What Is Symbolism? Definition & 70+ Examples

Picture a realm where the ordinary takes on extraordinary significance, where each object and gesture whispers of hidden meaning, inviting the curious mind to delve deeper. This is the world of symbolism, a powerful language that transcends the limitations of spoken words, drawing us into a rich tapestry of human experience that spans cultures, time, and art forms.

As we journey together through the fascinating landscape of symbolism, we will uncover the myriad ways in which artists, writers, and thinkers have harnessed their power to convey complex concepts, evoke powerful emotions, and stimulate our intellect.

Join me as we embark on this enthralling exploration of symbolism, unlocking the secrets that lie hidden in plain sight.

Defining Symbolism

Symbolism, in the context of literature and the arts, refers to the use of symbols to convey meanings, ideas, or concepts beyond their literal sense. It is a technique where an object, person, or action represents an abstract meaning or an intangible concept, often with the intention of evoking deeper significance or emotional responses.

Authors and artists employ symbols to add layers to their work, explore complex ideas, or communicate messages in a more subtle and nuanced manner. Symbolism emerged as a prominent artistic movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in poetry, visual arts, and theatre. However, its roots can be traced back to earlier literary and artistic traditions.

History and Development

Antiquity and Middle Ages

Symbolism has its roots in ancient art and literature, dating back to antiquity. For instance, the use of symbols was prevalent in ancient Egyptian art, where hieroglyphics represented both objects and ideas.

Similarly, allegorical storytelling became popular in the Middle Ages, with works such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” using symbolic elements to convey moral and religious messages.

During the Medieval period, Christian iconography also utilized symbolism to represent complex theological ideas. Examples include the use of the cross as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice or the lamb as a symbol of innocence and purity.

In general, art and literature from this time used symbols to communicate religious, philosophical, and moral messages to a wide audience.

Rise of Modern Symbolism

The development of modern symbolism is often traced back to the 19th century when French poets like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud began to use symbolic elements in their works. These poets were inspired by the idea that art should not merely imitate reality but should aim to represent deeper truths and emotions beneath the surface.

The Symbolist movement that emerged from their work sought to convey these abstract ideas through the use of symbols and metaphors.

Symbolism in visual art concurrently developed, with painters like Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon exploring similar themes in their works. These artists embraced the idea that art could be a means of expressing subjective experiences and internal emotions, often through the use of symbolic elements.

Contemporary Symbolism

In contemporary art and literature, symbolism continues to hold relevance as artists and writers seek to express complex concepts and emotions through the use of symbols. For instance, abstract art often incorporates symbolic elements to represent ideas that may be difficult to convey through more concrete means.

Additionally, contemporary authors employ symbolism to weave deeper layers of meaning into their works, crafting narratives that resonate beyond the surface level.

Purpose of Symbolism

Symbolism serves various purposes in literature and other forms of art. It adds depth and layers of meaning to work, enabling the audience to delve deeper into the story, characters, and concepts presented.

Symbolism Can Help to Convey Abstract Ideas and Concepts

Firstly, symbolism can help to convey abstract ideas and concepts in a more tangible and relatable form. By associating an abstract idea with a concrete object, it becomes easier for the audience to comprehend and visualize the concept.

For instance, a chain may symbolize the idea of oppression, making it easier to convey the feelings and experiences of characters living under restrictive conditions.

Symbolism Emphasizes and Reinforces Themes in Work

A recurring symbol can serve as a consistent reminder of the ideas and themes presented, helping to strengthen the underlying message. For example, a rose might be used to symbolize love and beauty throughout a story, reinforcing these themes every time it appears.

Symbolism Can Create an Emotional Connection Between the Audience and The Work

By investing objects or characters with symbolic meaning, the audience may become more attached to them, leading to a greater emotional response. For example, a torn and tattered flag may come to symbolize hope and determination in the face of adversity, evoking feelings of patriotism and pride in the audience.

Symbolism Can Add Complexity to Characters

Symbolism can add complexity to characters, making them more multifaceted and intriguing. Characters that are associated with certain symbols can have their motivations, desires, and personalities illuminated through these associations. This can lead to a greater understanding of the characters and their actions as the audience gains insight into their inner worlds.

Symbolism Can Enhance the Overall Aesthetic Experience of A Work

By weaving symbolic elements throughout the narrative, the creator adds depth and richness, resulting in a more immersive and thought-provoking experience for the audience.

Function of Symbolism

Symbolism serves various essential functions in literature, art, and everyday life. It helps to convey deeper meanings and emotions by associating objects, actions, or characters with abstract concepts, ideas, or values.

Symbolism Enhances the Richness of The Text by Adding an Extra Layer of Meaning

Characters, objects, or events can have symbolic value, providing readers with a multi-dimensional experience while enhancing understanding, evoking emotions, or prompting self-reflection.

Symbolism Provides a Universal Language for Readers or Viewers

Another function of symbolism is to provide a universal language for readers or viewers, regardless of their cultural background.

Some symbols have been universally recognized, which enable creators to convey a specific message or idea across various cultures effectively, such as:

  • Religious symbols
  • Colors
  • Natural elements

Symbolism Can Create Mood and Atmosphere

Symbolism can create mood and atmosphere by using sensory details to evoke a particular emotion or reaction from the audience. For example, the use of dark colors or objects might suggest a mysterious or ominous tone, while bright colors and objects can convey happiness or optimism.

Symbolism Can Help in Character Development

By revealing a character’s inner thoughts, feelings, or motivations through their actions, objects, or situations, they are involved. This use of symbolism enables the audience to gain a deeper understanding of a character, their experiences, and, consequently, their motivations.

Types of Symbolism

Archetypal Symbolism

Archetypal symbolism refers to symbols that are universally recognized across cultures and time. These symbols often originate from myths, legends, and folktales.

Examples include:

  • The phoenix represents rebirth.
  • The serpent symbolizes wisdom.
  • The tree signifies growth and connection to nature.

Cultural symbolism

Cultural symbolism focuses on symbols with specific meanings within a particular culture or group of people. These symbols can be understood and appreciated by members of that culture but might be unfamiliar to others.

For instance:

  • The dragon is a symbol of power and protection in Chinese culture.
  • The shamrock represents luck and good fortune in Irish tradition.
  • The bald eagle represents freedom, strength, and national pride in American tradition.

Religious Symbolism

Religious symbolism involves the use of symbols to represent spiritual concepts, beliefs, or figures within a religious context.

Some common examples include:

  • The cross in Christianity.
  • The star of David in Judaism.
  • The lotus flower in Buddhism.

Each symbol holds a unique meaning and significance within its respective faith.

Color Symbolism

Color symbolism assigns meaning and emotion to different colors.

Specific colors can also carry cultural or personal connotations, such as:

  • White symbolizes purity in Western cultures, whereas, in some Eastern cultures, it represents mourning and death.
  • Red is often associated with love, passion, and energy in Western cultures, while in Chinese culture, it symbolizes good fortune, happiness, and prosperity.
  • Yellow is associated with happiness, warmth, and optimism in Western cultures, while in ancient Egyptian culture, it was connected to the sun, symbolizing immortality, power, and eternal life.


A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two, unlike things by implying that one is similar to the other in some way. Metaphors serve as a means of symbolic expression, often conveying complex ideas or emotions succinctly and vividly.

For example:

  • “Time is a thief” compares time to a criminal, suggesting that it takes away valuable experiences without our noticing.
  • “Life is a roller coaster” compares life to an amusement park ride, suggesting that it consists of ups and downs, twists and turns, and moments of both excitement and fear.
  • “The world is a stage” compares the world to a theatrical stage, implying that each individual plays different roles in various situations, just as actors do in a performance.


An allegory is a type of extended metaphor in which a story, poem, or other art forms symbolically represents abstract ideas or concepts. The characters, events, and settings within an allegory are typically symbolic and serve to convey a deeper meaning or message.

For example:

  • George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” serves as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet regime.
  • Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” symbolizes the journey from ignorance to enlightenment, depicting prisoners in a cave who can only see shadows on the wall. The allegory serves as a metaphor for the process of philosophical education and the pursuit of true knowledge.
  • Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” is an allegorical epic poem that explores the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. It symbolizes the journey of the soul towards God, with the protagonist Dante guided by the spirit of the ancient Roman poet Virgil and eventually by his beloved Beatrice.


A motif is a recurring symbol, theme, or idea in a work of art or literature that contributes to its overall meaning. Motifs are often used to emphasize or develop a central theme and can manifest through symbols, imagery, or other literary devices.


  • The recurring use of blood in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” symbolizes guilt and violence.
  • The repeated appearance of the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” symbolizes unattainable dreams and the relentless pursuit of the past.
  • The frequent depiction of weather, particularly storms, in Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” symbolizes the turbulent emotions and intense passions of the characters.

Personal Symbolism

Personal symbolism involves the use of symbols that hold unique meaning for an individual, often based on their experiences, emotions, or memories. These symbols may not be universally recognized but can be deeply significant to the individual using them.

It might include:

  • A person might wear a specific piece of jewelry, such as a ring or necklace, as a symbol of their love and commitment to a partner, family member, or close friend. This item becomes a personal symbol of connection and emotional significance.
  • An individual could have a tattoo of a particular animal, object, or design that symbolizes a significant life event, personal achievement, or value. For example, someone might get a tattoo of a phoenix to represent their resilience and ability to rise from adversity.
  • A person might carry a lucky charm, such as a keychain, coin, or small figurine, that symbolizes protection, good fortune, or a reminder of a cherished memory. The charm serves as a personal symbol of hope and positivity.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Symbolism is a literary device used frequently throughout various forms of literature. In this section, we will explore examples of symbolism in poems, novels, plays, art, and religion.


Poetry often utilizes symbolism to convey deeper meanings and emotions.

Some renowned examples include:

  • “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe: The raven symbolizes death and the speaker’s grief-stricken mind.
  • The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost: The fork in the road represents choices and the path of life.
  • Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas: The dying light symbolizes the end of life and the struggle against the darkness of death.


Symbolism in novels can help develop characters, themes, and plotlines.

Some examples include:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee: The mockingbird symbolizes innocence, and the act of killing it represents the destruction of innocence.
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The green light symbolizes Gatsby’s dreams, hopes, and desires for a better life with Daisy.
  • “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville: The titular white whale symbolizes many things, including nature, obsession, and the destructive power of revenge.


Plays often use symbolism to enhance themes and evoke emotion from the audience.

Examples include:

  • “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller: Seeds symbolize Willy’s futile attempts to plant something that will grow and provide for his family.
  • “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams: The streetcar symbolizes the journey that Blanche has taken throughout her life, leading to her eventual downfall.
  • “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams: Laura’s glass animal collection symbolizes her fragile nature and her inability to escape her own world of fantasy, while the broken unicorn represents the shattering of her dreams and her confrontation with reality.


Symbolism is also prevalent in various forms of art.

For example:

  • “The Scream” by Edvard Munch: The distorted figure and exaggerated colors symbolize the anxiety and emotional turmoil experienced by the artist.
  • “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí: The melting clocks symbolize the fluidity and instability of the time.
  • “The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin: This iconic sculpture symbolizes contemplation, introspection, and the human capacity for deep thought, representing the intellectual aspect of humanity.


Symbolism is an integral part of many religious traditions.

For example:

  • In Christianity, the cross is a symbol of sacrifice and redemption, while the dove symbolizes peace and the Holy Spirit.
  • In Hinduism, the lotus flower represents purity and divine beauty as it emerges from the murky water to bloom.
  • In Buddhism, the wheel of dharma symbolizes the path to enlightenment and the eightfold path.

Examples of Symbolism in Everyday Life

Symbolism is present in various aspects of our everyday lives, making it easier for us to convey emotions, beliefs, and other complex concepts without relying solely on words.


Colors often hold specific symbolic meanings, invoking particular feelings or associations.

For example:

  • Red: love, passion, anger, or danger
  • Green: growth, nature, or envy
  • Blue: peace, loyalty, or sadness
  • Yellow: happiness, warmth, or caution
  • White: purity, innocence, or peace
  • Black: mystery, elegance, or death

Gestures and Body Language

Gestures and body language can carry symbolic meaning, conveying nonverbal messages.


  • Thumbs-up: approval or agreement
  • Waving: greeting or farewell
  • Nodding: agreement or understanding
  • Shaking hands: an agreement or trust
  • Crossing arms: defensiveness or disagreement

Logos and Branding

Logos and branding use symbols to convey messages about a company or product.

For example:

  • Apple: innovation, creativity, and simplicity
  • Nike: victory, speed, and movement
  • McDonald’s: happiness, convenience, and fun


Nature is rich in symbolism, where various elements represent specific concepts.

For example:

  • Rose: love, beauty, or pain
  • Ocean: vastness, life, or serenity
  • Tree: growth, strength, or stability


Architecture also contains symbolic elements that express ideas or values.

Examples include:

  • Arches: support, strength, or unity
  • Towers: ambition, power, or control
  • Columns: stability, strength, or order


Numbers carry cultural, religious, or personal symbolic meanings.

Some examples are:

  • 3: stability, balance, or the Holy Trinity
  • 7: luck, completion, or the days of the week
  • 13: bad luck or superstition

Clothing and Accessories

Clothing and accessories can symbolize social status, beliefs, or personal tastes.

Examples include:

  • Uniforms: belonging, unity, or authority
  • Wedding rings: commitment, love, or fidelity
  • Tattoos: personal expression, belief, or memory

Holidays and Celebrations

Holidays and celebrations often have symbolic elements that represent specific ideas, beliefs, or values.

For example:

  • Christmas tree: life, hope, or rebirth
  • Easter eggs: new life, fertility, or resurrection
  • Halloween costumes: tradition, transformation, or disguise

Language and Idioms

Many idioms and phrases in language contain symbols.

For example:

  • “A drop in the ocean”: a small, insignificant amount
  • “Counting sheep”: trying to fall asleep
  • “Wear your heart on your sleeve”: display emotions openly


Everyday objects can carry symbolic meanings, either through their appearance or use.

Examples include:

  • Hourglass: time, mortality, or patience
  • Ladder: ascent, progress, or a connection between higher and lower realms
  • Anchor: stability, security, or hope

Religious Symbolism

Religions use symbolism to convey beliefs, teachings, or values.

Some examples are:

  • Cross: Christianity, sacrifice, or resurrection
  • Star of David

Interpreting Symbolism

Interpreting symbolism is an essential component of literary analysis. It helps readers comprehend deeper meanings behind the surface level of text.

Symbolism Analysis Techniques

To effectively interpret symbolism, it is important to understand various analysis techniques.

Here are a few methods:

  • Context: Examine the context in which the symbol appears. This can help in understanding its intended meaning.
  • Repetition: Notice if a specific symbol appears repeatedly throughout the text, as this may signify its importance.
  • Contrast: Look for contrasts or juxtapositions between symbols to identify their significance.
  • Historical and cultural significance: Research the culture, time period, and historical context in which the symbolism is used.

Understanding Symbol Variations

Symbols can have multiple meanings depending on the context in which they are used. Recognizing these variations is crucial for accurate interpretation. Here are some factors to consider:

Author’s intentThe author’s intended meaning behind the symbol may be different from traditional interpretations.
GenreThe symbolism may hold a specific meaning within a particular genre, which can differ from its general definition.
Personal experienceIndividual readers may perceive symbols differently based on their own life experiences, altering their interpretation.
Cultural contextCultural factors can significantly impact the meaning of a symbol, making it important to be aware of cultural differences when interpreting symbolism.

By applying these analysis techniques and understanding symbol variations, readers can effectively interpret the symbolism in literary works and gain a deeper appreciation for the text.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do authors use symbolism as a literary device?

Authors use symbolism as a literary device to enrich their narratives and enhance the reader’s experience. Symbolism allows authors to convey complex ideas, emotions, and themes in a subtle yet powerful way, using tangible objects, characters, or events to represent abstract concepts.

This adds depth and layers of meaning to the story, encouraging readers to engage with the text more actively and think critically about the underlying messages.

Additionally, symbolism can evoke strong emotional responses and create lasting impressions, making the story more memorable and impactful. By using symbolism, authors can connect with their audience on a deeper level and create a more profound understanding of the human experience.

Why is symbolism important in art and culture?

Symbolism is important in art and culture because it serves as a bridge between the tangible and the abstract, enabling artists to communicate complex ideas, emotions, and themes in a way that resonates with our shared human experience.

By infusing elements of their work with deeper meanings, artists invite audiences to engage more actively with the art, fostering critical thinking, empathy, and a richer appreciation of the subject matter.

Symbolism also helps to preserve and transmit cultural values, beliefs, and traditions, providing a way for people to connect with their heritage and learn about the experiences of others.

It enriches our understanding of the world around us and enhances our ability to communicate, empathize, and connect with one another through the universal language of art and culture.

Can symbolism have different meanings for different people?

Absolutely, symbolism can have different meanings for different people, as individual experiences, cultural backgrounds, and personal perspectives can greatly influence the way symbols are interpreted.

While some symbols may have universally recognized meanings, many others evoke unique associations and emotions for each individual. This diversity in interpretation is one of the aspects that makes symbolism so compelling and engaging in art and culture.

By allowing room for personal interpretation, symbolism encourages audiences to connect with the work on a deeper, more personal level, fostering a sense of ownership and emotional investment.

This diversity of meanings also highlights the richness and complexity of human experiences, promoting understanding, empathy, and appreciation for the multitude of perspectives that shape our world.


Symbolism is a powerful and versatile tool that permeates all aspects of human culture and artistic expression. From color and allegory to personal and cultural symbols, these representations infuse our lives with meaning and depth, allowing us to connect with the world around us on a profound level.

Through various forms of art, including literature, stage plays, and sculptures, symbolism serves as a means to convey complex emotions, ideas, and themes that resonate with our shared human experience.

As we continue to explore and appreciate the diverse world of symbolism, we gain a greater understanding of ourselves and the intricate tapestry of human existence.

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Aerielle Ezra is an enthusiastic student of architecture who has a wide range of interests, including psychology, lifestyle, and relationships. Apart from her studies, she also likes to engage in athletic activities, particularly volleyball. When she is not playing, she spends her free time watching her preferred sitcoms or reading her favorite books, which include fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.