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Symbols are concrete objects or explicit acts that retain their real nature while standing for ideas or values that do not have material existence. They are artifacts of culture and cognition. A written language is a common form of symbolic representation. The characters of a language are grouped and organized according to rules and represent objects, acts, relations, as well as abstract ideas. Drawings and paintings may also be symbols of abstractions, while actions, such as a dance or ritual, may be similarly representative.
In literature, symbolism is an important device for writers. Literary symbols extend meaning beyond the prosaic representation of realities afforded by literal description or extracted through analysis and exposition. As Michael Meyer remarks: “Symbols are educational devices for evoking complex ideas without having to resort to painstaking explanations that would make a story more like an essay than an experience” ("Symbol"). The following will define literary symbols and discuss some of their characteristics.
According to Barton and Hudson, a literary symbol designates “an object or a process that not only serves as an image itself but also refers to a concept or abstract idea that is important to the theme of a work” (191). Harmon notes that there are two broad types of symbols (498). First, there are symbols that carry a universal meaning. In this case, a sunrise may represent a new beginning or a stream the passage of time. With the second type, an object or process is invested with a particular meaning by an author. Moby Dick is a book rich in both types. For example, while the voyage in search of the white whale is a universal symbol of a quest, the whale itself is an invested symbol that comes to represent, among other things, the incarnation of evil.
Frye, Baker, and Perkins also distinguish between different kinds of symbols, but they identify three types. First, there are “natural symbols” that “present things not for themselves, but for the ideas people commonly associate with them” ( 453). Examples are a star to represent hope, a mountain to represent a barrier, or a sun set to represent an ending. The second are “conventional symbols.” These “present things for the meanings people within a particular group have agreed to give them” ( 453). For example, a national flag may represent patriotism and a badge civil authority.
The third kind are “literary” and are “sometimes built upon natural or conventional symbols, adding meanings appropriate primarily with the work at hand,” and like the symbols with invested meaning which Harmon identifies, these symbols may sometimes “create meanings within a work for things that have no natural or conventional meaning outside it” (Frye, Baker, and Perkins 453).
Barton and Hudson point out two other important attributes of literary symbols. First they note that in the real world, "a symbol may be associated with only one referent" (192). For example, a road sign that indicates a curve to the right, or the blue light on a police car. But in literature, symbols may not retain such a simple one-to-one correspondence; indeed, they may be "multivalent"; that is, they may convey more than one meaning.
This is the case with the scarlet "A" that Hester Prynne wears in Hawthorne's tale, The Scarlet Letter. At first the letter stands for her sin of adultery, but as the tale unfolds, the "A" comes to represent her "ministry to the poor and the sick" (192)The second attribute of a literary symbol that distinguishes it from the symbols we depend upon in the everyday world is that "in some cases, the reference or meaning of literary symbols is deliberately indeterminate" (192). With such symbols, it is not possible to say for certain what the poet's intended meaning is. Perrine claims that this is the case with Robert Browning's poem, "My Star."
Scholars also distinguish symbols from images, metaphors, and allegory. An image is “a literal and concrete representation of a sensory experience or of an object that can be known by one or more of the senses” (Harmon 257). The poem, “Winter,” by William Shakespeare is richly illustrative:
A symbol “is like an image in doing the same thing but different from it in going beyond the evoking of the objective referent by making that referent suggest a meaning beyond itself” (Harmon 497-98). Thus, within the context of a particular work, the images of cold could be invested with the idea of emotional cold, a lack of love and sympathy. This is the case in Orson Welles' famous film, Citizen Kane. As a child, Kane is willingly sent away by his mother. Her emotional frigidity is represented symbolically as she repeatedly opens a window in the midst of a snowstorm. In literature, the essence of symbolism is that the object or action goes beyond evoking an image to suggest an abstract level of meaning.
Metaphors are like symbols in that they too evoke images that suggest meaning. The difference lies in the fact that whereas a symbol establishes a direct and logical relation between the object or process and the idea it represents, a metaphor involves a trope or “turn” in which the meaning conveyed is literally nonsensical when applied to the referent. For example, it is in accordance with experience, and therefore logical, to identify darkness with the unknown; whereas, it is literal nonsense to write of a “vegetable love” as Andrew Marvell does in "To His Coy Mistress" (Marvell 815 )
Finally, symbolism is different from allegory. Barton and Hudson define allegory as “a work of art intending to be meaningful on at least two levels of understanding: typically, a literal level and an abstract (e.g. moral) level” (6). According to Harmon, the difference between the two lies in the fact that “in allegory the objective referent evoked is without value until it is translated into the fixed meaning that it has in its own particular structure of ideas” (498). In contrast, a natural or conventional symbol retains its ability to evoke a particular idea independent of any literary context (498).
As an example, “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an allegorical tale in which the scientist, Aylmer, symbolizes man's pride in his own skill and an idealism that overcomes his ability to feel sympathy. This leads him to kill his wife in an effort to rid her of an insignificant blemish on her face. However the figure of a scientist may be perceived in the world in general, it is within the context of Hawthorne's moral tale that pride and coldness are magnified, making the scientist the embodiment of these traits, and as Frye, Baker and Perkins point out, “the simplest form of allegory is usually conveyed by personification” (12).
These authors also define personification as “the technique of treating abstractions, things, or animals as persons” (345). So within an allegory, abstractions are named explicitly and given a human form, being made to speak and act in a way consistent with their nature; they are walking, talking symbols of the abstract qualities their names denote.
Thus, literary symbols serve to extend the meaning of a text beyond what is explicitly stated. They evoke what is extrinsic to the text by calling on the universal knowledge shared by a culture. They may also contribute to an intrinsic system of meaning by allowing an author to represent abstract ideas in personal terms consistent with the world he has created.
Barton, Edwin J. and Glenda A. Hudson. A contemporary Guide to Literary Terms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 6, 191-193.
Browning, Robert. "My Star." Perrine. Literature. 591.
Frye, Northrop, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins. The Harper Handbook to Literature. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. 452-453.
Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 9 thed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2003. 497-498.
Marvell, Andrew. "To His Coy Mistress." The Norton Anthology. English Literature: The Major Authors. M. H. Abrams. Gen. Ed. 6 thed. New York: Norton, 1996. 815.
Meyer, Michael. "Symbol." Glossary of Literary Terms. Bedford Saint Martins. 20 Jan. 2005. Http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/ bedintrocompact/pages/bcs-main.asp?v=&s=01000&n=00060&i=01060.01&o=
Perrine, Laurence. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 4 thed. New York: Harcourt, 1983. 591-593.
Shakespeare, William. "Winter." Sound and Sense." 2 nded. Lawrence Perrine. New York: Harcourt, 1956. 6.