Saturday, March 17, 2012

Symbolically Yours

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) The Nightmare
Yesterday, a friend of mine asked me to brainstorm on symbols that she could use for one of her characters. I did a little research and provided her with some examples, taking into consideration that her book is for tweens (pre-adolescents).

I read that “understanding symbolism deepens the meaning and enhances the reading of many great literary works including short stories, novels and poetry.”

Some symbols may be obvious and some may be more subtle or hidden so that the reader must really think and study the work to grasp the author's true meaning.
One of the websites I found says that “Writers may also use symbolism to allude to a mood or feeling without coming out and stating that particular emotion. For example, a writer might use the symbol of a lily to represent purity or a ray of sunshine to represent hope.”

Examples of Common Literary Symbols:


Authors Known for their Use of Symbolism:
Edgar Allan Poe
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Herman Melville

Do you use symbolism in your stories? Do you think symbolic imagery is necessary to deepen your story?


  1. Personally, I can't think of writing a story or a book without an extensive use of symbolism. I can't even think of preparing a character without relying on symbolic gestures, glances, or pitches.
    I am sure, oh so sure, that symbolism connects our spirit with the deepest layers of the human collective cultural background.
    Religious, psychological, and mythological mysteries hide behind symbolism, and these mysteries link to something much much bigger than a simple hidden meaning.
    Think of how symbolic our dreams are.
    You also mentioned Alice in Wonderland and the rabbit's hole in your last post: I can hardly think of a book with more symbolism than that one!
    So yes, symbolic imagery is definitely vital to the well being of a story.
    Inspiring post, Claudia. And the picture you chose fits well. Gross, but I like it!

  2. Birds are great for symbolism aren't they? I'm using a swan and a few blackbirds at the moment but am rethinking them as they seem too obvious for what I want them to represent!! I would like to think they deepen my story anyway - hopefully subtly! Take care

  3. Hang on here! This is nowhere near a Wednesday!? Am I in the twilight zone? A posting on the weekend? ;)

    Only teasing, Claudia. Symbolism is a tricky field, mainly due to the fact that if it is too subtle, or cleverly woven into the piece readers will miss it completely or it won't make sense. Then on the other hand if it's too blatant it seems that the author is trying too hard (something I think I'm guilty of, but I'm a newbie - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it). And then there is that 'unintentional' symbolism, where readers place meanings into things that are just innocent visuals within the writing itself.
    I used to hate that about poetry in English Literature back in high school, where we were told the poem means this or that, when in fact, they don't know what the true meaning of it was or is, because the poet is long since dead. It seems to me, upon reflection, it only served as a vehicle for academics to flaunt their 'understanding and knowledge' of literature. I recall our English teacher asking for our interpretation of a certain poem - now bear in mind she had told us beforehand that there was no right or wrong answer to this - to which I remember enthusiastically putting up my hand and giving my answer.
    Wrong, she tells me. What? I was totally confused as he then proceeded to tell us what it really meant. After that I knew it was all bollocks.

    So, back to symbolism; it's a metaphorical tightrope to cross where your balance is critical to the credibility of the piece. Good luck with it, but just remember, much can be lost in translation.

  4. Hi Claudia: Yes, I use lots of symbolism in my stories and plays, and interestingly, as I'm doing it, I'm not even aware. It's like intuition. You really need to trust that the symbolism emerges from a deeper, more intuitive place. For me, it is symbolism that layers my writing and gives deeper meaning to my plot. Thank you for surfacing this important writing tool!

  5. I'm aware of symbolism. The one I've never forgotten is from Hard Times. I remember the image but have forgotten the characters and context. Basically it involves petals from a flower being thrown onto a dark pond and slowly separating. Dickens was a master of the oblique.

  6. I use symbolism in my stories, too. I agree that it can deepen meaning, often in a subtle way.

  7. This is such an interesting post. I actually don't know if I use symbolism in my work for young children and tweens. I know I do for the stories and poetry I write for adults. Poetry really lends itself to symbolism. Like Kelly said, it's an important writing tool, and I must say, I haven't given it much thought. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Interesting topic! I don't try to use symbolism in my writing. I think it once played a much bigger role in literature than it does now, in part perhaps because many writers don't study literature the way they once did. If I really wanted to put a point across, I wouldn't want to have it lost in subtle symbolism. Just think of all the symbolism in Shakespeare that goes right over most modern readers' heads, unless armed with an index or footnotes.

    On the other hand, certain symbols still hold power; crows, black or white, roses...perhaps because these are timeless things. Still, white can mean purity here, while it symbolizes death in some Asian cultures. Tricky thing, symbolism.

  9. I'm sure I do it naturally sometimes, but if I consciously attempt it, it turns out to be too obscure to be useful. I think ADD does that.

  10. Dear Claudia,

    It is with heavy heart that I bring this news to you: you're it on 'The Lucky 7 Meme' - pop over to my place for further details... and no shouting at me.