What is Symbolism? (Ultimate Guide)
We often use words, objects, animals, colors, locations, and other things as symbols.
The meanings we give to symbols are not always natural or obvious. Rather, the meanings emerge from collective cultural agreement that the symbol has an associated meaning.
Often, symbolism emerges from spirituality, religion, literature, and mythology.
Examples of Symbolism in Society
Society uses symbolism to communicate ideas all the time. Without symbols, we would find it very difficult to communicate everything from simple instructions to complex literary texts.
Here are some simple examples of symbolism in society.
Examples of Symbolism in Literature and Poetry
Literature and poetry rely on symbolism to convey meaning. Symbols can evoke emotions in readers and create more enriching narratives.
Examples of Symbolism in Religion
Some of the most recognizable symbols in our world are religious symbols. They have existed for millenia as signs of people’s faith and allegiance to one religion or another. Below are two of the most common religious symbols.
Examples of Nationalist Symbolism
Symbolism has also been significantly associated with nationalism for centuries. Early symbols of national and regional allegiance in Europe started with the coats of arms of royalty. Today, flags and local animals are used as symbols of national pride. Below are some examples.
Examples of Symbolism in Mythology and Superstitions
Many superstitious people see symbolism all around them. They interpret symbols in their dreams as well as in the environment surrounding them. Here are some common examples of superstitious symbols.
Comparison to Other Literary Devices
Symbolism vs Metaphor
We use metaphors to demonstrate the features of something by comparing it to something with similar features.
An example of a metaphor is the saying: “The mountain is a wall”. The similarity between a mountain and a wall is that both are tall and impassable. Here, the author would use this metaphor to communicate the fact the mountain represents some form of boundary that cannot be crossed.
The unique feature of a metaphor is that it states that one thing is another thing, even though it is not. The metaphor is simply figurative language to communicate ideas.
Symbolism, on the other hand, does not draw comparisons between two things. Rather, it states that one symbol evokes feelings or thoughts about something else.
Often, the meaning in symbols is not self-evident whereas the meaning in metaphors is. Rather, meanings in symbols are often based on cultural ideas.
For example, St George’s cross is a symbol of England. There aren’t inherent metaphorical similarities between St George and England. Instead, you would need to know that the cross historically and culturally symbolizes the nation.
Symbolism vs Allegory
An allegory is a literary device. It involves the use of narratives that have hidden meanings that are often reveal deeper moral or ethical messages.
Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent things. You could use a symbol within an allegory, but in general, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a narrative. Rather, if something is symbolic, it has cultural meanings attached to it to allow you to interpret one object as representing something else.
Earlier in this article, we used the example of the poem The Road Not Taken. The poem as a whole is an allegory whereas the road in the poem is a symbol.
How to Deconstruct Symbolism in Texts
In order to deconstruct symbolic meanings in texts, we often turn to the methodologies developed by semiotic analysis. Semoiticians examine texts to identify the subtle meanings embedded within them.
Through this analysis, they can deconstruct the ways meanings and concepts move through cultures.
1. Use of Semiotic Analysis
A semiotic analysis of a text will look at the multiple ways symbolism is embedded in a text. Usually, we can deconstruct texts according to their modes of communication, including:
- Visual symbolism
- Textual symbolism
- Aural symbolism (sound)
- Embodied symbolism
A semiotician would look at the features of a symbol to understand how and why it symbolizes something else. For example, they would look at the use of the color red in a stop sign and discuss how red represents danger, helping to bolster the strength and power of the symbol.
2. Social Semiotics
Since the 1980s, scholars have also highlighted the importance of cultural contexts in interpreting meanings embedded in texts. To acknowledge this turn in the analysis of symbolism, a school of thought called ‘social semiotics’ has emerged.
Social semiotics acknowledges the subjectivity in the possible interpretations of symbols.
To use the above example of the color red, a social semiotician would acknowledge that the color red represents danger only in certain contexts or situations. In other situations, such as in Chinese culture, red may symbolize luck and joy.
By taking a close look at historical, cultural, and even personal contexts, we can develop a more nuanced interpretation of symbols and how one object might symbolize different things to different people and in different contexts.
Symbolism is, put simply, the use of symbols to generate meanings. What’s most interesting, however, is that symbolism is a highly contextual meaning-making process. Different people will understand symbols in different ways.
In fact, there are entire media and cultural studies departments at universities who dedicate resources to exploring how symbols are generated and interpreted, and how those symbols help spread ideas through society.
While symbolism might appear to be a simple, innocuous way to communicate ideas, it has been a powerful device throughout history. Nations use symbols to unite people behind a collective identity, and brands spend multiple millions of dollars to generate and promote symbols to ensure a brand’s image becomes widely recognizable within a society.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.