Symbol, Figures of Speech

Main Page

1. Symbol

2. Allegory and Symbol

3. Figures of Speech

3.1. Simile and Metaphor

3.2. Metonymy

3.3. Personification

3.4. Irony

4. Exercises

1. Symbol

A symbol most generally defined is any object, person, event, gesture, place, date, colour etc. that represents something other than itself. Thus a Mercedes Benz is a symbol of wealth and power (and often, in Hungary, of connections with organized crime), American film star James Dean was a symbol of rebellious youth in the mid 1950’s, the handshake is a symbol of friendship and respect, 11 September has become a symbol of terrorism and senseless destruction, and so on.

Symbols are present everywhere in our daily life. Traffic signs, the nodding of a head, the upheld hand of a policeman or of a student in a classroom, the Christmas tree, the cross on the top of churches or the red cross on ambulance cars are all symbols we could hardly do without in our life. Besides being helpful in everyday life, however, symbolic representation also offers rich possibilities of achieving various literary effects.

The major way in which literary symbolism differs from the use of symbols in everyday life is that instead of objects, persons, events, gestures etc. literature uses images of objects, persons, events, gestures. This gives the author much more freedom in developing symbolic meanings within her/his text than can ever be the case in the symbols of everyday life. Whereas in everyday life symbols must have rather strictly determined conventional meanings, or else they fail to fulfil their function, in literature the meaning of the symbol depends mainly on the context of the literary work in which it appears and thus it can be freely manipulated. This, of course, does not mean that literature does not make use of conventional symbols; it does, but the ways in which these symbols can be used in the text are not limited and can indeed be very idiosyncratic.

Conventional symbols are symbols that are often used in the same way and are therefore easily recognized and understood by many. Thus the cross is recognized in Western culture as a symbol of Christianity, night and winter symbolize death, roses symbolize love and so on. Although the meaning of conventional symbols is almost automatically recognized, this does not mean that they are not powerful or not literary. In fact literature very often makes use of conventional symbols and deploys them to achieve unique and very unconventional effects. (For an example see Robert Frost’s use of the conventional symbols of night and winter to create very unconventional associations and to develop a unique meaning in ‘ Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.)

Because the use of symbols in literature largely depends on the context of the poem, story or play in which they appear, literature can also create symbols which are valid only within a single text. Such symbols are sometimes referred to as literary symbols. Any object, character, event etc. can develop symbolic significance in the context of a particular poem, play or story. Thus in Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Preservation’ a malfunctioning refrigerator with its rotting and melting contents becomes symbolic of a man’s complete inner disintegration; Miss Emily’s house in William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ comes to symbolize, with its shut doors and window panes, the protagonist’s imperviousness and her utter disconnectedness from the world around her; and the pound of flesh from Antonio’s body that Shylock demands in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice acquires multiple symbolic meanings ranging from Shylock’s craving for humanity to his entirely materialistic outlook.

N.B. Although anything in a poem, story or play can become a symbol, this does not mean that everything is a symbol! When interpreting a literary text, always try to see what that text uses as a symbol, and not what you could think of as one.