. What is it they say about mercy? Five summers ago this lake took a child’s life. Four summers ago it saved mine, the way the willows stretch toward the water but never kiss it, how people laugh as they walk the concrete path or really have it out with someone they love. One spring the path teemed with baby frogs, so many flattened, so many jumping. I didn’t know a damn thing then. I thought I was waiting for something to happen. I stepped carefully over the dead frogs and around the live ones. What was I waiting for? Frogs to rain from the sky? A great love? The little girl spies a perch just outside her rod’s reach. She wants to wade in. She won’t catch the fish and even if she does it might be full of mercury. Still, I want her to roll up her jeans and step into the water, tell her it’s mercy, not mud, filling each impression her feet make. I’m not saying she should be grateful to be alive. I’m saying mercy is a big dark lake we’re all swimming in.

This poem tells you precisely what the central symbol represents: the lake symbolizes mercy. Yet, the two have no easy relationship, and the poem constantly complicates the concept of mercy itself. Rather than highlight the grace of mercy—how wonderful it is to be saved—this poem reminds us that mercy is just a form of chance: random with whom it saves and with whom it doesn’t. No matter how well the narrator “steps carefully” through the lake, she can never predict how and why anyone receives mercy.

“Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson

Retrieved here, from Poetry .

Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us – The Dews drew quivering and Chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads Were toward Eternity –

This poem employs a lot of symbols, most notably in the third stanza. The images used each signify a different stage of life. The school represents childhood. The fields of gazing grain represent adulthood—grain is fertile, in its prime, and it “gazes” upwards towards the sky. The setting sun represents old age. Though each of these symbols are employed only once, they are certainly evocative in the context of Death personified, as the poem suggests each of us are on a horse drawn carriage towards the afterlife.

Universal Symbolism: Does it Exist?

The theorist Erich Fromm divides symbolism into three categories: conventional, accidental, and universal symbolism.

Conventional S ymbolism is closely related to concrete imagery. Essentially, it is the use of images which everyone in a particular language can understand. When I say “light bulb,” you imagine some sort of glass bulb with a filament inside. We might have different mental images, but we agree on the same meaning. This is a non-interpretive form of symbolism, and in semiotics , we’re essentially referring to the sign, signifier, and signified.

Accidental S ymbolism might be best described as specific to a certain person. We form relationships to objects all the time: some positive, some negative. A character might form a specific relationship to an object, and that relationship will continue to affect this character throughout the story. For example, let’s say your character won the lottery using a $5 bill they found on the street. They might assume that every time they find a $5, something lucky is about to happen, making that $5 bill a symbol of luck.

Finally, Universal Symbolism refers to images which, over time, have developed a symbolic meaning that we all instantly recognize. These symbols are understood across time and culture: a heart represents love, the sky represents limitlessness, and a fire represents power—or destruction, or rebirth, depending on how it’s employed.

However, don’t be misled by the word “universal”—it is better to see these categories as postmarks along a spectrum, as few, if any, symbols would actually be understood by every person in the world.

Additionally, don’t assume that “universal” is automatically better. Because these symbols are well understood, they are also often cliché . It is important to employ imagery in fresh, interesting ways, using the context of your work to discover new and surprising relationships between images and ideas. Often, using a poem or story to expand upon the accidental symbols (of your life or the lives of your characters) will result in more impactful imagery.

Lastly, you may be interested in the idea of the “ objective correlative .” An objective correlative is a device that makes an abstract idea concrete in the context of a piece of literature. An obvious example of this is the mirror in The Picture of Dorian Gray , which represents Dorian’s soul as it becomes corrupted by vanity. T. S. Eliot, who popularized the term, argues that a work of literature should arrange images and symbols precisely so that they evoke a certain meaning without telling us the meaning itself. It is, in essence, a way to exercise show, don’t tell .

Here’s some advice for employing symbolism in literature:

  • Be concrete. Use images that are easy to visualize and grounded in everyday reality.
  • Be specific. Show the reader exactly what the symbol looks like. The more physical detail you provide, the easier it is to explore the complexities of what your symbol represents.
  • Prefer the accidental to the universal. There’s no problem with employing universal symbolism, but you should have at least one accidental symbol in your work, as it will often reveal the most about the story or poem you write.
  • Be spontaneous. Don’t write with symbolism in mind, just employ imagery tactfully. Writers often don’t realize what their work means until after they’ve written and revised it; trying to muscle meaning into your work might limit the work’s possibilities.
  • Don’t overthink it. There’s no “perfect image” to represent any particular idea. We all forge our own relationships to different objects. Sure, the heart can represent love. So can the dining table, a lightning strike, the stomach, the ocean, or a pair of shoes.

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5 paragraph essay about symbolism

What Is Symbolism? Reviewing Examples in Literature

5 paragraph essay about symbolism

Have you ever wondered how to make your essay entertaining and interesting by changing only a few lines? Symbolism is a great tool to improve your paper in a sophisticated way. In this article, we will introduce you to symbolism and ways to use it in your own writing effectively. Let's go deeper with our professional essay writers .

What Is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a tool used to give objects a deeper meaning and a different quality with the use of a symbol. Symbols are deeply rooted in our speech without us noticing because they enhance our conversation, make sentences elaborate and exemplify things we talk about more vividly.

For example: A dove is a symbol of peace, a black cat signifies bad luck, and a white flag means a peace offering.

Most symbols in custom essay writing services are universal and can be understood by people from different countries and backgrounds. However, some of them are culturally specific and one should be careful in order not to offend anyone or be misunderstood.

How Symbolism Is Used in Literature

Certain objects and terms signify things which are different from their literal sense. Usually, symbolism is used in order to give deeper and more significant meaning to events, objects and characters throughout the text, unify them, and give certain connotations. Authors incorporate symbolism to express complicated concepts visually and show a thread of certain ongoing themes in their writing. Since, in most cases, symbols that are used are hidden in the text, they force the reader to engage in critical thinking. It makes the reader wonder about the metaphorical use of one or the other object as a symbol. If the theme of a book or an essay might be sensitive to certain people, symbolism also comes in handy. It can help express ideas that an author wants to address through the prism of a symbol, as opposed to talking about controversial things openly.

Another reason a writer might choose to use symbolism in his work is to create different levels of meaning in his story. This meaning is not only literal, but also deeper. It connects the reader with his story on a different, an emotional level, besides just telling the story. Readers, on the other hand, like to discover these hidden symbolic ties and meanings, because it gives them a chance to peek into the writer’s mind and get a sense of what intentions he had in creating them.

The bottom line is that symbolism lets a writer introduce his audience to a concept in an interesting poetic way that does not give away the idea right away, luring the reader into his world full of beautiful implications and complicated ties.

Read also about the literature review format - our readers find this article fascinating and useful. If you need any help, leave us a request write my paper and we'll help asap.

Need to Break Down Symbolism in Writing?

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How to Analyse Symbolism Step-by-Step

Analyzing symbolism in literature can be a rewarding but complex endeavor. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process:

STEP 1 – Identify Potential Symbols

Begin by identifying objects, characters, settings, or events within the text that seem to carry deeper meaning beyond their literal interpretation. Look for recurring motifs, imagery, or patterns that are potentially symbolic to you.

STEP 2 – Consider Context

Examine the context surrounding the potential symbols. Consider the historical, cultural, and literary context in which the work was written and the author's background and intentions. Understanding the context can provide valuable insights into the symbolic significance of certain elements.

STEP 3 – Analyze Patterns and Associations

Look for patterns or associations between the potential symbols and other elements within the text. Consider how the symbols interact with characters, themes, and plot developments. Pay attention to any recurring themes or motifs to which the symbols may connect.

STEP 4 – Examine Character Perspectives

Consider how different characters within the text perceive and interact with the symbols. Analyze the symbolism from various character perspectives to understand its significance better. Note any differences or contradictions in how characters interpret the symbols.

STEP 5 – Explore Themes and Motifs

Reflect on the broader themes and themes of the text and consider how the symbols contribute to their development. Analyze how the symbols reinforce or challenge key themes, motifs, or messages the author conveys. Look for thematic connections between the symbols and the larger narrative structure.

STEP 6 – Research Symbolic Interpretations

Research to explore potential symbolic interpretations of the elements you've identified. Consult literary analyses, critical essays, and scholarly interpretations to gain additional perspectives on the symbolism within the text. Consider how different scholars and critics have interpreted the symbols and evaluate the validity of their arguments.

STEP 7 – Draw Conclusions and Make Connections

Synthesize your findings and conclude the symbolic significance of the elements you've analyzed. Consider how the symbols contribute to the overall meaning and interpretation of the text. Make connections between the symbols and the broader thematic concerns of the work, and articulate your insights coherently and persuasively.

STEP 8 – Support Your Analysis with Evidence

Provide evidence from the text to support your analysis of the symbolism. Quote relevant passages, descriptions, or dialogue that illustrate the symbolic significance of the elements you're discussing. Analyze the language, imagery, and narrative techniques employed by the author to convey the symbolic meaning of the elements.

STEP 9 – Consider Alternative Interpretations

Acknowledge and consider alternative interpretations of the symbolism within the text. Be open to different perspectives and interpretations, even if they diverge from your own. Engage with counterarguments and alternative readings to deepen your understanding of the symbolic complexity of the text.

STEP 10 – Reflect and Revise

Reflect on your analysis and consider how your interpretation of the symbolism enhances your understanding of the text. Revise your analysis as needed to clarify your arguments and refine your insights. Continuously revisit and reassess your analysis to uncover new layers of meaning and deepen your appreciation of the text's symbolic richness.

Essay Sample on Symbolism

Our sample essay sheds light on the historical and cultural context of the Symbolism, offering insights that enrich your appreciation and critical analysis of the text.

Major Representators of Symbolism in Literature

Here are some major representatives of symbolism in literature:

  • Edgar Allan Poe

Known for his Gothic tales and poems, Poe often employed symbols to evoke themes of death, madness, and the macabre. Examples include the raven in "The Raven" as a symbol of grief and the pendulum in "The Pit and the Pendulum" as a symbol of impending doom.

  • William Faulkner

Faulkner's works are rich in symbolism, particularly in his exploration of the American South and its complex social dynamics. In novels such as "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I Lay Dying," he uses symbols such as the dilapidated plantation house and the coffin to convey deeper themes of decay, loss, and the passage of time.

  • Herman Melville

In "Moby-Dick," Melville employs symbols such as the white whale, the sea, and the ship to explore themes of obsession, destiny, and the human condition. These symbols serve as potent metaphors for the complexities of life and the pursuit of the unknown.

  • James Joyce

Joyce's modernist masterpiece "Ulysses" is replete with symbols that reflect its characters' inner thoughts and experiences. The recurring motifs of water, mirrors, and music illuminate the themes of identity, memory, and the passage of time.

  • Franz Kafka

Kafka's works, such as "The Metamorphosis" and "The Trial," are characterized by their surreal and symbolic nature, with symbols often representing themes of alienation, bureaucracy, and existential dread. The transformation of Gregor Samsa into a giant insect in "The Metamorphosis," for instance, is a powerful symbol of alienation and societal oppression.

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne's works, such as "The Scarlet Letter" and "Young Goodman Brown," are known for exploring Puritanical themes and symbolism to convey moral and psychological depth. The scarlet letter "A" in "The Scarlet Letter" is a potent symbol of sin, guilt, and redemption. At the same time, the forest in "Young Goodman Brown" represents the dark and mysterious forces of temptation and evil.

  • Gabriel García Márquez

García Márquez, a pioneer of magical realism, often employs symbols and allegory to explore themes of love, power, and the supernatural. In "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the Buendía family's house symbolizes the cyclical nature of history and the passage of time. The yellow butterflies symbolize the fleeting beauty and fragility of life.

Types of Symbolism in Literature

Types of Symbolism in Literature

There are many different literary devices that help writers to use symbolism in their texts:

Metaphor is a type of figurative language that shows characteristics of a subject through comparison with something else, their likeness or contrast between them. A great example of a metaphor can be found at the opening words of “As You Like It”, a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare:

“All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances ...”

Here, he compares human life to a theatre stage. Same as anything can happen in life, a stage can have all kinds of different plays portrayed. The play will also be over sooner or later, the same as life. By making this simple comparison, he explains the complicated and difficult laws of nature, such as human mortality. The last phrase refers to people’s ties and their meaning in each other’s lives as “exits” and “entrances”.

It is a figure of speech used when one thing gets assigned some qualities of the other and is compared to it. The two usually are compared to one another with the use of the word “as” or “like”. It might sound similar to a metaphor, but the latter gives only a slight implication that something is like something else, whereas a simile directly states it. A great example of a simile can be found in “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov:

“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa.”

Here Nabokov says that ladies’ canes remind him directly of the tower of Pisa — a building in Pisa, Italy, that is tilted to the side. This beautiful simile showcases artist’s elaborate way of expressing his thoughts, how educated and developed he is, but most importantly, gives the reader another visual of how these canes made him feel and how they might look like.

Another literary device that helps to use symbolism is an allegory. It is also similar to a metaphor, but expresses the meaning of the object, its significance, rather than an external characteristic of likeness. Through the association that allegory creates with the characters in writing, the reader gets a sense of how a situation or a problem at stake fits in the history of the world, art history, or a certain culture.

A good example of allegory in literature is “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. There he compares society around him to a group of children who are stuck on a deserted island due to a plane crash, and are trying to survive there. The island in the book represents the world itself, the conch is a symbol of law and order, the fire represents destruction. Each child, with his role and character, represents a certain societal imperfection, depicting people’s flaws in the institutions of religion, politics, morality, and many others.

An archetype is another literary device used to represent a human behavioral pattern that is usually universal throughout the world and can be applied and understood in many cultures. The archetype can also be a place in space and time, a certain theme that is shared collectively by citizens of the world. Many archetypes came into literature from folk art and fairy tales.

One of the most common and famous archetypes is the hero. Some of the characteristics defining a hero include mysterious circumstances of their birth, struggle and proving everyone who lost faith in them wrong, tragic events throughout their lives, and complicated and dangerous adventures. A great example of an archetype is Harry Potter, the main character of the series by J.K. Rowling. He was orphaned by the cruel dark wizard Lord Voldemort and fought him throughout the book series.

An allusion is used to imply something or refer to another mythological, religious, or historical character without directly mentioning them. The use of allusion allows an author to deliver his text using elaborate language. Different rhetorical figures force readers to incorporate their background knowledge and associate the character or problem in question with external references.

In his book “Fahrenheit 451”, Ray Bradbury uses a reference to a historical tragedy that happened in 79 A.D. near the city of Pompeii, Italy, where a volcano called Vesuvius erupted and killed the entire population, leaving the city covered in ashes.

"Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius."

By using this explicit allusion, Bradbury explains that Mildred was running away from something terrible, as fast as she could, because it would otherwise have killed her — just like every inhabitant of Pompeii.

Hyperbole is used in text in order to exaggerate somebody’s trait or characteristic, such as power, beauty, wealth, influence, strength, and many others. Hyperbole usually has an amusing effect used to help readers visualize the strong points of the text. An example of hyperbole would be a line from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”:

“I had to wait in the station for ten days — an eternity.”

In order to indicate how painful, worrisome, and exhausting it was for the character to wait in the station for ten days, he compares to an eternity. It was only 10 days but felt much longer given the circumstances.

Conventional Symbols in Literature

Some of the symbols in literature are incorporated in culture so deeply that they became conventional — clear to almost anyone, because they create images and moods instantly after being mentioned.

Colors usually suggest certain emotions and characteristics with powerful meanings: red — anger, blood, love, or passion; blue — calmness and peace of mind; green — wealth, jealousy, nature; white — purity, innocence, spiritualism; purple — royalty and many others.

Seasons in most cases pertain to age: spring — youth and freshness, start of something new; winter — elderly people or even death, the zenith of one’s life; summer — the peak of development, prime of life; fall — decay, negative change, middle life, growing older.

There are many other everyday life things that involve symbolism: light — good, hope, and freedom; darkness — bad luck, tragedy, evil, the unknown; wind — change in life, speed, transition, inability to change things, destruction; rainbow — hope for the better.

Some objects and animals can also carry symbolic meaning: dove — peace; snake – evil; horse — phallic sexuality; a ring — fidelity, happiness; a broken mirror — bad luck and misfortune; a chain — unity or imprisonment.

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Ways to Use Symbolism in Writing

As we saw earlier, there are many different literary tools that can help use symbolism in your own writing. Understanding of their function and examples helps you embed them in your essay. Symbolism has numerous functions in writing.

Use Symbolism

Some of the things you can create in your essays with symbolism are adding emotion . In “Night” by Ellie Wiesel, the concept of night, its darkness and mystery is used as a symbol of negative emotions, tragedy, despair, and death suffered by incarcerated Jews in the concentration camp.

Another role it might play in your paper is connecting themes . In “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the color green is used throughout the whole book to suggest wealth and lust for money, a desire of getting rich in spite of any moral issues, a luxury lifestyle, and grandeur.


Defining a character is another thing a person might achieve while using symbolism. In Harper Lee’s 'To Kill a Mockingbird' the character of Tom is suggested to be innocent, because he was hurt, but he, like a mockingbird, is harmless.

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

The best way to include symbols in your essay is to do so once you are done writing and can look for places where it can be incorporated best out of the whole body of text. By no means should symbolism be your main focus of writing. Instead, you should focus on the strong points of the story and its characters. Symbolism is only a beautification of a piece that is already strong. It only helps you to enhance the story, make it alive and vivid, and showcase its complexity to the reader.

It is not extremely difficult to use symbolism in your own writing. Metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, allusion, archetype, and all the other literary devices discussed in this article are great aids to make your essay a beautiful piece of literature. A simple comparison of one thing to another can enhance the text tremendously, show off your semantic skills, and make the text beautiful overall, like a flower. See what I did there? Not that hard, I presume.

We also recommend that you read the article on how to write an essay introduction .

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What Is the Symbolism in Literature?

How do you analyze symbolism in literature, what is imagery and symbolism in literature.

Adam Jason

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5 paragraph essay about symbolism

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The Picture of Dorian Gray Summary

How to write an essay about a symbol

in "Andrei Rublev"

After watching Tarkovsky's film "Andrei Rublev" you will write an essay about a symbol used in it.

What is a symbol?   A symbol is a physical thing that stands for an idea .   Symbols appear in literature and very often in artistic films such as "Andrei Rublev."  

Here is a paragraph about symbols from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics by Preminger, Warnke and Hardison, 1974:

The word "symbol" derives from the Greek verb, symballein , meaning "to put together," and the related noun, symbolon , meaning" mark," "token," or "sign," in the sense of the half-coin carried away by each of the two parties of an agreement as a pledge.   Hence, it means basically a joining or combination, and, consequently, something once so joined or combined as standing for or representing in itself, when seen alone, the entire complex.   This term in literary usage refers most specifically to a manner of representation in which what is shown (normally referring to something material) means, by virtue of association, something more or something else (normally referring to something immaterial).   Thus a literary symbol unites an image (the analogy) and an idea or conception (the subject) which that image suggest or evokes, as when, for example, the image of climbing a staircase (the difficulty involved in the effort to raise oneself) is used to suggest the idea of "raising" oneself spiritually or becoming purified (T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday ).

When we speak about symbols in Russian 120, we'll use the terms "the analogy" and "the subject" as the previous paragraph indicates.   The analogy is the symbol that you see in the film (the physical object) that brings to your mind a subject or idea/conception that is " more or something else " as the article states.

What makes reading literature and viewing films fun is identifying symbols and thinking of the immaterial subjects, the ideas, that they suggest to you.

Use this structure for your essay:

1.   Introduction:   Lead into your discussion.   Speak about symbols in general, or about Tarkovskyπs use of symbols in the film.   Or make a personal statement about your view of symbols.   Or ...

2.   Body of essay:   Name and develop your symbol.   Be specific about what the subject is that the symbol brings to your mind.   Develop an argument for how the symbol better helps to understand the film.

3.   Conclusion:   Evaluate the effectiveness of your symbol.   Or place it into the larger context of the universe of symbols used in the film.   Or ...

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How to Write a Symbolism Essay: The Great Gatsby, The Lottery, & Other Examples

Symbolism essay title picture.

In this article, we will discuss the keys to a good symbolism essay. You should know many nuances to master this type of writing.

Symbolism essay isn’t the same as other types of essays. Let’s say you’re writing The Yellow Wallpaper symbolism essay. Under no circumstances should you retell the whole plot of the story.

So, we are here to help you become a symbolism essay professional.

Let’s get down to it!

  • 🤿 Symbolism Essay Writing Guide

📐 Symbolism Essay Outline

📚 symbolism essay topics, 🎨 symbolism essay examples, 🤿 symbolism essay – writing guide.

It’s time for us to look into the main aspects of the essay on symbolism.

First, we will try to define it. After that, check for information about the most common symbols in literature.

What Is an Essay on Symbolism?

A symbol is an object, or phenomena, or anything else, that has some additional notions behind it. In literature, the setting, an object, or an image can symbolize something.

A symbol in literature is a device for delivering multiple meanings and ideas through an image, concept, or object. That means an object in question has other layers of meaning beyond the literal one.

For instance, specific colors may be associated with certain ideas. What comes to your mind at the thought of black color? Probably, death, or grief, or tragedy. So, the author uses this color to express a gruesome atmosphere.

This is how symbolism works.

Common Symbols in Literature

There’s an endless number of symbols in literature, and they all are different. However, most authors use particular types of symbols: objects, events, and characters. We will try to interpret them with you.

We suggest considering some examples of symbolism in literature.

Symbols in literature.

Symbolic objects are everything that exists in the material world. For example, things, their parts, animals and birds, plants. In other words, it is anything you can potentially touch.

An American poet Sara Teasdale uses a flower as a symbol of the wisdom of youth in her poem Wild Asters . In the lines,

In the spring I asked the daisies If his words were true, And the clever, clear-eyed daisies Always knew.

Teasdale chooses symbolism through personification. The daisies serve as a symbol for youth wisdom and can give answers.

Symbolism can also be developed through characters representing abstract ideas and delivering a solid association. Animals count, too, if they play a significant role in a plot. Let’s not exclude spirits, ghosts, and other mythical creatures because they are often common symbols in literature.

  • Shakespeare was intensely into symbols. For example, in Hamlet , one can find a lot of them. If you read the play, you must remember two gravediggers. One of whom was a reflecting man with philosophical views. His appearance and philosophical attitude aren’t accidental. The gravedigger signified the idea of all people being equal before the face of death.
  • In the same play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father serves a significant symbolic role. Metaphorically, his presence foreshadows the upcoming tragic events for Claudius, the Queen, and Denmark in general. The whole concept of a dead man’s image can give chills. That’s why this image is powerful enough to create an ominous atmosphere.

Authors can use dramatic changes and twists to symbolize a new phase. One can identify symbolic meanings from how the plot unfolds and what events occur. This is an excellent way to deliver the idea of a character’s inner changes. Let’s look into examples closer.

  • In Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, the weather changes play a significant role. Whenever a storm was about to come, some tragic events took place. Lousy weather symbolized growing tension and negativity that later broke into a scandal or drama. Such a literary device as foreshadowing is used here and expressed to readers through symbolism.
  • John Fowls also used elements of symbolism in his books. His famous novel The Magnus has numerous symbols and metaphors. For instance, Alison staged her suicide and later showed up in front of Nicholas. Her fake suicide symbolized the death of her old self and further rebirth. She wanted to do everything for Nicholas but was weak. Once she appears again, we see a completely new person – solid and decisive.

Other Symbols

Basically, you can refer anything to this class of symbols. We’ll be talking about those that don’t fit into the previous groups. There are plenty of them: various details of other characters, objects, motifs—for example, colors, sounds, or composition.

  • If you write color symbolism in The Great Gatsby essay, you won’t have any problems. The novel is drenched in color symbols. Here’s proof: Fitzgerald uses white to symbolize innocence and purity. Yellow color foreshadows a tragedy: Gatsby walked under yellowing trees right before being killed.
  • Even the whole story can symbolize something. Take Animal Farm by George Orwell. The animal farm illustrates the savage ruling regimes, such as fascist and Soviet Russian. The author carried the allegory through the whole novel.

How to Write a Symbolism Essay – Analysis

We want to provide you with a guideline on symbolism essay writing:

In this part, we will discuss a symbolism essay outline. It consists of an introduction, body, and conclusion, like any other academic paper. Read about the importance and different ways to outline an essay in our article about outline making.

Let’s go through a symbolism essay outline.

Symbolism Essay Introduction

You can choose anything for the symbolism analysis. Make sure your readers are perfectly aware of your choice too. Introduce them to the subject. Speak on it generally so that the audience can get the idea of a symbol. In the end, explain why you chose this particular topic for the symbolism essay.

Symbolism Essay Body

Now, it’s time to specify the symbol you chose. Elaborate on it: what is written in the book? What general sense this symbol has beyond literature? Tell about your associations – what does this symbol represent for you? Besides, discuss why it’s essential to analyze it in an essay on symbolism.

Remember to back up your opinion with the facts from an original text.

Symbolism Essay Conclusion

Wrap up your essay by writing a consistent concluding paragraph. You can do it by bringing up all the points mentioned in the body. Once again, show that the symbol is significant to talk about. Finally, sum up all the main ideas. Use our free summary generator to develop a good resume of your key thoughts.

Now you know how to write a symbolism essay but let’s look at some examples first.

The picture describes a brief symbolism essay outline.

Looking for a good topic for your symbolism essay? In this section, you will find some awesome ideas for your paper.

  • Symbols in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker.
  • Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”
  • The Christmas tree as a symbol in Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House.”
  • The symbols of life and death in the poem by Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
  • Symbolism in “On Being Brought From Africa to America” by Wheatley.
  • “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty: Analysis of symbols.
  • Conflict and symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”
  • The symbolic meaning of fire in the Fahrenheit 451 novel by Ray Bradbury.
  • Symbols in the book Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.
  • The symbols of success and failure in the Death of a Salesman play by Arthur Miller.
  • Symbolism in the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass.
  • The symbolic nature of Frost’s poetry.
  • “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin: Analysis of symbols.
  • How symbols help reveal characters in “Doll’s House” by Ibsen.
  • What is the symbolic meaning of a streetcar in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams?
  • “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin: The symbolism of darkness.
  • The scarlet letter as the most powerful symbol in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • Symbolism of quilts in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
  • Franz Kafka and “The Metamorphosis”: The symbols of humanity.
  • Symbols in “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros.
  • Religious symbolism in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor.
  • “The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain: The symbolism of different settings.
  • Symbols of friendship in “The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh : Religious symbols.
  • Nature as a symbol in “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.
  • Symbolism in “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith.
  • The symbolic meaning of money in “Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat.
  • Major symbols in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.
  • Symbols related to mental illness in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
  • The symbolism of bathing suits in “A&P” by John Updike.
  • Color symbolism in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
  • “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop: Analysis of symbols.
  • Symbols in Middlemarch by George Eliot.
  • The Question of Hu by Jonathan D. Spence: Symbolism.
  • Characters as symbols in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried .
  • White elephants as a symbol of an unwanted child in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway.
  • The symbolism of a handkerchief in “Othello” by William Shakespeare.
  • Symbolism in “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving.
  • The symbolic meaning of schools in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.
  • Aunt Martha as a symbol of womanhood in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Jacobs.
  • Themes and symbolism of Native Son by Richard Wright.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: The symbolic meaning of the book’s title.
  • Symbolism in The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus by Marlowe.
  • The symbolic nature of food in Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.
  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño: Analysis of symbols.
  • Emily’s house as a symbol in “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner.
  • What symbols are used in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Hurston?
  • The symbolic meaning of the veil in “The Souls of Black Folk” by Du Bois.
  • What symbols reflect good and evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe?
  • The symbolism of the bridge in A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller.
  • Symbols in The World is Flat — the Book by Thomas L. Friedman.
  • The symbolic meaning of the title of the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
  • How is materialism symbolically reflected in Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer?
  • The symbolism of blindness in “Cathedral” — the story by Raymond Carver.
  • Yorick’s skull as a symbol of equality in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .
  • Symbols in Claude McKay’s Crazy Mary .
  • The symbolism of the title in Fences by August Wilson.
  • Analysis of symbols in “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet” by Levet.
  • The symbols of racial and gender discrimination in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
  • Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave Memoir: The symbols of slavery.

You’ve had a perfect idea of the symbolism essay outline. We’ve also provided you with common symbols in literature. And gave some tips on how to conduct the symbolism analysis.

The Yellow Wallpaper Symbolism Essay

The first book on our list is The Yellow Wallpaper . It’s a great piece of American writing by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The novel is considered a significant literary work of the early feminism period. The book’s themes are profound and thought-provoking: gender roles, self-expression issues, and others.

Pay attention to the meaning of the wallpaper in the story. Its design, color, and the moment when it appeared in the text. Read this Yellow Wallpaper Symbolism Essay and find out which senses the author put behind the objects.

The Great Gatsby Symbolism Essay

One of the most popular novels written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald is famous for its symbolism. Jazz Age, New York, Long Island – today, all these things are the symbols themselves. However, the story has settings worth reading and speaking of.

This Symbolism in The Great Gatsby Essay is worth your attention. Discover the ideas behind the geographical locations and the conflict of East and West. Another great idea is to write an essay about color symbolism in The Great Gatsby.

Lord of the Flies Symbolism Essay

In Lord of the Flies , William Golding actively endows the main characters with recognizable symbolism. Ralph, Piggy, Simon – each character has their meaning and significance. Therefore, there’s much to examine regarding the relationships between them.

Symbolism in Lord of the Flies Essay analyzes Golding’s different levels of symbolic meaning. Read the paper to learn what is hidden behind Piggy’s glasses, the act of pig hunt, and a conch shell.

The Catcher in the Rye Symbolism Essay

Did you know Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is included in the top-100 world-significant books? The story is about an adolescent boy who denies the surrounding social standards. Salinger put into his novel an impressive number of various symbols.

Among other things, the author of this Symbolism in the Catcher in the Rye Essay discusses the symbolism of the novel’s title. We’ve said before that it’s not necessarily an object that is a hidden symbol, right?

The Lottery Symbolism Essay

Despite being a short story, The Lottery has a definite symbolical meaning. One of the major themes is the character of a scapegoat. It is a story about injustice which got a lot of hate initially. In a while, though, it was admitted to be one of the greatest short stories in American literature.

In this Lottery Symbolism Essay , you can read about the tools used by the author. These techniques make the story unique and full of hidden meanings: the black box, the lottery system, its rules, etc.

A Rose for Emily Symbolism Essay

One of the most American writers, William Faulkner, was excellent at showing unflattering sides of American reality. In this short story, he accomplishes this goal perfectly. We’ll give you a hint – the name of the story is a symbol itself.

What role does a house play in this story? A Rose for Emily Symbolism Essay contains the analysis of essential details. For example, how is the appearance of the house related to the personality of the main character – Emily.

Symbolism in 1984 Essay

The famous novel by George Orwell rounds out our list. It takes its place among the most significant dystopias. The first question that usually disturbs readers is, “What does 1984 mean?” This story about a totalitarian regimentation deserves to be analyzed. Here’s a way to do it.

Symbolism in 1984 Essay uncovers several ideas Orwell put behind the plot. Read the essay to figure which political references appear in the novel. It is a good start to writing a paper since there’s a lot to explore about Oceania, and not only.

Symbolism in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad Essay

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Works cited.

Heart of Darkness is a novel that was written by Joseph Conrad. This novel was a great work since it topped the list among many such novels. The novel is symbolic in providing a description of a man’s journey towards his inner being. It provides a mysterious and adventurers story captured in Central Africa. The symbolism and ambiguity found in Conrad’s writing have been a subject of debate since its meaning has been subject to conflicting interpretations.

The author seems to have written the book basing it from his past experiences. This can be seen in the diary he kept while he was working as a seaman. He had sailed to Africa, and that is where he recorded stuff in his diary. During the several voyages, he had recorded information in his diary that reflected on most of the characters in his diary. This means that some of the incidences and impressions found in his novel are based on facts. However, Conrad’s expression of the environment of Africa in his novel may be based on his creativity and not necessarily facts. He also creates portraits of destruction and greed, which may be pure creativity.

The author’s relationship with one of his characters, Marlow is also subject to criticism. Marlow has often been mistaken to be Conrad’s spokesman. Conrad’s evocative powers with regards to his clever use of imagery, can be commended. This is because it has managed to provide a sinister environment through the use of fine details while describing the natives of Africa and the jungles that exist there.

There is the use of visual imagery in his work, and this was achieved through the use of contrast (black and white). The contrast was also used by the author to demonstrate how that world and the life lived in that world was morally uncertain. However, the author was not trying to justify which colour was good and which was bad. Both were used interchangeably.

At some point in the novel, Conrad’s use of imagery appeared vague and confusing in that it did not provide a clear image of the major characters and events. However, this helped create a psychological depth to that story demanding deep involvement and concentration from the reader.

Some form of exploitation of the Africans by the Europeans can be picked up from the novel too. This may be seen in the use of social Darwinism in the novel. This is seen where the author mentions about how the indigenous people were in dire need of the technological advancements and religion brought about by the Europeans (Conrad 45). The Europeans were portrayed as hypocrites since their actual intentions were to exploit the Africans for their own benefits.

They scrambled for wealth and ended up destroying the people and their lands without pity. The manner in which Conrad portrays the white imperialists and compares them with the Africans who lived in harmony in their natural environment, he provides the evidence that Darwin’s theory is true. He simply shows that Africans are fittest survivors. The author continued to expose some of the ills of the white settlers and blamed it on their lack of moral uprightness.

The novel by Conrad is a masterpiece since it is vividly written. He provides information about some of the things he picked out while he was in Africa. He criticizes some of the practices of the Europeans who had come to scramble and partition Africa for their own benefits. It is an interesting book and with a lot of teachings.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and other stories. New York: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1998. Print.

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The Hidden Symbolism of the Statue of Liberty’s Original Chains

This essay is about the often-overlooked symbolism of the broken chains at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. It explains how the statue’s creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, initially included the chains to represent the end of slavery and the broader struggle for freedom. Although the chains were made less prominent due to political sensitivities of the time, they remain an essential part of the statue’s message. The essay emphasizes the importance of recognizing this historical context to fully appreciate the statue’s significance as a symbol of resilience, emancipation, and the ongoing quest for equality and justice.

How it works

Since 1886, the Statue of Liberty has stood towering in New York Harbor, serving as a timeless emblem of democracy and freedom. Fewer people are aware of the original design aspect, which had broken chains at Lady Liberty’s feet, even though the majority of people are familiar with the statue for her imposing presence and welcome flame. This small element, though it may not seem like much, represents the spirit of emancipation and the struggle against oppression and has great historical and symbolic significance.

The French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi designed the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France to the United States, commemorating their shared values of liberty and democracy. Bartholdi’s inspiration came during a time of profound social change, following the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. His vision for the statue included broken chains at Liberty’s feet, symbolizing the end of slavery and the triumph of freedom over bondage.

However, this powerful symbolism was met with mixed reactions. In the late 19th century, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, and the process of Reconstruction was fraught with tension. Some feared that the explicit reference to slavery through the broken chains might rekindle divisions and provoke political controversy. To avoid potential backlash, the design was subtly altered. The chains were kept but made less prominent, partially hidden beneath the statue’s robes, allowing the message to remain without being overtly confrontational.

Despite these changes, the chains at the feet of the Statue of Liberty remain a crucial element of its symbolism. They serve as a reminder of the United States’ journey towards greater justice and equality. The broken chains symbolize not just the liberation of enslaved people but also the broader struggle for human rights and the ongoing fight against all forms of oppression.

The modification of the chains’ visibility also reflects the complexities of historical memory. On one hand, the statue stands as a universal beacon of freedom and hope, welcoming immigrants to American shores and inspiring people worldwide. On the other hand, the obscured chains remind us of the specific historical context in which the statue was created and the unfinished work of achieving true equality and justice.

Over the years, the meaning of the Statue of Liberty has evolved, but the broken chains remain an essential part of its legacy. They urge us to acknowledge the past, recognize the progress made, and continue striving towards a society where freedom and justice are available to all. The chains are a testament to resilience and the enduring quest for liberty, encouraging us to reflect on both the history of struggle and the ongoing journey toward a better future.

Our admiration of this famous monument is enhanced when we comprehend the original goals behind the design of the Statue of Liberty. Even though they are less obvious, the shattered chains serve as a potent metaphor for liberation and the struggle against oppression. They emphasize how crucial it is to face our past and strive toward a society in which the principles of justice and liberty can exist without hindrance.

It is imperative that we remember and pay tribute to the symbolism of the broken chains as we gaze upon the Statue of Liberty today. They stand for the sacrifices made for freedom and the ongoing work needed to preserve democratic values. Acknowledging this allows us to fully understand the significance of the statue and be motivated to continue working toward a fair and just society.

The Statue of Liberty, with its symbolic yet concealed chains, is a reminder of the ongoing fight for human rights as well as a symbol of freedom and democracy. Our relationship with this monument and its inspirational message of resiliency and hope is strengthened by our increased comprehension of its meaning.


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More From Forbes

5 strategies to unlock your winning college essay.

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CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 29: People walk through the gate on Harvard Yard at the Harvard ... [+] University campus on June 29, 2023 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admission policies used by Harvard and the University of North Carolina violate the Constitution, bringing an end to affirmative action in higher education. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

The college application season is upon us, and high school students everywhere are staring down at one of the most daunting tasks: the college essay. As someone who has guided countless applicants through the admissions process and reviewed admissions essays on an undergraduate admissions committee, I've pinpointed the essential ingredient to a differentiated candidacy—the core of your college admissions X-factor .

The essential ingredient to your college admissions X-factor is your intellectual vitality. Intellectual vitality is your passion for learning and curiosity. By demonstrating and conveying this passion, you can transform an average essay into a compelling narrative that boosts your chances of getting accepted to your top schools. Here are five dynamic strategies to achieve that goal.

Unleash Your Authentic Voice

Admissions officers sift through thousands of essays every year. What stops them in their tracks? An authentic voice that leaps off the page. Forget trying to guess what the admissions committee wants to hear. Focus on being true to yourself. Share your unique perspective, your passions, and your values. Authenticity resonates deeply with application reviewers, making your essay memorable and impactful. You need not have experienced trauma or tragedy to create a strong narrative. You can write about what you know—intellectually or personally—to convey your enthusiasm, creativity, and leadership. Intellectual vitality shines through when you write with personalized reflection about what lights you up.

Weave A Captivating Story

Everyone loves a good story, and your essay is the perfect place to tell yours. The Common Application personal statement has seven choices of prompts to ground the structure for your narrative. The most compelling stories are often about the smallest moments in life, whether it’s shopping at Costco or about why you wear socks that have holes. Think of the Common Application personal statement as a window into your soul rather than a dry list of your achievements or your overly broad event-based life story. Use vivid anecdotes to bring your experiences to life. A well-told story can showcase your growth, highlight your character, and illustrate how you've overcome challenges. Intellectual vitality often emerges in these narratives, revealing how your curiosity and proactive approach to learning have driven you to explore and innovate.

Reflect And Reveal Insights

It's not just about what you've done—it's about what you've learned along the way. When you are writing about a specific event, you can use the STAR framework—situation, task, action, and result (your learning). Focus most of your writing space on the “R” part of this framework to dive deeply into your experiences and reflect on how they've shaped your aspirations and identity.

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The most insightful college-specific supplement essays demonstrate depth of thought, and the ability to connect past experiences with your future life in college and beyond. Reflecting on your intellectual journey signals maturity and a readiness to embrace the college experience. It shows admissions officers that you engage deeply with your studies and are eager to contribute to the academic community.

Highlight Your Contributions—But Don’t Brag

Whether it's a special talent, an unusual hobby, or a unique perspective, showcasing what you can bring to the college environment can make a significant impact. Recognize that the hard work behind the accomplishment is what colleges are interested in learning more about—not retelling about the accomplishment itself. (Honors and activities can be conveyed in another section of the application.) Walk us through the journey to your summit; don’t just take us to the peak and expect us know how you earned it.

Intellectual vitality can be demonstrated through your proactive approach to solving problems, starting new projects, or leading initiatives that reflect your passion for learning and growth. These experiences often have a place in the college-specific supplement essays. They ground the reasons why you want to study in your major and at the particular college.

Perfect Your Prose

Great writing is essential. Anyone can use AI or a thesaurus to assist with an essay, but AI cannot write your story in the way that you tell it. Admissions officers don’t give out extra credit for choosing the longest words with the most amount of syllables.

The best essays have clear, coherent language and are free of errors. The story is clearly and specifically told. After drafting, take the time to revise and polish your writing. Seek feedback from teachers, mentors, or trusted friends, but ensure the final piece is unmistakably yours. A well-crafted essay showcases your diligence and attention to detail—qualities that admissions officers highly value. Intellectual vitality is also reflected in your writing process, showing your commitment to excellence and your enthusiasm for presenting your best self.

Crafting a standout college essay is about presenting your true self in an engaging, reflective, and polished manner while showcasing your intellectual vitality. Happy writing.

Dr. Aviva Legatt

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Guest Essay

I’m an Indian Muslim, and I’m Scared to Say So

An illustration of a screen panel with a crescent moon at the top, torn apart by flames.

By Mohammad Ali

Mr. Ali, a journalist and writer who focuses on right-wing efforts to transform India into a Hindu nation, wrote from Delhi.

I used to answer the phone with “Salam.” Not anymore. I don’t want people to know I’m a Muslim.

There is little that would identify me as Muslim to begin with, aside from my name. I don’t wear a skullcap, and in public I avoid wearing the loosefitting Pathani kurta and peppering my speech with Urdu words, all of which are identity markers for Indian Muslims. But in the India of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you can’t take any chances.

For 10 years, Mr. Modi’s Hindu-chauvinist government has vilified the nation’s 200 million Muslims as dangerous undesirables. Recently, he took that rhetoric to a new low during the six weeks of voting in India’s national elections — which are widely expected to win him a third consecutive five-year term — directly referring to Muslims as “infiltrators” in a country that he and his followers seek to turn into a pure Hindu state.

As offensive as that was, it is sadly familiar to Indian Muslims like me who — after a decade of denigration, violence and murder — live in daily fear of being identified and attacked, forcing us into self-denial to protect ourselves.

India is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. Islam came here around 1,300 years ago, and Indian Muslims descend from natives of this land who converted to Islam centuries ago. Many Indian Muslims fought against British colonization, and millions rejected the 1947 partition of the country into a predominantly Hindu India and a mostly Muslim Pakistan. India is our home, and people like me are proud patriots.

But Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalism has made us the targets in what might be the largest radicalization of people on the planet. Its seeds were planted with the founding in 1925 of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organization that sought the establishment of a fully Hindu state in India and was inspired by the European fascism of that era. When Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — a political offshoot of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — won elections in 2014 and he became prime minister, he and his followers saw it as the civilizational moment that Hindus had been waiting for. Mr. Modi was the god-king who would free Hindu civilization from centuries of domination, first by a series of Muslim rulers culminating with the Mughal empire that ruled India for around three centuries and then by the British colonizers who followed.

Islamophobia isn’t new to India, and Muslims also faced prejudice and recurring violence during the generations in which the liberal upper-caste Hindu elite dominated the nation’s secular democratic politics. But under Mr. Modi’s right-wing leadership, hatred of Muslims has effectively become state policy. India is now a country where police have been accused of standing by as Hindus attack Muslims , where the killers of religious minorities go unpunished and where Hindu extremists openly call for the genocide of Muslims.

Protest, and you run the risk of having a Hindu mob unleashed on you. That’s what happened after Mr. Modi’s government in 2019 pushed through a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims and his party promised to expel “infiltrators” from the country. When Indian Muslims protested, one of Mr. Modi’s supporters responded with a provocative speech that is blamed for sparking deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Delhi in February 2020. Police were accused of looking the other way as Muslims had their shops destroyed, were assaulted and were even killed.

Bulldozers have become a symbol of this state terrorism — rolled out at right-wing rallies, tattooed on the arms of Modi supporters and featured in Hindu nationalist songs — because of their use in areas governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party to illegally knock down the homes and businesses of Muslims who dare to speak up. Some states have essentially made Muslim-Hindu relationships illegal, based on an absurd Hindu conspiracy theory that Muslim men are seducing Hindu women as part of a long-term plan to turn India into a Muslim nation.

The liberal Hindu elite, instead of acknowledging its role in enabling the sentiments on which Mr. Modi has capitalized, has done little to help, other than to ineffectually express nostalgia for a lost Hindu tolerance. And there is little that Indian Muslims can do within the political system: Although the Muslim share of India’s population has slowly grown to 14 percent, the percentage of Parliament members who are Muslim has declined to less than 5 percent today, compared with 9 percent in the early 1980s.

The Indian Muslim response to our subjugation has largely been a deafening silence. Many of us are simply unwilling to speak out against the Modi government’s bitter bargain: that for us to exist as Indian citizens, we must meekly accept historical revisionism, dehumanization and demonization.

This debasement, and the knowledge that you are essentially outside the protection of the law, kills something inside you. You take precautions to protect yourself. My mother no longer packs mutton for me to take back to Delhi after I visit her, as she used to. She’s afraid it will be mistaken for beef: Dozens of Muslims have reportedly been killed or assaulted by Hindu mobs on suspicion of killing cows — which are sacred to Hindus — or for eating or possessing beef. Muslim parents now routinely repeat a litany of don’ts to their children: Don’t appear Muslim in public, don’t reveal your name, don’t enter Hindu areas or travel alone and don’t get pulled into any potential confrontation.

While we caution one another to blend in, it’s difficult to reconcile with the whole thing. Each of us has something embedded in our sense of self and expression that is particularly painful to erase. And the sort of physical markers we are trying to hide are not even wholly specific to Muslims in India. My cousin likes to wear his Pathani kurta, but so do many Hindus. My youngest sister prefers to keep her head covered, but so do many Hindu women, although not with a hijab. I’m attached to using certain Urdu words that have long been a feature of India’s syncretic culture and have been used widely by Hindus, too.

Self-denial leads to deep frustration. Now during gatherings with friends and family, we avoid politics; discussing the elephant in the room only reminds us of our helplessness. The cumulative weight of all this has created a mental health crisis of fear and depression among Muslims. Yet because of a desperate shortage of mental health professionals in India and a limited understanding of our new reality by many non-Muslim therapists, many Muslims are left to cope on their own.

I was hesitant to write this essay. I am not supposed to protest, to speak up. When I sometimes do, posting online about it, the typical response is, “Go to Pakistan.” But why would I leave? I am an Indian. I was born here, as were my ancestors who opposed the religious basis of the partition with Pakistan and believed in the Indian ideals of secular democracy.

But many Muslims have fled over the years, emigrating to Australia, Canada, Britain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia or elsewhere because of the worsening political climate. Many who can’t afford to emigrate are moving out of the predominantly Hindu or mixed neighborhoods where they lived for decades, to poorer Muslim areas for safety. Two of my Muslim friends and I used to own apartments in a suburban area near New Delhi where many upper-caste Hindus lived. But in 2020, after the discriminatory citizenship law was passed, a Hindu mob charged through the neighborhood baying for Muslim blood. My two friends soon moved out. I kept my apartment, but in the elevator one evening in 2022, I overheard two men discussing how many katua (a derogatory term for Muslims that refers to circumcision) lived in the area. I moved out the next day. Sadly, Hindu friends and colleagues of mine also have become colder and more distant and are dropping out of contact.

On June 1, India’s voting period comes to a close. It looms as a day of dread for Muslims like me. According to most projections, it will be another victory for Mr. Modi — and further validation of mob rule and the debasement of 200 million Muslims by a hubristic Hindu majority.

Mohammad Ali (@hindureporter) is an independent journalist and writer who divides his time between New York and India. He is writing a book on growing up in India as Narendra Modi and his party have sought to transform India into a Hindu nation.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , WhatsApp , X and Threads .


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    A rose is simply a plant growing in the dirt. The reason, of course, is that over the course of many generations, a rose's symbolic meaning has evolved to include amorous concepts. An object, concept, or word does not have to be limited to a single meaning. When you see red roses growing in a garden, what comes to mind?

  10. Symbolism Definition and Examples in Literature

    Note any differences or contradictions in how characters interpret the symbols. STEP 5 - Explore Themes and Motifs. Reflect on the broader themes and themes of the text and consider how the symbols contribute to their development. Analyze how the symbols reinforce or challenge key themes, motifs, or messages the author conveys.

  11. Symbolism in the Great Gatsby

    This essay will analyze the use of symbolism in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." It will explore how symbols such as the green light, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, and the Valley of Ashes contribute to the novel's themes of the American Dream, societal decay, and the illusion of love and wealth.

  12. Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants

    Published: Mar 13, 2024. Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" is a masterful work of fiction that employs symbolism to convey deep and complex themes. Set in a train station in Spain, the story revolves around a conversation between an American man and a young woman, identified only as "the girl," as they wait for a train.

  13. Symbolism In The Book Thief: [Essay Example], 941 words

    The novel is filled with powerful symbols that add depth and meaning to the narrative, making it an intriguing and thought-provoking read. In this essay, we will explore the various symbols present in The Book Thief and analyze how they contribute to the overall themes and messages of the novel. By examining the historical context of the story ...

  14. Literary Techniques: Symbolism

    Symbolism is a common technique used by composers. Read this post to learn about the literary technique of symbolism. We provide a step-by-step guide to help you learn to identify and analyse symbolism in your HSC texts. See examples and learn how you should discuss symbolism in your essays.

  15. How to write an essay about a symbol

    Body of essay: Name and develop your symbol. Be specific about what the subject is that the symbol brings to your mind. Develop an argument for how the symbol better helps to understand the film. 3. Conclusion: Evaluate the effectiveness of your symbol. Or place it into the larger context of the universe of symbols used in the film.

  16. Symbolism Essay

    Symbolism is the art of using an object or situation to represent an abstract idea. It is when an object, person, or situation have both a literal meaning, and a figurative meaning. Many authors use symbolism to add personality and emotion to their writing. Symbols within pieces of literature make the writing more enjoyable and interesting to read.

  17. Symbolism Essay: Writing Guide, Outline, The Yellow Wallpaper Symbolism

    Symbolism Essay Introduction. You can choose anything for the symbolism analysis. Make sure your readers are perfectly aware of your choice too. Introduce them to the subject. Speak on it generally so that the audience can get the idea of a symbol. In the end, explain why you chose this particular topic for the symbolism essay. Symbolism Essay Body

  18. How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

    Table of contents. Step 1: Reading the text and identifying literary devices. Step 2: Coming up with a thesis. Step 3: Writing a title and introduction. Step 4: Writing the body of the essay. Step 5: Writing a conclusion. Other interesting articles.

  19. Symbolism in "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad Essay

    Introduction. Heart of Darkness is a novel that was written by Joseph Conrad. This novel was a great work since it topped the list among many such novels. The novel is symbolic in providing a description of a man's journey towards his inner being. It provides a mysterious and adventurers story captured in Central Africa.

  20. The Giver by Lois Lowry

    The Giver Plot and Background Information. The Giver is a dystopian, young-adult novel by Lois Lowry. "The Giver" is set in a futuristic society known as the community, and it centers on the ...

  21. The Hidden Symbolism of the Statue of Liberty's Original Chains

    This essay is about the often-overlooked symbolism of the broken chains at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. It explains how the statue's creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, initially included the chains to represent the end of slavery and the broader struggle for freedom. ... Related essays. Invisible Chains: a Slavery Confrontation with ...

  22. The Great Gatsby Color Symbolism Essay

    Published: Mar 5, 2024. The use of color in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, is a powerful tool to convey the themes and messages of the story. Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald uses color symbolism to represent various aspects of the characters and their experiences. From the vibrant green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock ...

  23. Rethinking the 5-Paragraph Essay in the ChatGPT Era

    To test this hypothesis, I sat down in front of ChatGPT and gave it a classic freshman-year English prompt: "Please write me an approximately 500-word, five-paragraph essay discussing the role of ...

  24. 5 Strategies To Unlock Your Winning College Essay

    The best essays have clear, coherent language and are free of errors. The story is clearly and specifically told. After drafting, take the time to revise and polish your writing. Seek feedback ...

  25. Opinion

    According to most projections, it will be another victory for Mr. Modi — and further validation of mob rule and the debasement of 200 million Muslims by a hubristic Hindu majority. Mohammad Ali ...